It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!
If you’d asked me who my favorite author was at the age of eight or nine, I’d have replied without hesitation: “Bruce Coville!” Mr. Coville’s specialty was works of science fiction and fantasy, usually with a dash of humor. He wrote numerous different series (some of which we may cover in the future) but my favorite by far was the “Alien Adventures,” beginning with Aliens Ate My Homework.
The Aliens series follows a small cast of alien characters perennially in pursuit of the evil intergalactic criminal BKR. Along for the ride is our hapless protagonist, Rod Allbright, a middle-school-aged kid who narrates the adventures in first-person.
The Myst series can be divided into two distinct parts. The installments we’ve examined so far make up what I call the “Atrus Arc,” and follow the story of Atrus and his family. The second category, the “D’ni Arc,” is focused instead on the D’ni civilization. The Book of Ti’ana is the ideal entry point for the latter, as it is the only entry in the series which takes place in D’ni during its heyday. This is the backstory bible to rule them all, and sets the stage for the D’ni-focused games that Cyan created after the completion of Riven.
The problem with the D’ni Arc in general is that it tends to focus more on world-building than on character or plot, and as a result these installments tend to be less successful than those of the Atrus Arc. This is not to say that they are without merit, however: any longtime fan will find a lot to enjoy in both The Book of Ti’ana and the games which build upon it. The Atrus Arc’s stories took place within within a specific universe, and the D’ni Arc, if nothing else, strengthens that universe.
The book opens to a scene of D’ni stonecutters hard at work on a tunnel to the surface. This is a mission motivated by pure curiosity: the D’ni arrived in the Cavern via the Art, so what lies beyond it is a complete unknown. Most of the storyline at this point revolves around the fact that the completion of the tunnel is dependent on the whims of D’ni politics (the project is controversial and many politicians want to end it). This is largely a false sort of tension, as the reader already knows from The Book of Atrus that the tunnel was eventually completed, and as such the sixty-plus pages the book devotes to the subject are often quite tedious.
When Myst IV: Revelation is good, it’s great. It wildly exceeds one’s expectations with exceptional visuals, clever storytelling, and originality. But when it’s bad, it’s terrible. Revelation largely improves upon Exile‘s mistakes, but it fails to emulate Exile‘s successes. This makes for a frustrating game: too flawed to be great, but with too many good bits to be written off completely.
Revelation, like Exile, was contracted out to a new studio while Cyan continued work on Uru. In this case, Ubisoft hand-picked a group of creators specially for the purpose, dubbing it “Team Revelation.”
In terms of visuals and immersive effects the studio did admirably. Using the aptly-named “ALIVE” game engine, Revelation seamlessly merges prerendered images with attractive real-time effects for insects, water, and so on, which creates a convincing and dynamic world. Another extremely subtle but ingenious feature enables the player to lightly tap on things to hear what they sound like, adding a layer of interactivity to otherwise inert objects. This all works together to create an engaging and believable game environment, one which feels more lifelike than that of any other game in the series.
After Riven was released, Cyan went quiet for a while in order to research and produce what would eventually become Uru. Mattel Interactive, which at around this time had acquired the publishing rights to the series, wanted a new Myst title as quickly as possible, though, and Presto Studios was enlisted to take up the mantle. Presto was familiar to Myst fans as the creators of the Journeyman time-travel series. If Cyan was not to make the next game, Presto’s team was probably the most qualified to do so in their stead.
The game they created was Myst III: Exile. It’s a good game, if not a great game. It waffles between the profound and the silly, the realistic and the absurd. It can be outstanding one moment and laughably stupid the next. Despite its weaknesses, however, it does ultimately come out as a worthwhile addition to the canon.
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Myst: The Book of D’ni is not a very good book. It doesn’t have any substantial characters, its plot is disjointed, and its events have little to no bearing on the rest of the series. I’ve slotted it into the fourth chapter here because it takes place between Riven and Exile, but the book’s events are so marginal that it could be skipped entirely without consequence. It has numerous plotlines, most of the irrelevant to the series overall, and much of the action revolves around peoples who have never appeared before or since. Like Riven, The Book of D’ni is highly ambitious, but unlike Riven, it falls very short of its goals.
Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, but Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s concept and built upon it rather than simply aping it, and in doing so created a completely fresh take on the existing formula. Beyond its control scheme and its universe, Riven bears practically no resemblance to its predecessor, but this actually works to its advantage. It isn’t Myst II but Myst 2.0, a second release which addresses the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators learn from past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.
Riven‘s intro picks up where Myst‘s anticlimax left off. Following a delightfully artistic new Cyan logo, we again see Atrus sitting at his desk. Rand Miller’s acting here hits a degree of subtlety that I don’t think he ever quite reached again: Atrus’s relief at seeing the player is palpable, but there’s also a strong undercurrent of worry in his voice. It’s an impeccable portrayal of a desperate man whose only hope rests in the hands of a stranger. Atrus doesn’t spell out his plan, but rather provides a journal containing “most of what you’ll need to know,” along with a trap book to be used on Gehn. Finally he turns the Riven book around to reveal its staticky linking panel, the first sign that there’s something seriously wrong with this Age.
While Myst: The Book of Atrus may not stand as a classic of speculative fiction, in the context of the series it performs exceptionally well. As the title suggests, the book is the story of Atrus, building upon from what little we learned of him in Myst while simultaneously setting the stage for the next game, Riven. Video games aren’t the ideal medium for detailed storytelling, so novelizations like this one were critical to the expansion of the game’s universe.
The Book of Atrus opens with characters we’ve never seen before, Gehn and Anna. Gehn’s wife (here unnamed) has just died in childbirth and he’s distraught. He spurns his newborn son, storms in the direction of a volcano, and disappears. It’s a good opening: cryptic, yet still intriguing enough to get the reader’s attention. It efficiently introduces Gehn and his callous, dispassionate manner, traits which will be critically important later.
Following the prologue, the narrative skips forward a few years. Atrus, the newborn from before, is now a young boy. He’s depicted as a precocious and intelligent child, spending his time conducting scientific experiments and exploring the desert surrounding his home. Anna, the reader learns, is his grandmother, who has seen to his care since the departure of his father. Anna is one of the most richly-developed characters of the series, but one who doesn’t appear in any of the games, so the novels are the single greatest source of information about her. Much of Atrus’s personality was inherited from her, particularly his sense of ethics and thirst for knowledge. The first few chapters are primarily concerned with the lives of Atrus and Anna, an idyllic chapter in Atrus’s life. These first few chapters tend to drag (they are, after all, practically devoid of plot), but they’re necessary to establish the life that Atrus will spend the rest of the book pining for.
Atrus and Anna’s home is the Cleft, a large crevasse at the foot of a volcano. In the novels, it’s located somewhere in the Middle East, though when it appeared in the games it was relocated to New Mexico. The Cleft carries a lot of metaphorical significance, and typically means different things to different characters. To Atrus it represents a happy life which he’s been forced against his will to abandon. To Gehn, the Cleft represents a dead end, a meaningless life which he’s worked hard to escape. In the context of the Myst epic overall, yhe Cleft subtly echoes the form and function of the Fissure (previously seen in the Myst opening), particularly in a scene early in the book in which the flooded Cleft reflects the starry sky. In many cases the Cleft also represents humility, a theme which will recur throughout the series.
Hello everyone! I’ve finally started re-editing these reviews and will be posting the revised editions here, hopefully at a rate of one per week. Once the full run has been re-posted, the print edition will be available shortly later. Enjoy!
Myst is unique, a bizarre amalgamation of concepts that is unmatched even by its own sequels. It is by turns grim or whimsical. It requires logical thought but is set in a nonsensical universe. Its narrative is sophisticated on some levels and underdeveloped in others. Some seemingly ordinary things have great narrative significance, some especially strange things do not. It is, above all, a strange and unique experience.
Described in the simplest possible terms, Myst is a game about exploration. You have arrived in a strange place. What do you do? Naturally, you begin to look around. The game is your camera, your window. The cursor is your hand. The music is your intuition. The game involves no role-playing: rather, it turns your computer into a gateway through which you can enter another universe.
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The movie is pretty good. I don’t want to drone on and on about it, but I do want to record a few of my thoughts for public consumption.
The Light Side
The Force Awakens is the Star Wars followup that the prequels should have been. It has the same humor and likable characters as the original films, and at least aspires to the same degree of creative exuberance. It brings the adventurous spirit back into the series, and the sense of a once-proud civilization fallen into ruin. In short, it was above all else a Star Wars film, and a good one.
Humanization of Bad Guys
Star Wars has never been reknowned for a nuanced depiction of good and evil, but The Force Awakens does make some significant strides in that direction. To make the main character a defecting Stormtrooper was a stroke of genius, and the characterization of Kylo Ren was just ambiguous enough to allow me to think maybe he would reform. Sure, our arch-villains are still guilty of crimes that would make Hitler wince, but it was nice to see some genuine personalities among the bad guys.
A small thing, but noteworthy: I can’t think of any other movie, any other movie, that depicted a genuine romantic relationship between two characters who are effectively senior citizens. This is a major blind spot in our cinematic tradition, I think, and the degree of respect, of non-remarkableness, with which it was handled here, is worthy of commendation.
Thank you for making Star Wars less of a men-only club. Not only by the addition of Rey as a main character, but by the use of so many women in minor supporting roles. In the old canon, “royalty” appeared to be the only job opening for women… now we see that girls can operate the ultra-doom mega-death-ray weapon, too!
Last year’s everything-gets-a-summary model took too long to produce (and half the summaries therein were crap anyway) so this year I’m taking a different tack. Only the best and the worst entries will be summarized, and a complete list, without comment, will follow. Someday I’ll figure out the ideal format!
Best Fiction of 2015
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I try to avoid giving the “best” title to acknowledged classics, but I didn’t read a whole lot of good fiction this year, so it was no contest. Nabokov’s narrative of an unhappy pedophile remains as disturbing and engaging as ever. Also well worth a look is his afterword, which was included in the edition I read.
- Rabbit, Run. by John Updike. Similar to Lolita in status as a classic and its dislikable protagonist, Rabbit, Run is likewise a very interesting piece of fiction.
- Honorable Mentions: We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates. Mannequin Girl, Ellen Litman.
And the Worst Fiction of 2015…
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Despite the degree of hype that’s accumulated around this book, I found little merit in it. The characters are shallow, the plot revolves around extremely implausible coincidences, and it lacks any memorable qualities. It might seem good if you’ve never read anything better, but there are a thousand books I’d recommend instead.
- We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler. Despite the accolades he receives, Handler’s prose tends to leave me clammy and his plot in this book seems to be conflicted about whether it’s absurd or realistic.
- From a Buick 8 by Stephen King. I wanted to try a King novel and this one sounded interesting. Here’s the entire book: There’s a creepy Buick. Sometimes it eats people. Sometimes aliens come out of it and then die. Repeat scenario for 400 pages.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (Spoilers) It’s engaging and even memorable, but its subject of an evil, conniving woman who frames her husband for murder plays too much into the misogynist’s playbook for me.