The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is set in 5th- or maybe 6th-century Britain, in a world where Britons and Saxons live in an uneasy peace after the death of Arthur, and ogres, fairies and dragons are all very real threats. The story follows the journey of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to set out and see their son, accumulating a group of misfit characters along the way. Axl and Beatrice’s journey is complicated by the mist that covers the land, robbing people of their memories.

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I realise the setting of The Buried Giant is only nominally historical, but let’s talk about it anyway. And only partly because I started reading it because I was told “it’s set in the middle ages.”

Like many people, Ishiguro envisions the post-Roman period as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, its depopulated landscape strewn with ruins and inhabited by people who wear rags or rusty armour, huddled behind palisade walls or living in cramped underground warrens. I am not a specialist in this period, but I don’t think that’s where the current consensus is? The naming is also a bit … the Saxon characters are called Edwin and Wistan, which I suppose is fair enough, but the British characters are called Axl and Beatrice, which actually mainly bothered me at the beginning when I realised they were “A” and “B.”

But it’s OK, right? Because it’s all a metaphor.

(As an aside: newspaper articles have engaged in the usual middlebrow handwringing about whether this is fantasy. Even Ishiguro is quoted as wondering whether readers will “think it’s fantasy.” Of course it’s fantasy, dipshit. It’s about a dragon whose breath covers the land in a magical mist and then a rag-tag party of mismatched characters goes to slay it. You’re going to have to work hard to fit that into the middle-class adultery genre. One of these articles even said that some people defined Never Let Me Go — a novel where the main characters are clones — as science fiction. As opposed to a realistic depiction of modern life, I guess? I just hope it doesn’t get the usual “oh, now it shows fantasy can be literary” since this is basically a Gene Wolfe novel but without any of the bold imagination. But critics who think fantasy is all Terry Brooks have never read a Gene Wolfe book, I guess. Which is not a reason to dislike the book, but geez, these people.)

So our heroes wander around the landscape, encountering only and always people who have something relevant to say about the loss of their memories, and each of them has a different perspective on amnesia. Beatrice wants to remember her life and love together with Axl. Axl is afraid that if he remembers who he is, he’ll realise he’s actually not a very good person. Wistan wants memories to come back so that people can be held accountable for what they’ve done, while Gawain thinks that the past is better left buried, forgetfulness having brought peace. Etc., etc. This summary sounds a bit schematic, but it isn’t; the comparisons to the Spanish Civil War or the Yugoslavian crisis or whatever are not as blatant as they might be.

There are a lot of quite good uses of this device, like a group of people who keep doing bad things knowing that they’ll forget about them and thus never feel guilty. And it’s nice to see the usual format of Saxons as unequivocal bad guys and Britons as doomed good guys messed with.

The biggest attempt to create “period” atmosphere is the dialogue, and it’s … odd. Everyone speaks in a very verbose, roundabout kind of way, none of them ever really listening to each other, and with elements of sort of cod-Irish occasionally creeping in. It works, I think, in that it feels all odd and dithery and uncertain, which is how I think it’s meant to feel. But if it’s meant to feel “historical,” well, I dunno. Here’s an example:

“What is it you have to say, Axl, and before I’ve had time to rub the sleep from my eyes?

“We talked before, princess, about a journey we might make. Well, here’s the spring upon us, and perhaps it’s time we set off.”

“Set off, Axl? Set off when?”

“As soon as we’re able. We need only be gone a few days. The village can spare us. We’ll talk to the pastor.”

“And will we go to see our son, Axl?”

“That’s where we’ll go. To see our son.”

So there’s a hell of a lot of talking, but not a lot of saying things, which I think is intentional.

You may choose to see a clever idea in the fact that this is a book about the uncertainty and double-edgedness of history, set in a historical period that isn’t really historical at all. I’m not sure. I think the choice of a legendary period works; having the two sides be Britons and Saxons gives it a heft it wouldn’t have if they were elves and dwarfs or some other imaginary equivalent. But at the same time, it’s jarring because there are all these things that argue against it being the post-Roman period, so you keep getting snapped out of a sense of the world as real. Which obviously it isn’t, but.

So yeah; it’s about history, but although the setting has historical elements it’s a fantasy about history rather than a piece of historical fiction.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Web-series Wednesday? The Man in the High Castle (2015)

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is probably the classic “what if the Nazis won” alternate-history story, which is funny because that isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about reality and illusion, about a bunch of characters engaging in a series of layered pretenses who start to realise that even the “real” world around them is maybe not as real as it might be.

This was always going to be a hard thing to film, but so far, at least, the Amazon adaptation, which I gather has been greenlit for a full series, is doing an OK job.

If you have Lovefilm (or Amazon Prime in the US, or whatever) you can watch it for yourself, so I’m not really going to go into detail about the show itself. Instead, I wanted to take a look at its evocation of an alternate-historical period. The Man in the High Castle poses kind of an interesting problem for adaptation, in that it’s set in an alternate past — that is, it’s an alternative reality, but it’s also set in 1962. So the filmmakers need to portray a world that’s different from our own in two ways — first, it’s fifty years ago, and second it’s not our fifty years ago.

I think that part is done reasonably well. The sets look clunky and lived-in and poor, and you can believe that for people under German or Japanese occupation, times are hard. (Not that plausibility is something you need in an adaptation of a novel where the Nazis drain the Mediterranean to make farmland and are busily colonising space).

But in order to drive home the alternate-reality nature of things, the whole “occupying foreign power” thing is hammered home more than you would expect to see in “reality.” There are swastikas and Japanese flags everywhere. The baddies were swastika armbands with the swastika superimposed on the stripes of an American flag. Newsreels end with “Sieg heil!” There is a swastika on a payphone (OK, a payphone near a border crossing, but still).

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This is not, if I recall correctly, in the book (which I read a really long time ago and do not remember clearly, so I could be wrong). In the book, the eastern part of the US is still the United States, just with a pro-German puppet government in power. And pro-German puppet governments were very much the order of the day. I suppose they tend to get forgotten about because they complicate the narrative? But in any sufficiently large country you can always find some people who are actually pro-Nazi, or who are just trying to make the best of a bad situation, or who want to use the occupiers to further their own agenda, or whatever. France’s “Milice” were, if anything, more despised than the Nazis:

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But what you don’t do in that situation is go “Germans Germans Germans, we work for the Germans,” because you need to maintain a skin of plausibility, no matter how thin. OK, you can be a bunch of German stooges, but at least wear berets. Or check these toadying swine out:

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Vidkun Quisling, the guy who liked the Germans so much his name became a synonym for treason, but there’s no swastikas on that bad boy. No, it’s all about a heroic, suspiciously-German-looking Norway. If you wanted to run a Nazi-occupied America, the last thing you’d do would be go around painting swastikas on things. You’d want to keep it nice and simple.

But then that wouldn’t be very visual. So by the same logic that turned the novel’s novel into a film in the film, we get a very visually occupied America.

I’m not complaining about that, not at all; the images are very visually striking. I mostly wanted to point out an example of how filmmakers use visual exaggeration to create something that looks plausible or authentic, when the “reality” (if I can use that word here) is probably less “real” looking.

Web-series Wednesday? The Man in the High Castle (2015)

Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens

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I have written previously about my recent infatuation with fighting games. As I said last time, this is a little curious considering that I have never really been that into them. When I was 14, I played the odd round of Street Fighter II like everyone else, and when I was at university I played some Soul Edge (it hadn’t yet been released in English as Soul Blade) with my friend Timothy, who had that unheard-of thing, a PlayStation. I just remembered the other day that the common room at my college also had Virtua Fighter 3, or possibly 2, as well as a Marvel game, possibly Marvel Super Heroes. I dropped quite a lot of cash into them, but I was never really great at them, and they couldn’t compete with the other arcade cabinets they had, which I seem to recall were Puzzle Bobble and Metal SlugMetal Slug is pretty damn great, let’s not lie.

So I didn’t really become interested in the genre until a year or two ago that I read an article by Ben Kuchera on the old Penny Arcade Report, in which he linked to this video:

Now, if you know anything about fighting games, you know what this video is without even having to click on it: it’s the famous “Daigo Parry,” in which Daigo Umehara, one of the world’s most successful Street Fighter players, pulls out a seemingly-impossible victory against American player Justin Wong. This clip is so famous partly because you need so little context to understand it. For the uninitiated: Daigo is playing Ken, the guy in the white, and Justin is playing Chun-Li, the woman in blue. Justin has reduced Daigo to a tiny fraction of his health; if he takes a single hit, he loses. Justin then launches a “super art” — a special attack that, even if blocked, will do a tiny amount of damage. Normally, this minor damage, called “chip damage,” isn’t much to worry about, but it’ll be enough to take care of Daigo.

The only way to avoid chip damage is to parry the attack — to push forward on the stick at the exact moment the attack connects. Parrying is very unforgiving; if the player’s timing isn’t right, the attack will hit, so it’s a gamble. Block and you’ll take a wee bit of damage; fail a parry and you’ll take much more. Of course, it makes no difference to Daigo here; he can’t afford to do either. But not only does Daigo have to parry the first attack, he then has to parry fourteen more, each at the exact moment it hits. To do this, he has to know what his opponent is doing at the same time his opponent does — or even before. It’s a tremendously powerful and simple demonstration of one of the core elements of fighting games; anticipating what your opponent is going to do and reacting accordingly. 

And now there’s a book about it: Evo Moment 37 by Salinas, CA-based sportswriter and video game enthusiast Glenn Cravens. You can get it in paperback here or on Kindle here.

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Now, I’ve talked previously about historical themes in videogames: for instance, in Skyrim or in FarCry 3. But I don’t think I’ve talked much about the history of video games. And this is especially interesting, I think, when it comes to fighting games. Despite the fact that they’re a very early form of competitive gaming, fighting games have never really taken off in the way that some other types of game have. Their community remains small and their corporate backing pretty minor. And as a culture, the fighting game community (FGC for short) seems to be divided about whether it wants to be “esports,” or whether this will get rid of the underground, grassroots feeling that is such an important part of it.

So there isn’t a lot of historical material out there about this community, or at least not material that’s easy for a newcomer to access. The history of the community gets handed down as folklore (although check out this fantastic oral history of the development of Street Fighter II). But now we have Cravens looking at the context of this famous event. What can looking at the Daigo Parry teach us about the FGC, its history, and why people play fighting games?

Craven’s structure is basically a narrative: he starts with the story of downloading the video himself (back in the days before YouTube) and relates it to the stories of other people encountering it. From there, he moves into the background — the generally poor reception of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike in the US, the growth of the tournament scene, and the early career of Justin Wong. He evokes the arcade scene as it existed in the early 2000s and talks about the logistical, behind-the-scenes challenges facing tournament organisers.

Gradually, we move through a series of other tournaments (including the butchery that was the 2003 USA vs Japan 5 v 5 match) and incidents to EVO 2004, with an interesting aside on where the “Evolution” name came from and the format changes that went with it, which at the time many people probably thought would eclipse the events of the tournament itself. We get the expected breakdown of the tournament, its brackets and results, and then, perhaps most interestingly, the aftermath of the event, including the viral spread of the video, which has been viewed, according to one estimate, around 30 million times.

There’s some analysis, but in the end this is a largely narrative story — a tale with a beginning, middle and end in which the parry itself is a climax, but not the climax.

What’s good about it?

I found myself turning the pages of Evo Moment 37 pretty rapidly — which is a bit of a feat considering that I, like anyone who might be motivated to pick up this book, already know how the story ended since it happened 10 years ago. It’s a slender work (it feels like it could have been a magazine article or series of blog posts, but got beefed up with extra material) but I felt like it covered the whole period and did a good job explaining the significance of the parry and the accompanying parry video.

It was an interesting evocation of the fighting game community — and perhaps of gamer culture in general — at a certain place and time. I found it fascinating the number of people who feature prominently in the text who are still leading members of the FGC today: the same three guys run EVO, for instance, and if you watched the 2014 finals of Ultra Street Fighter IV, you heard the same announcer calling the match that you hear on the 2004 video, Seth Killian (who discusses the parry in this PAR article). 

I thought the discussion of the spread of the video, first through sites devoted only to fighting game fans and then through good old YouTube, was fun. 

Cravens drew on interviews with many of the participants to form his account (although we don’t hear very much from Daigo’s perspective; Umehara doesn’t speak English and is reputedly a hard man to get hold of), and the view into their lives is very cool: the story of Justin Wong hiding his career as a video gamer from his family even as he became more and more well-known sounds bizarre; it’s hard to image it would be possible today, in the full flowering of the internet, but perhaps I’m wrong. 

What could be better?

I think there were three main problems with Evo Moment 37. The first is that this book really needed a good going-over by an editor. Leaving aside frequent errors of tense or word choice, it’s heavily overwritten. For instance, instead of saying “Capcom games” or “games made by Capcom,” Cravens says “games born of the Capcom brand” or words to that effect. It isn’t the ideal word choice, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be the right way to express the idea. Now, Cravens is a journalist, so I know he knows that. It just goes to show that you can’t edit yourself. It reads like a first draft, not in terms of the information it conveys but in terms of how the writing flows. 

Perhaps relatedly, I mostly skimmed the blow-by-blow accounts of each fight. I didn’t find them exciting, and I found Cravens’s attempts to liven up the writing unhelpful. This, I think, is just a fundamental problem in writing about such an inherently visual thing. I’m willing to accept that this is a matter of taste. I did like the way the fights were broken down by the amount of time remaining on the clock, which is a good way of reminding the reader how little time is passing as all these strategies and counter-strategies are taking place. It keeps the tension high, and that’s good. 

Lastly … I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as an observation. I’m not sure who this book is for. For example, at the beginning, Cravens describes the video in detail, explaining who Chun-Li and Ken are as characters, and then later telling us about Third Strike as a game. Which is all well and good — but later on, he mentions things like Urien’s Aegis Reflector attack without explaining them at all. 

I want you to try to envision the hypothetical reader who doesn’t know who Ken and Chun-Li are but does know what the Aegis Reflector is. At least Dudley’s Machine-gun Blow is exactly what it sounds like: a rapid series of punches. So the introduction is based on the idea that you don’t really know much about fighting games, but the blow-by-blows won’t make any sense if you haven’t played Third Strike at least a time or two. 

I suppose, honestly, that the target audience is someone like me — someone who has a basic familiarity with the genre but hasn’t been around long enough to know anything about the community’s history. So I guess that’s fair. 

Overall

Initially, I thought the roughness of the text was going to hurt my enjoyment of the book, but I didn’t find that it did. It could definitely do with some hard-hearted editing (a future second edition, perhaps?) and perhaps a clearer statement of its thesis. Perhaps if you’re a veteran fighting game guy it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. I can’t speak to that — for me, the most interesting part of it was the surrounding context. The parry itself is very impressive, but it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that I found particularly compelling. If you’re interested in the history of video games — or perhaps more accurately, interested in the history of video gaming and gaming communities — I think this is worth a read. 

It occurs to me that I own a lot of this kind of geek history and I should probably write more about it. At another time, perhaps; this has gone on way longer than I intended it to. 

And also … 

A week or two ago, Third Strike went on sale on XBLA for like £2.49, so I grabbed it. It was the first time I’d ever really played a fighting game since my teens, and I (can you guess?) stank at it. Stink at it, I should say, because I’m still practicing and learning a bit, even though I can barely beat the computer. 

The other day, I was plugging away in training mode, and I did something right. Which might not sound like a big deal to you, but believe me, it is to me. I saw where the computer character was, and where I was, and I said to myself “I bet that it’s going to do this … so what if I do this …“. Sure enough, my prediction was right, my counterattack landed and I felt like the greatest strategic mind of the century for the 3 seconds it took for the opponent to get up and start using me for target practice again. 

But I can see why these games are addictive. 

Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens