Time Flies (Except When It Runs Out): Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Copyright © 2001 by Terry Pratchett

Copyright © 2001 by Terry Pratchett

Following The Truth in the fantastic Discworld series is Thief of Time, a curious tale of timekeeping, artificial humans, and some very cool monks. Oh, and the Apocalypse (mustn’t forget that either).

The story is focused on a pair of History Monks, Lu-Tze and Lobsang Ludd, who are charged with investigating a mysterious breach in the flow of Time. What they and Susan (Death’s granddaughter) discover is the creation of a mythical glass clock and a plot by the Auditors of the Universe to break Time apart, thereby thwarting their enemy: Life itself. What follows is a madcap adventure as the monks take on the Auditors made flesh, while Death tries to gather up his old buddies among the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for one last ride.

It’s a given that any novel that contains Terry Pratchett’s Death is going to interest me, though he doesn’t have as big a role in this story as he does in Hogfather or Reaper Man. Still, his granddaughter Susan is a nice semblance of order in a chaotic storyline, trying to make sense of everything. I also loved the inclusion of irreverent characters like Nanny Ogg and Lu-Tze (the latter being so darn insistent of getting everyone to remember Rule One). The other protagonists, Lobsang Ludd and Jeremy Clockson, are interesting in their own way, but that’s less to do with character development and more to do with identity and backstory.

One of the bits that had me laughing nonstop was the whole sequence of Auditors (based on pure logic, supposedly) trying to wrap their heads around the concept of being organic beings, ranging from such difficulties as recognizing colors, misreading social cues, and discovering the sheer bliss of chocolate. Seriously, no one will blame you if you go out and buy some chocolate after reading this book. It’s both a plot point and a recurring motif described in such loving, tantalizing detail.

But as Pratchett is so good at doing, he also brings a nice element of pathos to the story. Characters like Lobsang, Jeremy, and Myria LeJean are more amusing because of their naivete, especially when paired with more cynical characters like Lu-Tze, Igor, and Susan. But these characters also undergo the most difficult transformations, learning hard lessons on the road to self-discovery and saving the flow of Time. It has the same kind of yearning and character development that first attracted me to the series, as the same spirit shows up in Mort and Reaper Man.

To sum up, I enjoyed this Discworld story more than the last two I read. It has several great jokes and puns, but it’s also got a nice mythology and an excellent story arc for both newcomers like Lobsang Ludd and recurring heroes like Susan Sto Helit. I enjoyed the culture and setting of the History Monks, as well as the whole subplot of rounding up the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s a large, wild, and well-written romp all the way through.

Thief of Time is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. Thief of Time. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Virtual Ghosts, Memories, and Lost Innocence

I’ve been focused on this image for a while now. Picture, if you will, a young man or woman, full of life and cheer and optimism. Now imagine that person’s essence being ripped out from their mortal shell. Imagine the memory of their former selves being twisted into a nightmarish ghost, a terrible wraith to suit someone else’s mad dreams. And though their former self may rear their pitiful little head from time to time, they must sink back into the abyss, unable to scream while their cold twisted persona carries on with cruel and thoughtless deeds…

No, this isn’t the premise of a serial killer film. It’s actually a plot twist that I’ve come to recognize in a few different stories. We learn that an iconic character (usually a villain) was once a sweet and kinder person. It’s a lot like the famous twist behind Darth Vader being Anakin Skywalker, but instead of becoming evil, they were forced into it. Innocence was corrupted, memories were buried, and they do cruel things to the heroes of their stories because that’s all they know.

I want to investigate this archetype a little further, so I’ll get into three particular characters who exemplify this path, while giving a comparison between all three.

As a warning, the following contains spoilers for Red Vs. Blue, Portal 2, and Adventure Time.

Case No. 1: Tex (Red vs. Blue)

Copyright 2012 by Rooster Teeth Productions

Copyright © 2012 by Rooster Teeth Productions

In the ongoing webseries Red Vs. Blue, a pair of teams in SPARTAN armor bicker, avoid work, and get thrown into the middle of several sinister conspiracies and military plots. For the first 10 seasons of the show, all these plots center on the elite military force known as Project Freelancer, best exemplified by the badass female fighter known as Agent Texas—or simply “Tex.”

After Season 6, we learn more about the origins of two main characters, Church and Tex. While Church was based on an AI copied from the mind of the Director, Tex was based off the Director’s memory of the woman he loved most—Allison—whom he lost to the war. The memory of her death resulted in the creation of Tex, who has tried to save Church (or “The Alpha”) over and over again. But as characters like Church and Wash point out, Tex’s chief attribute is failure because that’s what the Director remembers most about Allison: how she failed to come home.

When we first meet Tex in RvB, we’re presented with the deadliest warrior in the show, an unstoppable Valkyrie with a gun in each hand. But as the show’s mythology unfolds, what we learn is that the legend falls apart, revealing a vengeful ghost that is really just the Director’s own tortured memory, stuck on a constant loop. Only when confronted by his legacy does the Director’s self-torture finally cease—and when it does, so does Tex. The virtual ghost that haunted both his thoughts and the Reds and the Blues is finally laid to rest.

Case No. 2: GLaDOS (Portal)

Copyright © 2011 by Valve.

Copyright © 2011 by Valve

GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain) makes for an excellent and memorable video game villain. She never misses an opportunity to taunt the player, she has surprising control over the Enrichment Center and all its defenses (from automatic turrets to death traps), and she has proven that killing off scores of human beings has been very easy for her in the past. But in Portal 2, we get a glimpse at another side of her and who she used to be.

Exploring the ruins of Old Aperture Science, we learn about the mad company founder Cave Johnson, whose massive ego and terrible ideas were barely kept in check with the help of his eager, long-suffering assistant Caroline (also voiced by Ellen McLain). It’s never explained how or when it happened, but because of Cave’s dying wishes, Caroline ended up becoming the human mind uploaded into the mainframe that would become GLaDOS. And as GLaDOS herself admits, Caroline is the often-ignored (and once-deleted) voice of conscience deep inside her circuitry.

Much like how Tex was born from the Director’s inability to escape his own memories and guilt, GLaDOS was born out of the madness that permeated Aperture Science. While Caroline was devoted to science and keeping her boss sane, GLaDOS was devoted to testing and actively flooded the Enrichment Center with neurotoxin. Some fans have interpreted that GLaDOS’s own rage is actually a displacement of the shock and anger felt by Caroline at her forced conversion from woman into machine. She faithfully carries on the legacy of Cave Johnson, but without any of Caroline’s empathy. She runs Aperture Science alone, trapped inside a facility of her own design, burnt free of compassion and using what precious humanity she has left to mock and break her few remaining test subjects.

Case No. 3: The Ice King (Adventure Time)

Copyright © 2012 by Cartoon Network

Copyright © 2012 by Cartoon Network

On the surface, Adventure Time is a kid’s show about heroes fighting monsters in the colorful, mythical land of Ooo. But once you dig beneath the surface, you learn about the Mushroom War, the Lich, and all the horrors that preceded this happy-go-lucky world in the present day.

By that same token, the Ice King is just as complex. He starts off as a recurring villain who’s obsessed with kidnapping princesses and making Princess Bubblegum in particular his bride. But over the course of their adventures, Finn and Jake eventually see Ice King as less of a threat and more of a pathetic old man trying to cope with his lonely existence.

Then comes the episode “Holly Jolly Secrets.” We see a glimpse into the past: that the Ice King was once a man named Simon Petrikov. After finding the Ice Crown, he drove away his fiancee Betty and survived the aftermath of the Mushroom War. Despite making friends with a young Marceline, the Crown has warped his body and his mind, keeping him alive and powerful at the cost of his sanity. Only briefly does he begin to show signs of being Simon. Otherwise, the Ice King is too far gone to even realize he was ever anyone else, lost in his own fantasy world.

What really gets me about this character isn’t just the sense of how The Dark Side Will Make You Forget. It’s also a look into dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the toll they take on both the victims and their loved ones. Watching Marceline (both young and old) trying to reason with Simon’s fractured mind is heartbreaking, especially when he never means her any harm despite his madness. The recent episode entitled “Betty” has raised some interesting possibilities about the Ice King’s future development, but for now, he remains—just like Tex and GLaDOS—a prisoner inside his own mind, his memories warped by the passage of time and the temptation of power.

If there’s anything to be drawn from these three character studies, I suppose it’s important to look at who they used to be and what they gave up—or were forced to give up. In all three cases, the original good person was twisted into a terrifying new entity based on someone else’s good intentions, whether it’s the Director of Project Freelancer, Aperture Science, or the Ice Crown. It’s not the corruption of a Satanic influence per se. More like Frankenstein’s monster, where basic decency was snuffed out because of a weak or selfish creator.

So, what lesson can we take away from these broken and twisted minds? We have a responsibility to one another, a duty to consider our choices and how they affect others. And we have a responsibility to what we create, whether for good or evil.

If you have your own thoughts or opinions about this phenomenon, or want to add another character to the mix, feel free to share in the comments below.

Tossing Shields Left and Right: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ever since I saw The Avengers in 2012, I’ve realized that, despite my long-held joy of Robert Downey, Jr. playing the great Tony Stark and Iron Man, it was Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, who truly was my favorite Marvel superhero. While he may not have a powered suit of armor or divine birthright or unstoppable strength, Cap is the pinnacle of human endeavor and integrity, achieving the impossible with enhanced human potential and never losing faith in his ideals.

In the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, we see those ideals and that strength put to the test. Set two years after the failed invasion of New York, Steve Rogers is still adjusting to life in the 21st century. When someone attacks Nick Fury and he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised from within, Rogers has to rely on himself, with the dubious help of fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow, who appears to have her own agenda and loyalties. Meanwhile, the cabal in charge sends their most ruthless agent, the Winter Soldier, to dispatch their enemies, which forces Rogers to confront an all-too-familiar face from his past.

Copyright 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Acting-wise, Chris Evans is great as the titular Captain, bringing the same enthusiasm and awkward moments. He provides a lot of great moments with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, especially when she keeps pushing his buttons on trusting people and finding someone to ask out on a date. As always, Samuel L. Jackson steals every scene as Nick Fury, but it’s nice to see him get a lot more screentime and even a nice long car chase sequence. I also didn’t expect to see Robert Redford in the film, but he plays the role of Alexander Pierce with a very subtle and sinister charm. It’s nice to see him in a political thriller again (perhaps as a nod to his role in Three Days of the Condor).

The real surprise in the cast (for me) was Anthony Mackie, who played Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. I enjoyed his connection with Steve Rogers at the beginning of the film, talking on the level of fellow veterans working through their trauma, which made their eventual partnership as heroes much more believable by the end. And honestly, it feels right to see someone like Falcon (whose flight harness reminds me of the American eagle’s wings) paired up with a patriotic superhero like Captain America.

The film wins me over on the amazing action scenes, from Nick Fury shooting out his pursuers in Washington, D.C. to Captain America trading blows and shield throws with the Winter Soldier, whose appearance and fighting is wonderfully silent and pragmatic. The CGI is also dropped a notch compared to other Marvel films, which made me appreciate some of the hand-to-hand fight scenes more. It felt like watching The Bourne Identity with even more superpowers.

What got me stuck, however, was the reveal of the villains and their plot. It’s not that they want to make the world “safer” through questionable means, but that they’re willing to resort to incredibly obvious and very expensive superweapons to do it. I mean, if they can turn human beings into living weapons like the Winter Soldier (who was already said to have “shaped the century” through an impressive record of assassinations), then why not create a few more of those elite troops and scare the world into submission that way? But I suppose it can’t be helped. If you’re going to have a giant, explosive climax for a Captain America movie, you might as well try to justify your special effects budget in the plot.

What I enjoyed most about this movie was how the plot allowed us to see more implications about Cap’s presence in the modern era, with his idealism clashing against the pragmatism of men like Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. He sums it up in one bit of dialogue during the climax:

Sam: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Steve: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Overly simplistic? Definitely, but it also fits the attitude that Steve and the US had in WWII: the Nazis are threatening to stomp all over Europe and we need to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. While it does unbalance the film’s tone from its cold discussion of pragmatic solutions to complex security issues, it does at least affirm Captain America’s dedication to justice through hard work as opposed to “easy” solutions that the villains pursue.

All in all, I think this film’s a better installment of Phase 2 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s more topical than most superhero films (akin to The Dark Knight), with so many parallels to modern debates about NSA surveillance and the use of drones in the War on Terror, but in the end, it’s got plenty of heart and enthusiasm, putting an earnest hero right in the line of fire for an appreciative audience.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is showing in theaters now, available through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Bibliography: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Perf. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: April 4, 2014.

Top 5 Things I Want to See in Future Fiction

Everyone has their own preference for the kind of entertainment they like best, whether it’s watching giant robots slug it out in anime, falling in love with the male lead in a romantic comedy, enjoying some Shakespearean revival, or losing yourself in a world of flashing lights and dubstep. We know what we like and what we’d probably enjoy seeing in the future.

That being said, here are the top 5 things that I’d love see in the future in fiction, whether they’re in a book, TV show, movie, or video game.

5. Genuine Cyberpunk

I’m sure some of my readers will get sick of me harping on about cyberpunk, but to be fair, that’s only because reading Neuromancer had such an impact on me years ago. Still, there is something about the increasing integration of human beings and technology that fascinates the hell out of me. And it’s not as unusual as you’d think. How many of us don’t think of our smartphone as an extension of our brains?

However, most science fiction will find ways of keeping us separate from our technology. We’ll have cooler cars and faster download times, but our visions of the future don’t seem to allow for full-body medical sensor networks or a kind of electronic telepathy achieved through brain implants. Yet many engineers will tell you we’re already moving in that direction, so it baffles me that we’re not telling more of those stories.

Good Example(s) to Consider: Ghost in the Shell (movie and TV show sequels)

4. A More Serious Look at Religion

Historically, religion was a common theme throughout literature and plays, but in mainstream media, it’s more of an afterthought. When it does get mentioned, the use of religion tends to fall into one of three areas:

a) Faith is portrayed as a cheap excuse for vile behavior by fanatics, corrupt clergy, and fringe lunatics

b) A protagonist touches on a struggle with faith or a religious background, but it’s usually forgotten in favor of the story’s actual conflict

c) Religion is explored in inspirational literature, which often follows the inevitable plot of a non-believing protagonist coming to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior and becoming a Biblical literalist out of nowhere

Unfortunately, we know a lot about the anti-science creed of many devout people thanks to popular media. As a science-friendly Christian, I’d like to see more sympathetic views of religion in fiction, whether it’s someone whose faith informs their morality as a detective or who takes time to help out at a soup kitchen when the bullets aren’t flying. It’d be nice if people of faith weren’t automatically treated as backward-thinking and hostile just because we haven’t let go of our sense of mythology.

Good Example(s) to Consider: “Arrow of Time” (Numb3rs episode), “Two Cathedrals” (The West Wing episode)

3. Mythology Meets the Modern Day

Ask most people and they’ll tell you all the cliches about vampires, werewolves, and leprechauns. And to be fair, a lot of what we know about these mythological creatures has been watered down from the original legends. We’ve had famous creatures redesigned for popular consumption, but I think there’s a whole mountain of myths that we haven’t tapped yet.

I guess what I’m aiming at is to see more mythology explored in modern-day fiction, much like urban fantasy usually does. We know about the sexy Anne Rice vampires, but what about the bloated corpses of Romanian folklore? Or how about the headless horseman known as the dullahan? Or the Sidhe? Or the Cat Sìth? Any research into their folklore will yield a thousand new ideas for storytelling, especially if we want to see how these monsters and mischievous spirits can adapt to life in the big city.

Good Example(s) to Consider: The phouka and fairies in War for the Oaks, the Guides in Gunnerkrigg Court, Celty from Durarara!!

2. A Genuine Latino Protagonist

You’d think that, being in Southern California, Hollywood would have no shortage of quality Latino and Latina actors, yet the majority of leading roles are mostly given over to ethnically white actors. I don’t necessarily judge a film or TV show by the race of the lead role, but I do judge them by the portrayal of certain Latin stereotypes, whether it’s gang bangers, drug smugglers, farm laborers, or the occasional sassy Latina secretary.

Much like how the inclusion of African- and Asian-Americans in lead roles meant seeing African- and Asian-Americans as mainstream, the same standard should apply to people of Latino descent. Unfortunately, most Latino protagonists only show up in stories about Mexico or early 19th-century California. It’d be nice to see someone look at Latino culture and make an effort to create a well-rounded lead character based on that instead of reinforcing more stereotypes. After all, we’ve proven it’s possible to reinvent a stock British character like Dr. Watson using Asian actress Lucy Liu in Elementary.

Good Example(s) to Consider: Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) in The West Wing

1. More Female Lead Characters

I’ve touched on this matter in another editorial I did on gender writing, but the point remains the same: I find certain female protagonists more interesting than some the cliche male ones we keep getting. When I’m watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I get more interested in the struggles that Lisbeth Salander faces instead of identifying with the aging journalist Mikael. I’d rather follow Chell from Portal than John-117 from Halo (a blasphemy in the gaming world, I know). Even in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, it’s the women who get more interesting and active storylines, while the men sit around and whine.

Of course, there’s always that double standard about female protagonists. We allow male leads to range from dashing and handsome to overweight and quirky, but any female lead has to be good-looking and fit. We demand a sex symbol more than a human being in that regard. If we’re going to make any progress, then we need to look beyond the superficial and get down to why this protagonist is interesting and why we should be following her story in the first place.

In other words, what we demand from every protagonist ever.

Good Example(s) to Consider: Kim Ross in Dresden Codak, Annie and Kat in Gunnerkrigg Court

I don’t consider these attributes set in stone. The thing about finding something new to enjoy in a story is that it’s always unexpected. There’s no guarantee that I really would like, say, a live-action cyberpunk film with a religious subplot and a Latino vampire hunter (though, come on, how awesome would that be?). But seeing Hollywood and network TV and big game developers take a chance on these storylines would certainly draw my attention, if not my enthusiasm.

If my readers have their own ideas about characters or stories they’d like to see more of, feel free to talk about it in the comments below. Your participation is, as ever, most appreciated.

The Team’s All Here: RWBY (Volume 1)

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions

Last year, I wrote a short review on the pilot episode for RWBYan animated series that came from the collaboration of Monty Oum and Rooster Teeth Productions. But now I’ve had a chance to look over the entire first season (or “volume”), so I feel I owe it a real in-depth analysis. Did it hold up as well as I’d hoped from watching the first episode?

Short answer: Yes.

The world of RWBY is set in a modern yet mythical kingdom called Vale, where young men and women train at academies to fight monsters called the Grimm and develop their skills in a team. Ruby Rose is one such Huntress-in-training, having to get along with her older sister Yang, the arrogant but perceptive Weiss, and the mysterious Blake. While they take on monsters and learn to hone their talents at Beacon Academy, the all-girls team find themselves confronting major issues in the world, such as the treatment of the half-human Faunus and a criminal conspiracy to steal large quantities of Dust, the magical substance that gives human beings their power.

Because it’s a Rooster Teeth show, the talent among the voice actors is brilliant. It’s easy to laugh around the chipper attitude of Ruby, Yang, and Nora, but the show can be very dramatic, too, bringing in heartfelt performances through characters like Pyrrha, Jaune, and Blake. Even the faculty goes beyond being a cast full of teaching stereotypes, showing some depth and background as warriors and leaders in their own right.

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions

Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions

Of the whole cast, my favorite character has to be Pyrrha Nikos (voiced by Jen Brown, whom some of you may know as Carolina from Red vs. Blue). She doesn’t have quite the bubbly personality of Ruby or Yang, but she’s one of the most skilled fighters in the show and a generally cheerful person. What makes her interesting, though, is how the show pairs her up with her natural contrast, Jaune Arc (voiced by co-writer Miles Luna). He’s awkward and usually in need of rescuing, but he’s got a sense of empathy that makes him and Ruby great friends, as well as someone Pyrrha can guide in their training.

Pyrrha’s essentially the mentor figure to Jaune’s audience stand-in, guiding him (and those of us watching) in the nuances of RWBY’s world. It could be easy to make her into a pure exposition-spouting character or a female badass with no other personality traits, but she’s allowed to flourish as a person. And unlike some other action heroines, Pyrrha doesn’t lose any of her strength to make way for Jaune as a traditional hero. The show emphasizes their pairing more than anything and even handles their romance as implied rather than explicit.

Jaune (left) and Pyrrha (right).

Jaune (left) and Pyrrha (right). Copyright © 2013 by Rooster Teeth Productions.

Since this is a Monty Oum production, I suppose I ought to say a word about the animation. But one word won’t do it justice. The animation is excellent, taking so much of the physics-defying grace and acrobatics that we saw in Dead Fantasy and Haloid. Every fight sequence is a ballet of magic, impossible weapon combinations, and over-the-top gymnastics. People go flying when struck by energy blasts, while Hunters of every color go toe-to-toe with mindless black-and-white creatures of Grimm in beautifully designed forests and ruins. It’s the kind of animation that seems to fit a shonen anime, but the pacing and quality here is beyond what we’ve seen in most Western animation. A lot of the fights remind me of the beautiful training sequences between Po and Shifu from Kung Fu Panda, odd as it may sound.

In the end, both the show’s cast and animation can be described in the same way: funny, quick, and lovingly detailed. While some viewers may not be anime fans or enjoy scenes of teens fighting monsters and gangsters (and really, who wouldn’t enjoy that?), the show itself does carry some amazing comedy and quite a few moments of drama and compassion. Come for the brilliant action, but stay for the bonds of friendship.

RWBY Volume 1 is available for purchase in the Rooster Teeth Store on DVD and Blu-ray.

Bibliography: RWBY.  Directed by Monty Oum. Written by Miles Luna, Kerry Shawcross, and Matt Hullum. Produced by Burnie Burns and Kathleen Zuelch. Music by Jeff and Casey Lee Williams. Rooster Teeth Productions. Original run: July 18, 2013 — November 7, 2013.