Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

I wrote this pseudo-review sometime in 2016.

I finally got around to reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson, which had been sitting in my Kindle library for years. I knew basically nothing about the book, except that it was one of those books that comes up a lot in geek circles, so I felt like I was obligated to read it.

Neil Stephenson is a hit-or-miss kind of author for me. Snow Crash is the only other book of his I’ve read. I only read that one because, again, I felt like it was one of those books that a modern nerd simply had to read. I remember almost nothing about the story now, but I remember enjoying it up to a point about two-thirds of the way through, when it took a weird turn and/or ground to a complete halt and I lost interest and put it away.

I went into Cryptonomicon expecting another cyberpunk kind of story, but it’s not a cyberpunk story at all. The book is really two stories: It follows characters in and around the field of cryptanalysis during World War II (Bletchley Park, etc.), and different-but-related characters in the 1990s starting up a telecommunications business in the Philippines. It’s one part World War II war story, and one part modern techno-drama. (Not techno-thriller, because there wasn’t any action.) Personally, I greatly preferred the World War II parts of the book and felt like most of the 1990s story was uninteresting. (Seriously, how can you possibly compare the drama of freakin’ World War II with the drama of … starting a company?)

I enjoyed some chapters, while others felt like studying for a security certification. (I have literally studied for tests that encompass cryptography material similar to some chapters of Cryptonomicon.) This is what I mean about the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s writing. Sometimes I find myself riveted to the page, soaking up the text, while other times I feel like I’m reading a technical manual and wondering why I’m wasting my time. I skipped whole sections of text in this book to get past them. I don’t care how interesting cryptography is, it’s not even remotely dramatic.

My biggest criticism is that I thought the book ended rather abruptly. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, “Where is this book going? What are these characters after? What is the endgame?” That was a large driver in what kept me reading, to be honest. (Also, boredom.) I kept expecting a revelation that would tie both time periods together and allow everything to make sense, but I never got that. The book just … stopped.

In the afterword I got the impression that the author planned followup books, which I suppose explains why it didn’t have an ending. I would rate this book somewhere between “okay” and “good” in my patented overly-indifferent rating system. (The ratings are “meh”, “okay”, “good,” and then “great.”)

Accountant, Bourne, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Last weekend I rented The Accountant on Verizon VOD. It was decent, but not quite good. I felt a pretty strong connection to Ben Afleck’s character because I can identify with many of the symptoms he reeled off about “high functioning autism.” I’ve never been diagnosed but I’ve always assumed I’m on the Asperger’s spectrum somewhere, enough to be recognizable, but not enough to be debilitating. The plot that went on around him, though, wasn’t all that interesting to me (corporate accounting woohoo). Still, there were good performances all around.

Saturday night I watched Jason Bourne on HBO. I didn’t care for it. With the exception of a 10 minute car chase near the end, it was rather boring for an action movie. I’m not a diehard fan of the Bourne movies, but I at least enjoyed the first three. This one was a whole lot of “meh.” It seemed to re-tread the exact same ground as previous movies (“Bourne is looking for something, but we need to stop him before he finds it.”) Most of the movie consisted of shots of people looking at computer screens. I think they were ultimately trying to make a movie about personal data privacy versus government law enforcement, but jammed Bourne into the middle of it.

Sunday evening I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane on Amazon Prime. It was good. Far better than I expected it to be. I had the vague impression that it hadn’t been received very well when it was released, but I thought it was a very tense psychological thriller with some really good, believable performances and more than a few surprises (and not the ones you might think, if you’ve seen it). I don’t remember Cloverfield very well but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I think I would rate this one better. (The two movies are unrelated, though.)

Grimdark

Grimdark TMNT from 1d4chan. Artist unknown.

A tweet caught my attention Friday and I thought about responding, but it was a topic that would fill a lot more than a couple tweets and I was looking for something to write about anyway.

The gist: Why do people keep making that icky grimdark stuff? Nobody likes that crap!

My first thought was a somewhat defensive, “Well, I like it.”

Then my followup thought was a more pragmatic, capitalistic, “People probably keep making grimdark because other people keep buying it.”

Then my third thought was, “I’m not sure I could describe exactly what grimdark even is.”

When prompted to describe grimdark, @Runesael suggested shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I wouldn’t have described any of those shows as “grimdark.” Amercian Horror Story is, well, horror. True Detective is a police procedural drama, and Breaking Bad is … I don’t know … drama I guess? If I had to lump those three shows together I would just call them serious dramas. (Although personally, I thought Breaking Bad had a ton of laugh-out-loud funny moments mixed in with the seriousness. I mean, the very premise of the show is absurd.)

When I think of grimdark I think of settings like the one in Dark Souls. A place where death is fairly common, and maybe even UN-death is common. Places of dark magic and ritualistic sacrifice, where people struggle to survive. Places where the society and culture and civilization that we know has broken down or never got started.

Now let me look up how Wikipedia describes grimdark:

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.

How delightfully vague and unhelpful. I guess I was close. Upon further reflection, my definition above is probably more in the area of “dark fantasy” and/or “sword and sorcery” than “grimdark.” Among the many different competing definitions of grimdark, one common thread seems to be realism, which sort of precludes dark magic and the undead. And yet magic and undead are obviously allowed in grimdark because George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is often held up as the progenitor of the grimdark movement (or at least, the first commercial success).

Anyway, for myself, I never felt ASOIAF or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series were abnormally dark or excessively violent. They are unremittingly realistic though, at least in terms of portraying a medieval society and how real, flawed people might behave in stressful medieval-like situations. I suppose they also share common traits of eschewing the idealism of high fantasy (and, I guess, old westerns), where the heroes wear white and the villains wear black and good triumphs over evil.

Now I want to see if I can answer the question, “Real life is already so grim, why add to it?”

First and most amusingly, that sounds disturbingly similar to a comment my mom made about one of my earliest short stories, way back in high school.

Secondly, everyone has a different view of life. All of us live in a world where I daresay most other people are not like us. (This is something I wish more people could wrap their heads around, particularly since the 2016 elections.) Your world might be grim and horrible, and if it is I’m truly sorry, and I completely understand wanting to avoid grim stories.

But my world right now is fairly banal and uneventful. During the course of my average day, there’s very little drama; I don’t have to make any life or death decisions, there is no difficulty finding food and water, there are no monsters trying to drink my blood (except ticks). I get up, go to work, sit in a cubicle all day, come home, and repeat the next day. The most exciting part of my day is turning left onto a busy highway each morning (I suppose you might call that a life or death decision). By the standards of most of history and the world, I live in a Utopian paradise like a king. (Lately it has become a bit grim, though, to be honest, but it’s mostly my own perception.) The point is, from my perspective, a grimdark story is just as much of an escapist fantasy as a fairy tale about frolicking pixies and prancing unicorns banishing evil with chocolate milk and love. (That was the most anti-grimdark thing I could think of.)

I don’t like grimdark stuff all the time, and I don’t like all grimdark. Grimdark just for grimdark’s sake is not enough to capture my imagination. Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is a good example of how not to do grimdark–I don’t particularly like it because I can’t care about the main character’s vengeance unless I care about the character first. I don’t like ASOIAF because it’s grimdark, I like it because it’s a compelling story about compelling characters, written well.

Here’s a thought I just had: I wonder if “regular” fantasy consumers have an aversion to grimdark because of a lack of exposure to the horror genre. I started with science fiction and fantasy books, then sort of went exclusively into horror books for a long time, and then opened up to a broader range after that. Reading one of these so-called “grimdark” books is not too different from reading a horror book for me. They share some traits, like flawed characters and a grounding in reality.

Well, I’ve lost my train of thought now and don’t know where else to go. Let’s just pretend that I’ve made a great point and eloquently summed it up here.

Off To Be The Wizard by Scott Meyer

I needed to use up some Audible credits, so I picked up an audiobook called Off To Be The Wizard by Scott Meyer. I found it by looking up the works performed by Luke Daniels, one of my favorite audiobook readers, ever since I discovered him from listening to the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. (If you like the Harry Dresden books, you might also like IDC. It’s the same sort of thing, but with an Irish wolfhound.)

The 8-bit cover art was an instant turn-off, and after reading the description, I was skeptical. Really, really skeptical. It sounded like the worst sort of dreck imaginable, to be honest.

It’s a simple story. Boy finds proof that reality is a computer program. Boy uses program to manipulate time and space. Boy gets in trouble. Boy flees back in time to Medieval England to live as a wizard while he tries to think of a way to fix things. Boy gets in more trouble. Oh, and boy meets girl at some point.

But, you know, it’s read by Luke Daniels. I doubt I would have read as many books of The Iron Druid Chronicles in text format as I’ve listened to in audiobook format and that’s entirely because of his performances.

So I took a chance.

Man, oh man. The things I could write about this book, if I put on my editing hat. Like how it starts off with chapter after chapter of exposition about a stunningly uninteresting guy fiddling with his computer. And if I put on my programmer hat, the outrageous way this book talks about “hacking” and “programming” and “text files with numbers that change while you’re looking at them.” So, so many times I thought, “This is unbelievably dumb. Why am I wasting my time with this? How did this even get published??”

(On that last point, it turns out it was published by an Amazon Imprint called 47North. I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that.)

Still, Luke Daniels triumphantly slogs through those first chapters as if he’s actually enjoying what he’s reading, so I kept listening while I was lying in bed waiting to fall asleep.

Then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, our idiotic hero finally gets to Medieval England and interacts with other people, and suddenly the book started to get a little bit more interesting. Not least because Luke Daniels is fantastic at voices. And the comedy started to get a little bit–dare I say?–funny. I started to chuckle. I had to turn it off because I was trying to get to sleep and it was waking me up.

In the following days, I continued listening and found myself cackling quite a lot. Oh, it’s still terrible in every way, but it’s amusing and kind of fun. While still being terrible in every way. It’s higher praise than the book deserves, but the over-the-top absurdity and humor reminded me of classic Harry Harrison books like The Stainless Steel Rat series and Bill the Galactic Hero.

It’s chock full of little plot holes you have to overlook. Like, for example, the entire premise, and the time-travel. Here’s just one time-travel issue: Our hero thought it would be safe to travel to 1150 in England partly because he figured he’d be able to speak the language. It’s a common mistake, and I fully expected the joke to be on him when he got there (because our hero is a bit of an idiot), but then he has perfectly reasonable conversations with all the natives. Hasn’t Scott Meyer ever read TV Tropes? Has he never read Michael Crichton’s Timeline? Modern listeners would probably have some difficulty understanding Middle English from 1150.

I wouldn’t bother pointing things like that out, except that at other times the author seems to go to great lengths to try to point out how much he’s thought about logical problems in his worldbuilding. He explains in great detail all the rules about cloning objects, and how simple objects like rocks can be cloned but complex objects like watches can’t because they’re made up of tiny parts. I mean, that’s great and all but a) who cares, and b) it doesn’t make me respect the reality of your world any more because you started with editing a text file to travel back and forth in time.

I mean, obviously, the time variable would be a single constant that affects all people in the file, and it would advance at a fixed, constant rate. Each person wouldn’t have his own individual time variable. That’s just silly.

Anyway I found it an amusing little escape. Luke Daniels, as always, does a fantastic job of elevating the text from “meh” to “hey, this is kind of fun.” It’s even tempting to get the next book, but I should probably get through the rest of my other Audible stuff first.

The Shannara Chronicles

Continuing my pseudo-regular new series on television shows and movies I’ve watched recently, because … well, it’s something to write about. These are not “reviews” per se, but merely thoughts and observations. You can assume, though, that if I’m writing a post about a thing, it’s notable to me in some way, either especially good, or especially bad, or otherwise relevant somehow.

Today I’d like to talk about a little show called The Shannara Chronicles.

Wait! Don’t leave yet!

The Shannara Chronicles is a television series that airs (aired?) on MTV. Season 1 is currently on Netflix. It stars a cast of young actors you’ve probably never heard of, and John Rhys-Davies and James Remar, who you undoubtedly know by their faces if not their names.

Surprisingly enough given my recent blogging history, there are no story spoilers below. Well, maybe some tiny ones if you’re super sensitive.

I first read The Sword of Shannara let’s say in the early 1980s. It was one of the first fantasy books I remember reading, after The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I can still picture those classic Hildebrandt black-and-white drawings in my thick, beat up paperback copy, which I think I still have around somewhere. At the ripe old age of cough cough cough let’s say 12 or whatever, I loved it. Loved it. Shea, Flick, Allanon, Menion Leah, Balinor, Hendel–they were like real people to me. (Much more so than those high fallutin’ Fellowship wackos.)

These are called “books.” I’ve actually purged many of mine, but kept these.

If I read it today, I would probably cringe at how Shea’s quest was basically an exact clone of the classic Tolkien Ring-Bearer story with only the names changed.

Except everybody knows that Allanon could totally beat up Gandalf.

Later in my teens, I read the Elfstones of Shannara. I don’t remember the characters or story as much, but I remember loving the hell out of that book, too. I had a big trade paperback copy with a bright colorful picture of Wil Ohmsford, Amberle, and some other guy who I think was one of the Elven guards. I did an oral book report on it for English class, a thing which still fills me with embarrassment and shame to this day, for daring to admit to an entire classroom that I not only voluntarily read a fantasy book, but liked it. I have no idea what I was thinking. (Fantasy was not mainstream when I went to high school. You kids today are so lucky.)

Hildebrandt art from the massive The Sword of Shannara paperback.

Fast forward cough cough cough years and I heard MTV was making a show called The Shannara Chronicles, allegedly based on the Elfstones of Shannara. Neato! But … MTV? Really? First of all, MTV is still a thing? Apparently yes, it is. And secondly, is it even possible that MTV can do justice to those epic high fantasy adventures I remember? The early production shots looked … interesting.

I never got around to watching it when it came out in January, 2016. I sort of forgot about it. (I’m actually surprised it’s that new. I thought it was older than that.) Who thinks about watching a genre show on MTV? I don’t remember reading any reviews, but the show did not get a lot of buzz, that’s for sure, and I got the vague impression there was a generally negative vibe about it.

This past weekend, I saw The Shannara Chronicles just sitting there right out on the first row of Netflix shows with a whopping 2.5 out of 5 stars, begging to be clicked. I had just finished watching a PBS documentary on Ruby Ridge, which was pretty heavy with real-life drama and far-reaching cultural and political implications that resonate even to this day. I had finished Mass Effect Andromeda, a long slog through a somewhat disappointing story. So I thought, hey, let’s reset the ol’ brain and watch some pure fantasy and see how bad this MTV thing actually is.

Hoo boy. It’s bad. It’s so, so bad.

But to be fair, it’s not a show for adults. It’s clearly made for kids. (The MTV thing was a tip-off.) Most of the cast are kids. And the source material is not exactly Shakespeare. Terry Brooks is not known for his literary depth, especially in his early books. This show is full to bursting with high fantasy tropes. There’s an honest-to-God Elven princess in it, and while there have been some attempts to de-trope-ify her, she does occasionally still fall down when running away.

Still, there are some decent moments. It’s the kind of show you put on in the background and go about your business, and occasionally something interesting catches your eye.

The basic plot is this: The Ellcrys, a special tree in the Elven capital city, is dying. For various reasons, when it dies, demons will invade and kill everyone. For various reasons, a band of youngsters (including the principles–the half-elven son of Shea Shannara, the aforementioned Elven princess, and a snarky Rover girl) needs to go to a faraway place to save the tree and the world.

I give them credit for not making the first book, which as I said was an obvious clone of Lord of the Rings. They had the sense to skip to the second book which is an entirely different kind of quest (but, you know, still basically the same–a small group travels all the way to a dangerous place to do a dangerous thing that will save the world).

With hindsight, it’s clear to me now why teenage-boy-me liked that book. I mean, come on, a beautiful Elven princess and a snarky Rover girl both fight over a nerdy half-elven boy? I had no chance. And … well, this is a bit of a spoiler but there is an element of Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy, which pushes all of my inner, hidden goth buttons.

By the way, from an adult perspective, I can now share with teenage nerds out there that having two beautiful girls fighting over you is a totally realistic situation that happens all the time in real life.

Ahem. Anyway. One thing I liked about the Shannara books was the occasional hint that the story was set in future Earth and not some past or alternate world. In the books, it was really subtle. One or two sentences if you were really paying attention.

In the show, it hits you over the head with a sledgehammer that the events follow some catastrophic nuclear war. (It’s literally in the opening credits, and all over the promotional material, even though it has no relevance to the story.) The trolls are wearing gas masks or something. There’s old stuff lying around all over the place: Guns, film projectors, CD players, speakers, electricity, etc. I swear to God there is one episode where they show clips of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on a projector and rave to some electronic dance music. Then there’s a gun fight. It’s … weird.

But hey, if I had kids I’d rather they watch this than The Real World.

So I stopped watching before the terribleness hurt my brain and the oversaturated colors hurt my eyes.

Ha!

No I didn’t. I watched all 10 episodes in the first season all the way to the end. And you won’t believe this, but there is an entire second season. I can’t wait.

P.S. I don’t think I ever finished reading Wishsong of Shannara, the third book, and I have not read any of the hundreds of other Shannara books.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This is another in my recent series of posts that I’m calling, “What in God’s name can I possibly find to schedule for publishing today.”

I saw some folks on Twitter talking about the Farseer books by Robin Hobb, and since I’ve been looking for new stuff to consume, I bought the first book on Kindle, Assassin’s Apprentice. I almost used an Audible credit on it, but I have some complex rules about whether to get books in text format or audiobook format, and this one came up as text format. Besides, it was only $1.99.

I’ve always had a slight aversion to fantasy books about thieves and assassins. I don’t know why, but I do. I guess thieves and assassins seem very tropey to me–it feels like if you stacked up every fantasy book ever released, half of them would be about thieves and assassins.

Anyway, this assassin book traces the life and times of “Fitz,” a bastard son of royalty, and his development from a generally nice kid into a king’s spy and assassin (and a generally nice young adult). The book is written in first-person from Fitz’s perspective, presumably writing his memoirs from some distant future.

I was very surprised to see that it’s set in a European-style medieval world. I didn’t think this was “allowed” in fantasy anymore, but I later found out this book was published in 1995, when it was still safe.

I used to be very meticulous about reading every single word in every book I bought, but as I’ve gotten older and want to sample more and more varied books, I’ve come up with quicker method: I only read the first sentence of every paragraph until my interest is piqued or I decide to pass on the book entirely. I used that technique in this book, because frankly the very first sentence was a little off-putting (“A History of the Six Duchies is of necessity a history of its ruling family, …”).

I’ll be honest. I skipped a lot of words until I got to about the 50% mark, after which I started slowing down, and I think I only fully read the last few chapters in their entirety. I found the writing overstuffed with descriptive yet mundane details and lacking in hooks to draw me in. There were some parts of some chapters here and there that I enjoyed, but especially in the first half I felt like I was going through an endless prologue, waiting for a story to begin. Younger me probably wouldn’t have minded, but older me watching the sands of life slowly draining away prefers to make optimal use of his reading time.

I like to see character relationships and especially character conflicts in stories. But there is very little conflict in the early going. The first real contentious relationship begins in Chapter 14 (“Galen”), at the 51% mark. Literally half the book goes by before our main character faces any real opposition or obstacles. (There is some chafing here and there with Burrace’s opposition to The Wit, but that’s barely worth mentioning.) The inciting incident and the real plot that entangles our main character through the end of the book does not begin until Chapter 19 (“Journey”) which is at the 75% mark. Everything before that is largely backstory.

Robin Hobbs’ writing is good and engaging. (Too good–the vocabulary and sentence structures made me feel quite inadequate as a writer.) I mentioned that it’s first-person voice, but it’s not the sarcastic blogger style of voice that you’ve probably seen overused in urban fantasy and young adult books.

I most enjoyed the relationships that developed between Fitz and his various dog companions, but admittedly I am a sucker for animals in books. I wish there had been more of that here. But I’m glad there wasn’t more of that or I would have been an emotional wreck. I generally try to avoid books and movies about animals because I get too wrapped up in them.

Will I read more of this series? Maybe. Probably not. But possibly. I don’t know. The first book has a reasonable ending point, if not a great one. There are plenty of remaining questions, like what is going on with The Fool, and what is Burrace’s problem with The Wit. I would like to know those answers, but unfortunately I don’t have much interest in learning how the political machinations around the Duchies turn out. The royalty characters remained mostly off-screen and I felt little or no bond develop with them or their lives. I also found Fitz himself a bit lacking as a character to carry a whole series (he seemed emotionally flat from start to finish), and there weren’t many supporting characters around him.

Overall I would rate it as “okay” except for the final two chapters which were “good.” (I stayed up late to finish those chapters so that’s how good they were.) Maybe I’ll get some of the sequels in audiobook format for later.

13 Reasons Why (Spoilers)

After Two Episodes

I have seen a number of people on Twitter talking positively about the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, so I watched the first two episodes last night. I expected it to be a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it appears to be more of a tense psychological thriller, somewhat in the vein of I Know What You Did Last Summer (except that we, the audience, don’t know).

I’m going to start writing down my thoughts about this show. I’m a white guy, and this is a show that seems to be meant for a female audience, so I’m stumbling headlong into a minefield here.

Again, I’ve only seen the first two episodes as of this writing. I will likely watch the rest of it, because the show is getting such good reviews, but I’ll be honest, I’m not super into it. I probably wouldn’t have even watched the second episode if it hadn’t been for the rave reviews. (I had a similar reaction to The Expanse, actually.)

So the basic premise is that there’s a high school girl who committed suicide, but before she died, she recorded a bunch of cassette tapes (yes, actual magnetic cassette tapes, for reasons that so far are not given) and sent them to the people she felt were responsible for her death. That’s not a spoiler because you get that in like the first 5 minutes. (Don’t let the cassette tapes fool you–the story is not set in the 1980s.)

I’ll grant that it’s an interesting idea. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue and what-the-heck-is-going-on here. (This is why I label it a psychological thriller.)

But I’m really not feeling much of a connection with these characters.

I mean, granted, this is a story about teenagers, and I barely remember what being a teenager was like. And my teenaged years were not even remotely similar to what is happening in this show. So I’m way behind the curve already.

And here’s where I really think I’m going to get into trouble. I feel like I’m supposed to think that suicide girl (aka. Hannah) is a victim and I should feel bad for her. But … I don’t. I mean, I’m sorry she’s dead. But in the first two episodes, she is not shown to be a terribly sympathetic character in my eyes. She’s mostly shown as super manipulative. I kind of … don’t like her. And it’s hard to think of a more sinister, manipulative, passive aggressive move than sending out cassettes to blame people after you’ve committed suicide.

So… help me out here, readers. Am I supposed to sympathize with her? Maybe things will change in future episodes.

So that’s the dead girl. Let’s move on to some others.

I saw that this show is based on a book. I’ve not seen anything about this book, but I’m just going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s a young adult novel. I say that because one of the defining characteristics of the young adult genre is that adults (particularly parents) act like complete morons. (Seriously. It’s a real thing. In middle-grade books, adults are trustworthy, but in young adult books, adults are supposed to be the enemy.)

The adults in this show so far are acting like idiots. “It’s okay honey, I don’t mind you walking around with a huge infected pus-filled gash on your head, I’m sure you’ll let us know if there’s a real problem.” “It’s okay honey, I see that you’re obviously–so, so, so obviously–acting weird and defensive and hiding stuff but we’ll be here if you need us.” Really? Who’s buying this?

(I won’t even go into how young these parents look to me. The teenagers look like they’re about 12 to me, and the parents look like they’re barely out of their 20s. Also, the teenagers appear to have been manufactured in some sort of beautiful person clone factory.)

Now about this kid “Helmet,” who I assume is the protagonist of our story. (I can’t remember his real name. Cory? Chase? Something with a ‘C’ I think.) I have never seen a person stare stupidly at so many things for so long before. I know this is supposed to be serious subject matter, but it’s sooo comical to see this actor staring blankly, consumed by his inner thoughts, when other people are talking. And then he tries to act like nothing is wrong, thereby drawing so much attention to the fact that something is seriously wrong.

I mean, maybe there’s a story reason for this that will become apparent later, but they are selling this kid’s bumbling ineptitude really hard.

After Five Episodes

I’m still watching the show. I’m now interested enough in the central mystery to continue watching even without the urging of the Internet. I would characterize the show as good, but not great. There is still a lot of teenager, teenager, teenager, blah, blah, blah to wade through.

After the first two episodes, they finally started to make Hannah (aka. suicide girl) a more sympathetic character. They started to downplay the super angry voiceover of her cassette tapes and focused more on the behavior of the kids she singled out for “revenge.” The reasons that I didn’t like her at first seem to be because of a “tough guy” facade she created. There’s no doubt Hannah’s been treated badly by her peers.

But. Here’s some dangerous words for a white guy to write: I feel like I could make a case, though, that she was the one who chose to put herself into the situations that could turn out badly for her. A recurring theme in the show is that taking and sharing compromising pictures can ruin a person’s life. Again, I don’t know anything about kids today, but I feel like this is a lesson that everyone should know by now. Certainly if I had kids I would be drilling that lesson every day. It seems like the “taking candy from strangers” lesson of the modern world. I mean, how does Hannah not know to close her frickin’ blinds in her room at night? (I know it’s probably dramatized for effect, but when I’m inside my house, I do think about what people can see from outside the house through the windows, and I don’t even live in a dense neighborhood.)

So I’m not cheering for Hannah quite yet. Yes, she’s had some bad luck. But does it justify her actions? I’m not a big supporter of suicide as a weapon. Maybe she isn’t dead, and it’s a big scam. She’s clearly a smart enough person to pull that off. I feel like I even heard there was some ambiguity about that before I started watching. (I know there is a “season 2” coming.) If she completes her vengeance and then pops up in another city or something (New York, probably), then I might think, “Okay, that was a nifty scheme.” But I might also think, “Wow she put a lot of loved ones through pure hell for her personal revenge fantasy power trip.”

Clay, our protagonist, the bumbling nerd who looks like a teen fashion model, continues to stare blankly at everyone and everything. I swear if he crashes his bike into something or walks out into traffic one more time I’m going to start rooting for a bus to hit him. The gash on his head still looks horribly infected to me. What in god’s name is he putting on it?

There are times when I think, aw this is a tragic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. (As in that dance, and the “dollar valentine incident.”) Then there are other times when I think, oh man I just want to slap these kids until they stop acting dumb (as in any part where they try to pretend nothing is wrong, or when they feel the need to hide these tapes from the adults who would actually know how to handle it). This is the big problem of watching a show about teenagers when you’re forty-cough-cough.

By the way, nothing like a “dollar valentine” ever occurred at my high school, to my knowledge. I don’t remember any fundraisers of any kind, to be honest. But then I doubt I would have participated anyway. I was not much into “school spirit.”

Speaking of adults, the side-plot about the bullying lawsuit is a pretty interesting subject for me (as an adult viewer), but it’s not getting much attention in the show, other than setting up a big conflict between Clay (who believes bullying occurred) and his mom (who was hired to defend the school and therefore will be trying to prove that bullying did not occur).

I’m a bit too old to weigh in on the whole subject of “bullying” and whether it should or shouldn’t be legally actionable. I have literally no idea what it is like for kids in schools these days. The drama I’m seeing in this show looks completely foreign to me. I can’t say that I ever experienced any inordinate level of bullying. I experienced plenty of embarrassing or humiliating situations, but I never experienced any kind of concentrated persecution, and I never heard of it happening in my school. I don’t remember hearing about anyone committing suicide.

One interesting aspect of the show is that I feel like it is going out of its way to portray events in a multi-sided way–that is, ways that could lead viewers to make differing conclusions about who’s “guilty.” What I mean is, I could easily imagine women watching this show and identifying strongly with the female characters as victims of the male characters’ hostility. But when I watch, I see plenty of things the female characters are doing that are pretty aggressive and hostile and provocative toward the male characters. Which view is right? Probably both.

By the way, I would like to reiterate that there has been no story reason given for the use of cassette tapes. One just has to assume that it’s a quirky weird teenager thing. Or that it’s easier for viewers to see them.

After Thirteen Episodes

Before getting into the meat of this, did anyone else get the feeling like they had seen most of those actors before somewhere? But every time I looked them up on IMDB they were never in anything I would have seen. I’m now completely convinced that actors are stamped out of a factory somewhere, or they digitally alter everyone’s face to look familiar. Either that or maybe all the actors now are children of the actors we used to know in the 80s and 90s. For example, I would swear on a stack of Bibles that Hannah’s mom played by Kate Walsh is the spitting image of Wendie Malick.

Okay back to serious thoughts. Reading back over my notes at earlier points in the show, I’m tempted to delete them, but in the interests of “telling my truth” I’ll leave them.

Because I feel like the show deliberately tried to elicit the exact responses that I wrote about: Initially, I didn’t like Hannah that much. But over time, I started to understand her better. And by the end, my heart just ached for her (and her parents). By the final episode, I was really, really hoping for some kind of magical deus ex machina to swoop in and rescue her, even though there were plenty of instances during the show when they confirmed that yes, she’s really dead, she’s not in hiding somewhere.

I still can’t condone her choice, but I certainly understand how she got there. I’m simultaneously angry at her and sad at her loss.

Again I have to reiterate that I have no idea what high school is like for kids today. What is portrayed in this show is nothing like the high school that I went through. There are similarities of course. The cheerleaders, the jocks, the cool kids, the weirdos, etc. But this show portrays a kind of sinister cabal of puppet masters, including both students and school officials, deliberately covering up major crimes. If anything like that happened in my high school, it was well concealed, because me and my circles were completely oblivious to it. (But to be fair, I was oblivious to a lot of things in my younger days.)

The point I’m trying to make is that I sure hope this fictional Liberty High School is an exaggeration or a statistical anomaly. Because man, what a nightmare.

I’m not sure how I feel about this show continuing into a second season. I could understand one final epilogue episode to deal with the trial and the parents’ reactions to the tapes (and of course Bryce getting arrested and gang-raped in prison), but an entire season? I don’t see that many loose ends to deal with, and starting new story threads seems gratuitous.

I can’t leave without talking a bit more about Clay and his relationship with Hannah and what happened at that party.

To reiterate, I’m a guy, so I obviously can relate more to Clay’s point of view than Hannah’s. I’ve been in situations like that party before where it seems like everything is fine and then suddenly everything is not fine and you’re left reeling and completely unable to process what just happened. Where the other person appears to be giving one kind of signal but they’re saying something completely different, and you just have no clue what to do. So I can completely relate to Clay’s response.

What I loved about the telling of that scene was that they showed two different versions of it. The original version of what actually happened, where everyone went away confused and upset, and then they showed a second version that (I assume) Clay and Tony worked out later that showed what would have been the “right” way to handle the same situation. Or at least, maybe a better way. I think it was important to show that second version to the audience, because it was a really good “teachable moment” in human relationships.

Of course, there’s no guarantee things would have played out any different in the end.

I still think Clay was kind of a goofball. And I swear to God, he did crash his bike again. I mean, seriously. Revoke his license.

There really was an element of Romeo and Juliet in this story, by the way. It played out very differently, but the tragic romance was there, and it’s still just as compelling of a story element as it ever was.

Now I want to talk about that scene between Hannah and the guidance counselor in the last episode, whose name I can’t remember.

I’m not really sure what to say, though.

It’s easy to sit back and think, “What a dick. That guy could have saved Hannah but he blew it.”

But the way the scene played out… it didn’t appear so black and white to me. I felt his side of the conversation was clearly distracted, somewhat insensitive, but … believable. I never felt at any point in this series that the counselor was a “bad guy” trying to harm Hannah by action or inaction. I can imagine that anyone in his position would be forced to say the same thing. Maybe not because they wanted to, but because it’s the unvarnished, ugly truth of the matter.

Again I reiterate what I said somewhere up above, which is that the show seemed to be intentionally portraying events in a way that could be interpreted in multiple ways from multiple viewpoints.

If there was a “bad guy” on the school side, it could only be the principle, played by Steven Weber of Wings fame. (I also remember him perfectly playing Jack Torrance in the television miniseries version of The Shining, which is one of the best Stephen King novel adaptations ever made, incidentally. The Jack Nicholson movie was a great movie but bore little resemblance to the book.) But again, “bad” is a relative term here. It’s literally his job to look after the interests of the school.

In a nutshell, it’s a really good series, but it’s heavy. It very much did turn into a touching drama about a teen suicide, but it took some time to get there. In the first couple of episodes, I actually laughed quite a bit. I feel like the story could have been told in fewer episodes. There were long stretches of time where I was pretty bored and I wished they would get on with the plot.

One more thing, about the music. I don’t know anything about pop music these days. I just sort of assume kids listen to Katy Perry and … you know, ahem, all those other famous names in pop music that I totally know off the top of my head.

But a lot of the music I heard in this show didn’t sound like modern pop music at all. It sounded … well, good. Sort of more like 90s alternative music in a way. It made me wonder if that’s the kind of music kids listen to these days. If so, then good job, kids! You have some musical taste after all.

Okay, one more thing: I don’t remember anything like a Communications class in high school, where you passed notes to each other through paper bags. Is that really a thing? It’s probably a good idea, I guess. The only Communications-like class I ever remember was something like an English Communication, about writing, and I think that might have been a college class.

Okay now I’ll stop rambling. Tough subject matter, but a great, deeply affecting series.

Rogue One (Spoilers)

I did not see Rogue One in the theater. I regretted that decision for a day or two, then felt good about it. I decided that it was “fan fiction”–a term I don’t use in a particularly positive sense. (Sorry superfans.)

I waited until it came to FIOS VOD. Then I forgot about it. Then I remembered it. I went into the movie with very low expectations. I wasn’t expecting “real” Star Wars. (I am expecting to repeat this behavior for the “Han Solo” movie.)

And the results are now in: Rogue One was “okay” but it wasn’t great.

Honestly I think it would have been better if it hadn’t been a Star Wars movie. It seemed like a weird mashup of Star Wars and World War II genres.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t great. It was not as good as The Force Awakens. I got pretty bored with the first two acts, actually. I didn’t feel any sympathy for any of the characters. I don’t even know why Forest Whitaker was in the movie, his part was so meaningless. I have literally no clue why these characters suddenly decided it was important to get the Death Star plans.

(Later I learned that the movie suffered from extensive re-shoots and re-edits, which might explain why the first two acts didn’t make much sense.)

On the plus side, the last act of the movie was a hell of a good action ride. There was some really top notch CGI work there. Actually, if you start the movie at roughly the 1:20 mark, it’s pretty good.

Overall I kept getting confused though because sometimes it looked like a Pacific War movie. The rebel uniforms clearly were inspired by Pacific War marines. Star Wars really doesn’t look right on a tropical beach. Other times, especially early on, it looked like a samurai movie. I mean, was it just me? Why in the holy hell was there a blind samurai in this movie?

The K droid was funny as hell. (I’m sure everyone else has his exact designation memorized but I don’t.) But does every Star Wars movie really need a funny droid? It’s sort of a cliche at this point.

It was a real treat to hear Gold Leader again.

The most memorable scene in the entire movie was nearly the last one: Darth Vader trying to get onto the rebel ship. The scene was completely out of place and unnecessary in the overall movie, but man was it bad ass. That was Darth Vader like we’ve literally never seen him before. (It was almost out of character, it was so different.) It was the embodiment of how we always imagined this evil Sith, but seeing it right there in front of your eyes was frightening as hell. That tiny scene was like a miniature horror movie.

Tarkin looked like a talking wax doll. It was very bizarre and off-putting. (His scenes looked like a Bioware game.) His voice sounded wrong, too. How could they spend so much time trying to get the visuals right and blow the voice? Wax-doll Leia looked a little better but only because she didn’t move or say much.

Rogue One was a good try, I suppose, but it didn’t quite do it for me.