I Tried To Read The 5th Wave And Failed

I just can’t with this book.

I first saw the Fifth Wave in the bookstore a few years ago when it was brand new, and it seemed pretty interesting. It has a very good premise. It’s a dystopian YA novel (strange how that’s not only a genre now, but an oversaturated and cliche genre. What a weird time to be alive) about a girl surviving on her own in the ruins of Earth after aliens show up and destroy the place.

The alien assault comes in the form of “waves.” The first wave is an EMP blast that disabled all electronic devices and cuts off communication. The second wave is a series of bombs dropped into fault lines that trigger tsunamis which wipe out all human life near coastlines. The third wave is a virus, transmitted by birds, that not only causes people to die a painful and bloody death, but also lose their mind to the point that one victim is shown to have been chained to her bed while she ripped her own fingernails out.

The book begins after the fourth wave has begun. It has a pretty strong opening chapter, and I was hooked very quickly. The narrator, Cassie, switches back and forth between recounting the events of her life before and the way humanity dealt with the attack from “the Others,” and her current mission to travel to a nearby airbase where she believes she might find her younger brother, trekking along desolate highway while being followed by a sniper.

At first, Cassie’s tendency to wax philosophical is charming. I mean, if you can’t contemplate the futility of existence in an apocalypse that somehow manages to combine an alien invasion, a superflu, a zombie virus,, a worldwide flood, a super bomb, and the mass murder of all survivors, you really can’t ever find a time to contemplate anything. But as time goes on, it feels like author Rick Yancey was more interested in using the lens of an uber apocalypse to discuss human society than actually telling a compelling story.

And things only get more ham-fisted from here. Every point is driven home without a hint of subtlety, and simple messages that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp are slammed in with a sledgehammer. The most egregious example of this is a moment that made me roll my eyes almost out of my head. I had to put the book down and Google to see other people’s reactions because I was so incredibly annoyed.

At one point, Cassie is reciting her experience in a camp of survivors. They’re all struggling to survive and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, unsure if anyone is ever going to come and help them. Cassie herself makes a brief reference to religion before this scene, simply saying that when it comes to God, she feels like there’s some kind of a broken promise there. But leaving it at that would be subtle and understated, two things that this book is not. We’re briefly introduced to two characters surviving in the refugee camp: a religious fanatic nicknamed Mother Theresa by the others, and “the sole atheist in our camp, some college professor named Dawkins.”

Yeah, that’s a LITTLE on the nose, Rick Yancey. Let me talk about WHY I hate this so much. The point Yancey is trying (read: failing) to make here is that all fundamentalism is bad, both religious fundamentalism and… non-religious fundamentalism? I mean there’s a problem with trying to explain how someone could be a fundamentalist ahtiest when atheism is simply the rejection of a religious claim, but I get what he’s trying to say here. He’s saying that we should be level-headed in our approach to life, and not get lost moving too far to one side or the other to keep a clear view of the situation.

But this is an actual apocalypse story. The other survivors jeer at the atheist, telling him he’s going to hell, to which he reasonably responds, “How would I know the difference?”

What bothers me so much about this is not just that Yancey went with the most obvious and on-the-nose name choice possible for an atheist character by naming him after Richard Dawkins, though that annoys me too. And I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I have now found two different interviews in which someone asked him about naming his character Dawkins, and in both of those interviews he chuckled and said “You caught that, did you?” Yeah, Rick. We ALL CAUGHT IT. It was not subtle, or clever, it was ham-fisted and graceless. Anyhow, that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the idea that in a world where all of the conceivable apocalypses have happened one on top of another, that an atheist would STILL be regarded with disgust. I mean, if you need any more proof that there is no God looking out for you, trying looking around at the nightmarish dystopian hellscape you live in. I get that people would probably turn to their faith for comfort, but like Cassie mentioned earlier in the book before this scene, it’s clear that if there was some sort of promise from God to keep people safe, he didn’t live up to it, and may as well not exist anyway. The idea that this ONE character is the SOLE atheist is ridiculous, particularly when Cassie more or less admitted to being an atheist only a few pages ago.

I did manage to get a bit of revenge when, later on when groups of soldiers arrive to take all young children away to safe houses, Mother Theresa demands that she be allowed to leave too, because “women and children should be taken first, that’s just how things are done,” seeming to go out of her way to throw everyone else under the bus. I might have enjoyed this jab at religiosity more if it hadn’t been countered by an incredibly flawed atheist strawman. Not that his Mother Theresa character wasn’t a straw man too, but at the very least, anyone could sympathize with the atheist character.

At any rate, just when I began to feel really interested in what was happening to Cassie, the story switches perspectives rather abruptly to another character called Zombie, previously Cassie’s high school crush, and his experiences becoming infected with the plague virus, and subsequent recovery. He’s hooked into a computer program called Wonderland that “maps” his experiences, basically downloading his entire personality, memories, feelings and thoughts into a computer, and then he’s sent to boot camp to train in becoming a soldier. Calling the computer program Wonderland is one of several cringe-worthy literary references that might have been clever if they weren’t so cliche. It reminds me of the villain in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being named Valentine, or the way the Looking Glass Wars tried to turn the Mad Hatter and Chershire Cat into anime-style martial arts badasses. It just feels so… silly. There’s kind of a trend in this series of giving silly names like Wonderland, Zombie, Nugget, Razor, Poundcake, and Dumbo. Sometimes they feel like they’re supposed to be references to other works, sometimes they just feel like unfortunate nicknames.

The story switches back to Cassie and manages to get very interesting for a few chapters, because the sniper who had been following her is an alien. Up to this point, no one has seen the aliens, but it is known that there are aliens masquerading as humans and killing people, which is called the Fourth Wave. The Fifth Wave, by the way, is never explained or even mentioned in this book, and won’t be addressed until the final book in the trilogy, but I digress. So the aliens have basically attached themselves to people’s brains and possessed their human hosts, but they aren’t a conciousness which replaces the old one (a la Stephanie Meyer’s the Host), they are still the same person they always were, only they’ve been “awakened” to who they truly are. The alien, Evan, is having trouble deciding on what to do because during the time he was hunting and stalking Cassie, he became attracted to her and began to become obsessed with her, unable to bring himself to kill her, instead nursing her back to health.

Evan is a pretty interesting character. He’s conflicted and you can see that his humanity is ultimately overpowering the alien part of himself. It does however worry me that since he is set up as Cassie’s romantic interest, this book continues the disturbing trend in YA fiction of having a female protagonist fall in love with an abusive or obsessive male partner who gives off some distinctly rape-y vibes. Still, because I’m me, I was just happy to finally have a cute boy involved in the story who I could be vicariously attracted to, because what is young adult fiction without sexual tension?

This, unfortunately, is when the book grinds to a complete halt. Evan and Cassie end up sharing a kiss and he climbs in bed with her, at which point the camera fades to black and we switch to Cassie’s younger brother, a terrified seven year old named Sam, who is brought into the safe houses after being separated from a girl he meets on the bus, and the narrative returns to Zombie, who is now in boot camp. And the book goes Full Metal Jacket on us. And you know, I really tried with this part. Firstly, I find military stories entirely boring, particularly when they involve boot camp, because I tend to view boot camp as a very strange form of physical and mental torture that we as a society have sanctioned as perfectly alright, and this book continues to espouse the supposed virtue of emotionally and mentally destroying a person through weeks and months of torture before “molding them” into a soldier, which even in real life seems to have little effect but destroying a person’s natural empathy and replacing their personality with that of a cold and ruthless machine designed to serve it’s masters, sacrificing any humanity.

But again, I digress.

I have difficulty with boot camp stories because of the above mentioned reasons, but also because it’s really not what this book has been about up to this point. And exactly halfway through the book is a very strange time to take on such a drastic change in tone. I mean, yeah, it’s still the same hopeless dystopia as the first half, but at a certain point the utter hopelessness of the story becomes unbearable. I mean, there IS no victory for these characters. At this point, most of humanity is dead. Even if they somehow defeated the aliens, there’s nothing that can be done, humanity will not survive beyond this point, any attempt to survive is pointless. And Yancey has said that the point of this story is not about victory but about endurance, but still, how compelling is a story of endurance? I mean, at the end of Gary Paulson’s book Hatchet, the main character does eventually get to go back to society. His endurance pays off. Where is the pay off here?

The thing that really pushed me over the line is that the book goes into gruesome detail describing the fate of the people who died, particularly through the lens of Casssie’s younger brother. Not only does the narrative go through the horrific details of his mother’s death and the way he lost everything he ever loved, but it does so while retaining his point of view, so that characters are still called “mommy” and “daddy” and we can see his innocence shattering. It all becomes so incredibly depressing that it’s almost too difficult to bear. This whole book is just steeped in hopelessness, and that’s the problem with it. Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, things can only get worse. There is never going to be any payoff for these characters.

The little boy is thrown into boot camp, a ludicrous idea even for a dystopian novel, and the drill sergeant taunts him about the death of his mother, which is probably more monstrous and unforgivable than anything that’s happened up to this point. Now granted, this drill sergeant is an antagonist, but the scene is framed in such a way that it suggests boot camp is a GOOD thing, so what is the message being sent here? I don’t know, but honestly this is the point where the book became too much for me and I had to put it down. I skimmed summaries for the rest of the book and then the rest of the series to sate my curiosity about what happened next, and I’m going to talk about it now, so consider yourself spoiler warned.

This boot camp section carries on for a while, and the narrative doesn’t return to Cassie for a long time, which as I said, grinds the story to a halt, because even though Zombie has been introduced, the central story was still mostly about Cassie. Halfway through the book is a bad time to give this novel a deuteragonist. We’d already followed Cassie, Evan and Sam, and Zombie’s section had been brief enough that it didn’t detract from the overall narrative. Frankly, I just don’t have the patience for this kind of storytelling. I know it may be important to switch focus, but I had to keep willing myself to read on beforehand, through all the gloomy atmosphere, because the story was essentially pretty good and was rolling along. I don’t have it in me to put with a boot camp section, not now. The military aspects of the book seem to be glorifying the military and even though that’s another discussion for another time, it was just too harsh of a tonal shift for me.

So, I was genuinely curious about what the hell the Fifth Wave actually was, and apparently it isn’t even explained until the third and final book in the trilogy. The big secret is that the aliens were never on earth, they were always acting remotely, and the mothership doesn’t actually house the aliens so much as it houses their equipment and their weapons. They controlled people by mapping themselves through Wonderland and then uploading themselves into people’s brains. This is meant to pull the rug out from under you, but Yancey actually did a very weird thing in the way he told the story in the first novel. You see, we learn from Cassie that the military are actually alien-controlled humans, but we switch to Zombie and Sam being cared for by the military and being given explanations about what the aliens are, even though we as readers KNOW they are the aliens. But, the information they’re giving the protagonists seem to be true, so it’s kind of a triple-bluff. I wish that the author had picked a better method of explaining the central story than several info-dumps from the point of view of side-characters, given by unreliable characters. Worse, the villains mostly seem to be pretty good people, except for the two military drill instructor types.

The general theme for this book seems to be that we as the reader are shown something, and then the characters are put into a situation where we know what’s happening and they don’t. That’s a good storytelling method in and of itself, but unfortunately, things get wonky from there. Right when I as a reader think I know what’s going on, the “bad guys” are acting good, and we’re left to wonder who exactly is the villain here. And this isn’t done in an interesting, morally ambiguous way, like a political tale in which every player has their own ends and the lines between good and evil become blurred, it’s just clunky and indistinct, leaving me as a reader not sure if the antagonists are lying or telling the truth, and not sure if the narrative itself is lying to me or telling the truth. There are lies hidden within truths hidden within lies, but it’s spun in a very ineffective way, and just left me scratching my head and unwilling to keep slogging on once the focus of the book shifted halfway through.

In case you’re curious, the ultimate ending of the series apparently keeps piling cliche upon cliche, because the sole fault in the Wonderland program is that the aliens didn’t anticipate that LOVE would become involved, and basically, love can break the spell that the program has on people, as it did with Evan and his (creepy?) romantic obsession with Cassie. Yes, that’s right, it’s the old “love trumps everything” trope, but wait, it gets better.

The reason that the aliens sent their ship there was to destroy human civilization, because humans were destroying the environment and wiping out other species, and apparently the Others go from planet to planet, wiping out civilizations that pose too much of a threat to their environments in order to keep life going. But if that’s the case, what about the Others themselves? If they have this kind of sophisticated technology, then surely they must have developed and incredibly advanced civilization that DIDN’T harm the life around themselves, in which case they could use their technology to travel to planets and help other races to take care of their home worlds, share their own technology with them, or hell, even take over the planet and become benevolent dictators. It seems like the Others went through a HELL of a lot of trouble to wipe out the majority of the human race when inevitably another race will eventually evolve to take it’s place and create it’s own civilization. And from what I can tell from plot summaries of the rest of the series, the real origins of the Others are never explained and they’re never even communicated with directly. What a let down.

The Fifth Wave, by the way, is a series of child soldiers trained by the aliens, who go and destroy what’s left of humanity, by tricking them into thinking they’re killing alien-infested people. Even though the people training them to do this are actually alien-infested, but actually not because of the whole Wonderland thing and ugh, my head hurts.

Even worse, the ultimate end for Cassie is that she downloads the memories and personalities of thousands of long-dead humans into her own mind, basically becoming Super Cassie and going on an army-of-one rampage against the antagonists, ultimately beaming herself onto the mothership with a bomb in hand, blowing herself up and destroying the mothership in the process. I don’t know if this actually defeats the Others, because clearly if they’ve done this with other planets before, they must have more ships. Did this really accomplish anything? So we have a combination of the “love conquers all” trope, the “humans will destroy the planet” trope, and the “sacrifice yourself to save Earth” trope. It’s kind of sad to me that a story with such lofty goals ends with such cliche set pieces.

And then finally, the epilogue of the series involves Zombie and Sam wandering through the ruins of the old world, basically just continuing to survive, and having some philosophical discussion about what a realm is. And that’s it. Like I said, there is no victory. No matter how long Zombie, Sam, and the other survivors make it, no matter how many generations of their children survive, humanity is still dead, all of human history is still destroyed, all of the art and music and literature and memories of past generations is gone. And the world isn’t rebooted in an Eden awash with possibilities, it’s on a planet in which much of the life has been destroyed and what land remains is littered with waste. The end.

How incredibly unsatisfying.

And that’s the Fifth Wave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It set out with some lofty ambition, but ultimately feels pretty pointless. The point of a dystopian story is to try and overcome the dystopia, to begin rebuilding, to create a new and better world, but this? This is just sad, and hopeless from the very beginning. Pain stacked upon pain, often in horrifically morose detail. It’s strange to me that in the world of YA fiction, you can’t directly talk about penises or breasts and you can’t do any more than imply that sex happens, but you can spend chapters describing blood leaking from the eyes of children and infants dying in their cradles and bands of marauders murdering (and raping?) children. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in general that we are so much more comfortable describing horrific violence in gory detail than talking frankly about something as natural and harmless as consensual sex. Not that that’s Rick Yancey’s fault, it’s just an observation, and it’s certainly not a new one.

And now, I can finally go read Mercedes Lackey.

Why I Like Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.

Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.

At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.

The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).

Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.

The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.

Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.

You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).

Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.

Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.

Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.

Crisis Core

It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.

Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.

If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.

Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.

Very, VERY linear.

No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.

Battle

Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.

Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.

Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).

Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.

I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.

Odin

Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.

Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.

Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.

So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.

So… why do I like it so much?

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It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).

But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.

No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.

Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.

Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.

I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.

This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”

 

An Examination of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Inclusiveness in Art

I recently rejoined the Facebook group Gay Geeks, and it took little to no time at all to remember why I left it in the first place.

As with most gatherings on social media, people are anxious to get into an argument and test out their debating skills (or lack thereof). The internet is all too full of places like this, and while I think it’s probably ultimately a good thing that such vigorous infighting goes on, I personally hate confrontation, and so I tend to steer away from these things whenever possible.

I am not without my share of controversial opinions, which I am happy to exclaim loudly from the rooftops. I just don’t like argument. I genuinely want to have my opinion and share it, and I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks of it. When people agree with me, I feel supported and glad that I shared, and when they disagree I tend to take it personally, so I’ve learned that it’s best just to share my opinions in a space that is primarily my own (like this blog), or to share my opinions among friends who will still be respectful even if they disagree. I don’t know if this makes me a crybaby, but honestly I don’t care, I will communicate however I want to communicate.

HP15_Q4_Square_LS_Pottermore

But I did decide to chip in on some interesting topics that I ran into today, and two separate discussions that I feel are directly related. The first has to do with the recent “eighth” Harry Potter story, the script to the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I actually hadn’t bothered reading it until recently, and even then I couldn’t finish it. But more on that in a moment.

I think it’s great that there’s a Harry Potter play, and I also think it’s great that they published the script. I don’t particularly approve of their marketing campaign, which was to literally tout is “the eighth installment” in the Harry Potter series. It wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, and even though supposedly she came up with the concept for the story, I somehow have a difficult time believing that because of the way it reads. Before I get too deep into what I don’t like about it, I will say these things on behalf of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:

For one thing, the book we’ve received is a script. It is one component of a larger production, and it is incomplete without the actors reading it on stage. That being said, some of the greatest writers in history have expressed themselves entirely through script-writing (Shakespeare comes to mind), so that doesn’t really give Cursed Child too much of a leg to stand on when it comes to forgiving it’s many, many flaws, from a writing perspective. However, I will concede that maybe this is just the kind of script that doesn’t look good on it’s own, maybe it truly is best represented through actors.

The second thing I want to plug here is that Imogen Heap composed the music for the play, and so there is at least one aspect that I can automatically appreciate. I haven’t heard the music, but Imogen Heap is one of my personal inspirations and favorite musicians, so I’m just going to give her the benefit the doubt and assume her score is brilliant. Because it probably is.

That being said, let’s get into it.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, set in the future of the Harry Potter world, beginning at exactly the same moment when the epilogue from the final book takes place. The story follows several protagonists, but mainly centers around Harry Potter’s son Albus, and his budding romance friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius. This premise alone is a great way to begin.

Then Time Turners get involved and it quickly devolves into badly written fanfiction published with Rowling’s name on the front (though it should be made perfectly clear that Rowling did NOT write this script, she is credited as having created the concept and nothing more, and exactly what that means is vague enough and we can probably exonerate her from any literary wrongdoing).

Time Turners are an element of the Harry Potter series that have frequently been seized upon as a weakness in the story (akin to the classic “why didn’t they just ride the eagles to Mordor?” criticism of Lord of the Rings), and for good reason. The ability to turn back time seems like something far too dangerous to allow into the hands of anyone but the most seasoned time-traveler, and yet their first introduction in the series is when they are used by Hermione in the Prisoner of Azkaban to make it to all of her classes on time, essentially allowing her to be in two places at one time. Even for a brilliant witch like Hermione, this seems like an incredibly extreme measure for the authorities at Hogwarts to take, and how Professor McGonogall managed to clear it with the Ministry of Magic is beyond me.

Rowling attempted to build some fail-safes into the Time Turner system: for one thing, Time Turners can only be used to travel back a few hours in time. I can’t remember if this is explicitly stated in the books, but whatever, Cursed Child throws it out the window anyway. It also throws away another very crucial aspect of time travel within the Harry Potter universe: Prisoner of Azkaban showed that time travel in the Harry Potter universe is of the closed-loop variety (or boot-strap paradox). This means that if someone is going to travel back in time, they’ve actually already done it. This is shown in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry was saved from a flock (herd? pack? murder? let’s go with murder) of Dementors by a young man conjuring a stag Patronus who looked so eerily similar to Harry that he assumed it to be his father. He later realized, however, that it wasn’t his father, but himself from the future, having come back in time, rescuing himself in the past.

This creates a paradox, as almost all time travel does, but at least it gives the time travel in Harry Potter some kind of interior logic. To further prevent time travel from mucking up the entire story, Rowling wrote a scene in book five in which all of the Time Turners in the possession of the Ministry of Magic are destroyed. That should probably be where it ends, and well enough too. But that is not how it ends.

Cursed Child stacks one fanfiction cliche on top of another (and I should probably mention now that there are major spoilers ahead): the action begins when Amos Diggory, uncle of the late Cedric Diggory, comes to Harry, who is now the head of magical law enforcement (I won’t complain about this too much, it’s entirely possible Harry became a competent wizard as he grew older, despite, as Voldemort often pointed out, having no particularly strong affinity for magic by himself), and asks Harry to use a recently confiscated Time Turner to go back in time and save Cedric. This request is pretty silly entirely in premise, because anyone who has enough time to think about this request, as surely Amos has, would realize that there are two fundamental problems with it: first, going back to save Cedric could have grave implications toward the entire world, and could easily result in Harry never having triumphed over Voldemort, or if he did, it could mean that there was still a Battle of Hogwarts and Cedric could have died there. The second big problem is that it must be KNOWN within the Harry Potter universe that time travel is closed-loop, so if Harry were going to go back and try to save Cedric, then he’s already done it, and clearly failed.

But the writers of Cursed Child gave little thought to that, and decided to run with it anyway. The two main characters, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, along with a mysterious friend Delphi (whose origin is not so much left vague as never even questioned by any other character: why is she looking after Amos Diggory? Why is she on board with the time travel plan? Does anyone ask? No! Who cares?) do in fact get hold of a Time Turner and attempt to rectify the past and save Cedric. They choose to do this in the strangest way possible: they go back in time to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, and the main characters are so daft that despite actively setting out to travel back in time to that moment, they seem completely confused as to where they are how they got there. There’s even a scene when one of the boys runs into Hermione and confuses her for Hermione’s daughter. They KNOW they’re in the past, can they REALLY be this stupid?

They then decide that the most effective way to rescue Cedric from death at the hands of Voldemort is to DISARM him while he’s fighting a dragon. Their logic is that SURELY the school won’t allow a child to be killed during the tournament, something they should know is not the case, because firstly, it’s explicitly stated in Goblet of Fire that the tournament is dangerous and that’s why it hasn’t been held in so long, and secondly because a student DID die during that very tournament!

For some reason, things get all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and their time turner pulls them back to the present, and of course their actions have had far reaching consequences. Presumably Harry still triumphed over Voldemort, and for some reason Scorpius and Albus still exist, however Hermione’s daughter no longer exists because she and Ron never got together in the first place, and Ron has become a pudgy emasculated shell of himself, though he did manage to have another child (I can’t even remember with who, I think it was the girl he asked to the Yule ball?). Hermione is now the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, and boy has she changed, basically becoming a female version of Professor Snape, snapping at the students and treating them like shit.

Albus, the dolt that he is, gets all confused and stammers something to the effect of “But I don’t understand! You’re married to Hermione! Your daughter is Rose! What’s HAPPENING?” Because he apparently has no clue that he just altered history (which I remind you should not be possible due to the closed-loop time travel established in Prisoner of Azkaban). After this comes a scene in which Ron has a conversation with Hermione, where the two awkwardly flirt with one another, acknowledging the fact that yeah, they probably should have gotten together. I have a problem with this two for two reasons: one, because I don’t personally think that the Hermione and Ron relationship made that much sense to begin with it, but mostly it’s because of how TERRIBLY the scene is written. I’m going to show the EXACT moment when I said “fuck this shit” and put the book down.

Ron

This isn’t just Ron being a stammering goof. It’s bad writing. And it’s indicative of the writing of this whole play. It reads like it was written by a novice fanfiction writer with the approximate life experience of a thirteen year old. It just feels so inauthentic, and it feels like bad fanfiction that was published with the original author’s name splashed on the front. I’m beginning to understand why Anne Rice forbids anyone to publish Vampire Chronicles fanfiction.

And this is isn’t the only example of bad characterization in the play. There is an entire scene in which Harry and Draco have an elaborately choreographed duel, firing spells at one another, flying through the air, and flipping over furniture. It’s supposed to be an intense scene, the climax of an altercation between the two. But at the end of the scene, Ginny walks into the room, huffs and says “What did I miss?” You can almost hear the sitcom theme music start and the audience applaud as it cuts to commercial break. It’s so out of place and corny and unnecessary. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be funny in a parody (see: A Very Potter Musical, incidentally a MUCH better stage production than this, script and all).

The bad writing applies to more than just the characters and the situations, it also really affects the stage direction. As anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of a stage play knows, the words between characters dialogue are stage directions, they’re there to help the cast and crew know what’s going on in the world of the play, and to know what needs to change in the environment around them. The stage directions in this play are absolutely nothing more than the writer being self-indulgent, rhapsodizing about character details that need to be conveyed by the dialogue and the actors’ performances, NOT explained in the stage directions. Here’s an example of one that’s absolutely ludicrous, and the script is FILLED with pointless self-indulgent moments like this:

Stage Directions

I remind you that this is a PROFESSIONAL stage production in the West End, officially endorsed by Harry Potter’s creator. This level of unprofessional self-indulgence would be ridiculous in any script, but in something official and big name like this, it’s unforgivable.

The final straw came when I decided to pick the book back up after a few minutes, thinking I would just flip through and skim on to a good part. I happened to open up to the end of Act One, which I was not far from in my reading progress. Some series of events unfurls and Albus finds himself being pulled out of the lake beside Hogwarts and coming face to face with Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge, who informs him that today is “Voldemort Day.”

Voldemort Day.

I’m not making this up.

Here, take a look.

Voldemort Day

If the book had been mine and not borrowed from someone else I might have thrown it across the room. Do I even need to go into how ridiculous the entire concept of a “Voldemort Day” is? Even if Voledmort DID successfully take over the world and carry out a Muggle genocide, even if he did become dark lord over everyone on Earth, there is no way in hell he would sanction a holiday called VOLDEMORT DAY. For one, it’s far too on the nose for him (see what I did there?), and for another, he forbids anyone to speak his name! Any time someone DOES speak his name in the books when they’re in his presence, he becomes indignant and enraged.

I’m going to stop there as far as criticism goes, because I didn’t read any further. What I have come to understand through accidentally stumbling onto her article on the Harry Potter wiki is that one of the central characters of the story, Delphi, is in fact the illegitimate child of Voldemort and Bellatrix LeStrange, who is using Albus and Scorpius’ Time Turner plan to ressurect her father for whatever reason. This reeks of fanfiction, and not even the good kind.

Suffice it to say I was not impressed by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

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On to my original point though, there was an argument about the book over on the Gay Geeks page when someone shared an article with the Headline: The Harry Potter universe still can’t translate it’s gay subtext to text. It’s a problem.”

Basically, the issue the writer of the article took was that despite the Harry Potter audience growing up with the Harry Potter universe, it hasn’t really grown up with them. Meaning that it’s still primarily white and heterosexual. J.K. Rowling famously declared Dumbledore to be gay after-the-fact, and even though reading the books again reveals that yeah, the setup between Dumbledore and Grindelwald probably was there, it was only there are subtext, and shoehorning in a homosexual orientation for Dumbledore after the fact doesn’t exactly make Harry Potter the all-inclusive pinnacle of gay acceptance. Still, it’s a step forward.

The problem that many people have with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that Albus and Scorpius seem, from the MOMENT they meet, to be on a romantic course with one another. Their exchanges are filled with flirty moments and clumsy awkwardness, their friendship grows as the two boys bond closer with one another, and when Harry makes the incredibly bad choice to separate the two for Albus’ protection, they respond exactly as two lovers who’ve been ripped apart by their parents might be expected to. Having never finished the script, I can only go on what I’ve heard from here on out, but apparently the script is filled with more romantic moments like these (during the section of the script I read, there’s even a moment when Albus hugs Delphi and the stage directions point out that Scorpius is happy to see him hugging a girl, and yet it makes him uncomfortable at the same time). Apparently Albus needs to summon a Patronus charm during the story and the happy memory he used to create one is to think of Scorpius (echoing Snape’s use of Lilly Potter to conjure his own Patronus), and a handful of other moments. But apparently at the end of the play, their entire character arc as as a couple is thrown away with a “no homo” moment, Scorpius being interested in Hermione’s daughter, and Albus looking for a girlfriend.

I see what people are complaining about.

I thought from the moment the two met they were going to be a couple, although I usually tend to do this and chalk it up to me, as a gay man, wanting to see gay characters in the fiction I take in, doing a lot of wishful thinking. But the characters are written in a way that really makes it seem like a romance. I know this is subjective and no one can know for sure what the author intended (indeed, it’s difficult to know much of what the author intended because their writing reads so terribly in script form), but all I can say is, contrast Albus and Scorpius’ relationship with that of Harry and Ron. With the exception of their lovers’ quarrel in Goblet of Fire, they spent most of the series engaging in a completely heteronormative friendship, and didn’t seem to be interested in one another. There were no moments (again, excluding Goblet of Fire) when you found yourself thinking “…are they about to kiss?” But Albus and Scorpius pine for one another, their worlds are rocked by their separation, and it isn’t just because they’re each lonely outcasts, it’s because of the relationship between the two characters.

This leads to a discussion that I think is important to have. A lot of people, particularly in the Gay Geeks group, were upset that the Harry Potter universe isn’t inclusive to LGBTQ+ people, and it’s a fair complaint to make. However, some people have said that Rowling has a RESPONSIBILITY to her gay fans to include gay characters in her stories, so that they will have representation.

For my money, I don’t agree with the latter statement. It’s great when artists paint characters from a variety of perspectives, and it’s great when there are sexually ambiguous characters whose orientations you’re free to make assumptions about, and it’s even better when there are outright homosexual characters. But an artist is not REQUIRED to include gay characters just because they might have gay readers. You can’t ask every writer to go over their work with a fine tooth comb to be certain that it contains one character from every demographic: one gay, one straight, one transgender, one black, one Asian, one white, one hispanic, one vegetarian, one who likes the Spice Girls, one who has a collection of vintage Madonna 7 inch vinyls, one who wears glasses and one who has multicolored eyes. For one thing it’s impossible to include such diversity in every single scenario, for another it isn’t realistic (think of those classroom posters about respecting diversity where you always see one white boy with a baseball cap, one black boy in a tee shirt, and one Asian girl with glasses. Those are attempting to be inclusive, but just end up being pandering and racist in their own way), and most importantly you just CAN’T police what an artist can and can’t create. An artist is free to create whatever the hell they want, however they want to do it.

During this conversation I saw another, very similar conversation happening, revolving around this image an artist posted on Tumblr and a series of Tumblr comments beneath:

CharacterTumblr Comments

The issue here is that an artist took a Steven Universe character whose skin is not white, and depicted that character as a white person. I can see where some would find this frustrating, particularly because Steven Universe has such a reputation for being inclusive, but the truth is, whether you like it or not, it is an artist’s prerogative to create their characters, their worlds, and their art in ANY way they see fit. If you don’t like it, you can make your own.

This doesn’t shield an artist from criticism (at this point I’m convinced there are people who believe art only exists so they can criticize it), but it also doesn’t mean that you can tell an artist what to create. I’d also like to point out that if this had happened the opposite way around, had this been a white character that an artist drew as any other race, that artist would probably be touted by the same people throwing criticism, as a paragon of inclusiveness and a hero for diversity. There’s probably more than a little hypocrisy here.

Diversity is a difficult thing for me. I’m a white male, but I’m also gay, I’m a non-Christian in America (specifically, I’m from the American south), I’m polyamorous, I have radically different viewpoints from American norms, so in many ways I am a minority too. It’s okay to claim that, without saying that I’m suffering in exactly the same way as other minorities: I don’t know what it’s like to be black, and straight black people don’t know exactly what it’s like to be gay, but I think we can probably extrapolate SOME common elements from both and understand one another’s struggle a little better than if we had absolutely nothing in common.

But the thing is, there are a lot of people who seem to want to preserve diversity of all kinds just for the sake of preserving diversity. In the case of religion, many philosophies of violence, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and genocide are kept around just because people want to “respect diversity,” rather than actively attempting to dismantle those systems of oppression. This, I think, is the problem with being so open to the world around you that just allow anything for the sake of accepting everyone. It’s important to honor the individuality of each person, without allowing your own principles to be destroyed. This argument mainly applies to religion and not to diversity in skin color or sexuality, so I’ll jump off of this soap box for now, but I’m sure I’ll come back to it at some point.

At the end of the day, even though, yes, it would be nice to have gay characters in Harry Potter, they need to be there because the author genuinely wants them to be there. They need to be authentic characters, not just characters who were made gay because the author shoehorned them in to appease their gay fans. Does Rowling have a responsibility to her gay fans? Maybe she does, in some ways. But does she have a responsibility to alter her art, in ANY way, because someone else wants her to? No, she does not. An artists responsibility, when creating, is to be AUTHENTIC. An artist gets to create anything they want, on their own terms, and damn everyone else’s viewpoint. The purpose of creating art is not to honor everyone else’s viewpoint, it’s to showcase your own. If people want to express their own viewpoints, let them do it, but do not tell me, or J.K. Rowling, or an artist on Tumblr, what they’re allowed to create. Arguments about including diverse characters come from a place of good intent, but ultimately it seems to me that people are asking for inclusion for inclusion’s sake. That isn’t art, it’s pandering.

I think that one of the big issues with my generation (that is to say, “millenials”) is that we try so hard to treat everything with fairness and equality, to respect the differences of every individual, that we end up falling into this infinite voice of so-called “political correctness” where we need to edit oursevles from saying or doing something that might offend someone, and also that we need to be all-inclusive in all things that we do so that no one feels left out. The principles behind these are good, but in practice, we haven’t as a culture figured out how to let people have their own individual voices without forcing them to be part of the whole. We’re censoring in the opposite direction that censorship usually happens: instead of telling people they’re not allowed to speak out and speak their minds, we are FORCING people to speak out and to speak on EVERYONE’S behalf. But that just isn’t feasible. If an author wants to write a book whose premise is that there’s a secret society of wizards existing right under the noses of everyone in the real world, and that author chooses, consciously or unconsciously, not to include any gay characters, they have that right, and if you tell them they HAVE to include gay characters in order to embrace their gay fans, you are taking away their freedom of expression by forcing them to say what you want them to say. The desire to hope that artists include gay people in their work comes from a good place: we all want to feel included. But the truth is, demanding that an artist includes gay characters takes away from their freedom to create whatever the hell it is they want to create.

Personally, my reading of Act One of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led me to believe that there was more than a little gay subtext between Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. I too am a little peeved that they go all “no homo” at the end. But, I also can’t force their writer to make them gay just because I feel, no matter how strongly, that their relationship was written as a romantic one. It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth. If someone wants to create a story between two straight boys with so much gay subtext that even Anne Rice characters are shouting “just kiss already!” it’s their prerogative to do so. Some creators even choose to make their characters gay but not say it outright. They’re allowed to do that too. They’re allowed to do whatever they want.

And besides, we’ll always have Korra.

Korra

My Review Of The Dinner Party Show

(This was originally posted on The Dinner Party Show’s Facebook page, and on iTunes. I actually blocked their page because I didn’t want to hear any snide comments from Christopher or the loyal gang of Party People. Despite the fact that Christopher and Eric would prefer that everyone who has something contrary to say [apart from themselves, of course] be taken to court and thrown in jail for saying it, I actually don’t care what they think of my review. It’s based on listening to their show for something like three years, and finally getting most of my thoughts about it out.)

 

TDPS
Not that it matters, but here’s my review of The Dinner Party Show.

I left the Dinner Party Show a while ago because I began to get annoyed at the insane level of self-promotion and first world problems discussed on the show. I came back recently, and have laughed my ass off having a good time listening to the show.

At first, I was aggravated by the INSANE level of self-promotion. In one hour of The Dinner Party Show with Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn, we hear about how it’s The Dinner Party Show with Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn about fifty times, from Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn, hosts of the Dinner Party Show, with Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn. I got further aggravated when Christopher and Eric started to blatantly talk about writing as a job and a marketing opportunity, and throwing the aspect of self-expression and the creation of art under the bus. It was cringe-worthy watching Christopher try and understand the concept of M/M or what a fanfic is show after show, as he interviewed self-published authors who write one-thousand word blog-post-length novellas and then charge fans for them, releasing them on a month by month basis and writing unoriginal ripoffs of concepts that were much better done by Anne Rice.

Then it was the quality of the interviews. There were fantastic guests like Alec Mapa, Dan Savage, Kristen Johnston, Patricia Nell Warren, and others, who all brought something valuable to the table. But at a certain point, Christopher and Eric began cow-towing to their guests so hard that you can hear the incinserity dripping from their voices as they speak constantly like they’re ad executives just DESPERATE to get you to buy products (through the Dinner Party Show dot com, by the way! That Dinner Party Show, the one with Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn. Have we said that enough times yet?)

Ultimately, it was Christopher’s narcissism that just pushed me overboard and made me quit the show, but I came back because I really did miss the good humour and communal aspect of the show. And I always loved Eric, he served as a perfect foil to Christopher’s endless self-promotion. But I finally lost it when I was browsing through episodes I missed and heard Eric’s not-report about Monica Lewinsky, who went on a speaking tour talking about her experiences being the most laughed at person in the world, whose entire identity is that of being a public punching bag, and who had the gall to call the “Presidential Cocksucker” instead of listening to the message she was trying to impart about bullying. This from people who spend the majority of their show bullying anyone whose opinions they don’t agree with.

I was genuinely never offended at ANY of the episodes of The Dinner Party Show I listened to until that Monica Lewinsky comment. There’s a difference between “everybody gets served,” and undermining the importance of anti-bullying that they were happy to express when your guest (and cash cows) Dan Savage or Chaz Bono were at the table, but when that wasn’t the case, they were happy to hop back on the bullying train.

Nobody’s perfect, and honestly, I know that Eric doesn’t care enough about reviews to bother reading mine, and that’s fine. I’ll probably still buy that Jonathan and David novel, and love it. But the Dinner Party Show began as a genuine creative enterprise and then slowly morphed into a vanity project so steeped in self-promotion and narcissism that it’s virtually become an hour a week of dinner-chimes, the words “Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn” and the name “Dinner Party Show” repeated a hundred times per episode, and two authors so DESPERATE to be relevant that they will sell out whatever principles they have about the creation of art to try and get popularity (see: the four hundred something episodes with Bryan Fuller where Chris and Eric beg for relevance from the Fannibals).

TDPS
It’s been a fun ride, guys. I really was with you since the first show, and I really and truly loved TDPS. I have listened to HOURS upon HOURS of the show, probably binge-listened to the first hundred ten times each. My comments, voicemails and such have been featured on the show, and I even got to have the wonderful experience of hearing Kristen Johnston call me sweet or just say my name out loud. But what began as perhaps the last bastion for the radio play format (TDPS is one of only TWO podcasts I know of on the whole internet that actually do the art of the radio play, and do it well), and a genuine look into topics that mattered, has become an endless tour of self-promotion for the writers of 1,001 Dark Nights, Bryan Fuller, and Christopher Rice. Eric I can forgive, at least he had the decency to come from a small town and become successful based on his own merit, and not being born the child of a celebrity. But at a certain point, the amount of pretentious and arrogant self-promotion becomes so transparent that it’s impossible to look past, even for the great laughs, and the (mostly) wonderful guests.
It was a fun party, but like parties tend to do, it got out of hand, and it was time to leave before someone got hurt or the police were called in.
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