Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Cybergypsies

Back when Indra Sinha was addicted to Shades, I was a kid sneaking into college computer labs to play Ivory Towers. We were both playing Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). In fact, Ivory Tower players loathed Shades players with a passion, who were a bloodthirsty, violent lot – they came to Ivory Towers in waves when Shades was down and slaughtered everyone in sight with unbridled glee. It didn't give me a good impression of Shades.

That's not the impression Sinha gives in his book, The Cybergypsies. Sinha gives an aura of mystical wonder and beauty to a game in which stealing your opponents' weapon was commonplace--as if combat between medieval knights was all about wresting away your opponents' blade. It comes off as ridiculous as it sounds, but Sinha elevates it to poetic levels.

Cybergypsies isn't really about MUDding though. It's about Sinha's sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden, exemplified by the poor of Bhopal who were poisoned in an industrial disaster. Working in advertising, Sinha is in the unique position of trying to translate real-life suffering into everyday media. He finds the bizarre online reflection of the real world's struggles in Vortex, a role-playing MUSH.

In Vortex, like many MUSHs, the current players set the tone. And Vortex's tone is a decadent, anything-goes free love vibe that has a dark side. Cannibalism, baby sacrifice – you name it, the Vortex denizens have done it, reveling in their freedom to role-play anything and everything.

Somewhere in this contrast between MUDding and MUSHing, real-life oppression and cyber-decadence, Sinha struggles to save his marriage. Which is a bit odd, because Sinha makes almost no mention of his children. Speaking as someone who has a very active two-year-old, there's no way I can stay on the computer for more than a few minutes without him tugging on my arm. Sinha either seriously neglected them or intentionally removed them from the narrative; whatever the case, it's a glaring omission from his story of a family life brought to the brink by cyber-addiction.

The other problem is that Sinha is extremely well educated and enjoys demonstrating his knowledge in various allusions to disparate texts, often in other languages. Cybergypsies makes you feel dumb.

Sinha doesn't seem to have a point. Shades rises and falls. Vortex's appeal fades. Sinha raises awareness of global suffering through his advertising. He may even help a hacker access a nuclear plant, although it's never clear exactly what happened. And we can only guess that he saved his marriage…Sinha just ends the book without any resolution.

The author is a brilliant writer. But this book is a stream-of-consciousness journal made up of at least three other books, each which deserved its own focus. Readers looking for a parable on cyber-addiction, for a dialogue about human rights grievances, or for the wild and wooly history of the Internet will only get tantalizing glimpses.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Take Homeward Bound's tale of three pets drawn together on an epic journey across America, mix in Toy Story's winking sense of irony at the faux world of toys, shroud it in the artificially-created world of The Truman Show and you've got Bolt.

Bolt (John Travolta) is a clueless acting dog who truly loves his "person," Penny (Miley Cyrus). In the movies, Bolt is a superhero, but Bolt doesn't quite grasp that he's actually in a movie. When audiences begin to tire of Bolt's heroics, the network decides to throw in a twist and separate Penny from Bolt. Distraught and determined, Bolt escapes the studio in a quest to rescue Penny from Hollywood.

Along the way, he meets a street savvy cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) and a chubby fanboy gerbil named Rhino (Mark Walton). Rhino's a lot like Kung Fu Panda's Po – overweight, hopelessly consumed by fandom, and relentlessly optimistic. Mittens, on the other hand, is the Bones equivalent; a beaten down cynic who thinks Bolt is completely insane.

Bolt is at its best during the film-within-a-film sequences; the motorcycle chase scene is just as thrilling as the one in Terminator Salvation. The catch is that though it's not real, the violence takes place on screen. In other words, does it really matter if CGI actors are pretending to be CGI dead? Helicopters explode, motorcycles flip, and bad guys don't get back up. In that regard, Bolt's pretty violent.

Where Michael J. Fox voice perfectly embodied Chance in Homeward Bound as a young pup, Travolta's throaty whisper seems an odd choice for Bolt, who's at least as clueless as Chance. He does a great job, but occasionally you can hear the weariness and maturity in his voice.

Occasionally, the movie glosses over its own moral arc; although it's critical for Bolt to reunite with his person and Mittens still nurses her own emotional wounds over the loss of her family, Rhino leaves his old lady without nary a look back. It's never mentioned that she might miss him.

But those are minor quibbles. Overall, Bolt's an entertaining, fast-moving action picture. It's just not on par with Toy Story as a parable that younger kids can enjoy.

The Men Who Stare At Goats

This book isn't funny.

Mind you, Ronson knows exactly what he's doing by presenting the book as "hilarious" – it starts out completely absurd, with the high-minded hippy ideals of a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran presented to a beleaguered military under siege. Jim Channon, seeking solace in the emerging human potential movement in California, struck a chord with the top brass, and the repercussions are still felt today.

But instead of being used as a positive force for peace, the military twisted it into a force of evil. Ronson ties it all together: September 11, Heaven's Gate, sticky foam, Abu-Grahib, Waco, Art Bell, Projects STARGATE, MKULTRA, and ARTICHOKE, and yes, Barney. Goat-staring is the least of our worries.

The thread running throughout all these seemingly disconnected blips in history is that they are a new form of psychological warfare that is innocuous, ruthless, and entirely effective. The Men Who Stare at Goats would be just another conspiracy-laden anti-government diatribe if it wasn't for the fact that Ronson always takes the next step as an investigative reporter. He finds people to back up the wild claims, interviews them, and often challenges their wild theories.

The sad thing is, very few of these shadowy contacts hide their past. Almost unilaterally, Ronson calls them all out by name and they step forward, sharing a story that sheds a disconcerting light on America's human rights record. Where is the vigorous conversation, the protests, the discord over these revelations? The facts are right here before us – even photographic evidence -- but we laugh about Barney being used to torture prisoners and we shake our heads at the poor, misguided psychics. But outrage? There's no outrage. We save our vitriol for partisan debates in our own government.

Eric Olson, son of Frank Olson, a military scientist who died under mysterious circumstances while working on MKULTRA, sums it up best:

"The old story is so much fun, why would anyone want to replace it with a story that's not fun. You see…this is no longer a happy, feel-good story…People have been brainwashed by fiction…so brainwashed by the Tom Clancy thing, they think, 'We know this stuff. We know the CIA does this.' Actually, we know nothing of this. There's no case of this, and all this fictional stuff is like an immunization against reality. It makes people think they know things that they don't know and it enables them to have a kind of superficial quasi-sophistication and cynicism which is just a thin layer beyond which they're not cynical at all."

Have you heard? There's a movie based on this book coming out starring George Clooney.

It's a comedy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Dear Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor,

We appreciate your recent attempt to create a movie that would appeal to gamers by naming it after us. Really, we do. But now that we've stopped throwing up from all the motion sickness and our pupils have finally refocused from the flash cuts, we thought you might appreciate some tips to help you farm XP faster.

Stop with the static: Seriously guys. Stop it. Apparently in your version of the future all video games have terrible reception. We have lag, we have crashes, we have all kinds of problems, but the one problem we do not have is static. That's because our video games are not television screens. You'll also notice that our television do not have static either, and haven't had static for about a decade since they invented this thing called cable. Look it up.

Speaking of Kable: Cable is the name of a time-traveling cyborg in the Marvel Universe. Kable is the name somebody thinks gamers think is cool. Nobody thinks Kable is cool. Nobody believes Kable is the best killer in the gaming universe. You didn't even use 133t speak, so…fail.

Making Michael C. Hall an evil genius is…a stroke of genius. Go Dexter!

Stop with the red/blue colors: Ludacris is cool and all, but even his cyber cred is sorely tested by a blurry 3-D image on screen.

The teabagging gag was funny.

Your jump cuts suck: We notice when you replace rapid jump cuts with actual fight choreography. It's the movie equivalent of shouting and pointing, "LOOK! A KITTY!" every time a fight starts. You just look stupid and we feel embarrassed for you.

Dancing convicts are hilarious. Dancing to a Frank Sinatra song is vaguely creepy. But still hilarious.

Why is there still lag in the future? Bad guys can control other human beings by changing their brain cells into [INSERT STUPID MADE UP NAME] but we haven't solved lag? Is this future made of stupid?

Evil Villain Tip #58: Next time around, you might want to consider not making the guy who holds your deepest, darkest secret an international broadcast superstar.

Don't insult us: No offense, but portraying the gaming universe as nothing but "deviants and murderers" doesn't really make us want to watch your movie. Yes, the Internet has a dark side. But since you called the movie "Gamer" and not "All Gamers Are Disgusting Fat Perverted Slobs Who Watch Porn All Day," we'll assume you actually want us to buy a ticket. Please consider this the next time you name a movie after us.

And finally…

Thank you for killing John Leguizamo: That's not a tip. But thank you.

We hope that these tips prove useful the next time you level up as directors and writers. Incidentally, multiclassing as both might not be such a good idea.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Unholy Dimensions

There's no flowery introduction by anyone to Unholy Dimensions explaining what a major contributing force Jeffrey Thomas is to the Cthulhu Mythos. It just starts immediately with a short story set in Punktown, a seething planet of decay and corruption in a sci-fi universe where there are holograms, ray guns, and aliens. This review contains spoilers!

Thomas' science fiction tales are not his strongest. My reaction to this sudden and jarring juxtaposition in THE BONES OF THE OLD ONES wasn't favorable. It features Hound of Tindalos, a private eye who dabbles in sorcery, a creepy kid, and Yog-Sothoth. Although Thomas deftly handled the tension between the protagonist and his former friend, I wasn't impressed with the setting because I hadn't yet bought into the idea of sci-fi Cthulhu. By the second story, with the same protagonist in the same universe, I was hooked. John Bell, a Mythos hunter archetype that would make any Delta Green gamer proud, takes on a weird conglomerate being led by Nyarlathotep in THE AVATARS OF THE OLD ONES. This story is told from the view of a third party and love interest, H'anna, which helps preserve the sense of horror when a conglomerate of deformed Mythos minions are activated. THE YOUNG OF THE OLD ONES is the last of the Punktown trilogy in this volume. It features an Elder Thing and Horrors from Beyond. It is also something of a tragic love story, a theme that will continue throughout Thomas' work.

Thomas returns to the science fiction genre with THE SERVITORS, a star-crossed tale of two beings who really, really hate their bosses. When they finally meet, it turns out their worlds are far more different than either might have dreamed. THE HOUSE ON THE PLAIN reads like the trailer to a science fiction horror movie…because the perfectly preserved house is on an otherwise barren and inhospitable planet.

I'm not a fan of Thomas' poetry. THE ICE SHIP, ASCENDING TO HELL, and YOO HOO, CTHULHU are clever enough but relatively uninspired.

Thomas enjoys dabbling in the relationships between his characters, building on romantic tension to further accentuate the horror. I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH is both the most disturbing of the lovelorn tales, despite the clever name. Thomas plays on the Lovecraft-style of the narrator narrating something he obviously survived. Here, he sets out to show that there are some fates worse than death. It's a parable about getting exactly what you want, even when what you want involves turning a Shoggoth into your own personal plaything. In SERVILE Thomas deftly interweaves romantic tension in a love triangle that features the Dreamlands and a Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua. You'll never look at a pair of dentures the same way again. THROUGH OBSCURE GLASS is another love story about a man tasked with guarding against a Dreamlands' intrusion by Gugs and the woman who loves him. CELLS is another sad love story between a mad scientist and his wife as they desperately try to cheat death through misbegotten science. In LOST SOUL, Thomas shows that there are worse things than a Mythos sorcerer as he explores an obsessive, incestuous love triangle. The ickiest story of the bunch. The collection ends with another love story, THE CELLAR GOD, combining Tcho-Tchos with Moonbeasts in a tragic tale of secret romance. THE FOURTH UTTERANCE is perhaps the best story of the lot. It features an exchange between a lonely woman, a sorcerer who summoned something terrible, and the answering machine between them. The Mythos is only hinted at, but that makes the story all the more disturbing.

In THE DOOM IN THE ROOM, Thomas parodies Lovecraft's writing style by filling the three pages with flower text and a narrator who madly types the story even while a Mythos beast advances on him. He must type very, very fast… Lovecraft is parodied again in the super short WRITING ON THE WALL, a cartoon-like representation of the typical Lovecraft explorer deciphering his own doom.

RED GLASS establishes another theme: that when you look into the Abyss, the Abyss looks back. Narrating in first person, the protagonist is drawn to a house full of mental illness and secret portal behind its peeling walls. Thomas is also an expert at prolonged suffering. BOOKWORM is a short tale but the ending sticks with you as we glimpse the last desperate moments of a too-curious thief succumbing to the Mythos. THE BOARDED WINDOW builds slowly, exploring parallel dimensions and how each side views the other as strange and horrible. THE FACE OF BAPHOMET provides an alternative twist to the Templars, Baphomet, and Shub-Niggurath. The initiation ritual and main character would complement the Templars as described in Unseen Masters nicely. WHAT WASHES ASHORE follows a conflicted female protagonist who is fond of seashells, a hobby that will ultimately consume her in the outskirts of a forgotten town.

Thomas enjoys spotlighting the war against the Mythos, including the terrible cost it exacts on the mortals who dare fight back. OUT OF THE BELLY OF SHEOL is told like a biblical tale, featuring a prophet, the insides of Cthulhu, and a war between the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones. CONGLOMERATE, told from the perspective of a security guard working at Monumental Life Insurance Corporation, features Nyarlathotep in one of his many guises as the CEO of a massive, sinister corporate entity. Good stuff for Keepers looking to expand Stephen Alzis' holdings. Two sorcerers and brothers of Cthugha and Cthulhu go to war in CORPSE CANDLES, baffling the police. Building on the war between Mythos and Man, THE THIRD EYE is a sad little tale of a broken detective, his frightened son, and the burden of occult knowledge of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. PAZUZU'S CHILDREN takes place during the first Iraq War. It ends with a fitting Twilight Zone-esque scream.

There are a few layout problems. Pages 193 and 248 feature just a few words and a whole lot of blank space. The artwork is blurry, abstract, and not particularly scary, serving only to interrupt the story. Thomas' text is evocative enough without these distractions.

But overall Unholy Dimensions demonstrates Jeffrey Thomas' amazing talent to tell an approachable Mythos tale that is both entertaining and creepy. A must read for Delta Green and Cthulhutech gamers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Thanks to a string of successful comic book movie hits, directors are finally showing some respect for their original source material. In the past, it was clear that the director's vision eclipsed any fan interest, which resulted in the Batman series kicked off by Tim Burton eventually circling the toilet bowl before being flushed by Joel Schumacher. The tide has reversed, with fanboys-turned-directors like Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, and Guillermo del Toro showing an almost slavish devotion to the source material. Zack Snyder can now add his name to that list.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality where the threat of weapons of mass destruction looms large, thanks in part to superheroes who range in sanction from government agents to violent outlaws. They are gods among men, these superheroes, but they are also deeply flawed human beings. Watchmen is their story.

There's remarkably little superhero-action in Watchmen. When you strip away all the distractions like the altered timeline and the murder mystery, it becomes clear that Watchmen is actually a character study. The film ping-pongs between each character's backstory, slowly peeling back each layer until we get to the conclusion: that people do terrible things for good reasons. Unfortunately, some characters are fleshed out more than others.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the Question-like stand-in, is the most interesting character, an anti-hero filled with the rage of moral absolutism, right at home in a repressive society. He also provides noir-style narrative throughout Watchmen.

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who has an uncanny resemblance to a young Chevy Chase, is basically an alternative Batman in search of a cause. He's largely a cipher here, cast primarily as the potential love interest of Silk Spectre.

Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) provides the emotional center of the film but unfortunately doesn't do much for women's rights – she comes off as emotionally conflicted and petulant.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Punisher analogue whose death at the beginning of the film provides much of the movie's structure, is also a relative unknown. His nickname is derived from his sociopathic detachment, killing with glee. Unfortunately, he just comes off as a murderous thug.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is perfect as a mildly contemptuous superhuman, more alien and powerful than Superman. His mere existence can cause nations to go to war. Unfortunately, the film struggles with defining the limits of his powers – I half expected Manhattan to change time and space (like Superman did in the 1978 film) to "fix" things.

Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), perhaps the most important character in the film, is inexplicably both the most brilliant man on earth and a supreme martial artist. There's nothing in Ozymandias' background to explain why this is. His complete lack of development compared to the other characters is where Watchmen stumbles.

Watchmen is a really interesting take on superheroes. Unfortunately, it is no longer revolutionary as it might have been, because the 80s comic laid the framework for serious superhero comics that came later, which in turn spawned serious superhero movies like The Dark Knight. In other words, Watchmen might have been a genre-shaking film ten years ago. It's less successful as an entertaining film today. It's a museum replica of comic book history, faithful to its medium and appreciated more as a reference than a movie experience.