PiL – Poptones

I have been listening to a lot of PiL recently. They have everything I could ever want from a band, in spades. They have got the style, the brash punk sensibility & an aggressive bass player (Jah Wobble). Metal Box, the second project by PiL is an undeniable classic. It’s what you would get if classic punk and early dub / reggae had a baby. Brilliant stuff! But the point of this entry, was not to discuss Metal Box in it’s entirety, that will come later. I just wanted to draw attention to this little gem, Poptones, hidden in the collection. Aside from Lydon’s mesmerizing & pictursque lyrics, what’s attracted me greatly to this song over the years has been the guitar riff. The guitar riff in Poptones is so melancholy, so haunting, it drives me delirious. From reading up online it seems that Keith Levene, lifted the riff straight out of Starship Trooper (from the Yes Album).

After listening to Startship Trooper, which I found a bit too syrupy and soft for my tastes, I’m inclined to believe that Keith was being unnecessarily modest. If he did indeed lift the riff straight out of Starship Trooper, then he did it justice. It is interesting to note, that the practice of lifting a riff sample or drums (although use of the word ‘lift’ might have unnecessary criminal connotations) was one that would be widely popular in hip-hop, a genre that was still struggling to find its footing in ’79. So, Poptones definitely predates the entire genre in that respect. A brilliant song that was quite ahead of its time.

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Oblivion Movie Review [REVIEW] [SCi-Fi]

Oblivion#2

In the 2010s, post-apocalyptic movies have become standard fare, perhaps owing to the shift that audiences have had away from Star-Trek-like kumbaya narratives of the future. In the 2010s, and 2013 in particular it seems that audiences have a penchant for sci-fi stories that are real & gritty. Oblivion, is not the only movie of this vein to have been released. After Earth and Elysium, both of which could be classified in the same category as Oblivion also got released in 2013 and were fairly successful at the box-office. Regardless of what one may think of Oblivion’s narrative, few would level any sort of criticism on the film’s phenomenal special effects. Oblivion is a testament to what’s possible given current technology. As far as production values go, it’s no doubt that the trajectory is oriented upwards, but its still good to see movies like Oblivion make ample use of what’s currently available. This will inspire other filmmakers to do the same and hopefully push our technology to its very limits.Anyways, if you have read any literature on Oblivion, you already know that critics were not particularly charitable. Evidenlty, it is not the special effects that caused critics to tear Oblivion apart, it was the story. Upon re-examining the story from top to bottom I’m inclined to think that the reviews were unnecessarily harsh, but lets just go through it one more time to see what sorts of insights we can divine out of the murk.

Oblivion#3

As already stated, Oblivion is a post-apocalyptic movie. It’s set a few decades into the future, in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war between humans, and a group of extra-terrestrial beings that are referred to cryptically as Scavs.

As is stated in the movie the Scavs instigated the war by stealing the Moon, an act which was itself a prelude to a full-blown invasion. The Earth which at the time had been equipped with all the best nukes that modern physics had to offer, fought back bravely. Earth eventually won, but at a great cost, the Earth itself. Not only was the resulting destruction devastating and crippling, the resulting radiation made most environments unfit for human habitation. The war was won, but the Earth was poisoned. It was a conundrum. What could humanity do? Well, leave Earth. Humans decided to move to Saturn’s moon Titan.

*Supposedly*

Tom Cruise’s character Jack, & his love interest / partner Victoria are introduced in the movie as one of the few stragglers left on Earth. Their job is to take care of the precious & very delicate fusion generators left on Earth (to produce energy for the trek to Saturn).

The pacing at the start of the movie is good. There is some heavy info-dumping in the beginning, which is never a good idea for a movie that’s trying to create a mystery, but overall the pacing was good. The movie is intentionally hedgy in divulging the particulars of this supposed ‘nuclear war’. Thus, there is an engaging thriller quality to the story and a wide, open vista of plot twists and possibilities just waiting to be explored.

But that’s just the beginning, what happens next??

Jack, whose personality leads to bouts of insubordination, uncovers something profound. A spacecraft, The Odyssey crash lands on Earth, and the Drones having been sent to investigate start shooting at the survivors of the crash landing. Not at all an event worth fussing over, that is, if they weren’t human. This is so manifestly counter to a Drone’s programming, that it causes Jack to become skeptical.

Indeed, following the incident, Jack is bothered by what he has seen and the cognitive dissonance that this incident brings forces him to go back to the crash site to investigate. While ambling about, with Julia, the survivor he’d managed to save, he gets kidnapped by the Scavs. It is at this moment that Jack’s parochial nature splinters and the box of mysteries that the movie hinges on to maintain viewer interest is unwrapped.

So as Jack quickly finds out, the Scavs are not the malevolent alien presence they are purported to be. It turns out that they are human. Also, the radiation zones that Jack has been repeatedly told not to cross, do not harbor life threatening radiation, but rather … other ‘Jacks’ that are doing more or less what he is doing … protecting the fusion generators from Scavs.

After these two key pieces of information get revealed, the movie reaches a turning point. Depending on the type of viewer you are … your eyes will either glaze over in extreme boredom … or your interest will probably skyrocket.

Olga-Oblivion

The former type of viewer, is probably one who is well-versed in science fiction stories of this type, and has seen this problem approached from every conceivable angle. Given that Oblivion did not do a comprehensive treatment of the issue or give it a new creative twist – in fact the ending was rather dull – it is only natural that it would not sustain this type of viewer’s interest.

The latter type of viewer, is one who is a great deal less familiar with the sci-fi trope of the ‘doppelganger’ and is interested in what new arcana the plot will uncover.

It really does not take long to piece together what is going to happen afterwards. I was the latter type of viewer, but my specific problem was that I overinflated the depth and intricacy of the plot. I was expecting to get wowed by something deep or a well executed plot twist that would perhaps lead to a sequel. But that never happened.

Critics have made a few gripes about the acting in the movie, but I am inclined to disagree. Tom Cruise’s acting was commendable. He played a very believable Jack. Olga Kurylenko’s character Julia did not play such a pivotal role in the first half of the movie, so she did not get a chance to fully show off her acting prowess. However, in the moments she does appear she is absolutely brilliant. Andrea Riseborough, who plays the Victoria, Jack’s love interest, also holds her own in the acting department.

In all, if you are a sucker for pretty visuals, then by all means watch this movie. It is fantastic in that respect and you will not get disappointed. However, if you are looking for a deep, engaging, thought-provoking storyline a la 2001: A Space Odyssey then I’d forcefully recommend that you look elsewhere. Oblivion is not for you.

7 Scav Helmets out of 10

William Gibson – Virtual Light Book Review [REVIEW] [SCi-Fi]

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Following a six year hiatus, Gibson rejuvenated himself in the early nineties with the release of his fourth novel Virtual Light. Unlike Gibson’s previous works which were set in The Sprawl (a polluted dystopian version of the Northeast Megalopolis), Virtual Light is set in California. The novels Idoru & All Tomorrow’s Parties, both of which followed Virtual Light are also set in the same universe with the same characters playing major roles. Similar to its East-Coast analogue – the Sprawl – the fictional California in which Virtual Light is set in is bleak, dreary & polluted. A closer, more scrupulous examination of this not-so-sunny California reveals other jarring inversions as well. For example rather than being part of a union of states, California is its own political entity. Furthermore, in the time period that the novel is set California’s own rather shaky government is on the cusp of being destabilized by frequent insurrections that are themselves a result of numerous societal issues like class conflict and inequality.

Virtual Light’s plot is conveyed through multiple POVs, a strategy that Gibson first developed in Count Zero, perfected in Mona Lisa Overdrive and then used consistently thereafter. Rydell, the main protagonist of the story is a down-and-out former cop, who’s just scraping by in Los Angeles on a dead-end job as a private security officer. As Rydell’s story slowly gets fleshed out it’s revealed that he was not always ‘down-and-out’. Rather, he was a victim of a mix-up that under the auspices of malevolent hackers led to him accidentally murdering an innocent civilian in cold blood. Even though Rydell’s crime could be reasonably construed as being noble in principle, it’s not so cut and dry in practice and the resulting fallout is quite severe.

In a larger sense, Rydell’s meek character is what prevents him from being subsumed by the legacy of past Gibson protagonists. Relative to what we’ve come to expect from Gibson it’s evident that Rydell’s actions are not merely pretensions to unattainable ideals. Rather, they speak to a higher, purer sense of morality – certainly higher than you’d expect to find in Gibson’s particular brand of anti-hero (i.e. Case, Robert ‘Bobby’ Newmark). Chevette, the main supporting character is a courier living in ‘The Bridge’, a self-sustaining, self-governing community residing in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. As is generally the case with Gibson’s storylines, Chevette’s and Rydell’s individual plots criss-cross and then eventually fuse into a single, explosive denouement.

 

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The Bridge

Other examples of memorable supporting characters include Freddy, Warbaby & the two partners Svobodov & Orlovsky. Similar to Rydell, Freddy represents a breath of fresh air. He is a chill, slightly priviledged San-Francisco pretty boy with a penchant for flashy clothing and a knack for programming. Freddy’s programming abilities come in handy for Warbaby, Freddy’s employer. Warbaby is as dour as Freddy is cheerful. Gibson points this out every chance he gets, to hilarious effect too, as the metaphors he uses to describe Warbaby’s bleak demeanor get more creative as the novel progresses. Svobodov and Orlovsky are two San-Francisco cops. Their activities in the novel are manifestly opposed to what one would consider to be proper for badge wearers, & Gibson deftly ties this in to the rapidly escalating story.

Since Virtual Light is set in a familiar setting, the prose is vastly easier to parse & much less ornate. This adds a new layer of dynamism to the story. The plot surges forward at a breakneck speed, events happen fast, even the characters are very economical in their speech. Virtual Light is not the tour de force, creative-leap-forward that Neuromancer was. However, it’s an interesting little novel that allows readers to peek into a cyberpunk world that is quite compelling. For the more erudite readers with vivid imaginations, the world described in Virtual Light may perhaps prove familiar enough to invoke alarm.

8 Virtual Light Glasses Out Of 10

Jeffrey Carver – Eternity’s End Review [REVIEW] [SCi-Fi]

eternitys_end

Eternity’s End is a Space Opera Sci-Fi book written by Jeffrey Carver. It’s part of Carver’s Star Rigger universe but it’s a standalone book in the sense that you don’t have to be familiar with any of the other books in the Star-rigger series to follow the plot. Eternity’s End is set in a fictional universe, wherein humans can perform interstellar travel through ‘rigging’. Rigging is heavily influenced by actual marine travel, so be prepared to find a lot of marine analogies. To rig, one must clear their head, and control their emotions. The main character, Legroeder, is shown to be a fine rigger, and this influences the trajectory the story takes. Marine analogies, permeate the entire story. In fact one of the alien species that the main character gets to interact with is a marine species (the Narseil).

The writing style in Eternity’s End is rather pedestrian. Some may class it into the young adult category. However, there are quite a number of sexual scenes in the book that are perhaps too explicit for a younger crowd. For the most part the story is told through Legroeder’s POV. Occasionally the supporting characters get a chance to shine but for the most part it’s a mostly Legroeder show. Adults reading the book may be dismayed by the split personality that Legroeder showcases. At times he’s immaturity is manifest, whereas in others he displays great sensitivity and maturity. Eternity’s End is an ambitious piece of work. Comparing it to a well known series, it is perhaps most similar to Star Wars, in the sense that it is grand in scope and incorporates a lot of drama and romance, in a environment that’s primarily set in space.

I’ll be honest. I did not like this book at all. It was very difficult to read. Usually I can plow through a book of this size within a week, but for this particular one it took me almost a month. The story was boring, predictable and the main character Legroeder was insufferable. The only reason I finished Eternity’s End is because I hate, hate, HATE not finishing a book once I’ve already started reading it. 10 pages in to reading this book I knew I didn’t like it. I probably should’ve listened to my instincts. Anyways, that’s my $0.02. Maybe your experience might be different!

 

Verdict:

2 Narseil Pools out of 5

Star Trek Deep Space Nine Review [REVIEW] [SCi-Fi]

Star Trek Deep Space Nine

Generally speaking, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, is revered amongst Star Trek fans. Unlike Star Trek Voyager – and all later Star Treks – which most fans seem to deride unanimously, Star Trek DS9 occupies a cozy position in the average Star Trek fan’s heart. Sure, it’s definitely not as ground-breaking and exciting as that sixties wonder TOS, but it’s also not as disappointing and cloyingly pedestrian as the two Star Treks that came afterwards, VOY and ENT. All things considered, one has to wonder at the irony. DS9 is arguably the least Star Trek of the Star Treks. Roddenberry’s original vision of the federation – a veritable utopia where the pressing issues of our time (i.e. war, discrimination, poverty) have either been vanquished or ameliorated – is not present in DS9. For example, the Prime Directive, the bedrock of Federation idealism that was created to prevent the Federation from exploiting other worlds, has a less idealistic more ominous tint to it. Also, the Bajorans – having come out of a terribly vicious war with the Cardassians – are ravaged by all of the ills that previous iterations of the show would have merely brushed over as incidental. As an example, the newly instated Bajoran government is saddled by poverty, corruption and the clawing hands of alien carpetbaggers eager to exploit the Bajoran people. Additionally, the station itself, a Cardassian relic, remains a hotbed of intrigue and devious political machinations. Societal problems which would have been addressed in an indirect manner in previous shows are addressed directly in DS9. The season five episode Far Beyond The Stars is perhaps the best example of this as it places Captain Sisko, an African American – or whatever goes for America a thousand years from now – in the sixties and examines racism without being overly hedgy and indirect like previous shows have been.

Keeping in line with the show’s realistic emphasis, most of the main characters are flawed. Quixotic characters characters pervade the show’s landscape but not to the same extent and degree as in TOS or TNG. Captain Benjamin Sisko, for example, is not as principled as Picard. He has less scruples and regularly makes choices that seem to go against the principles the Federation professes to uphold. To the Bajorans, Sisko is also a religious icon – The Emissiary. At the start of the series, Sisko regards his position as ‘The Emissiary to the Bajoran people’ with scepticism and ambivalence. However, as the show progresses this ambivalence greatly diminishes and it is at this point that the show tackles difficult topics like religion and mysticism head-on. In DS9, the level of attention and sensitivity paid to seemingly irrational, arcane topics like religion is unmatched. In TNG, religion was addressed in a superficial, touch-and-go fashion; touch-and-go in a literal sense, since the Enterprise would literally warp away from the problem following the episode’s termination. Remember the mission?

Oh Shit!

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Benjamin Sisko’s son Jake, also resides in DS9. Ben and Jake are fairly close. This means that the work life and personal life of both Siskos blends seamlessly, sometimes to the detriment of their relationship. This is a new development as far as the Star Trek series is concerned. In previous iterations of the show, the lead character (Captain Picard or Captain Kirk) had separate work and personal lives, perhaps owing to the danger of their position. In TNG, Dr Crusher’s son, Wesley, did reside in the Enterprise, but this was not a persistent thing. In any case, Jake Sisko does not directly participate in the running of the space station, and as viewers quickly find out, he doesn’t aspire to either. Jake’s talent seems to reside in the world of literature, poetry, and journalism.

Kira Nerys, serves as the second in command in DS9, and this position carries with it, its own unique set of responsibilities and challenges. Challenges, which are in fact compounded by the fact that Kira is also the Bajoran liaison to the Federation. Conflicts of varying degrees of severity arise out of this. For example, to Kira, Sisko is both Commander (later Captain) Sisko and ‘The Emissiary’ with no degree of mutual exclusivity separating these two terms. Also, Kira’s peculiar positioning in the DS9 chain-of-command results in her constantly having to rub shoulders with her native Bajorans, Cardassians and the Federation – conflicts which no sane person would relish.

While, Kira is second-in-command in name, in reality she shares this position with Jadzia Dax. Jadzia Dax, is a Trill, a humanoid race first introduced in Star Trek TNG. Trills are unique in that they are able to achieve immortality by embedding sentient symbiotic organisms inside their bodies. At the show’s outset, Jadzia is the host of the Dax symbiont. Since Jadzia, is the host, she is able to assimilate all the thoughts and memories of previous hosts, including, most notably Curzon, who’d already developed a relationship with Captain Sisko before passing. Since, Sisko knew and was close friends with Jadzia in her previous lifetime their relationship is of a different nature than the relationship he has with Kira. It is not uncommon for Sisko to seek advice from Jadzia, even though technically he outclasses her in both age and experience.

The station’s chief of security Odo, is perhaps the most novel addition in Star Trek DS9. Odo is a changeling / shape-shifter and belongs to the Founders, a previously unheard of race in the Star Trek universe. For Odo, the entire Star Trek DS9 journey is a canonical ‘Coming-of-Age’ one. It is filled with self-discovery, angst, identity crises and other similar adolescent experiences. Odo’s status as a changeling, causes him to suffer a lot of discrimination. In spite of this he becomes attached to the many colourful characters residing in the station (Quark, Kira, Nog, Morn). Thus, when the war between the founders and the federation breaks out later on during the show, his feelings become conflicted and his loyalties tenuous to say the least.

While DS9 is lauded for its serious tone, it should be said that a fair number of the characters, like Quark, don’t take themselves too seriously. Quark is a Ferengi, a race first introduced in TNG that’s noted for its business-infused culture, and unmatched avarice and thirst for profit. Quark’s shady business-minded endeavors lead to him regularly crossing paths with Odo, the DS9 ‘Constable’. Throughout the show, Quark remains a permanent fixture, and as a result participates or plays a tangential role in some of the more serious episodes. In an overall sense, however, Quark is mostly just comic relief. Quark’s posturing, and mildly antagonistic banter with Odo are a frequent source of laughs. Many times Quark’s overzealousness and unbridled enthusiasm lead to an instant evaporation of his ill-gotten wealth and him floundering in arrears. Quark’s propensity to quantify and arithmetize every aspect of his existence is a trait that I found revolting at first, but gradually warmed up to as the show progressed.

Doctor Bashir’s presence in DS9 is not wholly surprising. All the Star Treks have had a character trained in the medical field, who handles all of the ailments that everyone incurs throughout the show. Like Picard from TNG, Bashir’s voice has an evidently British tint to it.

In addition to the many new characters, a few characters from previous iterations of the series – most notably TNG – also make an appearance. While they do not reprise the exact same roles that they had in TNG, TOS, etc … their roles are still significant.

In TNG, Miles O’Brien was merely a Transporter Chief – a necessary, important position – but one that was not as ritzy or glamorous as ‘Captain of the Enterprise’, ‘Chief Engineer of the Enterprise’ or ‘Counsellor’. Luckily, in DS9, O’Brien moves up the ranks to become ‘Chief of Operations’. O’Brien and Bashir strike up a friendship, that eventually blossoms into a strong, enduring relationship.

Similar to Miles, Worf’s rank in Deep Space Nine is an upgrade over the one he occupied in TNG. In TNG Worf was merely a Security Chief (later on Chief Tactical Officer) whereas in DS9 he is the Strategic Operations Officer (SOO) a position that carries more weight and responsibilities. Worf’s personality does not change from TNG. He is still – as Michael Dorn habitually mentions – ‘a guy’s guy’. However, Jadzia – who has taken a romantic interest in Worf – is able to penetrate his frosty demeanor. Their relationship eventually leads to a marriage.

Here are a collection of episodes – one episode per season – that I felt really represented what DS9 was about as a whole (all 176 episodes):

q-less

I
Q-Less: In Star Trek TNG, Q played by John de Lancie was a fairly important character. As part of the Q-continuum, Q possessed demigod like powers, which he’d more often than not, squander or misuse to the detriment of the Enterprise. Devoted viewers could count on each season having at least one episode focusing on the enigmatic demigod. Even though these episodes would have the Enterprise immured in some sort of danger, they were typically lighter in tone. Most of the famous Picard sound bites / screencaps / memes floating around the internet stem from these episodes. Not shirking precedent, the first, and only Q episode in DS9 – Q-Less – is also light in tone. Just as Q was universally reviled on the Enterprise, he finds no friends in DS9. Q’s antics and duplicity quickly make him persona non-grata at the station. Unlike Picard, Sisko is less tactful and diplomatic when dealing with Q. He does not attempt to mask his profound disdain for him. Indeed, at one point he even ventures to punch the elusive demigod:

 

Q: “You hit me… Picard never hit me.”

Benjamin Sisko: “I am not Picard.”

 

Q-Less is important because it adds depth to Sisko’s character and serves to separate him from Picard. As such it enables Sisko to find his own identity rather than get subsumed by Picard’s legacy.

Dukat_and_Odo_Occupation

II
Necessary Evil: The static nature of Deep Space Nine (a space station rather than a starship) afforded the writers greater latitude in developing relationships, at least more than they were used to  in previous shows. This worked to the advantage of certain characters like Odo. At the outset, Odo is one of those characters whom the viewer knows absolutely nothing about. For some of the characters, like Dax and Quark, viewers have encountered their races in other shows (TNG) and as a result they have some kind of insight into how they act, what motivates them, how they view the Federation, etc. For Odo, there’s no mental dossier of information that the viewer can subconsciously retrieve. His race is utterly foreign and unknown. Furthermore, nobody knows about his personality, motivations or any of those little esoteric elements that make him what he is. By the end of the episode, it becomes apparent that there’s more to Odo than meets the eye. For example, he is guided by an unwavering respect and appreciation for justice. Also unlike a lot of characters in the show – even the captain – Odo is a hugely moral and principled creature.

through the looking glass

III
Through The Looking Glass: TNG’s holosuite, resulted in a plethora of mind-bendingly delightful episodes that, if nothing else, spoke to the creativity of the writers. A dearth of these kinds of shows (wacky, flashy) by season three of Deep Space Nine meant that one could sense, if only instinctively, a dip in quality, as if the show had missed a beat. The introduction of the Mirror Universe in Through The Looking Glass managed to rectify this issue. The Mirror Universe, is just as it’s name suggests, a ‘mirror’ version of the regular Star Trek universe. The same characters populating the regular universe, populate the mirror universe. However there are some interesting inversions and twists. Unlike, in the regular universe where the Bajorans have ran the Cardassians off, in the Mirror Universe, both the Bajorans and the Cardassians collude against the Federation. Nana Visitor (Kira) is evidently attractive but she is never really sexualized in the regular universe. In the Mirror Universe, however, this changes; she becomes an overly sexualized femme fatale. Interesting enough Sisko remains a leader in the Mirror Universe, but this time a leader of the rebels (natural born leader I guess?). Jadzia, who also belongs to Sisko’s cell, is also a rebel. However, she is far less cerebral than her regular universe counterpart. Quark is still the same profit loving Ferengi that he usually is in good ol’ normal DS9, the only difference being that he is more sympathetic to the plight of others.

muse

IV
The Muse: Surprisingly few of the episodes in DS9, focus on Jake specifically. A fair bit of them do have Jake in them, but these episodes only have ‘The Captain’s Son’ playing a tangential role. Even the episodes that do have Jake playing a major role don’t really push the boundaries. Thus they retard what could’ve been a potentially, immersive and gripping storyline to embryo form. So much so, that it’s unrecognizable. The Muse is, fortunately, not included in this category. In The Muse, an empathic alien of unknown origin infiltrates the station. Seeking prey, this female alien quickly endears itself to Jake. By manipulating Jake it is able to greatly enhance his writing abilities, making him uncharacteristically prodigious. Jake, who by this time, is an aspiring author quickly takes to this alien’s help, but unfortunately he remains blisffuly unaware that this help comes at a cost.

Garak_Empok_Nor

V
Empok Nor: The star of this show, is Deep Space Nine’s most artistic and articulate taylor, Garak. Garak is one of the fringe characters in Deep Space Nine. He straddles the border that separates the major (Sisko, Bashir) and minor (Morn, Vladek) characters. Like Quark, Garak has a sharp tongue and is capable of skillfully deploying venomous rebuttals (to humorous effect of course). Like Odo, Garak is also a blank slate. Viewers know little about him initially. Once war breaks out between the Alpha Quadrant and the Gamma Quadrant, Garak’s dark past swiftly subsumes his innocuous and carefree side. In Empok Nor, the darker aspects of Garak’s personality come to the forefront. I will refrain from giving out the entire plot here but suffice it to say that an interesting twist happens that leads to the hunters being the hunted and the hunted the hunters. Most of the Garak episodes in DS9 are stellar but Empok Nor is a real gem, I feel, because it places Garak in a very interesting dilemma. Following this episode it is very difficult to look at Garak the same way again.

Far-Beyond-the-Stars-star-trek-deep-space-nine-19028052-694-530

VI
Far Beyond The Stars: Out of all the Star Trek episodes, Far Beyond The Stars probably generates the most controversy. It’s the first Star Trek episode to ever address the question of discrimination DIRECTLY. The way in which the show tackles the issue is very un-Star-Trek but very brilliant. Essentially, Captain Sisko gets transported to the fifties, back when racism was pervasive and vicious. In some aspects, Far Beyond The Stars is a very fun show. It portrays all the DS9 characters without makeup. Seeing Gul Dukat speak as a human was interesting to say the least. At any rate, this episode is a personal favorite of mine. Being an aspiring (colored) writer myself, I was very much taken with how Star Trek treated this subject. Much has been said about Sisko’s laboured and melodramatic, ‘final speech’ towards the end. However, in spite of whatever acting deficiencies Avery Brooks may have (purportedly), this was still a very well done episode. The props were great, the actors were fantastic, and the issue of racism in American institutions was respectfully addressed.

2008-12-24-Field_of_Fire

VII
Field Of Fire: This episode is unique in that it’s one of the few episodes that showcases Nicole de Boer’s talent as an actor. Following Terry Farrell’s untimely departure from the show, someone had to fill in her shoes. Rather than do a simple switch-up a la Ms. Banks in Fresh Prince, the creative minds behind the show decided to kill off Jadzia and introduce a new Dax host (~ Ezri Dax). The entry of Ezri into the mix was somewhat jarring, and even some could say unnecessary, given that the show was just about reaching its end. However, Field of Fire endeared Ezri to the sceptics, like me. Ezri is simply phenomenal here as is Joran, the oft-forgotten homicidal Dax host. Also, Field Of Fire has what is – in my opinion – one of the most memorable sound bites in Star Trek history:

Ezri:“Tell me, why did you do it?”

Chu’lak (Vulcan):“Because Logic Demanded It”

Absolutely brilliant!

Final Thoughts

DS9’s main strength is also it’s main weakness. While the station’s permanence allowed the writers to roam and expand on the Star Trek universe at their convenience one has the distinct feeling that they did not do as wide ranging an exploration as they could have. A lack of a clear focus permeated the entire endeavor. Arcs, in general, lacked depth and were too fleeting. Also, the emphasis on having each episode ‘stand-alone’ on its own made it easy for one to lost interest. While having a loose structure has always been a Star Trek staple, DS9 shouldn’t have followed precedent given how different its initial premise was. In shows like TNG, TOS or VOY it’s possible to watch the episodes in any sort of order you wish as all the episodes are – for the most part – stand-alone. No energy is expended in trying to develop relationships between the show’s main characters or the many supporting characters since the entire show is a journey of sorts and it’s not possible for the ship to stick around in any one place for too long (‘our mission is to explore the universe … etc’).

However, none of the aforementioned issues should take anything away from this show. Overall, DS9 was a very strong, worthy addition to the Star Trek canon. It’s breadth, spanning 7 seasons – 20+ episodes in each season no less – meant that it was inevitable that it’s sense of direction and cohesiveness would unravel. A veritable icon of 90s pop culture, DS9 will continue to be examined and adored by many.

8 Bajoran Orbs out of 10

Paul Di Filippo – Ribofunk Book Review [REVIEW] [BIOPUNK]

Ribofunk_cover

Thirty or so  years after it’s inception the ‘cyberpunk’ genre has spawned an innumerable number of offshoots. Most of these offshoots (except maybe for steampunk) haven’t had quite the commercial and critical success that cyberpunk has had over the years. However, as their ad-hoc, stunningly unimaginative monikers (dieselpunk, biopunk) might suggest they all have their own distinctive identity. Ribofunk, written by Paul Di Filippo, is a collection of 11 or so short stories that could be roughly categorized as ‘biopunk’. The short-stories are by and large standalone entities, but they are based on a single universe where complex genetic modifications are the order of the day, and where the line between human and non-human ‘animal’ is increasingly blurred due to the cocktail of genetic modifications at every man, woman and child’s disposal.

In Di Filippo’s universe, humans are any creatures which contain greater than 50% original ‘human’ DNA. The technical complexity of the Ribofunk universe bleeds into the prose as well. Obscure, difficult-to-parse terms are thrown at the reader with such gusto that it’s difficult to keep track of what everything is (kibe? poqetpal? raster?). As the collection progresses, nebulous slang terms that might’ve been difficult to digest initially gradually become clearer but there’s always still a lingering WTF feeling that colors each paragraph.

One Night In Television City: Di Filippo’s first story is clearly inspired by Gibson. The writing style, plot and even name of the story is reminiscent of Gibson’s earlier short stories, particularly, Johnny Mnemonic. It’s derivative aspects do not detract anything from the story, however. It’s a sound piece of work, and a worthy genesis to the collection. 4/5.

Little Worker: In Little Worker, Di Filippo’s Ribofunk universe gets some much needed fleshing out. Here we’re introduced to Little Worker, who’s a splice (in Ribofunk splices are organisms with less than 50% human DNA who serve a chattel-like purpose to the presiding humans). Ironically, marital issues, probably the most human of concerns are brought to the forefront early on in the story. Through Little Worker’s eyes the reader gets to observe the problems plaguing the master and his wife’s sexual life. While the master and his wife, are legally married, they live very separate, isolated lives. So isolated, in fact, that they lead separate sex-lives, having each purchased their own special splices bred specifically to satisfy their sexual urges. Of course, these splices are little more than slaves, and their presence alone adds a shade of melancholy and tyranny to Di Filippo’s otherwise cheerful world. The household’s peculiar situation becomes a rank breeding ground of hate and envy, and Little Worker takes it upon herself to rid the the master and his wife of these two obnoxious presences. As is the case with most of Di Filippo’s stories, the ending was rather abrupt. 4/5.

Cockfight: Cockfight introduces us to one of the many occupations present in Di Filippo’s strange universe, the ‘Waste Gipsy’. Waste Gypsies are for all intents and purposes janitors. The protagonist of Cockfight is – unsurprisingly – a Waste Gipsy. Through his pointed, and honest comments, the reader is to believe that, even in the future, being a janitor is a fairly undesirable job. Cockfight is also the reader’s first introduction into the rampant discrimination present in Di Filippo’s bio-engineered world of the future. Splices are looked down upon as sub-human. A preposterously crass dart is thrown towards one of the protagonist’s ‘colored’ co-workers. Like Little Worker, the ending for Cockfight is pretty abrupt, and from the perspective of the protagonist, unfortunate. The protagonist’s manifest unlike-ability, however, makes it difficult for readers to relate. 3/5.

Big Eater: The bio-engineered world of the future described in Ribofunk results in a lot of antagonism between the organisms higher up in the sentient life-form hierarchy. Full-on humans occupy the top of this hierarchy and the pitiful, unintelligent splices occupy the bottom. In a bid to retaliate for what is a perceived injustice on the part of humans, splices living in Chicago (or at least what goes for Chicago in the future) attempt to flood the entire the city. The only person who’s aware of the plot, and is even able to stop it, is a detective going by the name of Corby who is something of a permanent fixture in this universe (as you trudge along the collection you will encounter him again and again). 4/5.

The Boot: Ribofunk’s sleuth of choice, Corby, trails Jurgen Von Bulow, a gambling addict, in this short thriller. Corby’s services are solicited by the sensational and voluptuous Mrs Bulow, Jurgen Von Bulow’s wife. As Corby tries to fit in all the pieces of the puzzle, the stakes are raised. This one will have you hanging off the edge of your seat. In all, a very satisfying story. 5/5.

Blankie: Story three of the Ribofunk’s most active detective, Corby, has him investigating the actions of a deranged genetically altered blanket, going by the name of ‘blankie’. Brief but entertaining. 5/5.

The Bad Splice: Krazy Kat, the most wanted splice in Di Filippo’s universe, is at large, engaging in wanton destruction, and in all, just being a thorn in humanity’s back. Corby – the detective we were introduced to in The Boot – is after him. This ia a combination that is ripe for spectacle, and spectacle it delivers in spades. One of Ribofunk’s high-points. 5/5.

McGregor: Following on the heels of The Bad Splice is McGregor, a story that serves to document the many storied successes and violent reprisals of the Splice Resistance Movement. The star of McGregor is, like Krazy Kat, another ‘Bad Splice’. He goes by the name of Peter. The twists and turns in McGregor are not as exciting as The Bad Splice, but they do make for an enjoyable 40-min read. 4/5.

Brain Wars: The story in Brain Wars is conveyed in a very interesting way. It’s done via letters. The protagonist, whose name is never shared, sends numerous letters to his mother and in the process documents a vicious, presumably intractable pandemic. Brain Wars does not end on a high note, but somehow this is sufficient. 5/5.

Paul-Di_Pic-250x300

Streetlife: Here, we’re introduced to a mistreated, timid splice going by the name of Coney. Coney, gets coerced into (well not really, but technically, yes) going into a dangerous part of town. He gets into quite a bit of trouble, but fortunately he lives to tell the tale, evidently. The ending was not very satisfying. 2/5.

Afterschool Special: Even though the peculiarities of Di Filippo’s world are somewhat lost on those of us living in today’s uninspired, un-engineered world, we can all still relate to and appreciate the special relationship that bullies have with their victims. Afterschool Special, is a Ribofunk-esque spin on this issue, which is as old as time itself. 3/5.

Up The Lazy River: Narrated from the point of view of a River Master based in Lagos, this short-story looks at the devastating effects of ecological warfare. It’s a race against the clock, as the River Master attempts to reverse the evil that has been wrought on his beloved rivers. Ribofunk’s most nefarious antagonist makes a surprise appearance towards the end (hint, hint: Krazy Kat). 4/5.

Distributed Mind: Similar to Brain Wars and Up The Lazy River, Distributed Mind’s story is spun around a sweeping epidemic. The microbe responsible for the pandemic acts by subverting the mind of its host. The microbe’s preferred mode of action thereby leads to the creation of a collective hive-mind that is greater than the sum of its individual parts and whose sense of agency is divorced from the individual minds of which it was brought about. Distributed Mind could have used some more time in the editing room as the prose is somewhat difficult to parse. Fortunately, it has one of the better endings in this collection, one that will doubtlessly leave readers with a good taste in their mouth. 3 / 5.

The consistency of the short-stories in Ribofunk should be noted. A few stories failed to reach the lofty heights suggested by the initial premise, but these were only a few. Ribofunk might not be for everyone but it is certainly worth reading for those who wish to familiarize themselves with the still rather sparse ‘biopunk’ subgenre.

 

4 splices out of 5

Carl Sagan – Contact Book Review [SCi-Fi]

Contact
Carl Sagan’s professional career under the auspices of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell led to him authoring close to 600 scientific papers and publishing over twenty books (fiction & non-fiction). In spite of the copious literature Sagan left behind, he is perhaps most remembered for his involvement in the documentary series Cosmos, A Personal Voyage, which more or less served as a platform for him to promulgate his intimate knowledge of astronomy and SETI to the masses. Following the show, Carl Sagan’s rather brief and modest exposition of Astronomical / SETI lore metastasised into a full blown industry of which Contact was to become a singular by-product.

Contact, being Sagan’s only work of fiction, does not skirt around the myriad interests Sagan has, but rather embraces them full on and incorporates them into the story. This has of course resulted in critics lambasting him for being too preachy and for flouting story-telling conventions. The criticisms levied, make the claim that Contact is not so much a story as it is a platform for Sagan to disseminate some of his more controversial views. Story elements if any are then thought to be mere circumlocution. However, the more educated, technically adept readers, have found it to be a groundbreaking piece of work, if not for its storytelling, then for its realistic portrayal of real life science and for its illuminating social commentary.

Contact is the only work of fiction that Sagan has ever written. It was originally written as a screenplay with Sagan only hastily adapting it into novel form, when movie interest and production ground to a halt for seemingly inexplicable / uncontrollable reasons. Prior to the novel’s release, expectations were high. Simon & Schuster is rumoured to have offered Sagan a 2 million dollar advance for the writing of the novel. At the time, this had been one of the largest sums of cash ever offered to any author for an unwritten book. Upon its release, Contact flew off the shelves, and by year’s end was safely inducted into the bestseller list, a joyful, and not wholly unexpected turn of events.

A year after Sagan passing away, a theatrical film based on the book was released. The movie served to be a fitting epitaph for the man who had enlightened so many on the wonders of the universe. It had a high turnout, high grossing and as a result its popularity has since eclipsed that of its progenitor. Nowadays, whenever Contact is mentioned, it is usually with reference to the movie and not the book.

The story told in contact revolves around various interesting characters but the main protagonist (i.e. the character whose intimate thoughts and feelings get thrust to the forefront) is Dr Ellie Arroway. At the outset, Arroway’s past, one that exemplifies that of the precocious scientist-to-be, gets presented to the reader. In one scene she disassembles a transistor radio in order to find out how it works. Later on we see her as an eminent astronomer stationed in a radio telescope observatory located in New Mexico. Like all of her clan, she remains wedded to her work. Sadness, and death are also elements of her past that are touched upon. The death of Arroway’s father, Theodore, when she is a mere child, affects her deeply. Even though Theodore is like a raw wound to Arroway he remains a vital and permanent fixture in her life. His words and dogmatic stance inform the plot’s progression and even decide the outcome of a variety of important events later on in the novel.

As hinted at by the novel’s title, Arroway’s career as an astronomer, in a desolate area of New Mexico experiences a boost when ‘contact’ is made. An unknown radio signal coming from the direction of the star Vega, is shown to be transmitting a series of prime numbers. Additional analysis reveals, that a strange video, Hitler’s 1936 speech at the Summer Olympics in Berlin is also embedded inside the transmission. This causes the scientific world to erupt in a frenzy. Arroway’s world turns topsy-turvy as she is suddenly thrust into the limelight.

After a much more thorough analysis another message is found to be embedded inside the transmission and it is deduced that it is actually not a message as such but rather a series of instructions on building a ‘Machine’. When the message cycles back on itself and the primer or key is elucidated, the instructions get revealed in full detail. The Machine, as it is now finally called, is an enigma. It is not certain just what type of machine it is (a conveyance, a nuclear weapon, etc.) With no clear answers to these questions being found in the transmission, all the major nation states involved in the project, argue and squabble over how to handle the situation. After a while it is decided that construction of the Machine will commence at two locations (USA & the Soviet Union).

carl_sagan1

Barring a few major setbacks, like the huge explosion that destroys the American Machine components (& incidentally kills Arroway’s PhD supervisor Dave Drumlin), the Machine’s construction proceeds at a rapid pace. The social upheavals caused by the Machine’s construction, particularly the proliferation of eschatological dogma, is an issue that is explored in a significant portion of the latter half of the book. It is here that Arroway meets and has fruitful interactions with some of the stronger personalities in the novel: James Hadden & Palmer Joss. Palmer Joss is a Christian fundamentalist whose views are diametrically opposed to Arroway’s but whose boyish good looks and accomodating demeanor endear him to his followers and to a lesser extent Arroway herself. James Hadden is an enigmatic billionaire whose interests ran the gamut from Cybernetics to television advertising scramblers. Hadden plays a key role in the Machine’s construction. He grows to even greater prominence when the Machine is completed and turned on.

Following the Machine’s completion, Arroway is picked as part of a handful of scientists who will first try it out. The cohort of scientists includes Abonneba Eda (a Nigerian physicist credited for coming up with the Theory of Grand Unification), Xi Quiaomu (a Qi Dynasty aficionado) and Devi Sukhavati (an Indian doctor of high-standing and Arroway’s close personal friend). Once turned on, the Machine transports its passengers to the center of the galaxy through various wormholes at a rapid pace. Throughout the journey Arroway records some of the keynote events using a VHS recorder, but the magnetic fields generated by the machine somehow wipe the contents.

Upon their return, all the journey participants find out that the entire trip had taken no more than an hour. Moreover, the transmission from Vega has seemingly stopped. Hadden one of the key masterminds behind the machine’s construction is also dead and missing. Since the machine cohort is unable to prove that their journey occurred in the allocated timespan, conspiracy theories run rampant, and as a result the relationship between the different world governments and the Machine project becomes strained. Arroway plans to exonerate the group by proving that there’s a secret message hidden in the number (pi), a critical piece of information that the enigmatic Vegans had seen fit to share.

The novel ends with Arroway discovering that the circle is embedded 10^20 places into the base 11 representation of pi.

Contact dips into the field of Astronomy farther than any fiction book of its ilk ever has. Throughout the novel’s progression, Sagan presents the scientific field with scalpel-sharp accuracy. No piece of technical information is presented without a thorough explanation of its tenability. The central tenets of the Scientific Method are presented in great detail and are adhered to immaculately. Depending on how familiar you are with Astronomy or how open you are to learning new things this may turn out to be the books’ greatest strength or biggest source of frustration.

Additionally, Carl Sagan’s prose is impressive. While he has a penchant for gargantuan words & obscure scientific terminology, he uses them deftly and skillfully. From an aesthetic standpoint, the writing in Contact is consistent, illuminating and delectable. Contact being Sagan’s only work of fiction means that we will never see again a SETI story so fully realized. This is unfortunate as Sagan’s fictional stories rival and even in some cases surpass those of Science Fiction heavyweights like Asimov and Heinlein.

Contact’s strongest critics resign themselves merely to nitpicking. This, if nothing else, should be evidence enough that the book is worth examining. Contact sold quite well, so locating it in your local thrift shop or Chapters should not be too difficult. If you manage to find it, grab it and take a look, you will not be disappointed.

Outstanding.

10 dodecahedrons out of 10

Two-9 [HIP-HOP]

curtis-williams-saturday-night-video

Twenty fourteen. We live in an interesting time. Music has never been as eclectic, varied and copious as it is now. For the more quixotic of us, it is difficult to be glum about the current order. There’s tons of music, more than you could ever listen to in your lifetime, and most of it is actually pretty good. However, for artists struggling to get noticed or music journalists trying to keep abreast of the industry’s latest happenings, it is difficult not to pine for the good ol’ days when you had to go to your local CD shop to grab the latest A Tribe Called Quest CD; you know, the days when ‘people wore pyjamas and lived life slow’. So many artists these days are soliciting for shout outs and peddling mixtapes that it’s hard for any one artist to stand out from the crowd. Journalists and industry analysts are similarly burdened. The music industry is simply moving too fast for them to keep track of (in a bid to squeeze profits). Why is this? Well, the music industry is a turbulent beast at heart. Turbulence precludes stagnation and implies evolution which in turn ensures adaptability. Adaptability is an asset. However evolution all too often presages disaster as well. Indeed, like all beasts the music industry doesn’t merely evolve. Sometimes it gets loose from it’s tether and careens into what seems to be an inescapable demise. How do we track this sort of change so that we can stop it in its tracks? with the way the music industry is structured, it’s very difficult to do any thorough investigative research on it. Thereby, answering questions like (In the past twenty years how has the music industry changed?) becomes an unnecessarily tiresome endeavour.

Or does it?

Let’s think about it. The beast now is definitely not the same beast that was there twenty years ago. What’s more the transmutation that the beast has undergone is not an enigma. To keen eyes, the new beast is bigger, much bigger than it’s ever been … and it’s devouring everything …

In order to look at the music industry in greater detail it will be important for us to limit the scope of our analysis to one particular genre, so lets do that. Let us examine hip-hop. Comparing hip-hop now to twenty years ago, it should be fairly obvious that the genre has undergone a huge, no massive, expansion. There’s more of everything now. There are more musicians, there are more albums, there are more mixtapes, there are more fans, … etc. It’s almost dizzying in its magnitude. How has this affected artists? To the artist’s with reasonable business acumen who have already managed to break into the mainstream, today’s world abounds with opportunity. For starters fans are, for better or worse, dumb. Charge an exorbitant price for a concert and they’ll still come in droves if your brand is strong enough (*cough* Hov). Again if you’ve got them soundly whipped, and your fans are articulate & schooled in the arts of persuasion, they will be able to talk naysayers into becoming fans. Moreover, fans solicit, they facebook, they instagram, they tweet, they breed; they breed more fans who will fellate and breed even more fans who will buy more albums and attend more concerts thus resulting in an inexhaustible cornucopia that will ensure that the artist in question never touches destitution. For consumers of music, the new order has been a mixed blessing of sorts. It’s had its fair share of advantages but it has had a positively pernicious bent to it as well. With so much music floating around, sifting through it has become, for many, an exercise in futility. To borrow an overused aphorism, it has become like ‘finding a needle in a haystack’. And yet the music keeps on piling up. As we inch ever closer to infinity more and more of us are becoming disillusioned. The promise of infinity, it turns out, is a double edged sword.

Just what does it mean to be mainstream then? There are a lot of rappers who are undeniably mainstream. They have got the money, the fanbase and the clout to prove their legitimacy. Conversely, there are lots of rappers, whose reach is primarily local. Their careers are totally under the aegis of their locality, and moving away from this results in decreased sales. Finally there are innumerable rappers who sit in between these two extremes. They are widely known in the nethermost reaches of the web, but are for all intents and purposes invisible in the ‘real’ world.

It should be noted that it is not unusual for artists to flit in between these three categories in the course of their careers.

Two-9, a popular rap supergroup, hailing from Atlanta Georgia, find themselves sitting in the latter category. Two-9’s fanbase is primarily local, but they have enough online presence to transcend the unflattering ‘cul-de-sac rapper’ trope. Two-9’s roster rivals that of contemporary rap super groups like OFWGKTA & A$AP Mob. Mix five average to talented MCs, a female DJ, an in-house graphic designer / video editor together and you have got Two-9.

Here is the roster in it’s totality:

Curtis Williams (@ThatBoyCurtis)  [LEADER]

FatKidsBrotha (@FAT_KIDS_BROTHA) 

Retro Sushi (@RetroSushi) 

Key!


DJ Osh Kosh (@DJosh_Kosh)

Two-9 clearly have the chops to make it big. Culling for gems in their vast discography will leave you being dazzled by the flashy raps, kaleidoscopic artwork and bouncy production. So why has the group not experienced a precipitous rise to the top? The issue is one of numbers. There are simply too many groups operating in the music industry right now, and it is difficult to get noticed. However, Two-9 possesses a wild card, a characteristic that might just serve to distinguish it from the multitude of rap groups coming out in the wash. In a recent interview for JENESIS Magazine, Curtis Williams, the group’s de facto leader was asked a similar kind of question. His response was cogent and penetrating.

 

JENESIS Magazine: 2012 was, like a really big year for like rap groups, hip-hop groups. What separates you guys from other groups out there that are rapping?

 

Curtis Williams: Being from Atlanta. That’s pretty much the biggest difference …

 

Two-9’s recent induction into The Official Boondocks mixtape (i.e. Fat Toney) has allowed them to bask in the limelight somewhat.

While a song in an obscure show’s mixtape is probably not the best platform for the group to launch itself to mainstream success, it’s a good start. To get to the finish line, Two-9 will need more than just a shout out. It will need the most dependable conveyance the music industry has ever known:

Fans!

Two-9’s discography (listen, critique, disseminate):

GROUP PROJECTS

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/17807/two_9_two9forever.html

KEY!

http://www.mediafire.com/?7w7dvzuio08d94x

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/17815/key_mothers_are_the_blame.html

CURTIS WILLIAMS

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/15296/curtis_williams_trill_shit_only.html

http://www.hotnewhiphop.com/curtis-williams-justcurtis-mixtape.13987.html

http://www.hotnewhiphop.com/curtis-williams-half-forgotten-daydreams-mixtape.91925.html

FATKIDSBROTHA

http://fatkidsbrotha.bandcamp.com/album/fatkidsbrotha-the-lamest-cool

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/14890/fatkidsbrotha_eastside_paradise.html

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/25073/fatkidsbrotha-eastside-paradise-2.html

Retro Su$hi

http://indy.livemixtapes.com/mixtapes/18931/two9-presents-retro-suh-kung-fu-in-japan.html

http://www.datpiff.com/Retro-Suhi-The-Starting-Five-mixtape.151993.html

Wavy Wallace

http://wavywallace.bandcamp.com/album/brandish

http://wavywallace.bandcamp.com/album/random-wave

ENJOY!

The Boondocks – Pretty Boy Flizzy Review [HIP-HOP]

Flizzy-Front

April has been a pretty exciting month for fans of the Adult Swim show The Boondocks. The Boondocks’ fourth and presumably final season started off with a big bang yesterday with the release of Tom vs Pretty Boy Flizzy. Like the season 3 episodes it sought to emulate, it was a satirical piece. In it Chris Brown was rechristened as Pretty Boy Flizzy, and his many legal troubles were juxtaposed with Tom’s festering marital problems. Tom & Flizzy availing themselves of each other’s services served as the main storyline and in the end, Tom helped Flizzy deal with his legal troubles and Flizzy helped Tom add some more spice to his marriage. While the show expended a considerable amount of energy trying to develop the relationships between the principal characters (i.e. Tom, Sarah & Robert), it was for the most part a Chris Brown bash-a-thon. Conceptually it wasn’t very different from previous celebrity bashing episodes like ‘The Trial of R Kelly’ (R Kelly) or ‘The Story of Gangstalicious’ (50 Cent). Overall, the episode isn’t really breaking any new ground but it’s a strong start to what will probably be a very interesting season.

Even though the fourth season has barely started, many have lampooned it for ‘selling out’. The criticisms that have been proferred have suffered from a lack of lucid articulation but at their core they amount to something like: ‘McGruder didn’t sanction this, this sucks’. McGruder’s presumed non-involvement with the show is something that should’ve never gotten out to the world given the amount of negative publicity it has attracted. Since it already has though, it’s best we critically examine the situation. How much input do you think McGruder had in the previous seasons? I don’t know if the average Boondocks fan even looks at the credits. To the ones that do, it should be readily apparent that most of the people who work on the show don’t even live in the country. Most of the show’s animation occurs in South Korea & Japan. Also, it’s a widely held belief among hardcore Boondocks fans that season 3 was the weakest of all three seasons even though that’s the season where McGruder’s hand was most felt. If you look at the writing credits you’ll see that a lot of the episodes in season 1 & season 2 had McGruder co-writing with someone else. Season 3 did not follow precedent in this regard. The episodes in season 3 were a mostly Aaron show, except for episode 11 (Lovely Ebony Brown) in which McGruder co-wrote the script with Rodney Barnes.

Capture

Knowing this, would you say that McGruder’s lack of involvement is a bad thing? Not necessarily. Back when The Boondocks first started, it was McGruder’s baby. A long time has passed, since that time (it’s almost ten years now). I know that a lot of people don’t want to  acknowledge this but that baby has now grown up. It’s now out of McGruder’s hands. In any case, McGruder’s presumed lack of involvement is an issue that has probably been plaguing the show since it first started. I don’t see why it should be a serious issue now of all times. Also, the the new Flizzy episode is none too different from Boondocks episodes of yore. If people jumped off the hype train, slowed down for a bit and started thinking for themselves they would realize that the criticisms being directed towards the show are farcical and quite frankly without merit. If any judgement is passed on the show it should be done once the season is done, not when it’s just started and still trying to get into its groove.

L.A. Noire Game Review [CRIME]

la-noire-widescreen-wallpaper

Rockstar’s LA Noire was released over three years ago in 2011 to a more or less great reception. The reaction to the game was overwhelmingly positive. The game’s main selling point, its ground-breaking facial animation tech, wowed critics and industry veterans alike and is even today (three years later in 2014) still a sight to behold. This is a stunning achievement given that we’ve already progressed into another console generation & console horsepower has reached a new acme. In addition to the graphics, critics also lauded the atmosphere, the music & the storyline of the game. Criticisms, if any, were directed towards the game’s rigid linearity & the somewhat dead world. Regardless of what the critics or players thought, the game sold well. It was successful, and I’m certain that Rockstar will want to revisit this world at some point. The motivation behind writing this piece is to venerate a great and under appreciated game. However, in addition to this, this piece will examine the game’s many weaknesses, which in spite of everything, mar what could’ve been a true classic.

LA Noire’s a crime/noir video game. Players play as a skilled 1940s detective operating in a grimy, decadent Hollywood-era Los Angeles. The only similarities LA Noire shares with other Rockstar heavyweights like Grand Theft Auto is that it is open world. Apart from that there’s not much that ties it together with its siblings. While Grand Theft Auto is comical & over the top, LA Noire is realistic. The Los Angeles in LA Noire is a perfect recreation of a historical version of the city (1940s LA). The Los Angeles in Grand Theft Auto is in comparison more contemporary & allegorical. In Grand Theft Auto, LA isn’t LA, it is referred to as Los Santos. Similarly, all the notable LA landmarks have their own proper GTA analogues. I mention all of this at the outset, because most people who have played LA Noire, have at least some passing familiarity with the Grand Theft Auto series, and I’m sure that for a lot of them the success and critical acclaim of the Grand Theft Auto series served as a motivation for the purchase. It has been my observation that it is those who have played GTA before that by and large end up being disillusioned by LA Noire. I’ll explain why presently.

LA Noire#1

LA Noire’s living breathing Los Angeles carries with it the same promise of unhinged non-linear gameplay that GTA’s Los Santos does. However, this is a false promise. The way in which the story progresses in LA Noire is very rigidly linear and apart from doing the story missions there’s not much that one can do in the map. There are some mildly interesting diversions like stopping crimes happening in and around Los Angeles but these are never involved and never take longer than 10-15 minutes. There’s also a mini-game that requires the player to do some pro bono work (i.e. discovering new cars or driving around Los Angeles trying to discover notable & widely known LA landmarks). As you’d probably expect, these mini-games offer little in the way of novelty or variety and get unnecessarily tedious after a while. Trophy whores will of course jump on them with relish, but for the rest of us mortals there’s really not much that grabs you once the story missions are done. Once the story is complete, expect your interest in the game to wane considerably.

At any rate, as far as gameplay is concerned, the game revolves around solving cases. The modus operandi of solving the typical LA Noire case is: (a) Go to the scene where the crime has occurred. Sleuth around. Collect anything that is suspicious and might possibly serve as evidence later on. (b) Interview the suspects. Interviewing the suspects represents the core of the gameplay. Now in comparison to the rest of the game where everything is very rigidly set, during interviews there are no rules. It’s all left to the player’s judgement. Determining whether or not a character is lying is done by examining his or her facial expression. This is sometimes very easy, as some characters get noticeably fidgety and nervous when certain questions get asked. However, in certain instances it gets really difficult. Since you can never truly know how a situation will pan out, each interview session has an unknown quantum of risk associated with it, and this makes the entire experience exhilarating. It’s a double edged sword though. There’s no worse feeling than putting time into a case and getting very very close to catching a perp, only for him or her to one up you with a well-crafted lie. In terms of being ‘fun’, interviews can therefore end up being either / or. (c) Run, shoot, kill if necessary. If you’ve played your cards right you’ll never have to do any of this. However, the game being strictly ‘on-the-rails’ means that doing each activity or all three in concert is ultimately unavoidable. If you think about it it makes sense too. I mean what detective hasn’t had to pull out his 9mm automatic at some point? For the chases all you’re going to be doing is driving while your computer controlled partner shoots the criminal down. When you’re absolutely forced to participate in a shootout, it never takes too long to disarm the perp or perps. Based on the shootouts, you can tell that LA Noire was never meant to be a shooting game. The shooting mechanics, while fun, are rather clunky, and get really frustrating really quickly, especially in crazy shootouts where everybody’s letting the bullets fly pell mell and there’s upwards of 10 perps in the fray.

The atmosphere is one area in which LA Noire’s superiority over its Rockstar cousins is unequivocal. The atmosphere elicited by the game’s soundtrack and myriad characters is breathtaking and refreshingly accurate. GTA’s allegorical take on the excesses and evils of western society sometimes results in certain things getting lost in translation. Fortunately, in LA Noire this seldom happens.

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All the cases done in LA Noire are done on a partner basis. In addition to this being a boon story-wise (it results in some pretty interesting plot twists), it also serves as a handy tool for developing the main characters of the game. The tete a tetes that Cole Phelps (the main character) has with his many partners are always engaging, interesting and a joy to listen to. Unfortunately this does not extend to the interactions between him and the rest of the characters populating the world. The Captain of Homicide, an Irish guy named James Donnelly is hilarious but he only ever appears in cutscenes. Rudely pushing or running over the various NPCs walking the streets of LA might result in some cries of pain being yelled out, but other than that there’s no way to engage them.

I already mentioned previously that the game’s linearity is a double edged sword. There’s usually only one way of completing every mission. This causes problems occasionally when the player misses a crucial sign post or the game fails to provide an important hint. For example there is one mission that requires the player to climb to the top of the Los Angeles library in order to grab a very critical piece of evidence.  For that mission, the only hint the game gives on what needs to be done is it positions the player next to a drab, and rather uninteresting looking pipe leading up to the library’s roof. At the time, I had no idea what needed to be done, so every time the game positioned me next to the pipe, I immediately turned away from it and reached for the front door, which was, unsurprisingly, always closed. It was only when some odd premonition coerced me to go towards the pipe that I realized what needed to be done and everything fell into place. This is just one example, but its fairly representative of the myriad issues that mar gameplay and preclude the proper enjoyment of the narrative.

Anyways, to recapitulate: LA Noire’s campaign is only about 10 hours along. Completing the side missions and collecting everything might raise that number to 15-20 hours. When you first pop the disc in and start exploring Los Angeles it will be quite obvious that Team Bondi has put a lot of time and effort into this game. The purpose of this review wasn’t to be negative but rather to harp on issues that ought to be addressed in the next iteration of the game. With that being said I  just want to stress that this game is absolutely brilliant, and in spite of its many issues it is definitely worth playing. The various issues that chip away at it are only minor. If some of the gameplay elements had been a bit more refined, and time was put into making LA a more lively, interesting city, this game would’ve been a certified classic. As it stands, my verdict will have to be:

 

7 boldfaced lies out of 10