Saturday, 19 April 2014

Writing about something you like, for someone else

It’s not easy writing about a book you love, especially when you are writing on commission. If you want to write for yourself, it’s a different kind of challenge. What you end up being is a cross between squeeing like a teenage fangirl – or disembowelling it with inexpert tools, like a sixth standard schoolboy doing a book review. But the other kind, the kind where you write about it for money, with fixed rules and predefined comparison points, is even more fucked.
Case in point. I was asked to do a George RR Martin story to coincide with the broadcast premiere of season four of Game of Thrones in India. I jumped at it, because it had been a complete shit week for me, workwise – to put it mildly – and I was wallowing in self-disgust. But there was a catch – since the audience is Indian, there had to be an Indian hook to it. OK, I thought. That’s not too difficult – I was able to get an idea of the number of Facebook ‘likes’ that came from India, the number of Indian IPs that had torrented the first couple of episodes of season four, the number of seeders from India and stuff like that. Plus, there were also the merchandise sellers who were stocking increasing amounts of expensive GoT merchandise, and I could get quotes from them. So far, so good.
But then, the story was also supposed to show that Indians loved GoT episodes/ASOIAF novels because of their similarity to Indian myth and history. That was harder. Not because you can’t show parallels between two long dramas with powerfully-drawn characters competing for a throne. But because it seems so artificial. Who really reads A Game of Thrones or A Storm of Swords and thinks that Ned Stark is like Bhishma or Robb Stark like Abhimanyu? It’s stuff that belongs to a Comparative Literature class, if there. It’s like a stoner version of the fucking glass bead game, with ass-pulls taking the place of analysis.
I submitted something which I thought wasn’t too bad. /* insert obligatory Dunning-Kroger reference here */ A few hours later, I get a mail asking me to make some changes – removing an introductory paragraph that I rather liked -  and add more comparisons. OK. It hurt to remove those opening paragraphs, but “kill your darlings” and all that, so I did. And I did it again. And again. Until there was so little of what I wanted to say left.
I know “it isn’t what I wanted to say” smacks of self-indulgence. But that’s the point. If I was writing about something I cared less about, then it wouldn’t matter. I’m happy to pull out comparisons and criticisms, drawn from authoritative sources like Wikipedia and Tumblr. But when it is about GRRM, whose books I've loved for more than a decade (and no, that's not a hipster statement. I started around the time A Storm of Swords was published, which makes me very late as far as the fandom is concerned), it just feels ... terrible

Original copy (and now, in retrospect, it seems pretty bad, but I think the rant helped)

In 1981, an American tourist visited Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was his first time outside the United States. It was sunset by the time he got there, and the tour buses were leaving. The man stood on top of the wall and looked northwards as the dusk set in, trying to imagine the thoughts and feelings of a Roman soldier on patrol, guarding the edge of the world. The image would stay with him for a long time.
The tourist was a minor science fiction writer named George RR Martin, and a decade later, inspired in part by the historical fiction of people like Bernard Cromwell and by the real-life War of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster (sounds familiar?), he decided to write a three-book series of fantasy novels, the first of which was titled A Game of Thrones. It was to be followed by A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. It was a “story about the people guarding the end of the world”.
Two weeks ago, the fourth season of Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s novels aired. The demand was so great that HBO Go, the channel’s online streaming service crashed. The demand for the first episode broke piracy records as well, when over a million users downloaded copies within six hours of the show being aired, and over 3,00,000 users were actively sharing their copies. A study by the torrent tracking site showed that Indians accounted for 4.2% of these downloads, seventh in the world. On Facebook, Indians were the seventh biggest fans of Game of Thrones, making up 2.9 lakhs of the 1.03 crore people who ‘liked’ the series. ”I would say Game of Thrones, being a period drama, and the love Indians have for mythology, makes it a fit and there is a connect,” says Monica Tata, MD, HBO South Asia in an interview with Indiatimes. ”Indians generally love drama and we see that on a much larger scale in the Hindi GEC space,”
The walls of The Entertainment Store in Bangalore are covered with posters. Posters from Game of Thrones dominate. Tyrion Lannister, his face half-shadowed, looks at you from behind the words “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” Daenerys Targaryen sits in profile, a newly-hatched dragon on her shoulder, swearing that she will take what is hers, with fire and blood. “There’s a lot of demand for Game of Thrones merchandise, even though its more expensive than other properties” says Sunil Tekchandani, who runs the store with his brother Satish. “We ordered a dozen replicas of the Iron Throne – at Rs 6,000 apiece, and they sold out in a matter of weeks” he says. Even the Amul ad, one of the most reliable indicators of popular conversation, has paid homage to the series and its most detestable character, the privileged prince Joffrey Baratheon.
Multiple point-of-view, non-linear narratives and sudden detours into history and backstory make the saga closer to our epics than western narratives like Harry Potter or Star Wars. ”Western fantasy narrative is usually linear, based on the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell,” says Eika Chaturvedi Banerjee, one of the organizers of Aakhyaan, a festival where participants discuss and interpret mythology. “Indian myth is much more pluralistic. If you take the Mahabaratha, you will find characters like Bhishma, whose adherence to the idea of honour has devastating consequences. Or take the tale of Shakuni, imprisoned with his 100 brothers. The prisoners were given one grain of rice a day to feed themselves. Shakuni’s brothers starved to death, so that at least one of them could survive, and Shakuni, the sole survivor, swore that he would have his revenge on the Kuru dynasty. If you look at the Kurukshetra, it was Krishna, the avatar of Lord Vishnu himself, who broke several of the rules of war. The characters are not purely good or evil. The Kauravas, even though they are ostensibly the villains of the story, end up in heaven ahead of the Pandavas. It is a similar kind of non-linearity that gives GoT its appeal” she says.
Martin’s storylines are notoriously complex. His characters are multi-layered, with shifting motivations and loyalties. The person who seems like a villain in the first book or season becomes a fan favourite by the third, and could easily flip back again. Arranged marriages have a better chance of working out, and love is dangerous. It’s also about clan, family and honour, subjects that are familiar to everyone who watches any of the numerous soaps that grace our airwaves.
Martin is sparing in his use of fantasy elements. There is magic in the world, but it’s not the Dungeons and Dragons kind of magic where wizards cast fireballs and lightning bolts. Here, there are dragons, but at this point, they are just dangerous pets that have the potential to be weapons of mass destruction – if they survive. And no one in Martin’s world is safe. There are giants and wights and shadows and the promise of an apocalyptic battle, but it’s all just background for a group of incredibly human people jockeying for power – or just fighting for survival in a cold world.
Nilanjana Roy, the critic and writer, counts herself a fan of Martin’s work. “It's tempting to look for resonances between India's tradition of fantasy and epic and the Ice and Fire books, but I’d suggest that sometimes, it's really the great storytelling that counts, whether you're looking at Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros, or whether it's the equally culturally distant but compelling worlds of Garcia Marquez's Macondo, Alice Munro's Vancouver, Annie Proulx's Wyoming. Good storytelling has a way of travelling across national boundaries, and it's been such a pleasure to be a reader in the time of Rowling, Martin, Proulx, Munro, Morrison, Marquez, to have the privilege of seeing those books come out as you move through your own lifespan,” she says.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Eren, Jaegermeister

So its been a little over a week since I've begun tripping on SnK. As I said before, I watched the first couple of over the weekend before last. Now, I'm pretty much up-to-date with the anime and the manga. When I saw the first couple of episodes, I thought I'd never seen a more unlikeable protagonist. I've referred to Eren as the shouty little shit, quite often. But as the series progressed, he kind of grew on me.

Flawed heroes are old hat. The trick is to make the flaw interesting. Not too many pop writers pull it off. GRRM does it well, JKR doesn't. (I loved the Harry Potter series, but Harry himself was - too nice a kid, except maybe in OOTP).

When I was in school, every kid wanted to become a) an engineer b) a doctor c) a chartered accountant. Yes, when we were younger, we talked about becoming pilots or policemen or engine drivers (show how old I am, doesn't it?), but all that changed.Except for this one kid. He wanted to be a photographer. He was not too interested in acads. He knew what he wanted to be and stayed with it. The last I heard, he was working for National Geographic.

If Eren was at school, I would have stayed away from him. He wouldn't have had many friends. Not many male friends, atleast. There may have been girls who found him cute, but lets face it, he's scary as fuck.

So what could make a 10-12 year old kid that way? An imagination that kept running up against an implacable barrier in the form of the wall? A hyperactive curiosity kept in check by a proportionate fear of the monsters on the other side? And not even the kind of fictional monster that goes away when you put your head under the blanket, but a monster that even the adults acknowledge? The kind of dreaming that's like a pressure cooker because of the constraints its under?

It also explains the anger that kid!Eren unleashes on Hannes. The boogeyman is real. You know that. Why the fuck are you guys slacking?

It's also a key detail - when Eren's father calls him a seeker. "When somebody's on a quest, there's no sense talking them down." Grisha Jaeger knows what kind of person Eren is. And the word is - though I hate to use it - indomitable. You can kick him, you can beat him up, but you cant keep him down.

All this doesn't make Eren any more sympathetic. Even the moment where he watches his mother being devoured by the smiling titan - I felt more shock at the gruesomeness of the scene - and the idea of kids seeing their mother die so horribly than any feeling of Eren seeing his mother die horribly.

The next time we see Eren, after he manages to escape from Shiganshina, is on the night of his graduation, where he picks a fight with Jean. Three years of training and two years of working on a farm don't seem to have changed him any. He's still shouty, and his fights with Jean over what the trainees should do after graduation seem to have become a regular feature. But after shouting at Jean, he talks about his dream. More softly. About leaving the walls and exploring the world. his vision has appeal. You can see Connie and Sasha, Christa and Mina and Thomas listening, and you know that they hear him.Then Jean mocks him and they start fighting.

This part seems to be a bit off, for me. Reiner tells Jean to back off, saying Eren is the best hand-to-hand fighter among the trainees. Then Mikasa comes up to them and picks Eren up bodily and takes him away, to the amusement of the onlookers. This is probably there to re-establish Mikasa's badass cred, but its unnecessary. And it also shows that Mikasa, for all her concern about Eren, wasn't really bothered about making him look ridiculous. And Eren can take care of himself -especially against Jean, something thats been shown in a later issue.
Now, maybe Isayama hadn't gone into depth about character progression beyond a rough outline at this point, and it make sense that the anime changed this scene to Eren making his speech and Jean looking on with a mixture of resentment and fuck-I'll-be-glad-to-see-the-last-of-you-ness.
    When Eren sees Hannes the next day, they chat a bit, but its clear that he doesn't blame Hannes in any way for the death of his mother.
Now, here's the part that has puzzled me since I read it. After Hannes talks to him about how Grisha Jaeger saved his wife, he says that they have only Eren's memories to rely on, given that he saw him last, and asks Eren if he remembers anything at all. And Eren goes - a bit nuts.

Now, I was under the impression that Dr. Jaeger left for the inner districts by boat just before the titan attack and never returned, because he told Eren about the basement and showed him the key. The kids leave the house after Dr Jaeger leaves, they save Armin from the bullies and then the titans happen. (Chapter 1, pages 42 on ). At this point, Eren does't have the key. And once the titans hit, the kids run home, find Carla, lose Carla and get transported to the barges and leave Shiganshina. After that, they're at the landfills/farms and then go into training. But at some point here, if I understand this right, Dr Jaeger returns, finds Eren, gives him the key and a shot, a shot which has the side effect of messing with your memory. But Eren's words "You've been acting weird since mom died" also indicate that has had enough time - a matter of some days, if not weeks, to view Grisha's changed behaviour. So when does this happen? Is this error or intent? Plan or plothole?

/*Next:Isinglass and post-trosties*/

And this has become my theme tune


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shingeki No Kyojin (The manga, this time and very spoiler heavy) - 1

By now, it's obvious that I've gone from interest to drooling fangirling over Attack on Titan, I've seen the anime, read the manga, finished the yonkoma, and now spend my time prowling the caverns of Tumblr under an assumed name looking at fan-art. I haven't gone down to the level of reading fan-fiction myself, but that could just be a matter of time.
So anyway, the manga.
Is a great deal more nuanced than the anime. Things that go by in a flash in an anime are explored- highlighted because of the static nature of the manga.For example, take this scene in the anime. It happens before the credits of the first episode, but it may be a foreshadowing of something that happens much later in the manga.
Whoa, thought it was a nightmare Lo, it was so true They told me, don't go walkin' slow 'The Devil's on the loose

If you've begun with the anime, you would think of this as a standard Survey Corps mission, where the missionaries end up as corpses, but the scene gains weight if you've read the manga.

So, anyway. In the pilot, there's a scene where Eren's mother asks her husband to convince Eren not to join the survey corps. Dr Jaeger says "Carla, nothing can suppress a human's curiosity." In the manga, it's slightly different. Here, he says "When somebody's on a quest, there's no such thing as talking them down." Its a small change, with the added uncertainty of translation differences - but the keywords are "human curiosity" in the anime versus "quest" in the manga. The former implies a quirk of humanity, the latter is explicitly personal.
There's also a bit about the government, and how it forbids people from taking an interest in the outside world. Eren says that the King is chickening out, but Armin wonders if that's the real reason. This bit is not there in the anime. I'm not sure if this is foreshadowing, given that the king has not made an appearance after 51 issues of the manga, but we know that the king knows something that the people don't.
Then there's the specificity of the titan attack happening 107 years ago, versus the more generalized "over a century ago"  in the anime. Again, may be nothing, but in both cases - a hundred years ago? Mankind retreated into the walls a hundred years ago? surely there are still stories that people alive at the time would have told their children - about the fight with the titans, about life outside the walls? Even if all books about the outside world were confiscated and destroyed, surely there would have been word of mouth information? Is this a plot hole or something else? Also, the anime explicitly says the survivors built the walls. Now to build 3 walls, the largest about 20% of the size of the great wall of China in a matter of a few years, with steam age technology, while under attack by titans all this time seems to be quite a deal (In comparison, Hadrian's wall - which is 117.5 km long, took six years to build, and it's even smaller than Wall Sina). And there has been peace for a hundred years. So the walls took anytime up to 7 years to build, quite a feat of engineering - which we know isn't as straight forward as it seems.
But one place where the anime SHINES is where the armoured titan makes his appearance. Compare this in the manga:

Like a rock

to THIS scene in the anime
And he strikes, like Thunderball

A short note on ADOM If you've ever played ADOM, and progressed towards the end-game, you may have sometimes seen this message. "*THUMB*" When you enter a dungeon and see this message, its a signal for you to be afraid. Very afraid. If the message recurs with almost every turn, you are in deep, deep trouble. And if, by any chance, you see a dark green H, be prepared to run away or teleport, because the monster you are facing is one of the toughest in the game, a greater titan. Those bastards can SHRED you, however high level your character may be. And just listen to the video soundtrack at 2:14. *THUMB* indeed.

Eren, Mikasa and Armin are on a refugee boat, and Eren shouts a little more, Now, here's where the storied begin to diverge. The manga fast forwards to graduation day, and we are shown the top 10 soldiers of the 104th training corps. The anime cuts to a group of prosperous people discussing the refugee situation, a flashback of Grisha Jaeger - and Eren telling him he's been acting really weird since mom died - (when does Grisha get back AFTER Carla dies? Or am I missing something?) and THE KEY. Then Eren wakes up with the key around his neck and theyre waiting for food in the refugee camp inside Waru Rose.

Attack on Titan

Think this is from

After about 14 years of telling my niece what to watch, read or listen to (she is 17 now, and I've been trying to get her to like the stuff that I liked, mostly unsuccessfully, since she was three), I find myself on the receiving end. And it's a strange feeling.

It's this show called Attack on Titan - Shingeki No Kyojin. I started watching it out of a sense of duty as a result of my niece's nagging. I watched the first episode. It was OK. But it's an anime - and I never really liked anime. The last one I ever watched was Sabre Rider and the Star Sheriffs, back at the dawn of  Star TV.
So, back to Shingeki No Kyojin (SNK). The first episode was OK, but then, the second episode really kicked things up a notch.
The premise is straightforward. Sometime in the future (technically, the past), all humanity has been driven into an unnamed area the size of France, ringed by three huge concentric walls, hiding from man-eating giants called the titans. For about a hundred years, the titans have been content to snack on people outside the walls, but one day, a 60-meter colossal titan this guy shows up, and breaks a hole in the outermost wall, letting the smaller titans in. The titans kill and eat people - and they eat the hero's mom. The hero is a shouty 11-year old who escapes into the area within the second wall, along with his adopted sister (badass mary sue stoic action girl) and best buddy (nerdy weakling genius) and swears revenge. he decides to join the army to fight the titans.
But its not a "You killed my mother, prepare to die" kind of deal. There are loads and loads of characters - because people keep dying. You aren't really sure about which characters to like, because they have such a short shelf life.
The anime's first season has 25 episodes.
  1. Episodes 1-2: Set-up, main characters introduced, people die, first titan attack
  2. Episodes 3-4: More characters, training montage, character development
  3. Episode 5-8: Second titan attack, people die, WHAM episode 1
  4. Episode 9-13: People die, The first time the titans are defeated, and the introduction of the recon corps
  5. Episode 14-16: Interlude, more about the recon corps
  6. Episode 17-22: Introduction of the season's big bad, people die in droves
  7. Episode 23-25: Unmasking the big bad, defeating the big bad, WHAM episodes 2 & 3 (finale stinger)
It took me time to get to like the show. Did I mention that the hero is a shouty little shit? He is a shouty little shit. And his best friend is a snivelling little shit. the only person who seemed a decent character was his half sister, who kicked ass. but luckily, there's enough deft world building to take your attention away from the three primary characters, because they cant really carry the early part of story by themselves. for example, in the first couple of episodes, the titans breach the outermost wall, and pour in into human territory. Theres a massacre, and then there's a general exodus into the area within the second wall, which leads to a food crisis. In response, the powers-that-be get almost every able bodied adult immigrant and sends them out to retake the lands of the first wall. These guys are poorly trained and poorly armed and get eaten almost to the last man. The food crisis eases a bit after that.
The shouty little shit (though he does get slightly better) And this guy is the weepy little shit
All this is sketched out, quite deftly, in the first couple of episodes. The fact that the three kids, are left alone in a big city, without much hope, having to stand in long lines for a little bread, along with thousands of other kids, also goes some way to make the principals more likable. Armin (the weepy shit) is luckier than the other two, his grandfather makes it to the second wall refugee camp. The grandfather does what he can, but he gets pulled into the mission to take the first wall from the Titans and dies. The kids spend their next two years working in a landfill, before they become old enough to join a military training camp. And that's where things really start to pick up.
The next two episodes are there to flesh out some of the characters. Eren (shouty little shit), stays shouty, but becomes a little better. Mikasa, the badass, becomes even more badass, and progresses to her God-mode Suehood. And Armin, still remains - well - unlikable, though he shows hints of possibility.
One thing that you notice straightaway. The women in the show kick ass. I'm about as sexist and patriarchical as they come, but there is something to be said about a show where the most interesting people are the women. There's Mikasa, tough, stoic and badass - and flawed. There's Ymir, unreliable, mysterious and sardonic, with her own agenda. There's ditzy scientist Hange Zoe, who can fight with the best of them. There's Sasha Blouse, a backwoods hick who eats - and farts - a lot. There is quiet, cynical action girl Annie Leonhardt - who is probably my favourite character since Buffy.
Among the guys, there's Reiner Braun, a big blonde dude whose built up as a natural leader and mostly nice guy. There's Bertoldt Hoover, a gentle giant whose specialty seems to be sweating silently. There's Jean Kirchsten, who has the hots for Mikasa and hates Eren's guts because she only has eyes for him. There's Marco Bodt, genuinely sweet and innocent and Connie Springer, a not-so-bright loudmouth kid.
So after the character-establishing training-montage episodes, the colossal titan reappears and shit goes down. BIG TIME.
By the time you come to the end of the season, there are so many questions left unanswered.
  1. Who are the titans, where do they come from?
  2. Why do they only eat humans (they ignore animals) when they don't even have a fully formed digestive system?
  3. Why are some titans abnormal?
  4. Are there human habitations outside the walls? (its hinted there are)
  5. Why are books banned?
  6. Who is the mysterious king?
  7. Who are the armoured and colossal titans? Are they shifters too?
The animation is choppy - but not in a bad way, there are some scenes that flow beautifully, and some scenes that are barely animated, but it works. In the middle, we have stills - slides explaining strategy or providing background information.
And because i was left wanting for more at the end, I decided to read the manga.

More on that here and here

Monday, 4 November 2013

Kipling on the Uses of Reading

Saw this on Andrew Sullivan's blog. Dated, but still interesting - if you can get past the colonial attitude.
We have times and moods and tenses of black depression and despair and general mental discomfort which, for convenience sake, we call liver or sulks. But so far as my experience goes, that is just the time when a man is peculiarly accessible to the influence of a book, as he is to any other outside influence; and, moreover, that is just the time when he naturally and instinctively does not want anything of a mind-taxing soul-stirring nature. Then is the time to fall back on the books that, neither pretend to be nor are accepted as masterpieces, but books whose tone and temper soothe your trouble for the time being.