Sunday, December 9, 2018

#RWBY: A Love Letter

I seldom watch television in the typical way we used to before the epoch of binge-watching arrived with internet streaming. The one exception to this rule, however, is a show produced by Rooster Teeth Productions titled RWBY.
Image result for RWBY

I first came across the first semester of my senior year in college. I'm a lover of two genres in the visual medium: fantasy and anime. So, when I saw the show pop up in my "suggested-for-you" queue on Netflix (which I'd only begun subscribing to three years before), I was intrigued. The show had already been around for two years, with the first two volumes available on Netflix in "movie" form.

Now, initially, I was reticent to watch it. Not because I didn't think it was any good. I had nothing on which to base such a judgement. It was actually due to the fact that the show only had two episodes. Had I been aware of how long each movie-length volume was, I would've checked it out sooner. Finally, bereft of anything new to watch, I clicked on it.

Almost immediately, the show engrossed me. The characters, the lore and worldbuilding, the action-packed fight scenes, the steadily intriguing plot--it was all compelling. This show is an amalgam of classic secondary-world Fantasy, the Magical-Girl genre, and the Shonin genres of anime. Regardless of what you may call it though, it's an addictive piece of serialized storytelling. I've said in the past, the key to great storytelling is to constantly force us, the viewers, to ask questions. Certainly, since I first watched the first volume, I've been wondering about this world, about these people, and about their intertwined fates. "What will happen next?" is a constant refrain.

I cannot count now how many times I restreamed it. But I did know this: I wanted to know what was coming next. This became such a need that, just this year, with the start of Volume Six, I bought a First membership. Before that, I'd wait for the episodes to show up on YouTube (which they no longer do), or for them to pop up for free on the Rooster Teeth site. Not anymore--because I have to know what happens next.

Now, there have been those who, as the series has gone on for five, going on six, years, have come to criticize it. Ever since the creative captain behind the show, Monty Oum, died in 2015, many have said, the show's lost its heart and its guiding hand.

The fight sequences (one of the highlights of the show threw volume three) have become fewer.

Those featured lack the grace of the ones that precede them.

The "shipping" section of the RWBY fandom (those who fan-out wanting certain characters to end up romantically involved) have lambasted the show for failing to fulfill their fantasies.

The scripts are too dialogue heavy and repetitive (in some cases that's true).

These are not my charges; they're merely the ones I've heard repeated enough that they've caught my attention to the point of annoyance. (Don't take that personally though. I'm easily annoyed).

I, however, have chosen to withhold any misgivings I have about the show at the present. Whatever little critiques I may have (save for the dialogue remark), they don't matter, and they don't matter for two reasons.

One, I'm not one of the writers making this show. I can't control how the production team chooses to tell their story. I can't change decisions they've made once an episode airs, and neither can anyone who complains that their favorite ship hasn't come in (so to speak).

Two, the story isn't finished. Monty Oum laid the ground work with the other RWBY developers before he died. Those who knew that plan are working to bring that show to life, moving it forward episode by episode. You can't truly criticize something (at least in my opinion), until it's actually complete.

However long the series goes for (I've heard mentions of it being between 10 and 15 seasons long by the end of it), I'll keep watching it. In this present volume alone, many questions that have been plaguing our minds have been answered. But of course, the writers keep begging new ones as well.

Not only that, but the series has also been getting better as the show's gone on simply on an animation level. In the first two volumes, there's a stiffness to the characters and a lack of detail to the world (evidently, this was an aesthetic choice). Yet, with each succeeding season, the characters have grown more--for lack of a better word--animated. Their movements are more real. Their expressions are more minute, more detailed, more natural.

And of course, there is the story. Since volume three--and the many heart-wrenching turns of events that transpired then--that has become the thing that's brought me back again and again That's a tribute to the masterminds behind this show. It's a sign that they're doing their jobs: getting us to care about these characters and worrying about what might happen to them. We've learned that the world of Remnant isn't just some ideal fairyland. It's a dark place, with a dark, Grimm-infested underbelly, where actions--positive and negative--have consequences. Good people can have devastating fates, and bad people get their poetic justice, sometimes.

Wherever the story leads, however, I'm still going to follow the rose petal trail. I've come to care about the characters, about the fate of their broken, imperfect world, and I want to see them through to the end.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

One Writer's Anxiety

(I was hoping to write about a completely different topic today, but this one is incredibly relevant to my life at the moment).

Image result for you only fail when you stop writingAs I'm writing this, I'm anxious.

There is a persistent tightness at the back of my neck and in my shoulders that feels like someone shoving a horde of hot dull knives directly into my nerves. My breathing is incredibly short. My thoughts are consumed by a shuffling playlist of worry. My patience is wearing thinner than the denim in a pair of twenty-year-old washed out blue jeans, and if one more person asks me, "How are you today?" or tells me to "Take it easy," there's a high probability (if I'm using that word correctly), that I'll be going to jail for physical assault. Just what America needs: another brown person with an ugly mugshot and a rap sheet.

Once I've assuaged the cause of my anxiety, though, I'll feel better. That's how I've always coped with it.

I've had anxiety since I was a little kid. The first signs of it appeared when I started biting my fingernails, a disgusting habit I still engage in (when I actually have fingernails to bite). I started this habit when I was about four or five. It was an unconscious response to the surmounting fear I started experience around that time.

No matter how brash or confident I seem to appear to be here on the page, away from it in life, I am--always have been, and likely, always will be--a painfully shy person. Doing new things, meeting new people, and getting outside my comfort zone (which basically ends at the threshold of my house), have never been easy for me

I was a frightened child. I was sacred of the dark, thunder and lighting (loud noises in general), the Four "S"s (snakes, sharks, spiders, and strangers), heights, needles (which I'm still not fond of, but that's another story), and, most of all, death.

Then there were the smaller things, like being late, being wrong, dentists, and doctors. Oh, and failure.

To cope with these, I developed some bad mechanisms. Nail-biting was one of them. Hair pulling  was another, which I've since gotten over. (Bald spots at six-years-old are embarrassing). I kept away from people I didn't know, avoided things and experiences that even slightly unnerved me, and I quietly lived in my head.

However, I'm also an incredibly stubborn person (I couldn't be a writer, constantly facing rejection, without that character trait), so I was determined to figure out some better ways to cope with my shyness. Thus, I became the reluctant smartass of my family (see my essay on the subject for that story), using my sense of humor as a way of bridging that social gap between me and other people.

I learned that laughter is a great tool for defusing anxiety, for both the humorist and the humored. I also learned  that it's best to embrace your own nature. I always felt bad that I could never be the gregarious social butterfly that some people were naturally. I didn't need an enormous circle of friends, just a handful who got me. And, when tension is high, I seclude myself and enjoy my own company, along with a book, a good TV show, or some music.

I also educated myself out of many of my fears. I learned that the dark wasn't anything to be afraid of--it's merely the "absence of light". I learned what thunder and lightning were and how to handle loud noises. I became a nerd when it came to spiders, sharks, and snakes (though I'm still afraid of snakes because...well...venom). I can handle heights (the trick is not to get too close to edge and if you do, keep your balance). I still don't like needles, but they remain the only way doctors can administer vaccines (and I don't want to know what measles feels like).

I learned that death is inevitable; be aware of it, don't think about it too much, and use the time you have to do what you enjoy.  Dentists and doctors--it's better to live well with good teeth than to die. Time management and getting enough sleep helped with the lateness thing, and being wrong can sometimes be a good thing since you might learn something.

It worked. These days I can manage my anxiety fairly well. I plan things out, I try to avoid surprises, and I don't overburden my mind with thoughts of things I can't control.

There is still one thing that triggers my anxiety though: writing.

Because writing is such a cerebral, solitary activity, I think many writers suffer from anxiety and mental illness in general. The insecure nature of publishing and the worries about outside reaction to their work doesn't help this either.

I'm no different in this regard. However, I'm aware that there are certain things I can't control. I can't control reaction to my work. I can't control whether the odds of publication will be in my favor on a given project. I can only control one thing: whether or not I keep writing.

I get anxious when I don't write (or rather when I haven't written). I discovered this was a problem when I was a college kid. Each day that went by when I didn't write was a bad day. All the things I described earlier about feeling anxious would pile on me in an avalanche fashion.

There was only one remedy for this: to write. So, everyday, I write. This is my method of coping with my writer's anxiety. I have a quota of a minimum number of words--1000--that I try for with my fiction. More often than not, I make it. On nonfiction days (like today), I try to finish the thought I'm attempting to get across, and then I quit for the day.

The reason I was anxious today was that I hadn't had a chance to write (and I had things, like this blog entry, to finish). But now, here are my words, strung coherently across the page. My anxiety has eased. Still, I'm always aware that this is a persist issue with which I'm always going to have to contend. But I've found my strategies to do so, and thus far they're working.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Let's Talk About @LindseyStirling

(I've noticed that I haven't written anything about music since my second essay, so allow me to mitigate this neglect).

As a teenager, I hated the music of my generation. Well, most of it. 

While I was in high school the four great sensations in pop music were Lady Gaga, Katie Perry, Kesha, and--the bane of my adolescent existence--Justin Bieber. My contemporaries loved the music of these three, along with others. But not me. I couldn't stand their music.

A third of this loathing, I'll admit, came out of snobbery. I was going through my dilettante musician phase learning about "real music," meaning Classical, Baroque, and Romantic-era music, and I was playing it. So I thought anyone who just sung cheesy, bubblegum pop lyrics based around three or four chords wasn't a real musician (as if I, having no natural talent in the area, had any room to pass judgement. I was a teenager though, and after texting friends and talking about sex, passing judgement on subjects over which we had no authority was one of our hobbies). Teenagers are prone to such pretentious affectation and thought because they're trying to figure out who they are. I was not different.

The other two thirds of this loathing, however, arose out of different feelings. 

One was simple annoyance. The music of these artists was played on repeat, on the radio, all the damn time. Now, from experience, I know that even if you like listening to a piece of music, or an artist, or a particular album, sooner or later, you're going to want to listen to something else. But when you can't stand it, and the song persists, that feeling of repetition-induced nausea only intensifies tenfold. 

The second was a recognition of a pattern. The more I listened to the pop music of my generation, the more I began to realize that every song, no matter the artist, was usually about one of three subjects: Love, Sex, or Money. All I say about that is this: the only reason you should sing about any of these subjects or listen to songs about these subjects is if you're lacking them in your real life.

My eventual relief came when I finally started exploring the website YouTube and a certain video popped up on my "Suggested for You" section:

Image result for lindsey stirling albumThat's right. This was one of Lindsey Stirling's earliest, professionally filmed and edited videos for her song "Spontaneous Me." It was my first salvation from my music-less state. Immediately, I subscribed to her channel, the first YouTube channel to which, I think I subscribed. I watched all of her early videos as she released them. Some of which were covers and mashups of popular songs of the time. But my favorites were the originals, each dramatizing a song that would eventually show up on her titular first album, Lindsey Stirling

A couple of my favorites include:

1. Shadows

3. Elements

3. Transcendence (Orchestral Version--which she's never released as an MP3, to my great chagrin)

But what was it that Lindsey's music had that I found so attractive? What quality did she have that I found so enamoring and enjoyable to listen to?

Well, for one, she played the violin. Even as a fake musician, I always had a respect for old-school musicianship and musical accomplishment. Lindsey is a classically trained (which merely means she's been educated by an actual music teacher) violinist, and, though her style of performance and playing is unorthodox, the skill set she learned shines through. Additionally, the violin, when played well, is one of my favorite classical instruments. Had I not been forced by circumstance to learn the trumpet instead, I would've wanted to be a violinist (which I'm sure I wouldn't have been any better at). 

Her attitude of overflowing optimism and enthusiasm was also a plus. Having been a cynical asshole of a teenager, listening to her music had a great balancing effect on my personality.

Another added bonus was that her music lacked any lyrics. She wasn't playing songs about desiring love, or sex, or money, and that was a great relief. Instead, her music was music at its purest: absolute abstraction from which you, the listener, had to derive some kind of meaning. Her music videos--works of art on their own that gradually used more fantastic imagery as time passed on, which appealed to my sensibility as a lover of fantasy--tended to give you some idea of what the songs were about when coupled with their titles, but the sounds were what mattered to most.

Above everything else though was that Lindsey was simply unique. Many great groups, like Simply Three, The Piano Guys, and Taylor Davis, have come up through the YouTube ranks with their unique sounds because mainstream music was so specific. You had to sing, and if you couldn't do that, you had to play a mainstream musical instrument, like guitar or piano. Lindsey didn't fit that mold. It was because of this nonconformity that she got booted off America's Got Talent (something I found out years later, because I don't watch AGT). Yet, she persisted. She started a channel. She gained a following, and since then she's toured the world time and again, and she's released five albums (three original albums and two Christmas albums). 

That singular quality, combined with her positive personality, incredible skill, and drive to succeed, is what not only endeared her fans (Stirlingites, as we're called), but is also what's lead to her success. 

I hope one day to be able to see her live in concert, and I'm eagerly awaiting what she'll do next in her own artistic journey.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Reluctant A**hole in the Family

"there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody
see you."

~ Charles Bukowski, "Bluebird" (Lines 1-6)

If you were to ask any of my high school friends, and my siblings for that matter, what my theme song would be, they'd probably say that the following would be apt:

George Carlin famously said--in his last special It's Bad for Ya!--that, "There's always one asshole in the family." Whether I did so intentionally or accidentally, I cultivated a monopoly on this identity as a teenager. And, to be fair to those who thought of me as such, I was an asshole as a teenager.

I was asocial--meaning, I didn't voluntarily seek the company of other people--to the point that my family thought I was actually antisocial (which is actually a personality disorder, I've discovered, common to psychopaths and sociopaths). I had social skills but would outright refuse to utilized them in given situations. And, above everything else, I had an insult-slinging, sarcasm-wielding, quip-whipping, comeback-having smart mouth.

Evidently, I wasn't the only such person in the extended family tree of the Martinez-Escoto, Cassmeyer-Kerprin Clan. My Uncle James (he's still alive, and like the Pope, you're one till you die) is one.

He once was in court--he's was a lawyer in the Navy, now retired--and near the end of the session, he gave a rousing, cutting closing argument. It was so galvanizing, the opposing council shot up from his seat and shouted, "You're an asshole." (Hint, hint).

My Uncle James didn't finch. He didn't cringe. He didn't cower. Instead, he turned to face his legal opponent, and replied, "Thank you. I've been working towards that my whole life."

My siblings only compounded and solidified this image when, one year, for both Christmas and my Birthday, they gave me t-shirts with messages written on the front of them. Sarcastic messages. Here's a few of them (and I apologize for the poor image quality. I'm a writer, not a photographer).

1. "This Is My Happy Face" (Featuring the Grumpy Cat)

2. "I Love Sarcasm. It's Like Punching People In The Face, But With Words."

3. "I Don't Get Paid to Be Sarcastic, I Do That For Free"

4. "Attempting to Care" (Note the Buffer Symbol)

5. "Despite The Look On My Face, You're Still Talking!"

6. "On Your Mark, Get Set, Go Away"

And these are only a few of the collection. Over the years, it has grown into quite a collection because they've continued to give me more of these as presents. I started wearing these almost everywhere I went, except formal occasions (you don't wear t-shirts to such things, even if you don't want to go to them), and as I did, more people came to view me the same way. They'd take a look at the shirt, read the words, and get the message.

I played the part well too. People were expecting someone with a sharp, caustic sense of humor, and goddammit, did I deliver. If anything, I overdelivered. 

But the truth was, this persona that I came to embody was just that: a persona.

I won't deny that these t-shirt didn't reflect my sense of humor. They did (and do to this day). My humor is dry, twisted, and dark. (You can thank my compulsive listening to George Carlin for that). I think the worst it's been described is mean--my mother's appraisal--and the kindest was off-beat. What I mean is that, even as I cultivated this image of the smart-mouthed curmudgeon, there was a lot more going on beneath the surface. 

Adolescence for me, like for almost everyone, was an emotionally unpleasant time in my life. I was hyper-self-conscious. It is--and I'll repeat this until I die--the period in your life when you acquire all of the emotional scars and mental illness you'll have to work through as an adult. I was filled with self-loathing about my weight and my appearance (two things with which I still have issues), and I was painfully awkward and shy around everyone (especially those whom I found attractive). I was also incredibly sensitive to even the slightest putdown against me, for anything.

Worse, I had no natural safeguards. I wasn't--and still am not--conventionally attractive (and if there's such a thing as unconventional attractiveness, I've yet to discover it for myself). I didn't have the natural charisma that drew people to me. And, I had no outwardly expressible discernable talent, like athletic ability or natural performance skill. 

I was a shy, quite loner. To be that, in high school, is like being a billboard-sized target for bullies. So, I had to develop some kind of carapace, a shell or a guise I could easily hide behind to defend myself, psychologically and emotionally. The question was what kind?

The answer was via the only two things I really had going for me at that age: a fairly sharp mind and a facility with words. 

From listening to loads of stand-up and reading writers--Twain, Swift, Wilde, and Parker particularly--who had a facility for both wit and humor, I learned the art of, what the English comic actor Kenneth Williams dubbed, "The Acid Drop." The Quick Comeback or the Fast Putdown that would get people to shut up and leave me alone. This then developed into the sarcastic quip that I'd add on top of things that other people would say as they spoke, as well as the rapid, smartass reply to any question someone put to you. 

And it worked. After I managed to pull a couple of these off that cracked up the people around us, people learned not to mess with me. They learned to treat me, as Harlan Ellison once described himself, as a rattlesnake on a rock. If you didn't mess with me, I wouldn't bite you, but if you did...well that was your own damn fault. Any potential bullies in my high school years learned it was better to avoid me than risk a public, verbal castration from me (because I always made sure I said anything in front of witnesses).  I'm sure my not inconsiderable size and appearance--5 foot 11 inches, 200 plus pounds, with a face fixed in a scowl--acted as an added deterrent, but the comebacks were the venom in my fangs. 

Oddly enough, this ability also endeared me to people. Without it, in fact, I'm not sure I would've made any friends in high school. A considerable circle of people brought me into the fold of their well-established group because I could make them laugh. It was from there that I actually learned both to hold conversations and recount anecdotes, two skills that have helped make socializing easier for me as an adult. 

So it had its advantages. 

However, as I've gotten into my 20s, I've begun to see why I acted that way. It really was as an emotional defense mechanism that I kept in place for all my teenage years. Now though, I'm trying not to rely on it so much. I would much rather let people see me for me--the flawed, odd, strange weirdo that I am--instead of hiding behind that mask. Though it's a mask born out of a real part of myself (my sense of humor), it doesn't encompass who I am.

I'm sure I'll never fully shirk the image nor the shell, but I'd much prefer to be seen as more of a whole person.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

V.E. Schwab's The Monsters of Verity

Truth be told, I read this excellent duology between reading Vicious and Vengeful. After finishing the first Villains novel, and having fallen in love with her writing in the process, I immediately went through a period of "Schwab Withdrawal." I wanted and needed--had a jonesing for, if you will--another Schwab novel. (It's the same feeling, I imagine, that my mother goes through when she finishes her latest James Patterson book).

Having read some of her adult work though, I wanted to experience something a little different. I knew that she wrote works both in the broad genres of "YA" and "Middle-Grade," so I figured I should check something in one of those categories out. I spun the roulette wheel of options, and it came up Monsters of Verity.

Image result for Monsters of Verity

Having enjoyed her other work, I figured I would enjoy this, so I just bought both books straight out of the gate. The only preconceptions I had about these books came from Schwab herself, in an interview she gave in the UK. (See below for that). Besides her descriptions of it, I was fully open to the literary experience.

I have to say that I loved this series. The prose is again magnificent. A great hallmark of Schwab's style is that, even when she's telling an exciting action packed story, she never flags on the sentence level. She has, simply (and to couch it in a complete cliché) a wonderful way with words.

The best example of this is of course her playground rhyme about the Monsters of Verity, with each creature type getting its own stanza:

Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They're gonna come and eat you all.

Corsai, Corsai, tooth and claw,
Shadow and bone will eat you raw.

Malchai, Malchai, sharp and sly,
Smile and bite and drink you dry.

Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal,
Sing you a song and steal your soul.

Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They're gonna come and eat you all!

It's a haunting bit of verse, yet, she manages to cast it in that same rhythm and rhyme you find in something like Humpty Dumpty or Jack and Jill.

She also has he great facility for conveying details that are not only visual, but also audible. Onomatopoeic language recurs through he work, adding to rhythmic sense of her sentences. They work almost like the volume and tempo markings in music. At times, forte, staccato, presto, and allegro, other times, piano, andante, and adagio.

In addition, the other great thing about this series is Schwab's incredible ability to make her viewpoint characters so distinct in their personalities. Our two main characters are Kate Harker, the daughter of one of the series' central antagonists, who initially wants nothing more than to be her father's daughter, and August Flynn, a human-like masculine-presenting entity known as a Sunai, a monster born of a mass atrocity. It could've been so easy for Schwab to stick these two characters into classic molds of YA characters. But she's too good for that.

These two could not be more different. Obviously, one is a human and one is a monster, but there's more to them than that, and that's what I'm talking about.

Kate is a seemingly cold, calculating young woman, brimming with ambition (a trait I've found in many Schwab women), who plays things close to the chest. That being said, she isn't without a moral center or emotions. If anything, in the world she lives in on her side of V-City's great wall, she's the most morally conscious characters But she hides them well. At least until she meets August.

August, however, is the opposite. He's a very emotional, pained character, who is far more feeling conscious than his female counterpart. He's also a conflicted character, constantly at odds with his own nature. He's a monster, and he knows it. And he hates it. He'd much rather be human. Yet, he's fully aware that he can never become a human, which only pains him more. This emotionally attune sort of male character is, again, another Schwab hallmark of note. For someone like me, who wasn't really about to see himself in many of the more macho male characters of the literature I read, I immediately came to identify with August. Had this book been around when I was in high school, available for me to read then, I probably would've adored it as much as I did Harry Potter.

What's more is that Schwab establishes each character in this way in the first volume (Savage Song), but then, she flips the board, which each character undergoing a total transformation by the start of Dark Duet.  Kate, to a degree, softens, mainly because of her interactions with August, the very human monster. Whereas August, withdraws and becomes more distant, because he concludes that, no matter what, he'll never be human--thus, he embraces the monster in him, even though doing so still pains him.

This complexity and nuance of character, plus the loveliness of the language, of course, are only the tip of the iceberg that is The Monsters of Verity. It's a story with a bittersweet conclusion, but it leaves the world itself open for the possibility of greater exploration. Whether or not Schwab does so will be up to her own creative discretion. I personally hope she does. From the few glimpses we got of the wider world beyond V-City in Dark Duet, there is much more to this world than she's shown us thus far.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

V.E. Schwab's Vengeful

If you've been following my blog for as long as I've had it, constant reader (I thank you), then you'll know how much I loved V.E. Schwab's novel Vicious. The novel's gripping narrative structure, elegant prose, and exquisitely drawn, flawed, but nonetheless sympathetic characters drew me in and kept me in its clutches until the very end.

I read the book for the first time back in August, as a means of getting properly acquainted with Schwab's work. Given, then, that it was still a stand-alone book it seemed like the perfect starting point. So, once I fell for it, I eagerly went and pre-ordered the long anticipated sequel Vengeful.

Image result for Vengeful bookWhen it finally arrived on my Kindle (I read it as an eBook, something I seem to be doing a lot of lately), I eagerly began it--after a hiccup (I had another book to finish first before I could properly start it).

All I knew going into this book when I started were the returning characters, that the story would likely have a similar structure to its predecessor, and one other tidbit: that there were going to be two new, female EOs making their debut in this novel. Their names were Marcella Riggins and June. Beyond that, I simply remained open to what would come.

When our two debuting femme fatales entered the fray of this novel, properly, they immediately took center stage--and that was just fine with me. Marcella in particular held my interest of the two more simply because Schwab gave us more insight into her backstory. And, even though she had the power to rot away anything she touched, I fell for her seductive charms. She was a classic reclamation woman, someone who had put their own dreams and ambitions on hold for the sake of someone else, who finally found the opportunity, motive, and ability to bring those ambitions into the limelight of her life. And she's unapologetic about it. June also peaked my interest as a reader, but not because of what Schwab shows us about her. It's what she doesn't show us that fascinated me. June was a woman who wanted the power to never be hurt again, and she got it--at the cost of her own identity. Marcella, in a way, acts as a role model for her fellow EO, showing her that she shouldn't hide in the shadows of others. But June is reluctant to do that, until the very end of the book. Still, June remains largely an enigma. We get a few hints of what lead to her transformation (including an excellent and apt revenge scene when the two ladies come together for the first time as a force), but we only get hints, blurry images rather than clear pictures.

In addition, we also catch up with familiar faces, five years older and five years more world weary. We get a fuller picture of our old object of "love-to-hate" Eli Ever, the wounded, abandoned, and neglected child Eliot Cardale. Fred Rogers (or Mr. Rogers), once said, "Frankly, there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story." Such was the case for me when I learned of Eli's past. Though I still didn't agree with him, and I was rooting for Victor Vale when he entered their joint scenes, I couldn't help but come to understand him. I also felt sympathy for him given that he'd undergone Dr. Moreau-esque torture at that swine, Dr. Haverty (that was one death I was happy to see occur).

My only problem with this book was it felt too short. Unlike it's predecessor, which I felt could've very easily remained a stand alone story, Vengeful feels as if it's missing something. All of the characters still alive at the end are scattered, headed down their own roads, but with the certainty that they'll encounter one another again. And the overarching question left in my mind was, "What happens next?"

Schwab left a number of questions unanswered at the novel's end. Will Victor find a permanent solution to the problem he's facing? Will he somehow reunite with Mitch, Sydney, and Dol? What will the three of them do in the meantime? What'll June do next? Will she go after Sydney? What will EON's next move be? All of these questions dangle in my mind like loose threads just begging to be woven together into another lanyard of a novel.

My one solace is that Schwab indicated that there may indeed be a sequel at some point. That's the good news. The bad news is her projected release day won't be for another five years--which would mark the ten anniversary of the start of the Villains series (that's 2023, FYI)--if it happens. She said in an interview at The Strand bookstore that she wouldn't want to go back if she couldn't top, or at least equal what she's done thus far with the series, just for the sake of writing another sequel.

On that, the two of us agree.

I hate it when writers carry on their series for years just because of the popularity of certain characters or settings. Eventually, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and the books and the characters suffer So as far as I'm concerned, Schwab can take her sweet time so that when she does (if she does) return to the Villains universe, the result will be just as incredible as the previous two installments.

In the interlude, I'll just find something else to read.

(Check out the video below. It's the Strang talk I mentioned before, in its entirety).

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Stranger Things - A Masterclass in Serial Storytelling

No matter the medium, be it on stage, on screen, or in print, storytelling remains the same. In fact, it could be described very simply.

Successful storytelling is the careful balancing of begging questions of your audience and providing answers to your audience.

No where is this balance more precarious and important to consider than in serial storytelling (meaning, of course, telling stories over a long period of time). If the showrunners of a series force the viewers to ask lots of questions while only providing a handful of answers, then the series will likely become an unsatisfying watch; at the same time, if such showrunners fail to answer certain questions they've begged of their viewers, the shows will also feel inadequate. It's a tightrope. But, if you're able to traverse it skillfully, a viewing experience can be wonderful.

One of the best contemporary examples of good serial storytelling is the Netflix smash series, Stranger Things.
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Like everyone else who experienced this series, I loved Stranger Things. I'm a child of the late-90s and 2000s, so films in the aesthetic of this show--late 70s, 80s, and early 90s--dominated my viewing pleasure. Movies like Jaws, E.T. the Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, and the Star Wars films, amongst others had me glued to the screen. The early screen adaptations of Stephen King's stories--like Carrie and the Tim Curry version of IT--had me burying my face in my parents arms. And Tim Burton's early films, like Beetle Juice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, filled me with a sense of awe and wonder for the morbid and the gothic. All of this work informed the Duffer Brothers' own series, as many analysts have noted.

I missed the initial bandwagon for the show when it debuted, but only because I have a policy of not watching anything on Netflix or any other streaming platform that has only one season available. Why? Because if I like it, I'll immediately want more of it and more of it will be available to satisfy me, and if I don't, I'll be able to walk away from it. And in this case, I'm totally glad I did. While everyone else was waiting for season two with the single-minded insanity of someone in desperate need of a bathroom, I was able to enjoy both seasons back to back for the first time in one go.

It was also when I watched the show--binge style over the course of a week--that I saw why it was that people so desperately wanted the next season. It was all because of how the Duffers chose to tell the story of this series.

The novelist Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, once noted that storytelling--and art in general--was very similar to science in that both were based around the ability to observe and articulate patterns. Scientists observe patterns in the natural world, and artists and writers construct artificial patterns. If one looks closely enough, one can see exactly what the storytelling pattern is the Duffers employ in their writing for Stranger Things.

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You've been warned.

At it's base level, both available seasons of Stranger Things have at their centers a question. This question propels the plot of each season forward, hence why the show is so binge-able. We, as viewers, want to know what the answer to the focal question of the season is.

In the case Season One, the central question is, "What happened to Will Byers and is he still alive?"

It's that simple question that compels us to keep watching, episode after episode--even if it means staying up until two o'clock in the morning on a weekday with work ahead of us. Along the way of course, more questions are raised, mainly on the character level. (e.g. Will his friends find him? Will Will's mother go crazy and get hospitalized before they save him? Will El and Mike get to go to the snowball? Will Nancy break up with Steve and get with Jonathan, with whom she clearly has greater chemistry? etc.).

And, at the end of the first season, that central question gets an answer.

However (and here's the second level of the show's genius), in the final episode of the first season, the Duffers quickly raise several questions that go on to influence and inform the next season--in particular, three:

1. "What about the Upside Down?"
2. "Is Eleven really dead, and if not, what happened to her?"
3. "What's the significance of the thing Will coughed up?"

Of course, these weren't the only three questions raised for season two to resolve. Many of the character based questions--see the long list above--went unanswered by season one's end, so they get carried over to the next season as well. More so, new questions get raised as the season goes along, such as the questions relating to Eleven's real identity and the existence of the other children who possess psychic abilities. But the three questions mentioned above, I think, serve as the driving force of the second season.

Let's address them in reverse order (just for fun).

In the last episode of season one, when Will is along in the bathroom, he coughs up something that looks like the love-child of a tadpole and a turd. This thing resembles the same tentacle-like object he had shoved down his throat when Hopper and Joyce found him in the Upside Down. This of course begs questions. If this is a part of whatever that stuff was Will was entwined into when they found him, what kind of effects does it have on him? Will it have any such effects? The opening episodes of the second season address this.

Next, we have everyone's favorite brown-haired psychic Eleven. Once she faced down the Demogorgon, facing her fear and saving Mike, Dustin, and Lucas in the process, she suddenly disappeared into the cloud of disintegrated Demogorgon. We, of course, were hoping that she wasn't dead (the Duffers kill lots of people on the show, but thus far, no children--though that might change, only they know). It was this desire to know the fate of our favorite monosyllabic, but otherwise mute heroine that likely brought many viewers all back to show when it started again. And, of course, the first few episodes answered this question as well.

Finally, there's the Upside Down. We learn in the course of the first season that it was El who opened the passageway into this otherworldly dark dimension. Thus, when she disappears, that leaves the question as to what will become of that opening. How can non-psionic people contend with it? Can non-psionic possibly shut the gateway? By the end of season two, we of course learn that people without supernatural abilities can only create stopgaps, temporary solutions, and that it's only someone who has the power to open such a gate that can close it.

All three of these questions, as well as many of the previously mentioned character-centric questions, get answers by the end of the second season.

Truthfully, the Duffers could've ended the series with the second season quite easily. Fans got to see many of the hook-ups they wanted in the last episode, Eleven sealed the gateway to the Upside Down, and things were slowly regaining their equilibrium. But do they stop there? Oh no. Because before the finale, they leave two questions lingering in the minds of us the viewers (at least two, for me, maybe more for you, dear reader).

1. "Are there even more people like Eleven out there, and will we see them?"
2. "What will the Mind Flyer try to do now?"

In the second season, in the very first episode in fact, we encountered Eight, a personal capable of casting realistic illusions into the minds of those she chooses. Well, that begs questions. Where are One thru Seven, Nine, and Ten? What happened to them? What kinds of powers do they have? Will we get to meet them? At the very least, will we get to see more of Eight in seasons three? Only the Duffers will get to decide.

They also choose to conclude the last episode with a shot of the Mind Flyer hovering over the version of their school in the Upside Down. It's an ominous image to say the least, like a photo from space of an approaching hurricane. And it too begs questions. Does the Mind Flyer really know where they are in the real world? If so, how? Does it still somehow retain a lingering connection to Will?

Well, we'll just have to wait until next year to find out.

Because of the masterful storytelling the Duffers employ though, I sure we'll all think the next season will be too short, and we'll be hankering for more the minute the credits of the final episode of the next season starts to roll over our screens.