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Review: Sword Art Online (Anime)

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It was the final week before my big move. The majority of my time during this time was concerned with tying up loose ends and seeing various persons “for the last time.”

On one of these days, a day was devoted to spending time with an old buddy of mine, and in true geek fashion, we sought out a new anime to watch on Netflix.

“Hmm,” said my friend, sitting at the dining table with a laptop in front of him. “What’s this? Sword Art Online, have you seen that one?”

“No,” I replied, an arm’s length away in the kitchen, fumbling with what would amount to our meal of the day. “Saw the title and cover but haven’t tried it yet.”

“It’s got four stars. Want to check it out?”

http://www.dubbednetwork.net/static/sao.jpg

“Four stars, eh?” I said, doubtful. “Fine, why not?”

We watched the first episode, found ourselves hesitantly intrigued by the premise. We established that we would give the second episode a chance, and then the third. My buddy and I looked at one another, mutual understanding passing between us.

“I have an idea,” said he.

We promptly left the apartment to run out and acquire a monstrous bottle of cheap sake, returning to eagerly resume an anime series that, to both of our surprise and delight, turned out to be pretty damn good.

There are some spoilers to be had here, but mostly for the sake of sharing impressions.

A little backstory on my experience with anime. I’m no otaku, so I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on this subject. I consumed a lot of anime and JRPGs in my younger days, but when it came to it, I’ve had people look at me and say, “You’re not an otaku, Jesse. You’re just a nerd.”

Just thought I’d share.

Anyway, I haven’t had the patience to really sit and watch an anime series in some time. Most anime I come across follows the same tropy storylines filled with recognizeably cookie-cutter archetypal characters – and I won’t say that Sword Art Online is bereft of this. Let’s just say that it takes something particular to really catch my attention. SAO did so, mostly on account of the Gaming and Fantasy theme they have going on, but we found ourselves surprisingly engaged by some of the subplots and ideas explored.

If you’re yet unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, the story begins with with the official launch of a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Think World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic – the difference being a piece of hardware simply called NerveGear, which echoes of the Occulis Rift. It’s essentially the kind of game that people like me used to dream about existing. No doubt millions of other gamers as well, no doubt the target audience for this series.

http://img1.ak.crunchyroll.com/i/spire2/958d4ae953c9f023ed22a882689b2eae1347517864_full.jpg

Then there’s that plot element where users (about 10,000 on that first launch day) discover that if they die in game, the NerveGear will fry their brains, killing them in reality. The only way out of the game is beat it, so the race is on. At which point my comrade and I exchanged glances once again, coming to an agreement that getting stuck in such a fantasy realm probably wouldn’t be so bad.

There was, in fact, a large body of players who became so accustomed to living in the game world – after the first 2,200 or so deaths in the first month – that they resigned themselves to never escaping. It became the new normal, while their bodies remained hooked up to NerveGear and IVs in (presumably) hospital beds. For the first half of the series, no one has gotten out and no external messages have penetrated the server.

Now, normally I’d be hesitant to invest in an anime like this, simply on account of the main character being a 14-year-old, which in writer speech means the target demographic is a younger audience. This series is undeniably shōnen, a term for manga/anime that can be best summarized by wikipedia:

…a popular demographic of Japanese comics, and often features a teenage cast as well as a combat based plot while exploring themes of protecting those you care about, understanding each other and developing friendship/comradery.

Sword Art Online does not fall short on any of these terms, and while I find nothing inherently wrong with these things, I’m just generally not attracted to such stories. Yet there were surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout the series – suicides, characters you find yourself liking getting killed off early, and a pretty damn despicable villain.

Bottom line is that if you aren’t, or weren’t, a gamer, much of this anime will likely be uninteresting. I’ve heard how the premise is really not all that different from another series known as .hack, so originality goes out the window. On the other hand, it’s often easy to forget the characters interacting with each other are all avatars, and maybe it was the sake talking, but the touching moments hit me right in the feels.

That and I am a self-confessed sap and hopeless romantic, so that factors in too.

This is not a story about the mind-bending exploration of A.I. or the realm of the digital, as seen in Ghost In The Shell or Lain, nor is this about epic adventures in a fantasy realm a la Record of Lodoss War.

They do, however, explore a number of interesting online-gaming themes. Falling perfectly in line with the shōnen genre, we are faced with the question of: “Are the feelings I develop for someone online real?”

The idea of what kind of person you play in an online game reflects your true colors is revisited several times. I found one of the most interesting mini-plots to be a murder mystery. There’s this real-world married couple, and the wife is killed in-game — meaning of course her real-world body died as a result. It’s eventually revealed that the husband had her killed because, outside the game, she was “…the perfect wife. Pretty. Submissive.” But in-game, unbound by the restrictions of conventional life, she was able to blossom. She was strong, brave, independent. The husband hated it, seeing it as though the woman he had loved had died, replaced by something else.

Well done, series. The fact that this opinion was pretty much regarded with disgust by the other characters is pretty progressive, especially for Japan.

We watched the entirety of the series in two days, which is something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, let alone mention in public, except that the experience, shared with an old comrade, made it worthwhile. The idea of binge-watching anything is strange to me still, since it screams “consumer.” I rather prefer get into binge writing or binge editing.

Sword Art Online isn’t mind-blowing, isn’t amazing, isn’t the best anime ever — in fact I’ve read that it’s rather overrated. Perhaps so. But I liked it, and I found myself amazed, at myself, for the range of emotions the story provoked out of me.

That, says I, is what makes a good story.

…And then the second half of the series rolled around, and the experience started going downhill.

http://gpo.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/GPO_Arrow-Chart.jpg

Basically, it felt like the series (25 episodes) was actually two separate seasons. Halfway through, the hero defeats the game, and SAO users are set free. But there’s a new VRMMORPG out there in which the love interest is still trapped, so it falls to the hero to dive back in and get her out for reasons. This time around, the new world is fairy-based; players can fly, they still use NerveGear, but there`s no stakes this time around. In-game death doesn’t mean real-world death anymore; the only thing keeping us in the audience rooting for the main character is so he can Save The Imprisoned Girl and defeat the Big Bad holding her there.

I suppose the most interesting stuff coming out of the second half was actually the real-world ramifications of Sword Art Online. The world (as in, mostly Japan) found itself beset by a small population of peculiar people whose bodies and minds were shaped by their 2.5 year long period trapped in a digital fantasy realm. Some users were small children, and a few years could mean 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives. Formative years.

Adjustment, or readjustment, to the real world would be akin to PTSD in many people. This would have made a more interesting story, but no — instead the second half of the series focuses mainly on the awkward one-sided romantic feelings that the hero’s adopted sister (who is his cousin) develops for him. Thankfully the developers did not take this in an even more uncomfortable direction, if one were to take that factor out, then there’s suddenly almost nothing left to half or a quarter of a series.

A shame.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140611114049/swordartonline/images/d/da/Worldtree.png
Some pretty sick art, though. This here is a tree.

The ending left a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth, especially since things started off so great. Apparently there’s a Season 2, but I think I’ll be skipping that. The music wasn’t half bad, either; I confess having had the first 15 seconds of the opening theme as an earworm.

All in all, though, I feel a familiar feeling when something I enjoy ends. At the end of a great book, or game, or movie or show, there lingers a sense of emptiness. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is, but personally I hate unfinal endings.

The most satisfying endings to an anime, you ask? Not counting Studio Ghibli or other standalone anime: Samurai Champloo, Evangelion (as in, The End of Evangelion), and Death Note (though it took forever for it to end) left me happy.

If you’re into games, fantasy, teenagers going berserk with oversized weapons and the all-too-frequent awkwardness that comes with over-animated young adults, then you’ll likely dig this series. I was really invested for awhile, and despite my willingness to set aside my usual causes for hesitation, the series fell through.

Two out of Five stars. Overrated.

 

Why I’m Moving to Vietnam

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http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/83510854.jpg
This almost looks like it fell out of a head full of fantasy.

A week ago today, the magnitude of the events I had set in motion really began to sink in.

Almost a month ago today, the ticket to Vietnam was booked. A week later, I got my visa.

At the time of this post, I’ll be in the final stages of leaving behind the closest thing to home that I’ve felt in few years.

Today’s post is about my big move, from the Catskills of Upstate New York (about 2-2.5 hours north of New York City), to Saigon, Vietnam, clear on the other side of the planet. Many have asked me why I’m doing this, and I’ve provided a multitude of answers. Today we’ll see a compilation of reasons that have me uprooting myself and, quite possibly, living for an extended period of time in a country the likes of which no Rebock has ever set foot.

To more business oriented people, my answer to “why” is for the opportunity to be found there. My skillsets as a writer, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a Second Language have given me tools that have ultimately primed me to become something I didn’t know I really wanted until recent years: to be location independent. To be mobile. Saigon has a low cost-of-living, and is a place frequented by many other people like me. Entrepreneurs, writers, people whose livelihood does not depend on a cubicle and a boss, but on their laptop.

To the more creative and open-minded peers of mine, my answer is that my heart is in Asia. No, I’m not moving for a girl, and while I do romanticize the entire ordeal, it’s not that kind of romance. What I mean by this is that I have always felt an affinity for Asian thought and cultures, having been drawn in that direction since an early age by art and music. To say “Asian,” of course, is a vast generalization, and to narrow it down, I mean South/East-Asia (which I hope comes as no surprise to anyone that that, in fact, is where you’ll find Vietnam). Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City (I prefer Saigon) is a place where I can surround myself with things that I love.

It is a place of digital nomads, one of several such places, where men and women go to chase their dreams.

http://westfaliadigitalnomads.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Digital-Nomads-As-Meme.png

My dream, as a creative, is to write.

The idea of having a home base is something special, but the freedom to uproot and go somewhere else is a unique thing few people really possess. It’s not really encouraged by our culture. I grew up in the general area where I’m in now, as of this writing. The Catskills of New York have their charms, and in many ways they were my home for most of my life, but being comparatively itinerant for the last few years embedded seeds of curiosity, wonder, and confidence.

Who’s to say whether I will find a permanent home anywhere, ever, but I have reached a point in my life where I essentially know that wherever that home is, it’s nowhere near where I grew up. Vietnam is about as far away as you can possibly get from New York, and while I am open to the possibility of staying there for an extended time, the distance from my childhood home did not factor into the decision.

If cheap cost-of-living were to be found on the moon, I’d probably jump on that next.

I had a conversation with the Firebeard (you know who you are) before leaving, about the concept of uprooting and planting one’s self in another place. In ancient days, tribes would wander the plains and, sometimes, settle in places to form villages. But others would keep going – over mountains, across seas, through forests. To this day it astounds me to think of our ancestors, after leaving Africa, spending hundreds of generations to spread across the globe. Villages established, nations sprouted, languages formed; everywhere.

And then after these places are formed, there were travelers between them. The Silk Road comes to mind, a long and arduous path rife with danger.

What in the hell possessed people to strike out into the unknown, to risk life and limb to find someplace new, or maintain trade between distant places? Such a journey would likely be the worst experience in one’s life.

http://journojuno.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/up.jpg?w=705

During this conversation, the idea of colonizing new worlds came up. For the sake of argument, we devised a simple thought experiment. Imagine a fully habitable planet were discovered, and a project were set in place to send colonists there. Insert your own reason here. However, it would be such a tremendous draw on the global economy that one ship could be launched from Earth, at maximum, once every 100 years or so. In other words, it’s a one-way ticket, and you as a potential colonist would never have a chance to return to good old Terra.

Yes, on this new world the air is breathable, the plants are edible, and there would be ample other people going with you. Details such as animal life, nasty diseases/parasites, or even tribal races already being there only complicate the thought experiment. So, the basic question is, all this considered: Would you go?

Firebeard decided he would not, and I regard him as one the most adventurous people I’ve ever known. Yet, he feels drawn back to the area where he grew up, and as of this post, to this day he lives there, having traveled various parts of the world but always returning, and is in the process of setting his roots in place.

I said that I would go.

It isn’t so much disdain for what I am leaving behind. It isn’t disappointment with family, friends, job opportunities. It isn’t an inability to “make it” in America or in this culture, whatever American culture is. No, I would go on this one-way ship to another world because if I did not, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, wishing, what it would be like if I did.

http://singlemindedwomen.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/missed-flight.jpg

That is why I am going to Asia.

Perhaps I am over-romanticizing it. I’ve no doubt that after I land and adapt, getting over that “honeymoon phase” of moving somewhere new, there will be a couple of reality checks that I’ll have to face. Likely I’ll encounter bouts of loneliness, depression, those dreaded “oh shit, what am I doing?” moments. But there are two benefits to this.

One is that exposing yourself to the possibility of failure is how you grow.

The other is that, as a writer, the key question will not be “What am I doing?” but “How can I use this?”

I’ll be leaving behind family and friends, and am open to the very real possibility of not coming back except to visit. We’ve seen this narrative before in stories, some of the best. The Hero’s Journey, in fact, often begins with the character leaving his/her place of comfort, their home. I wouldn’t dare consider myself a hero, but in terms of the Monomyth/Story Circle narrative, it wasn’t until Firebeard pointed it out that I realized there’s something in common here.

So, in a nutshell, we have:

  • Low cost of living
  • Proximity to like-minded people (entrepreneurs etc.)
  • Job opportunities (Teaching ESL, while continuing my freelance editing)
  • Can continue creative ventures
  • Fascinating culture. This includes a new language to learn, food to taste, music to hear, places to see, and of course, people to meet.

~~~

Today’s music choice comes from Princess Mononoke, a Studio Gibli animated film. Somehow, calling this an “anime” doesn’t sound right to me, though that is in fact what it is. The track comes from the beginning of the movie, after the Introduction of the Problem, and right as the hero leaves his home and family forever. It’s a symphonic suite of the track, as opposed to the original soundtrack.

I feel very strongly about this piece, as I feel the tune and mood it evokes fits strongly with the narrative of my life at this time. Granted, I haven’t fought off any cursed monster boars, nor am I riding a red elk, nor do I expect to set off a chain of events that will change the course of a region. Just this moment, this “traveling between places” moment, is perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie.

 

 

Cilantro

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Apparently there is a growing body of research regarding the apparent nastiness of cilantro in certain people. To a number of folk – and I have no means of providing numbers here, except that the number is growing – cilantro tastes like soap. Or, at least, has a nasty bitterness to it. It’s apparently a genetic thing.

Perhaps the research is over, and as usual, I’m late to the party in discovering this, but I first learned about this whole concept while listening to the Stuff You Should Know podcast many months ago. I can’t remember which episode, but you ought to check them out if you dig trivia.

But this aversion to cilantro got me thinking. You know, about food, about life, about changes, and heck, yes, even about writing.

Cilantro is the Spanish name for coriander, also known as Chinese parsley or dhania – and no doubt you’ve encountered it at some point in your life. It’s nearly indistinguishable from regular parsley – especially when it’s a little wilted, or cooked in a dish – and can be found in a variety of Hispanic and Asian dishes.

http://blogs.mydevstaging.com/blogs/daily-dish/files/2013/04/parsley-vs-cilantro-final.jpg
Courtesy of BetterRecipes.com

Normally I wouldn’t care for this sort of thing. I’m not what people would call a foodie, though I do love my guacamole, but still, this blog doesn’t really concern itself with food.

Except when it does. As typical as human behavior as it gets, I went and did some reading on cilantro only after having experienced this phenomena myself. I was at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, and she brought a variety of groceries home from a local market, among them a huge bundle of cilantro. Seeing this, I was seized with the memory of the above-mentioned podcast, and decided to put myself to the test. After all, I’d seen these things in grocery stores all the time, but herbalism is so off my personal radar that I confess I never really had the opportunity – or drive – to experiment. Having expressed my current goal to those present, I went about chewing a few freshly washed leaves.

They tasted awful.

And not only awful, but familiar – I remember tasting this, in the past, in what I considered to be the worst guacamole made. There could be something to this.

So it was that I found myself quite possibly in yet another minority category. But what has this experience to do with writing?

The question all writers must face: How can I use this?

Well, the way I see it, food is one of the most distinct cultural traits to be found. I think it’s a safe bet that there’re two major factors that go into identifying a culture: the language they speak and the food they eat. Sure, things like music, art, customs, how they treat their women, economy … all those are distinguishing things, but on a foundational level, you can really tell a lot about a person – a culture – by the food they eat and how their language works.

Cilantro is positively adored by millions of people around the world. Some cultures use it often and frequently. But what if there existed cultures that utterly despised the stuff? Traditional cultures, as might be applicable to a fantasy setting, I mean. I’m aware there exist modern communities (arguably a ‘culture’) of cilantro haters, such as might be found at imaginatively-named websites like this.

I’m not talking about something like in the movies Signs or The War of the Worlds, where extraterrestrial creatures are found to be susceptible to things we as humans count as commonplace. I’m not talking about a race of dog-people that will die if they eat a bit of chocolate, as might be readily consumed by any human culture.

I’m thinking more for the sake of variety. There’re plenty of foods on this planet that an American might find disgusting, and visa versa, but most of that food is still edible. It’s for cultural reasons, the way you were raised. It’s all in your head. You may not like the taste of cornsilk tea because it’s weird and different, but you can still at least drink the stuff.

http://koreanslate.com/wp-content/gallery/bottled-drinks/korean_corn_silk_tea.jpg
Those couple of weeks in South Korea had me tasting some of the most unusual things I’ve ever had in my life, but corn silk tea was among the most memorable.

I think description of food and flavor is an excellent opportunity for enriching your world when writing, whether it’s Fantasy, Science Fiction, or what-have-you. Creating your own exotic spices and dishes is one thing, but consider also the reactions that “normal” characters would have to these things, or how “others” would react to the so-called normal stuff. Cilantro is just one herb – imagine what else we might discover in our own world that is scientifically repulsive to certain people?

Imagine what certain groups of people, or even non-human races, might find physically incapable of considering edible? Genetic predispositions toward certain foods is in fact nothing unusual; we consume sweets because our brain, through the tongue, tells us that it’s a source of easily gathered energy. Fatty stuff is so satisfying because our brains tell us that fats are great sources of long-term energy.

Similarly, repulsion towards smells, such as that of decaying flesh, are like ringing dinner bells to animals like vultures and flies. To us humans, that stench is repulsive for a reason: dead things love company, so steer clear.

If you don’t know already, go ahead and do yourself a favor and try eating some cilantro. See if you’re among the majority of people who love the stuff, or like me, find it to be pretty much abhorrent. Whether there’s a genetic reason for this remains to be seen, but taking this idea and expanding it to one’s writing could serve to enrich your worlds. Give it a shot!

~~~

Today’s track is from a recently discovered OST, and packaged with it you’ll get a quick impression of the movie Gravity (2013).

In short, I dug it. I did not have the opportunity to see it in the big theaters, as it was reputedly made to be seen, but even while watching it at home I found myself engaged and interested – despite hearing some sort of spoiler long ago. In terms of scientific accuracy, well, okay, I’m aware there were some flaws. Niel Degrasse Tyson is quoted as saying the movie should have been called Angular Momentum and not Gravity, heh. But he confesses to enjoying the movie; and so did I.

When you consume a story, there is a need for characters to grow and change. This is especially noticed in its absence, such as the book Ready Player One, in which the protagonist hardly changes at all. In Gravity, the protagonist goes through growth, and coupled with the action – and not to mention the delightful and appropriate soundtrack – I rate the movie as most definitely worth seeing.

 

 

 

A Night With Orcs

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There’s this certain group of people with whom a close associate of mine is part of their circle. Friends of a friend, to be specific, the likes of whom we have taken to affectionately calling “a bunch of orcs.”

In my Fantasy Brain, comparing living people in my life to orcs is more a thing about demeanor and attitude (say, in comparison to calling someone a hobbit or a harpy…) and much less about physical appearance. It is not a form of disparagement or dehumanization, just a simple lens through which my mind observes the world.

Orcs are not known for their warmth in popular fantasy, characterized most commonly by jutting, boar-like teeth, green/gray/brown or even red skin, and, in some cases, upturned pig-like noses (early incarnations showed them in fact to basically be men with pig heads). They’re often depicted as primitive, savage, brutishly strong and generally unpleasant to be around. They’re common enemies in many settings, supplying players and protagonists with fodder for spells and weapons. But dig a little, and sometimes the lore of a given orc tribe will reveal a deep sense of loyalty, honor code, tradition and rich shamanistic and/or animistic culture.

Whether they’re categorized as resembling Tolkienien Orcs or Blizzard Orcs, they make for convenient enemies and obstacles. Personally I find their use in fiction to be tacky and lazy; they feel over done in most fantasy.

BlizzOrcTolkOrc
One might even be hard-pressed to even call these things by the same name.

In describing people I’ve met as “orcish,” what I mean is that they seem to follow the beat of their own drum, shirking what might otherwise be considered the norms of society and are generally unafraid to embrace the concept of “the human animal.” The true concept of orcs (if such a thing were ever to be considered true) is of course lost with the borderline-insulting parallels my brain makes between living people and fantasy tropes. When speaking of the specific group of people I met, I lean closer towards the Blizzard orcs, with their sense of honor and tradition.

Among the orcs I met were the equivalent of the shamans; philosophizers, theists, politically aware and well-read people whose conversation is more than worth the time to sit down and listen. I had the pleasure of observing one such individual, let’s imaginatively call him the Shaman, tell stories and weave his debates with the alacrity of a seasoned elder. The guy seemed to be one of those ‘integral players’ of the tribe; not that the party would be lacking in his absence, not exactly, but his presence is the type that helps determine what kind of night it will turn out to be. I felt an enriching aura exuded from the man.

Another individual, let’s call him the Chieftain, radiated a calm confidence that marked him, in my eyes,  as the leader of this band of orcs, though not in an authoritative, commanding sort of way. He was the outdoorsman, the one who just as naturally cut wood for the fire with his hand ax as some host of a dinner party might fetch wine for his guests from the cellar. His mate, also present, complemented him as a lady of the woods, taking it upon herself to routinely stoke the fire and ever lay more fuel to our night’s source of heat and light and comfort. I in fact helped with each of these tasks, able to exchange a few words with the orc Chieftain and his mate, and both (having met the Chieftain on one other occasion) were positively charming, welcoming people.

Granted, I would never have found myself in their presence were it not for being brought by another associate of mine – who I do not identify as an orc himself, but certainly a fire-bearded wildman capable of easily blending among them – and in chopping wood or stoking the fire they most certainly did not need my help. But seeing things like this in play reminded me of my younger days, having my own group of friends visiting – most of them not knowing the first thing about making and tending to fires in the woods – and it was my duty and pleasure to keep the fire going. The orcs obviously had everything well in hand, but it evoked old muscles and memories to partake in the ritual, triggering old woodsman instincts that had long since laid mostly dormant.

Perhaps most interesting of my observations of the Chieftain was the care and effort he had put into preparing the evening meal. Most folks had brought beer, and I, with my own dietary restrictions, had managed to brew up and share a meager portion of spicy vegetarian ramen soup. Most unOrcish. But more than the meal itself, the Chieftain prepared a couple of cornish hens (or something) in a large aluminum pan, and after hours of delicate patience and attentative cooking, he cut the pan in half, setting one portion aside for the tribe. The other half he took with him a safe distance away, where he and his mate enjoyed the delicacy. Those orcs who did not hear the designation were reminded.

“This one is ours,” he had said. The message was clear, and bereft of any negative inflection; the Chieftain had simply prepared a meal and by his generosity, had offered some of it up for the tribe, but this portion was designated for only himself and his mate. It was law, it was clear, and it was respected without the slightest hint of chagrin.

No one in their right minds (and many of the orcs were drunk, by the way), would question him – as might be seen in otherwise “normal” society – but it was entirely out of respect, rather than fear of embarrassment or reproach. It simply was, just as the orcs simply were.

I found watching that tiny exchange, the gesture of respect not only towards the Chieftain, but the respect the Chieftain showed towards his mate, to be a fascinating and overwhelmingly romantic thing to observe.

You won’t be finding bankers and CEO’s around this campfire. And while some of these “orcish” traits might be akin to “dwarvish” tendencies, the difference, I find, is attitude:

  • People who I’d recognize as “dwarven,” while just as capable of being wild and unpredictable and unconcerned with laying on bare earth, I see them as having much less of a propensity to go out and drink in the woods. People with classical dwarven tendencies would, in my mind, much prefer being rowdy and drunk in a tavern or a home, somewhere close to civilization and society.
  • Orcs, on the other hand, do it wherever the hell they want – but they prefer the company of trees and campfires simply because it’s more convenient for them to avoid otherwise less-than-cooperative authorities. There is more freedom the further away from other people you set foot. There is much more of a collective, tribal sense of “us” and “the rest of the world out there.”

Gatherings like this are things you may not recognize as common in your area, wherever you are, dear reader, but where I am as of this writing, it’s really not that unusual. The group I sat amongst consisted of around ten people, but I’ve been told the tribe has reached numbers as high as thirty-five closely connected individuals. You won’t find kindred folk like this in an office.

But what I’ve really come to recognize, and respect, is the simple genuineness of these people. These were folk with whom I confess I may not be able to mesh easily, but I easily get along with. I witnessed a group of friends who simply were who they were; I witnessed a complete absence of obeying typical societal polite discourse – they spoke their minds (did not dance around topics), they did not inhibit their flatulence, they lost their tempers in debates and quickly made amends over a drink not long after, and (I suspect) their dating/mating rituals probably don’t follow the same rules as set by society either. For all the rowdiness and self-indulgence I witnessed (and this event was comparatively tame), absolutely no one was phony. They were themselves, and whether by circumstance or mutual influence, they became who they were, and gathered, and shared stories, liquor, and laughs atop that mountain.

They also did not seem to give a damn that an outsider, some quietly observing bard such as myself, sat among them, partaking in the laughter, the jokes, the comfort.

Sure, this image seems about accurate. ((Art by Manzanedo @ http://manzanedo.deviantart.com/ ))

I’ll tell this: these people seemed, as far as I could tell, largely unconcerned, and thus unconstrained, by ideas such as putting on a show in order to “fit in.” With ideas of being politically correct for fear of offending someone (or, as was the topic of that particular night, perhaps they were simply venting suppressed un-PC things out into the night and to the stars). Even ideas of appearance, of society-deemed ‘style’ and ‘cool.’ People wore what they wanted, whether it was practical and worn or looked good and well-kept, and it’s not so much that I’m surprised by any of these traits – I’m simply impressed.

These are the kinds of people who will survive if society collapses, and not only because of their practical skills and familiarity with the wilds, but for their sense of community – cliche as that might sound.

There isn’t much room for orcs in the cities; there are too many laws and constraints. One of my closest friends growing up could best be described this way; when last I saw him, years ago (after perhaps half a decade of not seeing him before that), he had become significantly more orcish. It was a lifestyle that diverged our paths back in the day, his on his, mine on mine; and while I don’t consider myself one of them – I’m not nearly physically strong enough and far too preoccupied with keeping my hat clean – I do feel a kinship with them. Common roots, perhaps, sprouting into different trees.

There are much worse things than considering one’s self a friend of orcs.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by the Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim – “02 – Awake.” This bit isn’t so much meant to pertain to the orcs with whom I shared company, per say, but rather the gorgeous sunrise we witnessed at 4:30am the following morning from the cliff near which we camped. Yes, you could play as an orc in that game (kudos to them), but this short track makes for an excellent start to many things – the start of a game, yes, or the start of a novel, a day, or a new chapter in one’s life.

Why I Hate Elves

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The only reason to see the movie Elf was to watch Will Ferrel get drop kicked by Peter Dinklage.

So this is not so much a post designated to convince you of why you should hate elves as it is a simple rant. Let’s start with the basics.

At the very least, I despise the word ‘elf.’ Variations of long-eared humanoids are nifty, but for the most part they all follow the same Tolkienien tropes that are so overdone that I, personally, tend to lose interest very quickly. Along with Orcs and Dwarves, Elves are not what make a fantasy story a fantasy, yet all too often they make an appearance, as though there’s some recipe out there that says the formula is incomplete without a healthy dose of elf powder.

Fantasy is about imagination, about exploring worlds new and arguably familiar. To have your own world populated with carbon copies of what we’ve already seen in Faerun, Azeroth, Dominaria, Thedas, and countless bloody others doesn’t say much. They always have long lifespans, possess superior proportions, are almost unerringly attractive (so I hear), and are always better than you at everything. I get it, that’s what modern society seems to think elves are.

And it’s boring. I find hyper-sexualized characters to be irritating, however pleasant they are to look at and imagine.

Elves are more often used for fanservice than anything else, I’ve seen. They appear to have been fetishized, with effeminate men and blindingly attractive women. Practical armor optional (though, to the credit of some sources, they at least depict the men this way as well, so, yay for equal rights. I guess). Not that I have any particular problem with “effeminate men” or “scantily clad woman warriors,” rather, it’s just how those tropes appear to be what the world ‘elf’ means.

I get it. Fantasy. Exploring and/or depicting things we fantasize about. But since when does fantasy mean more of the same? I like looking at the shapely charms of well-defined female as much as the next guy, but what I don’t dig is when the woman’s body is essentially her primary (only?) asset as a character. Like, at the full expense of my willing suspension of disbelief.

Think Legolas would be as well-loved if he wasn’t some Aryan wet dream?

Maybe I should just accept that elves are just too nimble to actually get injured.

Originally, the word ‘elf’ was associated with something quite different. There’s quite the body of research behind the etymology and folklore of the old Germanic meaning – which has sorta been distilled from over a thousand years of folklore into a generalized understanding these days – and while I understand that language is a living, evolving thing, especially English, there’s something about the word elf that just bugs me.

Whether it’s the tiny little bell ringers at the north pole or archer princes sliding down the trunks of oliphants, I find myself over-saturated with the generalized and yet highly varied umbrella term of ‘elf.’

They come most often in three primary forms: we have the High Elves, the Wood Elves, and the Dark Elves (the most famous of these being the Drow. Don’t get me fucking started on Drizzt). They’re all essentially the same though, much like humans are all basically the same, with just a few tweaks of color and secondary physical features like ear length or height. I’ve always felt like usage of these, without distinguishing them in some form OTHER than slapping a different name on them, is just plain lazy.

And I know this because I used to be a much lazier writer.

Maybe certain writers love elves the way they are – and the market has told us what people like, so these depictions of elves aren’t going anywhere. I used to dig Blizzard Night Elves for awhile, because at the time they were new, and at the time I had my head stuck in the world of Azeroth. Once I actually began reading other sources and learning more, they lost their charm, becoming tropy as the rest of them – however I still dig their dress of quilts + feathers + antlers.

Honestly the most interesting elf variations that I’ve come across were the “City Elves” of Dragon Age (who were, in a drastic twist of events, depicted as petty and subhuman, rather than superior in every way possible), the elves of Lorwyn (which were cool because the creators A) hyper-expanded the trope by making their culture obsessed with superficial perfection and beauty – to the point of seeing themselves as natural “hunters of all things ugly,” and B) They actually possessed physical traits that made them unique – very satyrlike, with goat-legs and horns), and the Wood Elves from the 1977 Ranklin/Bass animated depiction of the Hobbit.

Get a load of these fair-haired bastards. Very fae-like, long before the explosion of D&D elves, followed by Blizzardian elves.

Now, with all that said, there are stories in which the common elf tropes have appeared that I have, in fact, very much adored. There have been numerous occasions where I totally dug the elves or elven characters of various mythos encountered. But as I grow older, I keep encountering the same things over and over. It gets kinda stale.

So what does this mean? It means that one must adopt the philosophy of “Writing What You Wish You Could Read.” After reading Dune, among other works, this is the story-writing philosophy that I’ve decided to adopt. I confess that I’ve fallen into the same pitfalls of writing elves the way everyone else does, which meant that for some bodies of work previously written, I had to rework quite a bit of the worldbuilding and lore. But it all came out for the better. What resulted (and admittedly, is still resulting, as more changes must be implemented) are cultures, creations, settings, and story elements that are mine.

That, I think, is more valuable than writing the same stuff you already see on the shelf.

What of you, dear readers? Tropes you see again and again that you’d rather have changed? Shaken up? Do you like elves the way we keep seeing them, or do you disagree with any of my point? Would love to hear it.

Today’s music is brought to you by Terraria, the track played when entering a Jungle zone. It hasn’t much to do with elves, exactly, but if you equate the usage of the word elf with anything lush or foresty, then there might be a connection in there somewhere.

 

Tidings 06/20/2014

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  • Announcements

I guess what pertains most to you all, dear readers, is the mere fact that I’m reducing my twice-a-week posts down to the classic once-a-week variety. The simple reason for this is that I want to provide higher quality posts, and more than once I feel that I wrote posts on topics that served little purpose other than “filler.” They felt that way to me, anyway.

That word leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s something I’m determined to not do again.

Also, though not particularly related to this blog, I’m expecting some big environmental changes soon. In other words, I’m moving. Like I said, this should not affect the blog all that much on account of the fact that none of you know where I live anyway. However, where I’m headed is a new and exotic place overseas, and the nature of a number of posts may reflect this for, as most of you know, I’m rather big on experience. I have no intentions of turning this into a travel blog or anything, but chances are I’ll come across something inspiring and related to writing and/or fantasy to share.

More on that in the future.

Cog-713x475

  • Writing Progress

It’s June, which means we’re nearing the end of yet another quarter for the Writer’s of the Future contest. I have a story ready, and have allocated some valuable feedback from a number of trusted associates. Typically I wait until the last day of the deadline, just in case I have any last-minute thoughts regarding the story, but this time around I’m thinking I should just submit it a week early and be done with it.

My other writing, the ever-ongoing novel project, progresses at a slow grind. I’ve reached a point where there remain but three chapters of raw text to be written out. Ideally, that will come out to another 30,000 words, but word count does not matter so much as the actual telling of the story. I’m finding that certain character perspectives involve a lot more detail, a lot more things to write about, than others, and wonder to myself whether there is any detriment to having characters’ chapters at 10,000 words while others, from other characters, are as low as 6,000. It doesn’t concern me that much, but just enough to make me wonder. The last thing I want to do is fill shorter chapters with fluff.

Then of course there’s refinement and editing. I think I actually prefer that part, though. The raw creative energy is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but getting the thoughts in place and the words down seems to be the longest part for me. I’ve read how other writers hate editing their own stuff. I rather enjoy it – as far as I’m concerned, the hard part’s over at that point, and it’s just a matter of organizing, trimming, refining.

I’ve noticed those are activities I enjoy doing in life.

Regardless, nearing completion of this novel is really quite exciting. When I finish the first draft, I’ll share the story (and believe me, there is one) for its inception and how I came about writing it (a third time). For now, though, suffice it to say it’s still in the works, and my goal of completing it this year is still very easily in sight. After all, 30,000 words really isn’t that much. Those of you familiar with NaNoWriMo know this to be true.

~~~

Today’s musical number is brought to you by a documentary I occasionally find myself returning to, called Wild China. As of this posting, it’s on Netflix, and Wild China is about exactly what it sounds; a National Geographic-styled production focusing on the wildlife and landscapes of China. It covers some of the peoples living out there, too, but mainly focuses on the natural science.

China is a big goddam place, with dozens of extremes in both animal life and environments; in terms of culture, what a lot of people don’t know is that China is more like Europe than a single unified country. Sure they’re under one flag at this moment in history, but they’ve 292 living languages today, including dialects spoken by 52 ethnic groups. Aside from some of the stunning imagery the documentary shows, we get to hear the narration of Bernard Hill (who us fantasy fans might recognize as King Théoden from the LotR movies.)

I couldn’t help but think of Théoden in his throne (post anti-aging), reading the script to this.

Class Progression: 3/3 Bards

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“The bards were feared. They were respected, but more than that they were feared. …If you’d pissed off some witch, then what’s she gonna do, she’s gonna put a curse on you… no big deal. You piss off a bard, and forget about putting a curse on you, he might put a satire on you.
“And if he was a skilful bard, he puts a satire on you, it destroys you in the eyes of your community… and if it’s a particularly good bard, and he’s written a particularly good satire, then three hundred years after you’re dead, people are still gonna be laughing, at what a twat you were.”

Alan Moore

 

At last we come to the third and final of this little series. If you haven’t, check out the first and second posts I wrote leading up to this.

I’ve talked about in my earlier years, I had a preference for paladins, and how that preference evolved into my interest in druids. Today, we’ll talk about what I have come to understand as the player-class that most accurately describes “me,” this evolving collection of cells currently typing these words. It’s all in one’s mindset, I think, more than their physical talent or ability.

As a writer, a nonconformist, an independent thinker, my path throughout life never really had any particular essence of direction. Sure there was “finish highschool,” and not long after, “finish college.” Then there was “get a job.” You are not unfamiliar with this script. Throughout most of this time, I wrote stories, I made art, I underwent a variety of projects and ran with a variety of crowds – these were all things I did that came naturally, things I either enjoyed doing or felt some compulsion to express from within. And yes, wherever I went, whatever I did, whoever I met, I never really identified with something in particular truly being mine, or my place. I have acquired a host of rudimentary skills from a multitude of walks of life, and these days I have embraced part of my unchanged identity as a learning addict.

I have, it seems, become a jack of all trades, but not quite a master of any one particular thing. And I think in this society of hyper-specialization, I think I’m okay with that.

“A jack of all trades, but a master of none” was a phrase I used to despise when I was younger. I used to think that being a jack of all trades was inherently useless, as it meant you were not particularly good at any one thing. In a Head Full of Fantasy, where character class plays a roll in basic thought processes and group settings, I had never truly ascribed much value to rolling mixed or multi-class characters. Well, not until discovering that shapeshifting, slippery druid thing mentioned prior – I have no doubt that playing the “unclassable” druid laid a foundation of thinking for me. Funny, considering I never liked any bard-like characters most games I’ve played, and actually do not have any affinity for “folk music.”

These days, I see things a little differently.

As I have grown and matured, I have learned that my talents are not my strength, though I am not weak. So that rules out warrior – and what is a warrior in today’s modern world? A farmer, perhaps? Or a construction worker, an athlete, maybe even a soldier.

I have intellect at my disposal, but not the sort of memory or desire to spend hours researching something for the sake of knowledge, at the expense of one’s physical health or social skills. I would not make a good wizard/mage; and what are they? In today’s world, they are the programmers, the analysts, the scientists.

No, I am a writer, a storyteller, as might be evidenced by the existence of this blog (and, soon enough, my books). My strength is in my way of words, though not necessarily by way of song; I think many writers make modern-day bards. We collect stories, allocate our knowledge, invent our own. There are writers who travel from place to place, those who stay home and research and read and absorb, or those who put down on paper the experiences that they have simply witnessed. I may not brandish a lute or lyre and provide my allies with stat bonuses, but I wager telling a good story can have the same effect. Or better yet, writing it down for future readage, thus immortalizing the event.

These days, I’m more interested in adaptability, like I was saying in the druid post, than single-function. A bard is someone who is not a master swordsman, but they know how to wield a blade. They can’t cast a plethora of spells, but they have a few tricks at their disposal. A bard may not be able to move unseen or slit throats as quiet as a shadow, but they can pick a few locks/pockets and move about unnoticed when they wish.

I find this fascinating.

But the difference between being a bard and being a druid is that a bard feels real-life-applicable; a bard gets through life on wit and charm, and while I refuse to subject you fine readers as to why I am so witty and charming, I can tell you they’re among my better assets.

Also, they don’t offer shapeshifting courses at the colleges I’ve been to.

The bard is a traveler, a scribe, a storyteller. They have not always been used to great effectiveness in most videogames — often considered more masters of none as opposed to actual jack-of-all-trades. A common fault among the bard class, in terms of game-practicality, is that a bard can often do many things, but none of those things are generally strong enough to be of any real use during the game. One may be better off having a rogue for the sneaking, a mage for the casting, a priest for the healing, and so on.

There’ve been a multitude of attempts at making bards applicable, with varying results. But I’m not gonna get into gaming mechanics here; I’m more interested in the real-world concept, such as folk singers, or travel writers, or photographers for National Geographic. Hell, I distill the concept not so much to include music, but any form of art or creativity that involves charisma (see wit and charm).

Part of me wishes I dug bards before I quit League of Legends…

A wo/man who goes through life traveling from place to place, learning languages and local customs, picking up skills and experiences, discovering the world one village or adventure at a time. Sounds bloody romantic, doesn’t it?

Or, like a lot of people I know, it sounds like something they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole. “No thanks,” I know some folks think, subconsciously or otherwise. “I’ll take a safe, secure, complacent office job in a cubicle over the risk.”

Tell ya one thing. Having spent time in a cubicle (Where They Used To Think I Work) the life of a bard sounds significantly more appealing to me. Even if I’m not particularly musically inclined. Well, not on the production side anyway…though that, too, may change. Picking up a guitar and playing a few diddies hardly counts as bard-worthy.

But in my current state and life circumstances, I feel the bard truly fits my mindset. Perhaps that too will change in time, as things always do, but it is an oddly comforting, geeky sort of feeling to come to grips with being something of an categorizable enigma.

This is but one journey among billions. What character classes do you identify with? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Today’s music is brought to you by Final Fantasy XI, the first of Square-Enix’s attempts to cash in on the whole Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) genre. If there’s one thing they got right in that game, it was the music. Below you’ll find the theme for the area known as Ronfaure – a place in fact I’ve never been – and rather than throw some folky bardy taverny thing at you today, Ronfaure’s a slower beat that positively drips medieval kingdom. Have at it.