Getting Lost in the Good Old Days: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen King

Some would consider Stephen King one of the greatest authors of our time. I don’t buy into hyperbole that much, so I’ll say that he’s certainly a very talented writer. I loved reading through his book On Writing and it was in that spirit of good vibes and curiosity that I decided to try reading one of his novels.

Naturally, I went to the one about time travel.

11/22/63 is a very long story about an English teacher in Maine, Jake Epping, who comes across a wondrous discovery: a portal in his friend Al’s diner that sends people back through time to the year 1958. While he tries to fix the tragic childhood of a janitor at his school, Jake soon sets his sights on a much larger goal: stopping the JFK assassination and forever changing the course of history. Of course, this is a tall order and comes with all sorts of terrible consequences, both for Jake and the world.

For some stories, the use of time travel can make or break the whole narrative. What King does well in this story is show off the research he’s done that brings the past to life. He’s not content with just telling you it’s an older time with no Internet and different race relations. Through the eyes of Jake Epping, we see the world of 1958 in all its glories and warts, with better-tasting food and subtle touches of anti-Semitism, with Cold War paranoia and small town comforts. I really felt like I was back in the Fifties and Sixties myself.

However, this can also lead to a major problem that I had with this book: namely, the pacing. As much as I got lost in each setting because of Mr. King’s details, I also lost track of the overall plot. The main focus is on one man’s quest to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK, but there’s a good chunk of the novel devoted to his early attempt to fix a janitor’s life by stopping his father from going on a murderous rampage. Not to mention Jake’s romance with a woman in the Fifties, and how this complicates his travels. They’re not the worst elements in a story, but it was hard to care so much about the JFK plot with all these digressions.

It’s a funny coincidence (or maybe not) that I happened to start reading this novel around the same time that I started watching an anime called Steins;Gate, which also has to do with time travel. In fact, both stories follow a similar premise about a bold man experimenting with time travel, only to try to reverse the changes he’s made to save the life of someone he loves. But if I had to pick, Steins;Gate did a much better job of making me care about the main characters and revealing the time travel crisis at a much more dramatic pace.

It should go without saying that none of this is a slam against Stephen King. He can write good dialogue, his characters are all passionate, and he’s no slouch when it comes to getting the facts straight and building in the details to his own little worlds—even if some of those worlds keep resembling the same small town somewhere in Maine.

11/22/63 is available for purchase from booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York, Scribner, 2011.

The Dark Knight Rises: Take Two

Like many filmgoers, I was a big, big fan of Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman film franchise, giving us wonderful dramas like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. However, the third installment, The Dark Knight Rises, still leaves me with fuzzy memories and a bad taste in my mouth. Compared to the first two films, Rises had little to no impact for me.

Think about that. A live-action movie starring Bane, Catwoman, and the goddamn Batman failed to have an impact for me. What went wrong?

I think the problem was that Nolan and Co. didn’t pick up enough inspiration from the Jeph Loeb trilogy of graphic novels like they did with the first two Batman films. They put more energy into big-budget explosions than they did into a compelling and emotional story, which they did perfectly well the first two times and still had box office success.

So I’d like to try my hand at my own rewrite of The Dark Knight Rises, taking inspiration from such comic books as the Knightfall arc and Batman: Dark Victory.

Act I: Shadows

We begin over a year after the events of The Dark Knight. The last of the classic mob families are gathered in secret under one roof for an emergency meeting. However, masked supervillains assault the meeting, including the Scarecrow and Victor Zsasz. Their leader emerges once the last bodies hit the floor: a masked man known only as Bane, who declares his complete control over Gotham City.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s social life has deteriorated since the deaths of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. He’s become distant from his current girlfriend—the socialite Andrea Beaumont—and he shows up less at work, devoting more time and energy as Batman to fighting criminals like Bane and other costumed villains taken over after the collapse of the old gangs.

Elsewhere, Jim Gordon and the police investigate a series of murders, in which it appears that Batman brutally killed several gangsters and corrupt cops. However, Gordon knows better and puts a young officer named John Blake on point in locating the Dark Knight—not to arrest him, but to ask for help in stopping this new killer.

When Bane learns about these murders, he decides to end the Dark Knight once and for all. He breaks out prisoners from Blackgate and Arkham Asylum, flooding the streets with maniacs. Batman spends weeks prowling the Narrows, even taking on a deputy: a charming thief named Selina Kyle, also known as “The Cat.” Because she figured out Batman’s true identity (as a mission for Bane), Bruce drops the act with Selina and straight up hires her to be his ally, using his wealth to secure her loyalty and steal her away from Bane’s side.

Act II: Broken

While rounding up criminals left and right, Batman finds himself running into Officer John Blake, who becomes his lone ally on the police force. Blake begins to pick up some tips from the Dark Knight, including stealth and brute force moves. He’s also one of the first to see how the crime wave is taking its toll on Batman. As Bruce Wayne, he feels regret for alienating his fellow board members at Wayne Enterprises and losing touch with Andrea Beaumont. Even Lucius Fox asks Bruce to reconsider his mission, telling him point-blank: “Your life shouldn’t be spent standing over someone else’s grave.” Alfred hears this and sees that Bruce is, in fact, still motivated to avenge the single crime that took his parents from him.

With Selina’s help, Batman tracks down Bane’s headquarters and infiltrates it with ease. However, Bane’s waiting for him. Having figured out his true identity, Bane proceeds to beat Batman in a fistfight, overwhelming him with raw strength. We learn that Bane was the last true leader of the League of Shadows and that he wants revenge for the death of Ra’s al-Ghûl. After breaking Batman’s back, Bane stands triumphant, only for Selina Kyle to intervene and steal Bruce away.

Meanwhile, a new figure emerges. Gordon confronts the mysterious killer in the act, giving us our first glimpse of the Phantasm, a cowled assassin with a metal mask that resembles the Dark Knight’s own. The Phantasm nearly kills Gordon, but Blake saves his life using Batman’s tactics. Once news of this gets out, Bane redirects all his efforts into finding and killing the Phantasm to secure his control of the city.

Act III: Dawn

Now crippled, Bruce retreats to the Batcave and sends out a call to John Blake. He tells the young man that he needs a successor, someone with the will and stamina to be a living symbol of justice. Over the course of three weeks, Blake trains hard under Bruce and Selina’s direction, mirroring the progress Bruce made while training with Ra’s al-Ghûl.

Meanwhile, Gordon can barely contain the violence spreading through Gotham City as Bane’s men hunt down the Phantasm. It culminates in Bane launching a direct attack on City Hall and killing the mayor. He sends an open challenge to either Batman or the Phantasm.

Blake, now taking over as the Batman, appears at City Hall and takes down several of Bane’s man. He challenges Bane himself, surprising him with his youthful stamina and ferocity. Of course, after his defeat, Bane reveals a deadman’s switch on his body linked to a series of bombs underneath the city. Blake leaves to disarm half the bombs, while the city’s SWAT Teams disarming the rest—all but two. While being led into police custody, a weakened Bane dies at the Phantasm’s hand, activating the penultimate bomb and destroying a nearby football stadium.

Bruce finds the last bomb underneath Wayne Tower. With Lucius’s help, Bruce is able to regain some mobility through an experimental series of nerve-linked medical braces. He leaves to disarm it, donning a Batsuit one last time for protection, but encounters the Phantasm, who leaves the bomb in place. After a brief fight, we learn the Phantasm’s true identity: Andrea Beaumont, who wanted revenge on the mob and the corrupt police for the cruel murder of her father. Bruce reveals his own identity to her, pleading for mercy. He echoes a line from Lucius: “Your life shouldn’t be spent standing over someone else’s grave.”

Andrea refuses to apologize for the lives she’s taken, but allows Bruce to disarm the bomb. Then she disappears into the shadows, never to be seen again.

Months later, Bruce has retired as the Dark Knight, leaving it in the hands of John Blake, who resigned from the police force with Gordon’s blessing. Bruce has finally taken full control at Wayne Enterprises and pursued a meaningful romance with Selina, finally committed to being Bruce Wayne and the secret sponsor of the legendary Batman.

If my readers have any thoughts or suggestions of their own about how the Dark Knight Trilogy should’ve ended, by all means leave a comment.

Mad Science and Love Meets Pop Culture: Steins;Gate

Time travel! That sweet nectar of science fiction that never dries up because it’s paradoxically its own creator, caught in a stable time loop thanks to the Novikov self-consistency principle. It’s because of such beautiful madness that we’ve enjoyed the fruits of such stories as Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and one very quirky but heartfelt anime series called Steins;Gate.

Copyright © 2011 by White Fox

Copyright © 2011 by White Fox

Based on the visual novel by the same name, the anime follows the exploits of a young self-proclaimed “mad scientist” named Okabe Rintarou. Despite several failed inventions, he and his lab team of misfits accidentally produce a working time machine through a bizarre combination of a microwave and text messaging. Okabe’s experiments with sending messages back in time draw the attention of the lovely young scientist Makise Kurisu, as well as the dark masterminds at SERN (or at least their world’s version of the real-life scientific research center CERN). When his experiments draw a heavy price that puts the life of his young friend Mayuri at risk, Okabe is forced to loop back through time repeatedly, trying to save the lives of his friends and undo the damage caused by his obsession with time travel in the first place.

Now, some fans insist that the original Japanese voice acting is superior to the English dub. I think the original VAs are fine, but for me, nothing can compare to the absolute glory of listening to J. Michael Tatum as the wannabe mad scientist Okabe. This is a character who makes sweeping gestures and impassioned speeches at the drop of a hat, who turns drinking Dr. Pepper into a badge of honor, and who pretends to be talking to a shadowy ally on his cell phone while saying random code words like “El Psy Congroo.” When he’s at his best, Okabe can be very entertaining to watch.

But Okabe is a very unusual take on the classic mad scientist persona. While he genuinely does care that much about scientific research at any cost, it’s more than implied that he puts on such elaborate acts and dialogue for the benefit of his friends. It’s heartwarming to see him build paranoid fantasies about “The Organization” and enlist his friends as allies in his make-believe world. For all his wild speeches, Okabe is someone who cares about his friends in his own bizarre way. He’s like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, only much, much more tolerable and relatable.

Balancing out Okabe’s emotional drama and overconfidence is Kurisu (voiced by Trina Nishimura), who gets saddled with the nickname “Christina” and suffers from so many other mad scientist antics. She shares Okabe’s passion for science, but has better social skills and is more grounded in the real world. Any anime fan would immediately recognize her as a typical tsundere love interest, alternating between sincere affection and indignant hostility, but for what it’s worth, Kurisu plays the role well. She torments Okabe because he’s so over the top that he needs someone to bring him back to Earth—as well as help him grow as a person. It’s in scenes with Kurisu that we really get to see the best side of Okabe Rintaro.

The rest of the cast rounds out their dynamics, from cynical and geeky Daru to sweet and naive Mayuri, from shy Ruka to the plucky Amane Suzuha. With the introduction of the D-Mail subplot, we get to learn more about these side characters and their hidden depths, which includes dead or missing parents, gender identity issues, time travel paradoxes, and a few cases of severe depression.

Since there isn’t much to say about the animation apart from how good it is (especially the visuals set to the opening theme “Hacking the Gate”), I’ll just touch on the series as a whole. The science behind their time travel is well thought-out, drawing in alternate worldines and sending information back in time rather than actual human beings. The show even goes out of its way to reference and draw upon the Internet meme of the time traveler John Titor in its discussion. And speaking of memes, you’ll get more pop culture references in every episode than you can shake a lightsaber at while scrolling through 4chan boards. This show has plenty of drama and romance, but it’s also got several tidbits and shout-outs for all the geeks in the audience, too.

Ultimately, Steins;Gate has officially become my eighth favorite anime (right after Samurai Champloo, of course). It has a mad scientist in the lead role, some clever applications of time travel theory, tons of neat little pop culture references, and a colorful cast of likable characters. It’s an enjoyable ride and a real mind-bender of a show.

Well, that about wraps it up for me. And now I must be off, for there are strange men knocking at my door and a steam of mysterious texts buzzing on my phone!

El Psy Congroo!

The English dub of Steins;Gate is available through Funimation.

Bibliography: Steins;Gate (anime). Directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato. Produced by Gaku Iwasa. Written by Jukki Hanada. White Fox (studio). Funimation Entertainment (US). Original broadcast: April 6, 2011 – September 14, 2011.

Simulated Sorrows Ahead: Depression Quest

By now, a lot of people have heard about this indie video game known as Depression Quest. Many more people have no doubt heard of it in the context of its developer Zoe Quinn and her role in a social media mayhem involving Reddit users and adultery accusations. This led to further controversy regarding Ms. Quinn’s value as a developer and the unfortunate timing of the game’s release around the recent suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams.

But I’ve waded through those dark and turbulent waters enough and I’d rather spare my audience any of that nonsense. So, instead, I’d like to give the developer some space and actually talk about the game she made on its own merits.

Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn

Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn

Depression Quest is a free-to-play (or pay-what-you-like) text game. You’re dropped into the role of a person in their 20’s with a caring girlfriend named Alex, a loose circle of friends, a lackluster 9-to-5 job, and a pair of supportive but unresponsive parents. You make various choices throughout the game, taking new routes, forming new relationships, and taking the occasional risk. However, the nature of the game limits some optimistic options, like shrugging off stress and enjoying yourself or your work. Despite what some characters will tell you, you can’t in fact “get over it” just like that. Even when you think you’re improving, you can still have bad days.

It’s a game that recognizes depression not as a voluntary quality but as a neurochemical breakdown that makes daily life difficult at times. It really captures the sense of how a person might struggle even with things that make them happy, like a lover, a pet cat, socializing with friends, or working on a project of passion. Obviously, this isn’t a lighthearted, play-when-you’re-bored game. It’s educational and informative in a very engaging and simple way.

On a personal level, while I’ve never been suicidal or diagnosed with clinical depression, I have experienced a lot of the downturns showcased in Depression Quest. My issue is more social anxiety with the occasional depressive moment and even then I’ve done better at some parties than our nameless protagonist does. But many scenarios or conversations in this game really hit home for me and I think it’s great when any form of media, let alone a video game, can reach out and catch someone’s attention like that.

Regardless of how you feel about Zoe Quinn or the whole concept of a game about depression, if you’re interested in seeing the world through those eyes, then I recommend giving this title a look, even if you don’t want to play for long or pay anything at all for it.

I’d also like to point out that, if any readers are feeling pretty low and you need someone to talk to, all you have to do is drop me a line.

Depression Quest is available for download through its official website and Steam.

Bibliography: Depression Quest. Developed by Zoe Quinn. Written by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey. Edited by Patrick Lindsey. Twine (engine). Original release date: February 14, 2013.

Season Finale: The Legend of Korra: Book Three: Change

Last Friday was the season finale for Book Three of The Legend of Korra. By most accounts, this season was a clear improvement after the last season in terms of both action and character development—and I heartily agree.

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

(So, um, spoilers below…)

In this two-part episode (“Enter the Void” and “Venom of the Red Lotus”), we get to see the culmination of the two major story arcs: the return of airbenders and the Red Lotus threat against Korra’s life. When Korra surrenders herself to the Red Lotus to ensure the safety of the airbenders, she and the rest of Team Avatar end up in a constant match against the four bender extremists. The fight against Zaheer comes as great cost—for both Zaheer and Korra, which the show spelled out very poignantly. The final scene of the season is bittersweet, as Korra has suffered a terrible injury, but her job of keeping balance in the world is given over to the reborn culture of the Air Nomads, led by Tenzin, Bumi, and the newly elevated Jinora.

While the animation in both Last Airbender and Legend of Korra has always been good, I really was blown away (no pun intended) at the beauty of the animation in the fights between Korra and Zaheer. Watching two powerful benders clashing through the skies near the Northern Air Temple was quite a thrill, especially sweeping landscape shots and the fact that two people are straight-up flying as they fight.

That being said, this finale isn’t a nice one for Korra, even when you compare it to the loss of her bending at Amon’s hands in the first season. It’s amazing how often she gets knocked out, chained up, beaten up, and straight-up poisoned. Even in the finale’s close-out, she’s still recovering from her injuries and crying quietly—although it did make for a quiet and heartwarming moment between her and Asami, and their friendship has been one of the best parts of this season. Korra has suffered, but she suffers with purpose and it helps that she has great friends to support her when she needs it the most, whether it’s Team Avatar or Jinora and her fellow airbenders.

While Zaheer’s downfall was expected—and the sudden deaths of his comrades was jarring—I must admit that I didn’t see Bolin’s time to shine coming. The show had pulled a bait and switch, making us think he lacked confidence in his ability to become a metalbender like Korra did, only for him to suddenly pull off lavabending and then use it against Ghazan, the lavabender on the Red Lotus’s side. Of course, there’s a fan theory going round about Bolin and Mako’s mixed parentage of earthbenders and firebenders, so I’m inclined to support this view as it paints Bolin in less of a deus ex machina corner.

Ultimately, this finale was a great cap to a great season. I really felt that there was a sense of growth for both the show and for Korra in particular. She’s proven herself as a capable Avatar, and despite the heavy toll, she did succeed in helping restore the Air Nomads to the world. I can barely wait for Book Four and see what new adventures are in store for her.

The Legend of Korra is available for viewing on Nickelodeon.

Bibliography: The Legend of Korra Book Three: Change. Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, and Ian Graham. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Tim Hedrick, and Joshua Hamilton. Produced by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Tim Yoon. Ginormous Madman, Studio Mir, Nickelodeon Animation Studio, and Studio Pierrot. Nickelodeon (channel). Original broadcast date: April 14, 2012 to August 22, 2012.