Oh Witcher 3! Oh Witcher 3!

How lovely are thy (side/main) quests?

And warning: Here Be Spoilers!

At about the 186 hour mark–tracked with Steam–I finished The Witcher 3 including its two main DLCs. I’m a bit disappointed that it did not manage to beat Skyrim‘s 189 hours on record but considering that I started two games in Skyrim with one game getting like 20-30 hours, maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed after all. Besides, I made a couple savepoints at times where The Witcher 3‘s story diverges so I could check out alternative story lines. We could still beat that record comfortably.

Honestly, I was not very sold into The Witcher 3 when I first started it a year ago. This is my first foray into the world of Geralt and I came there expecting to experience the ultimate male power fantasy but instead the intro gave me a bunch of cinematic cutscenes. What a way to be a wet blanket. It was nice the first few times but it wore its welcome fast. Please, I started thinking, more of those spinning sword sweeps and less talk! But, like many before me, I started to care. I found myself enamored with a faux-medieval world where the Conjunction of the Spheres happened and there are people with various stories all around.

And that on top of the fact that my computer could just barely run The Witcher 3. The experience isn’t horrible but the frame rate leaves much to be desired. Kinda leaves Geralt with a brooding stride especially when there are a lot of objects (wood splinters, people, etc.) to render in a scene. Also leaves most of the cutscenes with the sound going faster than the visuals. Gives it an almost pensive cinematic effect, like sometimes the characters take their time reflecting on what was just said rather than going for a quick retort. And at times when the scene calls for a bit more nonverbal language (like an impassioned movement of the arms during an argument) than a mutated witcher would typically be comfortable with, the delay makes it play out like a flashback, slowed down just enough so you can appreciate the details and featuring voiceless stretches of action. Times like this, the beautiful background music really saves the mood.

That is not to say that the brooding stride, the pensive mood, or the flashback feel is not at home with Geralt’s world. I like to think that this makes my Witcher 3 experience unique in a way.

The software engineer side of me, on the other hand, can’t help but marvel at how CD Projekt Red managed to make this game degrade gracefully. Even with a computer such as mine, the bugs I encountered are few and far between. Oh well there’s Roach…

Roach, you horse-demon, horses don't do that.

…but I’d like to think that CDPR left that on purpose as some kind of joke. Also, there’s the fact that Geralt’s hair remains model-worthy despite spending hours on end outdoors, exposed to the sun, with an occasional dose of water hag spit, drowner blood, and all sorts of unsavory things. And have I told you I’m using an AMD GPU so there’s no Nvidia HairWorks to help Geralt’s case?

My co-workers’ endorsement aside, what made me buy The Witcher 3 during a Steam sale is the fact that it is labeled as choices matter, and in how this aspect of the game is told to be a great factor into The Witcher 3‘s emotional impact. Now, something that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, is in how Bioshock Infinite‘s ending left me in such an emotionally-tattered state. This deserves another blog post of its own but, suffice it to say, if what elevates creative output into the hallowed realm of being art is in how it can elicit emotions you would not otherwise feel, then Bioshock Infinite gave me an overwhelming conviction that games can be art.

And, like an addict looking for his next fix, against reason, against logic, I’ve been looking for another game that could trigger the same reaction I had with Bioshock Infinite. And I try to keep my mind open but such is my conviction that games can be art that I am pretty sure only a game, or generally an interactive medium, can achieve the same.

I’ve tried a few, constrained by my free time. Would it bother you to hear that I felt delight when, in the title screen of Life is Strange, there is a link to help you find support groups should you feel you need it so after playing the game? I have, unfortunately, not found another game to rival Bioshock Infinite, The Witcher 3 included. I have begun to fear that Bioshock Infinite is a one-time braingasm you could never feel for a second time.

But that is not to take away anything from The Witcher 3. While it did not give me the mindfuck fix I bought it for, it gave me something else. Against odds, a video game with obviously fictitious characters, made me feel empathy. As the best of fiction should do.

“Do I have to know her to feel sorry for her? Can’t you just help her?”

~ The titular character of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord

I would like to put it here on the record, before I rework through the choices I did not pick in my first playthrough. I got the good ending with Ciri, though I’ve had a few missteps along the way. I went with her to meet the sorceresses, not because I had no confidence in her but because I had no confidence our erstwhile allies against the Wild Hunt would play fair with her. Ciri’s fate had been pretty much sealed in my playthrough when I accidentally learned of my misstep and yet it bothered me. It bothered me that Ciri might think I had no confidence in her, that I did not recognize the strong spirit she undoubtedly has. I did not want her to think that she was just another damsel in distress I had to save. From what I heard, she is far stronger than that. I merely wanted to lend assistance because, by Lebioda, this is the fucking Wild Hunt we are up against. No one has a good chance against them, Elder Blood or no Elder Blood.

Triss, Ciri, Geralt, and Yen. All not smiling.
A family picture I managed to catch. Shame they can’t smile for it.

As Riley MacLeod quotes in his article about his Witcher 3 ending: “It’s bullshit arbitrary video game psychology”. I agree.

And yet…I find myself agreeing with CDPR at how this mechanic in their game actually reflects real life. No matter how contrived it may seem, The Witcher 3 asks you to empathize with its people. Actually treat them like people, not as NPCs that give off experience points. As with real life, it’s not your mere intentions which determine how people feel towards you. You put yourself in their shoes.

Another remarkable instance of this in The Witcher 3 is a very short interaction I had at Novigrad. It was so short, it did not even trigger a quest: So there I was, riding on Roach to complete the myriad of things required by the game’s derided Dandelion arc, when in my minimap I see that exclamation mark that is the game’s way of telling you, it’s Geralt-Jesus time! So I unmount from Roach in a manner just a little more impressive than Orlando Bloom doing Legolas fanservice and what do I find? A bunch of witch hunters harassing an Aen Seidhe woman because they are intolerant pricks. In Geralt’s rough tone, I manage to drive them away without a fight. I turn to the elven woman as a courtesy. It’s all fine now, I drove them away, I don’t like them either, you don’t have to pay me–when she cuts me off and berates me for stepping in uninvited. Tomorrow you won’t be here, she tells me, but they’ll be back, even harsher because of what you did today. I’d rather you didn’t make my problems worse as I can deal with them myself, thank you very much.

Short. Poignant. Powerful. Economy of storytelling right there from CDPR.

All these expressed and I feel I need to remind you that this is my very first foray into the world of Geralt. I had no idea who Ciri is until I got bored by the opening cinematics of The Witcher 3. And yet I cared about her, cared about how my choices affected her. And that elven woman? Game didn’t even give her a name and yet she did a damn good job making me feel sorry about my messiah complex.

I could maybe write a short book about everything I felt while playing The Witcher 3. Maybe in some other blog post I get to tell you about how enraged I was when Priscilla–yet another character I only knew recently–got attacked. So enraged I resolved not to sleep until I got to the bottom of it and solved it the witcher way. Or about the eerie beauty of Iris von Everec’s inner world. Or how I got the bittersweet ending for Blood and Wine because, despite having the hots for Syanna, I gave up on her at the last moment and called her a petty little viper. Or maybe, I like her precisely because she is a petty little viper and that clouded my better judgment.

In contrast, I do not like her sister Anarietta that much. Something about her accent and how she’s an uptight state ruler. And yet…that ending…she did not deserve that. I intend to make amends with the power of savepoints. Just wait for me, duquesa.

At this point, this blogpost has gone longer than I intended it to. It even kinda took the form of the usual review I do here. I just wanted to collect my thoughts (of which there are surprisingly many, and more!) before I wield the power of savepoints. All I want to say now is…


Damn it Witcher 3. Your quests have no business being that deep and good!

Disappointingly Not Spellbinding

There is a book I had back in high school whose title I have now forgotten. I only remember three things about it today: the first being that its cover is lavender, the next being that it is among the first books I actively despised, and the last one is the fact that I hated it largely due to the fact that I felt it shamelessly ripped off The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I have tried to search extensively for the said book in writing this post, maybe for old times, but mostly for plain writer’s diligence. But no luck. I don’t find it listed anywhere when I search for works inspired by Narnia although, admittedly, given the little that I remember about it, I only skim through the lists looking for a thumbnail that is mostly lavender and hoping that if I come across its title it will scream familiarity at me.

I no longer have it in my bookshelves. Aside from being (possibly) the first book I actively despised, I bet it is also the first book I actively let go. I remember trading it with my sister for G. P. Taylor’s Wormwood, a trade I do not regret at all. So unfortunately, if we really want that book named in here we are relying pretty much on chance, that I will come across (and recognize) the title, or maybe that I could get my hands across a working copy of the book inventory I assembled then, but I think we’ll have better luck reversing the damages of 2016 within the next month. But I am woolgathering too much. Just keep in mind that, going forward, we will just name the book I traded for Wormwood as The Lavender Chronicles.

Fast forward to today, I no longer read young adult novels as much as I used to. There is room for it in my reading list every now and then but I mostly find them not as satisfying as I had before, cliched and repetitive as they are. If I end up reading a YA novel, you can bet that I have been persuaded into reading it (heck, shelling out money and allocating precious shelf space) by a very good endorsement1. And so it is that, back in MIBF 2016, I found myself buying a copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

YA is not bad but if you can tell what's funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you've matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.
YA is not bad but if you can tell what’s funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you’ve matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.

First off, what endorsed the novel to me are the smattering of mentions it gets over at io9 which is largely thanks to the SyFy series that adopted the books. The impression I got with it is that it is a work which borrows elements from YA but is, ultimately, not afraid of tackling adult issues. Think Harry Potter if only it did not have to grow alongside its fan base, if it was written with the conscious maturity of the later books from the get go, and maybe even with more conscious maturity at that.

GRRM on The Magicians

The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. … Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwarts was never like this.”

George R. R. Martin as a featured review quoted in my copy of The Magicians.

See what I mean?

To get the mandatory plot overview out of the way, The Magicians tells the story of Quentin a boy who discovers he could do magic and so ends up studying in Brakebills, a boarding school for (surprise! surprise!) magic. In Brakebills he meets a group of upperclassmen who, after Brakebills, goes with him to Fillory, a place which they only knew as a fantasy land from a series of children’s novels which most, if not all, of them are familiar with.

The whole of The Magicians is divided into a handful of “books”, as marked within the novel2. It should be telling that I managed to distill its plot, all 400 pages of it, into two long sentences. By my estimate, the relatively-shorter Atonement got a better actual-words-to-Chad-summary ratio.

All this, is my very-long-winded way of saying that The Magicians is giving The Lavender Chronicles a good competition in terms of leaving me dissatisfied.

Grossman proudly wears his influences on his sleeves and, as such, comparisons to both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia is impossible to avoid. So let me start outlining my criticism with what I think is the innate flaw of The Magicians and compare it with its obvious influences: its world building.

Tolkien purists3 might scoff that I am calling out someone’s constructed world by comparing it to Harry Potter, it in itself is quite flawed and would collapse under its own weight if you take the implications beyond a British (with a few other European additions) setting. But that would just tell you how unimpressed I am by The Magicians. Almost from the get-go, The Magicians hand-waves its magic (irony, not lost on me) and tells you to pay no attention to it:

“This is not to say that we understand magic…we do not and cannot understand what magic is, or where it comes from, any more than a carpenter understands why a tree grows. He doesn’t have to. He works with what he has.”

~Professor March, in a Brakebills lecture.

And yet, throughout the book, practice of magic is laced with references to Circumstances and other vague allusions to calculations a magician must take into account before performing a spell. The outcome is that The Magicians finds itself stuck in an awkward zone where it attempts to ignore how to do magic and yet giving just enough details about what Quentin is doing so as to lend its telling some plausibility. And it never–never–quite works out.

The fact that The Magicians tries to fast track Quentin’s magical education does not really help. Whereas details of magic in Harry Potter is subtly built up and reinforced across seven books, Grossman, instead, treats us to an exposition disguised as plot. For instance, we are no more than a few months into Quentin’s first year in Brakebills when he, with a couple other classmates, is chosen to advance to the second year. This leads us to a few chapters where all Quentin does is study for the advance placement exam, where our takeaway should be that gosh magic is really hard.

This is the show-don’t-tell rule abused. We are shown how Quentin studies hard night after night after night but the whole set-up lacked subtlety and foreshadowing in the first place that it does not work out. The fact that Quentin gets the possibility of breezing through several months of magical education feels like a cheap shot and we have not established enough rapport with his two other (lucky?) companions to even care if they pass or not.

(There are many more instances of The Magicians being inconsistent with its world building, which I would touch on when discussing other things. But just to give another example, much is made about the Circumstances a magician must take into account before performing spells but, under duress, people just cast spells with little regard to Circumstance and with little to no obvious consequence.)

Which leads me to my next grievance against The Magicians: its treatment of its characters. I am inclined to think that this is a side-effect of the fact that Quentin’s five-year education is compressed to what is barely just half of the book. But I am more inclined to believe that there is fast-tracking a period of a character’s life, and then there is lazy writing where you haphazardly throw characters into the narrative for one reason or another. The Magicians is full of the latter.

In one instance, one of Quentin’s classmates is named only so she can be killed off a few pages later, an event which Grossman tries to impress heavily on his readers. But having mentioned her only in passing a few pages back, I hope I do not appear callous if I say I just don’t give a damn. When she died she is just another name to me, sure a classmate of Quentin’s but other than that…what? Without spoiling anything, this death serves to add weight for the book’s twist but the banality of who died robs the twist of some of its gravity. No amount of telling me about Quentin’s remorse, or of toasts held for their fallen classmate, could give this name the actual character that would have made her death matter for the reader.

In another case which sticks out sorely, Quentin, for no other reason than just because, takes a walk with a couple other Brakebills students. In this walk Quentin is introduced to welters–Grossman’s version of Quidditch/gobstones/wizard chess, though given this scene’s allusion to broomsticks I think what he’s going for is pretty clear–but like magic in general the rules are not really spelled out only for welters to figure quite prominently in one of the later arcs.

But (not) introducing welters is not the point of this walk, no. Grossman made Quentin take this walk so that someone with a grievance against Quentin could burst out the door as they returned and engage Quentin in a good old fistfight. (And for the record, no allusion was made before that this character had a grudge against Quentin.) The purpose of this fistfight is so that the Brakebills Dean could inform Quentin (and the reader) that, had they used magic while fighting, it was quite possible for their magic to consume them, turning them into less-than-human sprites called niffins. The reader will be grateful for this information twice later in the book: once when an urban legend involving someone who became a niffin is discussed, and once more, near the end, when, for the first time, someone is punished for not double checking on their emotions as they did magic.

(In case you were wondering what happened to those two other Brakebills student…well, nothing. One was just there to give a non-explainer about welters while the other one was just there to say he hates welters and prompt them to go back inside, allowing the fistfight to ensue, so we could discuss niffins. Heck it would seem it was not even them who broke up the altercation. At least they were not killed shortly after being named.)

And what really frustrated me as I read through The Magicians is in how often Quentin finds himself aimless. Having tried writing a few novels myself, I understand that you will often run into a wall where you have no idea how to get the plot to achieve your plans. One way of hacking around these mental blocks is to make your character want something, anything. Be that a glass of water or the next horcrux. Just. Make. Them. Want. Now obviously, it is easy to produce something inelegant with this technique but you know what’s worse? Flat out admitting to your reader that you(r main character) do(es) not know what happens next, so you just wax whimsical about a book inside your world which the main character has read as a kid.

And that’s exactly what Quentin does when he feels stuck and aimless, which is often! Now, maybe you can argue that these times where Quentin feels stuck and aimless are the “adult” parts of The Magicians. Maybe. But whenever Quentin starts wishing he was in Fillory (recall: Grossman’s version of Narnia) instead of wherever the heck he currently is, I, in turn, end up wishing I was reading Narnia instead of this shit.

In the scant instances where Quentin actually has a goal in mind, the narrative manages to collapse in other ways, mostly due to the lack of inked limits in Grossman’s world. I already mentioned how not calculating Circumstances had little to no bearing. But even more crucial is in how we have no clear idea what magic can and can’t do. This lack of limits obscures the options and risks Quentin (or some other character) may have at the moment. Knowing a character can’t do something is part of the climax, adding glamour to their victory, and frustration to their failure. Grossman’s set-up, especially while the characters are in Brakebills, makes it difficult to attach glamour or frustration to either their victories or defeats.

All my points so far does not mean that all the praises which made me buy The Magicians in the first place, are false advertising. Post-Brakebills (aka, the latter half of the book) pits Quentin and company against issues of adulthood and they are, I’m relieved to say, sensible treatments at last. Grossman subverts the genre of magical adventurers discovering magical lands by showing us how his characters remain victims of daily inanity, victims of routine, despite the Grand Adventure thrust into them. Grossman even waddles into the muddy waters of adult relationships, showing them as the messy tangle of lines that they are. This is not Ron and Hermione playing jealous with each other, nor Harry failing absurdly with Cho Chang, nor Ginny in a wild schoolgirl crush on The Boy Who Lived. Quentin and company ends up in a game of who-slept-with-who, trapping them in a messy web of intrigue. Finally, Quentin and company feels strongly about something.

But alas, we are not reading a contemporary Great American Novel, addressing the issues of adulthood through the lens of its oft-derided millenials. Even at its peak, The Magicians is haunted by its poor world-building and haphazard character encounters if maybe at this point already forgivable. It is ultimately framed by its fantasy backdrop and, as such, would keep running as a fantasy novel. There is no running away from that, for better and for worse.

Setting aside the slight hand-waving of how Quentin and friends managed to keep up their easygoing lifestyle at the start of the book’s later half, their adventure to Fillory finally starts to distance The Magicians with its influences. Grossman’s allusions to The Chronicles of Narnia can’t be missed but, at the same time, Fillory is better-constructed as an analogue to Narnia, in contrast to how Brakebills is an analogue to Hogwarts. Fillory is what Narnia would be, were it not so biblical, for lack of better term. Freed from the burden of trying to get a Christian thought-experiment (or allegory, depending on how you want to look at it) across, Grossman can paint Fillory darkly and subvert more tropes of the magical land genre.

At this point, Grossman’s writing starts to tighten up, making it difficult to critique without giving away spoilers. Reading this latter half gives the impression that The Magicians is more a response to Narnia than it is to Harry Potter, that Brakebills was just one whole set-up for this book’s actual point. In Fillory, Grossman intrigues the cast with the mystery of the Chatwin children. No points for guessing they are this world’s version of the Pevensies. Finding Fillory to be more than fantasy after all, is it not then possible that the Chatwins are more than figments of an author’s imagination?

A controversial issue which people debate in Narnia is Susan Pevensie’s non-inclusion in the last book. One side would pontificate that this is misogynistic on Lewis’ part. She discovered lipsticks, they’d argue, and that makes her unsuited for your heaven now? After all this time, I still interpret it differently; that it is not sexual empowerment or glamour which left Susan behind but, quite simply, being a grown-up. You see, grown-ups were never welcome to Neverland, could never see the important things like the horror of an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

But I am going off-tangent. Grossman turns this controversial issue on its head by his portrayal of the Chatwin who won the lottery and managed to stay in Fillory. I do not think he is trying to put his two cents in the debate of Susan. He is merely showing a fresh perspective on magic lands being tantamount to paradise. Saying more would definitely spill over to spoiler territory so let me just say, boy, what a take. Makes it all the more irritating that this twist had to be entangled with the sloppily-written death earlier.

The Magicians winds down like most first books in a series. After a lengthy and tiring adventure, a damaged Quentin is left to deal with the aftermath and, for a time, returns to Brakebills, presumably giving its academe something of interest that may direct future magical research. The last handful of pages read oddly Campbellian, if subverted like Narnia. Whereas the hero with a thousand faces finds himself unable to appreciate the banality of his former, ordinary life, Quentin, on the other hand, craves it. Scarred physically and emotionally, Quentin whiles his days away as a suit doing vague leadership in some big corporation.

Until Fillory, and three of his friends, show up in his life once more, and in rather dramatic fashion too…

But in the end, this sequel set-up of a resolution is overshadowed by the problems the novel has, as I outlined earlier. There are a few more reveals after the twist which, in retrospect, do not make sense. Mysterious characters are finally unmasked, even if only partially, and yet their earlier appearance serve no purpose other than to lend an air of mystery around them. It feels like a misuse of Chekhov’s gun; yet another example of haphazard foreshadowing, as if this book needed another. Granted, an explanation might be awaiting me in the two other books of the series but if I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m buying those.

(Finally, if you feel pissed that I had to dedicate the first few paragraphs of this review reminiscing about a book that is ultimately just used to throw shade on Grossman’s writing, well, that’s kinda the point. I hope it serves to illustrate my points in this critique better.)
  1. Which, if you are paying attention, unfortunately does not convert to a good reading experience all the time. []
  2. I am sorely tempted to go into a tirade as to why authors/publishers would demarcate sections of an actual physical book further into “books”. Why not just call them something like “Part I”, “Part II”, etc.? Unless maybe you are publishing a compilation of books bound between a single pair of covers. []
  3. Or snobs at Quora. Hee hee. []

Thanks For Keeping Blogs Relevant

Alternatively titled, Blogging Like It’s Ten Years Ago.

Sherlock is back, and Sherlock is great again! After a largely fan-servicing third season, Sherlock season four is nothing short of amazing.

Um, okay, I’m speaking too soon. At this point I’ve only watched up to episode two.

Before I continue writing what I find so great about season four (or what I’ve watched of it so far), let me note something that breaks the show’s immersion for me. It’s there in episode two, repeated with irritating frequency for a span of…umm…ten minutes I guess? I think it was repeated thrice, the first two just within a few lines of dialogue of each other. And then again, just when the suspense was building up and the immersion is kicking back in for me.

People read (and like!) Sherlock’s blog. Blog, seriously, in this day and age of social media. For crying out loud, Sherlock’s got a Twitter feed!

Okay, I’m guessing there’s an out-of-universe explanation why that is so. Like, maybe, they didn’t get longform-compatible social networks to agree to a sponsorship deal to get mentioned. The product placements in the show aren’t lost to me, you know. But do you really need product placement deals to mention a website? Granted, websites/domains are brands now. I don’t know. Whatever.

In the spirit of open-source software, let me rewrite one of those irritating scenes.

Faith Smith: Oh my God, Sherlock Holmes! I loove your blog.


Or, more in-character, “Hah! I haven’t updated my blog in ages. That makes all other possibilities impossible, convincing me, beyond any shadow of doubt, improbable as it may be, that you, Faith Smith—and not your father—are the serial killer.”

Quit cooking meth, Sherlock.

Though, it is around this time when the story really gets going. That scene where Sherlock’s case built on a “foundation of miscalculation” comes crashing down on him heavily is one hell of a visual ride. Interspersed with John’s interview with Lestrade, and flash backs from the time when Sherlock started his “miscalculations”, it is the perfect visual realization of the unreliable narrator. Mind. Blown. Add Toby Jones’ acting where, one moment you want to punch his horrible teeth in if only you weren’t afraid those saws for teeth would deal your fist permanent damage. Next moment he is a startled goodie two-shoes schoolboy, a dog surprised at his owner’s sudden madness. Masterful.

I also like the development of the characters. I don’t get people who are disappointed because Sherlock is not about solving crimes anymore—a fair criticism, but if they had their way, Sherlock would’ve been stagnant. Other than the contemporary setting and the medium, this rendition will have nothing to set it apart from Doyle’s canon. Owing to its serial nature (and maybe even of Doyle’s disdain on the whole thing), the self-contained stories and novels have no sense of continuity; in one instance, it even contradicts itself on a matter regarding Moriarty.

If there’s anything the third season gave us, other than Amanda Abbington’s portrayal of Mary Watson, it’s that it provided a period of transition for Sherlock. It started showing his humanity, started showing him failing, miscalculating, fatally imperfect as the people he deems lesser.

And now we get him talking to John Watson about grief. Goodness, your fangirls are right. Just kiss already.

And when that happens, I have no doubt Mary’s projection would be in the scene, watching, a surrogate for the whole interwebs.

While the ladies are busy fainting from delight— “Johnlock! I knew it! Johnlock. John. Lock.” —allow me a moment of nostalgia for an age of the interwebs long past. Back then, blogs were personal, a sort of diary except you obviously hid just enough to keep your crush intrigued, in the slight chance they followed your online thoughts. The designs ranged from garish, like Molly Hooper’s, or very simple to the point of sterility, like John Watson’s.

But that was because blogs then were a form of self-expression. And if self-expression means #FF0000 Monotype Corsiva font on a black background complete with animated 256-pallet GIFs, then so be it. Back then, blogs weren’t a corporate thing—heck corporations did not do something as low as a “blog”—written to advertise

Looking for a job? Visit Kalibrr, where jobs find you!

You can also follow our jobseeker blog for the latest advice in career and job-hunting advice!

(This is the part where I apologize that all those words I wrote is just one hell of a build-up for that shameless plug. I assure you my manager did not put me up for this.)

But really, thanks Sherlock for keeping blogs relevant, in a good way, if only for ten minutes in one episode.

Rationality in the Time of Gunfire

He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madame Manec, Etienne; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, “I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come.” He pauses, fumbling to translate. “The song, light of the moon?” She almost smiles.

“Are You There?” All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (emphasis added)

And then I found water in my eyes. How similar is it to the rain that falls outside, I do not know. Where rain is tasteless it is often salty. But it does not matter. They may be fiction, figments of fickle dreams but they found each other. A meeting that is a thing of beauty in the midst of a wretched war.

In a time saturated with generic posters from Nicholas Sparks movies, I worry that there is a strong tendency to overly romanticize the passage I quoted above. The thing with quotes is that you shower a particular part of the text with emphasis—put it on a pedestal, so to speak—and inevitably you lose at least some of its context. And at this point so early in this post, I would like to come out clean and admit that, contrary to common protocol, I started writing this review with a fraction of the book still unread. I found that quote that beautiful that I just felt like I have to write what I feel about it. Right. Now.

For every bit of Doerr’s skill, all the words in that quote could not begin to convey what or why I found it beautiful. I do not feel any guilt opening this post with a passage from the final stretches of the book. Can you really read the early stages of the book without thinking that they will meet? This piece of text does not matter. What matters (and what makes it beautiful) is how they got here.

And, just in case you need it spelled out loud, this passage is not beautiful because it speaks of romance in any way. Heck I don’t even know if this will blossom into one before the story breathes its last. He is German, part of the army invading Saint-Malo, while she is a blind French girl forced by circumstance to be in Saint-Malo at the time of invasion.

At this point, I think it is proper to admit that my interest (and horror) at the two world wars is more than casual. However, this book has dragged into my consciousness that my knowledge about them is horribly tainted by movies and pop culture. Just considering the second, it is so easy to divide the participants in black and white. Like highlighting certain parts of a text, this strips history of its nuances, the undiscussed footnotes and marginalia.

Take, for instance, the “heroes” of WWII, the Allied Forces. Slapping the label “hero” on them masks the fact that Winston Churchill let India starve to support the forces. How different is that, in principle, from the deaths the Nuremberg Trials accounted against the Germans? And speaking of Nuremberg, it is highly compelling to question the justice meted out in that court. Was it true justice or victors’ justice? Did that court evaluate the war or just one side of it? The atrocities the Nazi committed is beyond doubt but, had they evaluated the war itself, isn’t it suspect that the Allies come out more or less completely clean after all those proceedings? (Were they even held under scrutiny?)

How about labeling all Germans as the villains in this war? After all, they, as a nation, decided to put the Nazi party in power. Not to mention the state surveillance that marked the Nazi years, citizen against citizen. But, again, such sweeping labels seem an insult to the memory of brave efforts like The White Rose Movement. Beautiful, if maybe foolish, but futile (or was it?).

Footnotes to the greater narrative. Lights invisible inside the tide that brought us to present times. They are parts of the picture we should never neglect as we judge history.

Which brings us back to the text of Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Our ghost is Werner, a pale German orphan with an aptitude for electronics who finds himself in a time when getting education means assisting, if not outright swearing allegiance to, the Nazi cause. His talents take him to Schulpforta where he develops means to triangulate radio signals—a valuable skill if they are to crush underground resistance movements against the German forces.

It is the cast of Schulpforta which begs readers to challenge any stereotype they may have held regarding Germans in the time of the Third Reich. Sure, the common German portrayal is there: Werner feels stigmatized as most of his fellow students are just so willing to blindly follow the cruelty of their superiors. But during this time Werner encounters two contrasting characters: his friend Frederick and the revered giant Volkheimer.

Where Frederick is described as spindly, much is made of Volkheimer’s physical stature. Where people would not think twice before picking on Frederick, epic tales of superhuman feat are woven around Volkheimer. Where Frederick enthusiastically shares his interest in nature, Volkheimer’s demeanor is a caricature of German soldiers during WWII: aloof, calculating, and efficient.

What Frederick lacks in physicality he more than makes up for in moral courage. He has no remarkable qualities save this moral fiber and despite that I find Frederick the more-admirable individual in his friendship with Werner. Such is his conviction that, in one poignant scene, he proved better than even me, the reader, after I tried putting myself in his shoes. I can only hope that when the time comes that I am offered a cold bucket of water to douse a helpless prisoner with, I can make the right decision and choose what is right over what is easy.

(Werner, on the other hand, for all the stigma he feels, often takes the easy way out when confronted with moral decisions, even if hesitantly.)

As for the giant, there is so much more in him than initially presented. I will not specify instances as that I would consider spoilers but he stays silent for most of the text and yet he is never outright cruel. He defies tropes but manages to somehow remain familiar. Maybe, I find him so because he is me, trying to survive and do what is right, at least most of the time.

There are stretches of the German side of this story that felt particularly difficult for me to read not because of the prose but because the characters are made to face decisions whose horror managed to transcend the printed word and gripped me as I read it. Maybe it is just the zeitgeist I am currently witnessing. Or maybe, Doerr just writes that damn well.

As Werner is no prince I am pleased to inform you that her female counterpart, the blind Marie-Laure, is no princess nor damsel in distress either. In fact, it is actively due to her agency that Werner locates her. Unlike Werner she is seldom hesitant in her decisions, a trait that puts her in harm’s way more than once.

Marie-Laure, an avid reader despite her condition, spends most of the story under the care of her war-traumatized uncle Etienne. His father, a locksmith from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, was taken prisoner during a trip from Saint-Malo back to the capital. Displaced when Paris was taken, her father’s arrest does nothing to help her adjust to the circumstances of a war that is only getting worse.

Marie-Laure’s longing for familiarity and normalcy is understandable but her courage and willingness to fight for that sense of normalcy is astounding and praiseworthy. Instilled with a belief in reason early on by her father, she shows courage like Frederick as well as resourcefulness and resolve in no small amounts.

In the midst of our protagonists’ affinity with rationality, they are bound, if loosely, by a mythical piece of jewelry. And here, again, I praise Doerr for his skill. After everything that is said and done, the reader is left puzzling as to how much did that piece of jewelry really affect the story. Was it a passive object, a McGuffin, whose purpose was only so that the writer can make his characters want something, anything? Or did it play a more active role in the salvation or damnation of the characters who had the (mis)fortune to cross paths with it?

All of which comfortably puts All the Light We Cannot See into the shelf of magical realism. I have not read much from this shelf, I’m afraid, but, so far this is the one I like best. Unlike the superstitious nature of Gabriel García-Marquez’s characters. the rationality professed by our protagonists provides a nice counterpoint to the possibility of supernatural interference. Unlike the zeitgeist of Salman Rushdie’s The Temptress of Florence, these characters find themselves in a war, with no sorcerer nor god to save their skins. Will that stone have saved them? Did losing it made them perish? Go read the book, find out what happens, and decide for yourself.

I can only heap so much praise on Doerr’s work before it becomes redundant can only write so much about the book before I actually tell it word-for-word. This book is many things; it will make you ask questions and ponder on your moral values, all in the guise of a warm tale of an orphan boy and a blind girl.

Our Interstellar Wonderlust

There was a time, during my undergraduate, when I stumbled upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The name aside, I found it amusing how this principle on quantum particles also holds true for people if maybe in a weaker form: you can never really observe someone in their natural state as you, the observer, will always affect the observed. This lead me to a fascination with pedestrian Physics, something to go with my all-time fascination with stars and outer space.

So, imagine my excitement when I found out about Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Screaming Physics sci-fi from its title to every bit of its promotional material and with Christopher Nolan’s name [1] for an endorsement, this is definitely one film I am not going to miss.

Interstellar starts in an agricultural town beset by constant dust storms. Ex-pilot, ex-engineer Cooper works the fields harvesting corn. We are also introduced to his daughter Murphy and her “ghost”, a poltergeist, who displaces books from her bookshelf. With her penchant for science and Cooper’s background, she decides to scientifically prove the existence of her ghost.

During a particularly violent dust storm where Murphy forgot to close her room’s window, Cooper and Murphy witness a bizarre manifestation of Murphy’s ghost: the dust, instead of uniformly covering the floor, settles in patterns of thick and thin lines. Cooper soon decodes the message which leads them to an underground camp, the “world’s best-kept secret”, or rather, what remains of NASA in a devastated world more in need of farmers than scientists. And so begins their adventure.

With the whole film nearing three hours in length, I find the opening of Interstellar to be rather uneventful and winding. Nolan’s way of laying down the setting of this story is subtle and, I think, unconventional but there are acts—like the one where they chase down a rogue drone—which I find to be unnecessary. The film’s story will not be affected by its absence nor is it particularly remarkable as a visual experience. If you go into Interstellar feeling like you’d need a toilet break sooner or later, do it at this scene. Your cue is the line that goes something like “It’s a parent-teacher conference, not grandparent”.

But when the film starts to find to its tempo stars, indeed, fly (puns intended). I’ve done my share of science and although I am no astronaut/physicist, I appreciate the film’s attempts at scientific realism. I am sure that the realism isn’t 100% (those space-assistant robots, for one, have AIs several decades—if not centuries—ahead of what we have) but at least this is a world where science advances in incremental steps, not huge leaps [2], where interstellar journey is a high-risk venture, not a video game.

Good science fiction isn’t really about science but about humanity and Interstellar delivers well on that though you may have to wait a bit, even after the winding intro. There is the expected drama of the characters dealing with the spatial, temporal, and emotional distance brought on them by this space venture but the film has lots more to offer than that. Soon the characters are waxing poetic on love, gravity, higher beings, and human destiny. Those were pleasant moments for me, akin to my undergraduate Heisenberg-principle moment.

And just when I’ve given up on the film having a happy and conclusive ending (it could hang the way Inception did), the engines of Nolan’s story goes into full throttle and throws its audience in gravitational slingshots. In contrast to its slow opening, the defining conflict rose fast and well to slide gracefully into the film’s denouement.

If you ever want to silence my logical/scientific-critical voice, one of the best ways to do it would be through a romanticized sci-fi tale. Biased as it may sound, I was expecting something beautiful along those lines from Nolan. However, true to his genius, Nolan tackles the inconveniences of real-life science and still manages to find a relatable human angle to it. As I said, Interstellar might not be 100% realistic [3] but it is definitely not romanticized or sugar-coated and it is beautiful because of that.

I have not managed to find a way to squeeze this in the main review but I feel that Hans Zimmer, the film’s music composer, also deserves mention. Stay mindful during the film and listen to the music and see your emotions rise and fall along with it. Zimmer’s melodies is a good complement to Nolan’s plot.

  1. And Anne Hathaway. []
  2. Hello there Iron Man. []
  3. Though what exactly is realistic in a film that throws quantum principles in the equation? []