Friday, November 27, 2009

The Holiday Sense of Wonder

Thanksgiving day brings with it an annual visit to Steph's parents' house for our family and about five or six dozen other people.  I was told it used to be only thirty or forty; there are now at least 25 children that attend, in addition to some number of adults.  Two of the children that attended this time around were our very own Allie and Evey.  Evey mostly slept, passed around like a sacred totem from grandmother to aunt to cousin to mother and back again.  Allie... well, Allie went hog wild.  The kids got to enjoy climbing on a jungle gym, pony rides, playing Beatles Rock Band, badminton, ping-pong, and just running around burning k-cals like little hummingbirds.  And I began to remember for the first time in decades just how incredible the holidays really are for children.  As they should be.  And Christmas is just around the corner.

I vaguely remember the entire holiday season in my youth being one gigantic run-up, like a party on the verge of breaking out for an entire month.  It was impossible not to get caught up in the anticipation.  There were colorful, shiny lights everywhere; every toy and gadget and gizmo a person could want to examine was on display at the stores; and special events were taking place at arcades, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and laser tag arenas.  The temperature turned cold, but never freezing, here in the Phoenix area; it made for bright, pleasant days and chilly, wintry nights.  There was plenty of candy to be had no matter whose house we visited, and there was plenty of time to play because school was out.

I remember my friend Dalton would have Christmas a few days early, because his father was an airline pilot and would inevitably have to work through the holiday itself.  There would be a barbecue, football games, early presents (meaning toys and gizmos, of course), and usually trips to cool places we would never have thought to go.  I remember Thanksgivings at my parents' cabin with a few other families in the mix, and going out to play in the snow (or the autumn woods, if it was a warm year) with my sister and/or my friends Jeff and Tom.  One year, I was horribly ill -- I think I was 13 or 14 years old -- but I managed to play through and complete several Nintendo games, so even a sick New Year's turned into what was, for a teenaged nerd like I was at the time, a pretty decent experience.  (I believe Philip J. Fry said it best: "Well, I spent all of ninth grade playing video games, except for that week when my eyes started to bleed, and in my opinion...")

Once I grew into adulthood, the shine quickly faded from the holiday apple.  I had a few good years early on with the family, but then I made the mistake of getting "married" at 22 and having to shuffle between visiting my family and visiting hers -- truly an excruciating experience.  Things went south for me financially, and I ended up more concerned with getting work done and the fact that I couldn't do any mailing or other business during the days when everything was closed.  After I was divorced in 2001, I spent the next few years having things go generally well, but the fun was definitely "over" -- the bottom line was that I had a household to maintain, even just a household of one.  And since it was more economical for me at the time to eat out for virtually every meal, holidays became an adventure of wondering what would be open so I could get some chow.  Dalton, Beach, and I filmed one of our "funny videos" on Christmas in 2001 or 2002, showing us visiting restaurant after restaurant with no success, and finally managing to grab a meal at Gameworks.  I met Stephanie in 2005 and things improved, but for a few years my main concerns during holiday season were law school finals and eBay work.

This year, I was able to arrange for all those distractions to be set aside, because I was determined to make sure I enjoyed the time I had with the family.  Even though it's a challenge keeping up with "Tornado Allie," I knew she would be on cloud nine and I determined not to miss it.  Steph's family is an order of magnitude better to spend time with than that of my ex, and instead of having us shuffle between houses, my parents and such were simply invited right into the fold and joined the fun.  And for a shining afternoon, I was able to smile and just live in the moment.  It's still going on, after a fashion; the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend is going to be full of visits with friends and recreational time with my folks and the girls.  So, even though the child-scale enjoyment of the holidays is probably gone beyond my reach, the festivities still have the power to stimulate my sense of wonder... and, being a science fiction writer, my sense of wonder is something I am happy to see nourished and sustained.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future According to 1989: Photon

I had a great weekend, and it brought with it a flashback some twenty years to a tantalizing glimpse into the future. 

Saturday afternoon, I joined Steph and the family to celebrate her youngest brother's 13th birthday party.  The party took place at Laser Quest, a laser tag arena in Mesa that has survived economic slowdowns to remain solvent for about 14 years now.  This is good by comparison to any entertainment retailer, but fantastic by the metrics of the laser tag industry, where earnest startups are often crushed under the weight of square footage rent and the debt from their own elaborate, expensive buildouts.  Back in the mid-1990s, I was a frequent customer of Laser Quest.  In 1997, I was banned from the premises when my group of friends was drawn into a huge melee with several other groups.  Alas, we were all young hotheads, and nobody had the presence of mind to sort things out with management and explain that we hadn't come looking for trouble.  Saturday was the first time I visited Laser Quest since.  (Management saw no reason to enforce my ban at this late date, apparently.)

I was happy to see that Laser Quest was mostly just as I remembered it.  Players wore a simple shoulder harness and holster with targets on the front, back, and sides.  Upon the marshal's signal, we dispersed into a blacklit maze to the techno-pop strains of Genesis' Abacab and the swishes of whirling spotlights.  After a 30-second countdown, the game began, and it was shoot-or-be-shot.  The arena's lower level is generally just a killing ground -- the open areas are target practice from above, while the labryinth features too many blind corners. The arena sports a faux second story made up of three "upstairs islands" that are not connected.  Two of them are death traps full of dead ends and exposed bypasses.  The middle island, though, I remembered to have plenty of cover and an actual continuous circle of corridors.  One could keep moving throughout the entire game without backtracking, and would have plenty of shot opportunities and little exposure.  That is where I stayed.

The game lasts only ten minutes, but I felt like I was gasping in exhaustion for at least thirty -- the combination of constant dashing and ducking was an aerobic punch to my out-of-shape guts.  My strategic location saved my hide, because I had plenty of safe spots to stop and recuperate, however briefly.  It was all I could do to remind myself to keep moving when opposing players were caught in the exposed walkways around the other two islands, cattle to the slaughter of my shots.  A few other players lurked in my habitat, but we each seemed to decide on our own that hunting one another was a waste of time when our position afforded us such a target-rich external environment.  In the end, I scored third place out of 25 players.  Not bad for an old fogey of 35 against a bunch of mostly speedy, sugar-fueled 12- and 13-year olds.  The top scorer was Steph's stepfather, no less, a triathlon runner of 50+ years of age!  Youthful exuberance loses out to veteran strategy this time around!

My enjoyment of that Laser Quest game immediately hearkened memories of the granddaddy of them all, the most fun I think I have ever had in a commercial establishment that allows minors on the premises: Photon.

The Photon arena, circa 1989

That photo is accurate.  Photon opened a franchise location in Tempe just north of the river bottom back when I was in high school, and without experiencing it firsthand it may be hard for a reader to understand just how incredible it really was.  In fact, while researching Photon for this blog post, I expected it to have been beautified by nostalgic memory, but every photo I have found looks just as great as I remembered it, and not at all campy or cheesy.  Oh, sure, the "look" of science fiction at the time was very Star Trek: the Next Generation, very clean and metallic with lots of open space.  But that is no better or worse than the "gritty alley" Cyberpunk future or the bipolar westernized frontier/Alliance Firefly future or any of the other archetypes that have emerged since then.  It is simply different.  In a way, it defines the age, like the Art Deco science fiction of the Golden Age or the newer examples I just cited.

The critical thing is that it worked.  Suspension of disbelief for a teenager walking into Photon was nearly total.  The entire experience was immersive, from the helmet-vest bodysuits to the "Space Cafe"-styled food court to the arcade full of the very latest video games.  The arena itself featured two full stories (in Tempe, anyway; other locations reportedly had more) and each team had a genuine "base" to defend.  Hits against one's own base counted against that player's score, and the base sensors would be lit at intervals and be vulnerable during those windows of time.  The buildout must have been staggeringly expensive -- one could probably build five Laser Quests for the same price -- but boy, did it deliver.

Photon (the company) closed without debt and sold off its component parts -- perhaps they thought they had already struck the fad while the iron was hot, and that there would be no lasting demand.  The Tempe location went away with it, though other Photon locations remained open for years since, presumably independently.  (Apparently one of the last few was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.)  There wasn't much in the initial years that followed; one local startup, Tracer, opened in Mesa with a small arena, low square footage, a cheap buildout, and bargain-basement equipment -- can you say "flashlight sensors?" -- but those small-time operators kept the concept alive and the playing public interested long enough for companies like Laser Quest to refine the business model and make it viable.

Tellingly, though the modern laser tag companies have begun to build larger arenas with more stories and increasingly elaborate bases, none of them has ever been able to generate the amazing futuristic aesthetic of Photon.  Today's arenas are absolutely now, a dark, intense, "realistic" future that we live in every day.  Photon, by contrast, was a window to a more vast and grandiose future, an ambitious look at a brighter and more distant tomorrow brought palpably close.  Perhaps Photon's immersive future experience really is just too expensive to fabricate for buildout these days.  It was, nevertheless, awesome.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Toddler Manifesto

As translated from the spoken Toddlerese of my eldest daughter Alexandra. For best results, read in ballad meter.

The Toddler Manifesto
by Michael Bahr

For I, Intrepid Toddler Girl,
Exploring all before me,
Shall stomp and flirt and bat my eyes
And make adults adore me.

I eat and drink and run and play
My folks will surely mention;
And all they need to give me is
Unlimited attention.

Upon my entrance to a room
I'll find where danger lurks,
I'll grab the cords and power strips
And learn how current works.

Or else I'll locate sticky things
And smear them on my face;
Or fragile objects I will sling
Across the empty space.

My words I'll choose for best effect
And babble every other;
A useful trick it is, to train
My father and my mother.

I understand the things they say
But still put up a fight;
I'll run full-speed at red-line 'til
It's time to say "Night-night!"

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: "The Gathering Storm" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

[This is a spoiler-free review. While I will mention plot threads that appear in the book, I will not describe how any of them progress or resolve. I do, however, make a few oblique references to earlier books in the series that could be construed as spoilers. The previous book in the Wheel of Time series came out four years ago, so the statute of limitations has passed on that. If you are reading through the series for the first time, don't read this post.]

The second post in this blog's archives, from back in 2005, is a review of Robert Jordan's "Knife of Dreams," the 11th book in the epic fantasy saga The Wheel of Time. After trudging through about four books worth of slow plot grind, the story burst back to life with intrigue, death, and oh-so-beautiful plot resolution... or so it seemed. Knife, however solid, possessed nowhere near the density of Concentrated Awesome that the fourth through sixth books in the series had. But it was such a stark improvement over books seven through (ugh) ten that I was determined to laud it accordingly. I had a brand-new blog at the time, and it made an ideal podium.

Then, in 2007, after a courageous fight with cardiac amylidosis, Robert Jordan (James O. Rigney) passed away, leaving his magnum opus incomplete. TVTropes refers to this as "Author Existence Failure." While condolent toward the storyteller's family, fans were left to genuinely wonder if the final book of the series would ever be completed.

As it turns out, we need not have worried. Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal, found a young up-and-coming fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson and charged him with finishing the epic story based on Jordan's notes, tapes, charts, and a few hundred pages' worth of completed text. Sanderson's commission was the gig of a lifetime, and I am downright verdant with envy at seeing him tackle this incredible task.

Per Sanderson, Jordan had completed most of the end of the Last Battle and sketched in arc-completion and epilogue frameworks for the major characters. That is, the major major characters -- Wheel features, as of the end of the new book, over 1900 named characters. Pink Floyd was right, of course: a walk-on part in a war is better than a lead role in a cage. But in the case of Wheel, things were and remain all but unmanageable at that scale. Jordan mercifully killed off a fair number of the cast in the previous book, including various Aes Sedai coattail-riders, some Whitecloaks, some Seanchan, et cetera. That still left a huge menagerie for Sanderson to manage and marshal toward plot arc resolution, and in many cases all he had were notes of Jordan's to the effect that "character X turned out to be a Darkfriend all along" or what have you. To be clear: Sanderson's task was monumental. So monumental, in fact, that the original "final book" he was commissioned to write turned into a final trilogy of books. The Gathering Storm is the first of the three, and will be followed in about a year by Towers of Midnight and finally A Memory of Light.

Did Sanderson succeed? This should in no way be taken as speaking ill of the departed, but my answer is: Yes; in fact, possibly to a greater degree than Jordan himself could have done.

I can hear the fanboy public gnashing teeth already. "How can it be better than Jordan would have done? That's impossible! It's Jordan's story!" Indeed it is. Jordan had already conceived the vital details driving the plot and had already created vibrant, exciting characters. (Too damned many of them, in fact). But it was clear that Jordan was too much a product of his serial-romance-novel roots. This series should have ended books ago, and a few entire arcs in the middle books should really never have happened. Brandon Sanderson's handling of The Gathering Storm is tight, efficient, vivid, and exciting all at once. It wastes little and accomplishes much. In short, Sanderson's execution surpassed Jordan's.

Mark Rosewater teaches a bit of screenwriting/playwriting wisdom that goes: "No scene is worth a line; no show is worth a scene." That is to say, no matter how enamored an author may be of a compositional element, if it does not completely serve the story, it needs to be cut. This lesson can be expanded beyond lines and scenes to entire plot threads. If a plot thread does not serve the primary story to a greater degree than the space it takes up in the text, it needs to go. Just playing to a draw isn't good enough, either -- every plot thread more than necessary creates distraction and dilutes focus, so that serves as a rake above which a surplus plot line must deliver.

An example of a plot thread subarc that delivered above and beyond its cost to the main narrative would be in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli depart the Rohirrim camp to travel the Dimhault Road and confront the Army of the Dead. How well did this thread deliver? Look at what it accomplished. The thread:
  1. Provided the Good Guys a source of martial strength that they used to rally to win the Battle of Minas Tirith;
  2. Developed Aragorn's credentials as returning King of Gondor, as the Dead are among the first to recognize Aragorn's authority to command and to enforce oaths;
  3. Furthered the character-role shifts of Aragorn from Lancer to Hero and Legolas from Pretty One to Lancer;
  4. Forced Gimli to face his fears, realizing that his cowardice was not of death or defeat but of failing to live up to the deeds of his ancestors; and
  5. Removed three of the Fellowship from the larger plot thread at a pivotal time so that the plot arcs of several second-tier characters could develop and resolve on the main stage.

That is staggering, beautiful efficiency of narrative there by the master, Tolkien. And, to Jordan's credit, Wheel contains plot subarcs that are well-conceived and add great depth and flavor to the narrative, even if not as tightly as Tolkien's did. Unfortunately, to Jordan's detriment, there were all too many plot threads that subtracted from the narrative just as an ill-conceived line can kill a scene, or an ill-conceived scene can kill a show.

The worst offender Jordan included in Wheel is the Faile/Shaido plot arc. It could be excised from the books and what incremental character development that occurred in it could be dispersed along other events involving those characters, and the series would be both shorter and better off for it. In fact, one of Sanderson's first cleanup tasks in book 12 is to resolve the few remaining bits of that arc. A subarc that straddled that thread was the Morgase/Maighdin story, and the same is true. Maighdin should simply have been killed. It would have added depth to Tallanvor and Basel Gill as they grapple internally with whether to transfer their loyalties to Elayne Trakand, and it would have added greater gravity to Elayne's grieving for her mother without the distraction of the unneeded dramatic irony that the reader knows Maighdin is alive and Elayne does not. Another example was a new subarc Jordan added in book 11: Rodel Ituralde and the guerrilla-style Domani homeland defense. Sanderson resolves it completely in book 12, and it becomes clear that it wasn't really necessary at all. Ituralde, for all his badassitude, gave nothing to the story that Davram Bashere and the Borderland generals were not already capable of providing. Yet a fourth example, especially pernicious because the events of book 12 (as plotted by Jordan, not as written by Sanderson) mooted it entirely, was the subarc involving the Atha'an Miere. Yup, all that Sea Folk scheming and bargaining ends up amounting to bupkus -- and that's what Jordan meant to have happen all along.

Faced with such a tangle of plot events yearning to resolve and breathe free, Sanderson took up the mantle of Storm by breaking out of Jordan's overly-dispersed concurrent narrative structures and returning to the plotting format that writers have used to great effect for centuries. Sanderson concentrates on a few major plot arcs, highlights conflict, forces characters to make value decisions, and resolves those plot arcs to the degree that this stage of the series plot allowed. He takes time on the side to tie up a number of loose ends, and none of them end up reading in a particularly abrupt manner -- it was clear that some parts of the narrative had withered on the vine and were best disposed of. In one particular instance, a mid-major character from earlier books who had been seen less and less lately was consolidated from a subarc into one of the main arcs so excellently that there occurred a trifecta of Crowning Moment of Awesome, Tearjerker Death, and Reckoning That Followed. Two villain subarcs rejoined the major arcs, and two more prominent antagonists are Dead And Not Coming Back, something that happened all too infrequently since around book five.

The primary plotlines in Storm follow Rand al'Thor and Egwene al'Vere. Rand struggles to get the necessary military assets in place for the onset of the Last Battle while clinging to what remains of his fragile sanity and emotional state. Since Rand is the Main Hero, his plot did not resolve entirely, but came to a satisfying stopping point with a healthy chunk of his conflict resolved and the remaining conflict cleanly distinguished for future development. The most chokingly-intense and "OMFG!" chapter in the book involves Rand doing something we never, not in a million years, could have predicted he would do. A very, very intense twist. Egwene's major plot, easily the more consistent backbone of the book, is just about resolved by story's end -- but there are some twists along the way that take her where the fan community probably didn't quite expect her to go.

Matrim Cauthon does appear and stars in a deliciously creepy interlude, one of the best-written scenes in the series, but his Huge Plot Climax seems primed instead to occur in book 13. Perrin Aybara was a major figure in book 11 and doesn't do too much in Storm, but Perrin's chapters do well to marshal some necessary assets to their places for the grand finale. Nynaeve al'Meara gets screen time in two different subarcs and flourishes in both. Aviendha has a single subarc, and a well-executed one -- it appeared to be cleanup work, as it could have occurred books ago, but it was satisfying nonetheless. Tuon still has considerable mileage left ahead of her, despite the deceptive chapter title "The Death of Tuon." I was upset at first at the apparent "Return of the King"-esque title spoiler, but upon reading the chapter, I realized that the meaning of that phrase had already been hinted at by Jordan, and it was not what it seemed at first glance -- a delightful misdirect. Tuon's subarc touches both of the primary plot arcs to great (and very different) effect. And, for the first time since... the series began, Gawyn Trakand gets to be a mid-major instead of a throwaway character. Among the minor characters, there are literally scores of deaths, at least one Tearjerker Wedding Proposal, and no small amount of derring-do.

Lan Mandragoran and Elayne Trakand each play the part of Sir Not Appearing In This Book, reprising Perrin's command performance from book 5 and Mat's brilliant delivery in book 8. Among the bad guys, the biggest no-shows were Mazrim Taim, Padan Fain, and Mesaana. There is vague, ominous foreshadowing at the end of both Knife and Storm that big doin's are a-transpirin' at the Black Tower, but there have still been no chapter-length scenes filmed on location since, what, book 9? One surmises the Black Tower is one of the "Towers of Midnight" that book 13's title promises we'll see. What other Towers could there be? Conceivably all could appear in book 13, as all have unresolved plot hooks that are ripe or close enough: the White Tower, the Tower of Ghenjei, and the Tower of Ravens. We don't, alas, learn anything more about What Happened to Asmodean.

I deliberately waited the better part of the week after finishing The Gathering Storm to write this review, because I wanted the shine to have worn off the apple before I charged in and declared it a triumph or a disaster. Despite the wait, I am still convinced, as I was upon closing the back cover, that this book stands up alongside The Shadow Rising and The Fires of Heaven, and I am absolutely stunned at the professional craftsmanship displayed by Brandon Sanderson. My best fiction work is still deeply in development and well short of publication, but even at this early stage in my career, I can see the seams and joints in Sanderson's prose and clearly perceive the adept work that he put into fastening and polishing them. I will most certainly be looking further into that gentleman's back catalog, and not just because he's the only science-fiction writer I know besides myself who plays Magic: the Gathering. Robert Jordan will be a sentimental favorite of fantasy fans forever, but Sanderson is tomorrow's fantasy flagbearer: the John Petrucci to Jordan's Jimmy Page.

After what will be 21 years and 15 books (including a prequel), the most expansive, epic fantasy saga of my generation will finally end. Two years on the calendar and two more tomes on deck. I'm even more excited about this series than when I made that second blog post all those months and years ago... and that makes The Gathering Storm a success by my reckoning.