24 July 2013

Travelling Fantasy Roundtable : Part 17 : Intrusive Fantasy

Part 17 of the Travelling Fantasy Round Table, our roaming discussion on aspects of fantasy literature, is up at Chris Howard's blog. This month we're discussing intrusive fantasy.

21 July 2013

The Absence Sue

Mary Sue, as first defined in the Star Trek fandom, was an original character introduced to the Trek universe whose presence bent the plot to serve a wish-fulfilment fantasy of a fanfic's author.  Mary Sue was a self-insertion valorised to the detriment of the existing characters.

This definition has been expanded to include "any authorial self-insertion" even in original fiction, (and in the worst instances distorted to substantively cover "any female who is valorised at all, in any circumstance"), but lately I've been thinking back on the occurrence of Mary Sue as a fanfic insertion and wondering at the purpose she served.

In particular, I've been thinking about Mary Sue in relation to this web comic by Interrobang Studios.  It's a very funny comic!  In the first episode, "Mary Sue Must Die", the Enterprise suffers a Sue, and the crew takes drastic action.  But it's the second episode, and specifically this page, which has been bubbling over in the back of my mind.  This episode, "The Wrath of Sue", involves a veritable plague of Sues, which have spread from the Trek universe and gone to take over other stories.

The page features a bunch of different men characters from stories I had enjoyed over the years - represented here as "the greatest minds in the Universe" and I found myself saying: "Speaking of Sues...".

But, of course, these were men characters with their own stories, and thus the plot cannot be distorted to serve them, as it was shaped around them in the first place.  The Doctor and Sherlock there most definitely fit the "overloaded with virtues" criteria, but not the Enterprise crew.  There we have Kirk the action guy, Spock the Smartest, Sulu the Swordsman, Bones the Cynic and medical genius, Scotty the reliable, and Uhura the linguist.

Then it hit me.  The Smurfette Principle.  The stories where Mary Sue was born, and where we hear the most about her obnoxiousness, are the stories where the main characters are almost all men - and all different types of men - and perhaps one main female character (who usually doesn't get to do as much cool stuff as the guys).  A male fan of Trek has a range of male characters in which to identify, who are all cool and valorised in their own different ways.  A female character either gets to identify with the male characters, or with Uhura (who is cool and valorised but is frequently not given much to do in the plot).  The same with female Lord of the Rings fans.  There are a broad range of male characters, one of whom is likely to suit a male reader's personality.  There are no female characters in the Fellowship, and the female characters (particularly in the novels) are either brief appearances, or kept out of the main action.

We don't hear about the plague of Mary Sue inserts in Cardcaptor Sakura fanfic.  Or the Powerpuff Girls.  Sure, there might be a little, but where a story offers a range of female characters, who are not sidelined from the action, a female fan is in the situation which the male fan enjoys in Star Trek or Lord of the Rings.  A range of characters of the gender she identifies with, actively participating in the story as a main player.

And so I ask myself: Is Mary Sue - obnoxious and world-distorting as she can be - simply making up for a lack in the world she has entered?  When we see Mary Sue, should we be deriding the fanfic writer?  Or questioning the gender breakdown of the original universe?

Is Mary Sue in fact Absence Sue, working hard to make up for the 50% of the population missing out on the fun?

16 July 2013

Tomb Raider (2013)

I posted previously on the Tomb Raider reboot, when an executive producer for the game said all sorts of things which made the game sound less than enticing.  But when the game came out, there was a flurry of surprised "It's great!" reviews from various female gamers, so I eventually got around to playing it.

Way back when, I bought my sister a Playstation as a birthday present *cough* and one of the first games we played on it was the original Tomb Raider.  We took turns falling off cliffs, and figuring out where the heck the next handhold might be, and it was fun.  Yeah, Lara's primary outfit was some rather silly short shorts and a tank top (though she did have a lot more [skin-tight] warmer clothing throughout the games).  In one memorable cut scene in Tomb Raider 2, Lara is knocked down by an explosion, the screen goes black, and then the camera pans over these...jagged...teal...mountains.  My sister and I both burst out laughing - it was so gratuitous and ridiculous.

But while there were these occasional bits of fan service, Lara was assured, competent, and unhesitatingly destroyed countless ancient artefacts while mucking over the archaeological record.  Plus there were occasional fits of shooting faceless goons, and a T-Rex.

As a long-time Tomb Raider player, Tomb Raider 2013 mostly held up for me.  It kept me engaged.  I played it through over a few short days.  It wasn't perfect, or entirely unproblematic, but not so offensive as the controversial comments made out.


The beginning was off-putting.  There was a lot of quick play scenes where you had a dramatic cut scene with occasional buttons popping up on screen that you had to press at just the right moment.  And quite a lot of short sliding games which were kind of irritating.  But eventually it evened out to reasonably traditional jumping puzzles (the puzzle part undercut somewhat by a "where to go" display).  Overall the game play was very well done indeed.

Plot (minor spoilers)

The plot is similar to Andre Norton's Sargasso of Space.

Lara's part of an expedition (mostly made up of people who knew her father plus an extremely overdone skeevy professor) looking for a lost civilisation.  They find an island where vicious storms have destroyed countless boats and planes, trapping an entire small town's worth of people on the island.  They must break the power of the storms to get off the island, and deal with the people who have been trapped before them - who have formed a particularly nutty cult.  All the cultists are adult men.  That's because there are uses for girls.  [Presumably uses for women and children as well.  Not sexual uses, though.]  This plot point is fairly inconsistently played out, with the cultists only really showing interest in one of the females from the latest wreck, instead having a high tendency to hang bodies up by their feet (for decoration apparently - with the plethora of deer and chickens on the island there would be no reason to use them for food).

Portrayal of Lara

At the time of the story Lara seems to have just finished college (or is in the later years of college), so I guess would have to be around 22.  She looks sixteen.  Unlike the relatively imposing original Lara, she (and her classmate Sam) are diminutive (and while her bust size is smaller and the short shorts are gone, the tank top is actually a little more revealing than the original).

Lara's companions (other than the skeevy professor) all pipe up with variations on "You're so wonderful Lara", even at the beginning of the story when Lara is still "innocent Lara" (there's actually three character models of Lara - "Innocent Lara", "Lara Croft" and "Survivor Lara" - the difference between them being layers of grime and the stance).  A big deal is made out of her first kill, but then it's slaughter fest...with whimpering.

This is definitely a game attempting to be grimmer, grittier and "more real" than the previous games, which brought out a lot of dissonance between attempts at "game realism" and disbelief raised entirely by the attempts at realism.

Lara's injured from the outset.  A wholly unbelievable scene involving a stick injury to the abdomen, which she pulls out (sheesh!) and she later suffers what I presume to be broken ribs.  But then she gets some pain killers and is fine for the rest of the game.  During her more injured phases, Lara makes lots of little gaspy, whimpery noises (and occasionally shivers pitifully in the rain - but never bothers taking a jacket off any of her kills, even when she heads into the snow).

There are two moments of suggestive touching, both when Lara is captive and a bad guy is being dominant over her (and yet this also does seem to be an island of men entirely disinterested in doing sex things to captives).  Which, because the thought is raised because of that suggestive touching, sits at the front of the mind occasionally.  I think they would have done better directly addressing the question, not with an assault, but with a reason (eg. boss guy forbids it).

The thing which bothered me most, though, were the death scenes.  In original Tomb Raider Lara would fall into a pile of limbs, occasionally get shot (and there was that T-Rex), but the death was momentary and (perhaps thanks to poor graphics) not a big deal.  This Tomb Raider has lovingly detailed and painful looking death scenes, provided almost like a reward (Collect the Whole Set!).  See Lara impaled through the stomach!  The throat!  Watch the guy pull her head back and cut her throat!  See the lovingly detailed expression of horror on her face!

So, yeah, not a fan of the death scenes.

Overall, this is a slick, engrossing game.  But I prefer my Miss Croft without the whimpering.

11 July 2013

Pacific Rim (no spoilers)

Giant monster v Giant Robot.  Mecha have been a staple of anime for decades, but is not often seen in live-action - the monumental size of the giant robots definitely not being easy to pull off.  It occurs to me that most of the mecha anime I've watched - from Robotech to Evangelion - has taken a zero to hero approach.    Pacific Rim is more hero to zero to hero, and is less concerned with the monumentality of mecha (the way becoming a giant robot transforms pilots into something Other) than with a straightforward message of "working together".

Visually, I enjoyed the movie a lot.  The buildings and vehicles getting crushed all over the place felt very empty and there was little interest in this aspect of mecha (that the battle means the mecha will kill as many humans as the monsters), but it was definitely worth watching for the visuals alone. 

Logic and common sense (let alone science) are chucked out the door in favour of the visuals, though.  A lot of things seemed to happen purely because it would result in a pretty picture.  And the whole wall-related thing is just bizarre, though oddly reminiscent of a manga/anime which has become popular on my Tumblr feed lately - Attack on Titan - which has a few memorable characters (Mikasa Ackerman FTW - seriously, listen to this speech) and some particularly awesome combat visuals.

The "A plot" of Pacific Rim - that of a particular mecha pilot and his new partner and of their relationship with the guy in charge of the Jaegr program - is reasonable.  Not brilliant, or the kind of thing which would make me interested in rewatching, but entertaining enough.

The "B plot" - that of two rival scientists - is execrable.  It's played for comic relief and is Just.  So.  Bad.  The movie would have been much better if they'd just dropped this entire plotline and all of those characters.

As war stories go, this one was partially inclusive of women - there were a handful of women techs/soldiers/engineers and at least two pilots scattered among the huge numbers of men.  But we were twenty minutes into the movie before my first sighting of a female.

So, Pacific Rim.  What can I say?  Not as stupid as Prometheus.  Not nearly as enjoyable as Aliens.

Note: there were also two characters who were supposedly Australian.  My main reaction to them is "Amazing how many accents this pair have".

Three Skips

I started accruing my book collection in my late teens.  Not too many early on, since I moved house a lot.  A couple of shelves of books.  T...