Tools of the Imagination — Sword Art Online

Sword Art OnLine
Written by Reki Kawahara, Illustrated by abec, Published by Aniplex, released 2012, available on Crunchyroll

Dungeons & Dragons in the future…but not

Sword Art OnLine – or SAO – is the poor man’s anime version of Ready Player One.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  SAO is a perfectly okay anime, but that’s all it is: Okay.

Set in the fantasy world of a fully immersive MMORPG, the story of Sword Art OnLine follows Kirito who is trapped along with several thousand other players inside a virtual reality.  Their only possible escape is to complete the 100th floor of the dungeon, while death in the game results in real-life death.  The reasoning behind this is staggeringly vague, the result of the machinations of Kayaba Akihiko the Steve Jobs/Howard Hughes super-genius who built SOA.

Story – 3 out of 5
The story is kind of unique but also has gaping plot holes.  The contrived reasoning to keep the thousand of players in the MMORPG is that if they log-out or have their systems severed, they will die.  Which is fine, except to have thousands of people trapped inside a virtual reality for multiple years is a stretch.  An off-handed comment late in the show acknowledges that a small window was granted to allow the victims to be transported to hospitals for care but little more is said of this.  Also, Akihiko is beyond brilliant because the combined resources of the world cannot hack into the game to free the people or even find a way around their being locked in.  These suspensions of disbelief are the biggest problem, but if you can get around it, the remaining show is pretty fun.

Art – 3 out of 5
There’s very little that can be said about the art.  It’s good, but seems uninspired.  There isn’t a tremendous level of detail in the characters or backgrounds.  And the character designs aren’t remarkably varied.
One note to make is I heard about SAO because the weapons company Cold Steel had a knife appear in the game.  This was my initial reason for watching, only for the knife to only turn up for a moment at the end of the series, and then to be drawn so generically as to not have been worth it.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation of the show is quite good.  Fight scenes vary radically but some of them are really excellent, offering more than just traded super attacks.  There’s a dynamic element to the camera in many episodes that really works.

Characters – 2 out of 5
None of the characters in the show are memorable in the slightest.  Kirito is a very blaise and generic anime hero who makes the ubiquitous soliloquies about friendship and being a loner, but none of it seems rooted in any real personality.  Asuna, the heroine, isn’t as overbearing as some female leads but she just has no outstanding characteristics.  The supporting cast is equally as unremarkable, with every single role being hit like marking off needed troupes from a list.

Acting – 3 out of 5 (for Japanese voice actors)
Much like the art, the acting is about par for the course.  There are no outstanding performances but nothing that’s distracting either.  The performances aren’t nuanced, but then neither are the characters.  At the end of the day, the actors do their jobs passably and acceptably but that’s about all that can be said.
Overall – 3 out of 5
SAO isn’t a bad show at all.  It’s very entertaining at points and can be real fun, especially if you’re into swords-n-sorcery.  But it’s not an outstanding show in any sense of the word.  It’s just sort of a fun place-holder to bide time until something better comes along.

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Bullet Points

I had an entire tirade planned on the XBox One, but somebody else pretty much summed it up.  I was also going to rant about the Ender’s Game movie and Orson Scott Card in general, but I figured powerful people were about to do all they could to distract him with something shiny to keep him from being seen in public for the next little bit.  So I figured I’d just hit a handful of small points of things I’d like to talk about, but don’t warrant full-on posts.

Will The Serials Ever Return?
I really, really hope so.  I enjoy writing for online audiences.  The problem is writing serials is an incredibly time-consuming and complicated process.  It’s actually more demanding than writing a novel.  Right now, my publisher and I are hitting numerous speed bumps getting our first book together out the door.  You’d think this would be the perfect time to do a serial – and you’d be right – but the effort and energy is needed to get that book moving.  And I also have an additional consideration two bullet points down.

Is there going to be more content than just once-a-week blog posts?
Yes.  I actually plan to start updating on Wednesday…this Wednesday.

Why didn’t you do a Memorial Day Blog?
For starters, because it seemed cliche to the point of being almost inappropriate.  Secondly, because I’m a part-time, self-employed individual.  See, I actually have a dayjob that I do in addition to writing.  I work more than 30 hours a week, but am only allowed to log thirty hours so as not to go over the part-time maximum.  I accrue no retirement, no health benefits, and accrue no sick/vacation time.  So Memorial Day, as a ‘work holiday’ is lost on me.  I have to work today, just like millions of others.  As a result, I feel like the holiday is cheapened.  Maybe that’s a poor excuse, but the truth of the matter is that if I didn’t work today, I’d have a bill at the end of the month I couldn’t pay.

My friend’s brother’s cousin’s roommate’s personal trainer told him you shouldn’t drink more than two glasses of water a day. Is that true?
No.

While it is true that hyperhydration is a real thing, it is so rare, it might as well be an urban myth.  So long as you aren’t drinking a gallon of water in half an hour or less, you are fine.  8 cups, 10 cups, 6 cups, it’s all good.
And keep in mind, that recommendation of ‘glasses’ comes from the misunderstanding of the recommended 8 cups of water.  That’s not ‘8 medium cups from MacDonalds’, that’s 8 cups, as in the unit of measurement.  That comes out to half a gallon or two liters, over the course of a whole day.  Nothing but a thing.
This was fun.  We should do this again sometime. Got any questions? Email me or post a comment.

Week Off

I live my life in twelve-week cycles.

I train and work hard for twelve weeks, and then I take one week off.  During that time, I do not write, exercise, and am far less strict about my diet.  I turn off my alarm clock and wake up naturally and I go to bed as I wish, rather than adhering to a schedule.  It’s pretty fun.  And the benefit of it – aside from the obvious – is that when it’s time for me to return to my regiment schedule, I am hungry to do so because living so carefree doesn’t suit me.

As both a creative professional and a pretty serious athlete (or at least I like to think so), I think there’s a benefit to completely throwing it all away for more than a few days at a time.  Weekends are great but you can only do so much decompression and recovery (both mental and physical) in two days.  Having a full week off where one doesn’t work, it allows you to fully recharge.

The trick, I think, is to staying on this ‘I ain’t doing nothing’ lifestyle until you start to get bored.  For me, that takes about four days.  Around about Wednesday night or Thursday, I’m starting to get antsy.  I get restless.  My mind begins to bubble over with story ideas and scenes and clever concepts waiting to be put to the page.  And I start getting hyper-active, ready to get out and do something.  By Saturday, I’m anxiously awaiting the coming week, the coming start of the new cycle.

Having this week off has other benefits as well.  It helps you define success with greater clarity.  Living in these twelve-week cycles makes it easy to set medium-term goals.  “In this twelve-weeks”, I might say, “I’m going to write a full book, six short stories, four essays, publish two articles, and prepare two convention presentations/panels”.  And by having a clearly defined start date and end date, I know how to further breakup my tasks for easier accomplishment.  But I also have a period when I call it.  I have a date where, after this, I stop.  I no longer work on this book, I no longer push to get this article published.  If it didn’t happen in this twelve weeks (barring a few extenuating circumstances), I drop it and move on.

And that clean slate every three months is intensely valuable.  During that week off, I am able to let go of all the baggage and issues and static that’s built up.  I’m able to clear my head and let go of everything that was unnecessary.  So that way, on Day One of the new cycle, I am focused and eager, with clearly defined goals and a timetable for achieving them.

And that’s where I am.  Day Two of my week off.  It is restful.  It is relaxing.  And I had candy bars for breakfast.

Sexism in video games, cosplay, etc

Sexism is a disease; a mental illness with a pronounced component.  In theory, it could be considered a sexually-transmitted mental illness.  It is an inability to recognize an individual as a person, and instead seeing them only as a collection of sexually-desirable elements.

To present this another way, tell me what you see:

Do you see a duck? Or do you see a rabbit?

Now, take a look at this one:

Do you see an impressive costume worn by a beautiful woman dedicated to her craft?  Or do you see large breasts?

In essence, that’s sexism.  Everybody looks the same picture of the highly revered cosplayer Yaya Han.  But some people see a cosplayer at the height of her professional craft.  And some people see large breasts.

One of the great dangers of sexism is how poorly it is understood.  Sexism comes in a lot of forms and a lot of varieties, and manifests itself in many ways.  However, it all boils down to a single question that might as well take the form of an optical illusion: do you see a woman, or do you see boobs?

Men – not just quasi-sexists but also legitimately good and decent men – turn a blind eye to sexism and its resulting debate because they do not understand it.  Most men cannot quite grasp the difference between appreciating beauty – especially sexual beauty – and sheer objectification.  And it is that objectification that is the key to sexism: the reducing a person to a thing, the reducing of an individual to an object to be possessed.

This isn’t about ‘the Disease of Sexism’.  This is about ‘the Cure of Sexism’.  Sexism, viewed as an illness, cannot be treated with a vaccination or any other tangible medicine.  It can only be treated with awareness, acknowledgment, and vocal opposition.  Not from women alone, but from men as well.  A lot of good men are staying quiet in the sexism debate because they don’t well enough understand the situation, or they feel this is a fight between women or bigots.  Or worst of all, they fear they are hypocrites if they decry sexism and still enjoy sex and sexuality.  The thing is, men, you don’t have to trade in your love of sex and sexiness to oppose sexism.  You should just do what one should always do: behave respectfully and speak up when you see wrong being done.

Revenge of the SIxth

This past weekend was May the Fourth, a celebration of geek culture in general and Star Wars in particular.  Most observances were small and subtle, little more than the sharing of memes on Facebook and the like.  Others were a bit more involved (if you don’t get it, don’t worry; you have to be a regular follower of the whole site for it to be funny).

I used to like Star Wars – love it, even.  Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, lightsabers, the Force.  It was really rad.  Even though I identify with Star Trek more than Star Wars, I always enjoyed the Holy Trilogy.  But something has happened to my enjoyment of this franchise, something that has marred and marked this icon of geekery.

The franchise itself.

It seems unfair to dump all my dislike on Episode One and the Prequel Trilogy as a whole, but that’s really where it started.  Episode One was so subpar, so mediocre, it hampered my enjoyment of the franchise as a whole.  And subsequent releases only further distanced me from the series.  Once the entire Prequel Trilogy had been released, I found myself disillusioned with Anakin Skywalker and the efforts of Obi-wan Kenobi.  Darth Vader no longer seemed like an elite and revered warrior; he seemed like an easily manipulated goon.  He stopped being the Big Bad and became Oddjob or Jaws from James Bond.  The reverence and awe I once had for Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, was completely undermined by what I now knew about Anakin Skywalker.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was ruined in much the same way.  Whereas I’d once thought him to be a noble icon of intelligence and mastery, I now had learned that he was kind of a moron.  He was being actively sought the universe over and he hadn’t even changed his last name?  And was living down the street from the family of the guy he was hiding from?  So much respect was lost.

But the Prequel Trilogy only started it.  In the wake of the Prequel Trilogy came the video games.  Unlike pre-Prequel Trilogy games that expanded on the Original Trilogy (tales of the Rogue Squadron or referenced battles in the movies), these games sought to expand on the mythology.  The result after seeing games like Knights of the Old Republic was to dismiss the entire universe as living in a stagnant death.  The universe in KotOR was almost identical to the one in the Original Trilogy, yet it took place a thousand years prior.  If technology was the same across a millennial gap, then how could one take seriously a political upheaval?  That wouldn’t be news; that would be inevitable.  Seeing the story of KotOR unfold, I suddenly WANTED the Empire to take control because then maybe they could get something done!

And then there was the animated series. While I loved Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars series set between Episodes II and III (which very nearly redeemed the Prequel Trilogy), the current running Star Wars: the Clone Wars series was okay, but was just like the movies it was based from: maybe worth a watch if nothing was on but nothing remarkable.

And it was on this most recent May the Fourth that it occurred to me that I really don’t like Star Wars anymore.  Something I used to really love had been retroactively ruined for me by sequels, video games, and an expanded universe that seemed destined – or even designed at times – to ruin these three films.  I couldn’t recall the last time I talked to anybody about Star Wars that didn’t center on Anakin Skywalker instead of Luke Skywalker.  In some ways, it almost seems like the collective geek culture has just decided that the Original Trilogy never existed, perhaps because to do so would be to admit just how much the franchise has deteriorated.
There was a time when sci-fi was ruled by four stars: Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica.  And looking at the four now, it would seem the light of Star Wars has burned out for at least this fan.