Battles with Fate, Now with More Uncertainty

Even if you were living under a rock for the past eight to nine months, I’m pretty sure you would’ve heard about the pandemic ravaging the world right now, if only because you no longer need to avoid people; they socially distance themselves from you automatically. And you can treat those who, for some confidently-wrong belief or another, insist to invade your personal space anyway, as crazies. As a modern-day Diogenes you no longer need to invoke your view of the sun to insinuate someone is an idiot. A silver lining, what a relief.

Which makes me wonder if a modern-day Diogenes would read blogs because if not then my whole first paragraph has no audience. But I guess in an age of social media and walled content gardens the personal blog is the barrel in which a philosopher might dwell. Gasp. I was the Diogenes all along.

Anyway, back to the topic. I’m pleased to report that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected me adversely despite living by myself, a stranger in a strange land. Selfishly I might even be thankful to find myself in Hamburg amidst all this. There are only a few ways I can be more comfortable right now.

Not that it hasn’t affected me at all. Whereas so far, thankfully, I’ve managed to stay healthy, the pandemic has got to my thoughts in all sorts of ways. From the usual negative stuff to more positive outcomes like bursts of productivity here and there, and things I wouldn’t have otherwise tried like finally buying a bike.

My key achievement so far is my proposal for a new economic indicator metric: the Toilet Paper Availability Index. It measures citizens’ general confidence in government proclamations at a highly localized level. Fair to say that this has failed spectacularly in many parts of the world during this pandemic, including, unfortunately, in Germany, long-clichéed to be world’s best at just following rules.

I guess, arguably, no formal rule was instituted, Merkel merely implored the German populace to not purchase like hamsters.

That said, it will be disingenous of me to imply that the scarcity I’ve witnessed is any cause for alarm. In fact, for reasons I would not expound in here, my apartment is currently home to an ungodly amount of REWE Double Chocolate American Cookies.

I hear your screams of “Wait, Chad. But. Why?!”. So okay. They are gosh-darned delicious okay? Addicting even. Won’t be surprised if REWE adds meth in these in secret. Okay moving on…

I noticed that my local REWE has stopped stocking these lately. I’m a bit worried as I don’t know why. I’d like to think they grew concerned that I, a loyal customer, will die of Diabetes but it’s probably either (a) they are trying to avoid liability from a loyal customer getting Diabetes or (b) they just stopped stocking it. I would like everyone to know that if I die of Diabetes, I would’ve died happy. But if I die of starvation in my apartment, you have my express permission to call me der Idiot.

(Editor’s Note: I have since discovered that my local REWE still stocks these cookies. They just moved the shelf somewhere else. I have very conflicted emotions regarding this.)

Speaking of worry, I have long since determined that my ultimate frustration is a situation which I can’t do anything about. Having no option but to wait for anything, for something to happen, is my idea of powerlessness. As long as I can struggle for a result, I can find a certain peace of mind.

Which might just be this pandemic’s greatest blow on me. To be honest, moving to Hamburg to work for Goodgame last year is quite a huge personal goal I’ve achieved, the downside of which is a very philosophical/poetic Loss of a Goal. I have, at the start of the year, just resolved to start poking around looking for a new goal. Then, history intervened: The Year In Which The World Changed A Decade. So much change that introverts tired of isolation.

And now I don’t know in the worst possible personal way. I do not want to give the impression that it is such a horrible thing. I just find myself on a plateau, quite a comfortable plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. I’d rather be scaling mountains, trying them just because they are there. The pandemic just made planning that so much harder. I have no idea what to expect when every expectation just goes out of the window more than usual.

I’m used to testing Fate. It’s just that doing that right now comes with so much more uncertainty.


I didn’t want this to end in such a downer so here’s a really pretty photo I took recently.

Dear Autumn,

Though I don’t like you for your tendency to remind me of my own mortality, I can’t deny you can be so pretty.

xoxo Chad

Closure

It was bittersweet finishing The Sandman.

Well, endings of all kinds tend to be bitter, regardless of whether it is happy, or sad, or cathartic. But even more so when what ended was something which made you smile, gave you good dreams, and was a welcome distraction from all the things you should actually be focusing on. Such was The Sandman to me. It did not help my poor emotions that it ended with The Wake–a volume so gorgeous it induces synesthesia. I dare you to read The Wake and not hear Morpheus’ funeral dirge playing as words are said about the deceased, or the song sung by the panels masterfully dictating the tempo of the story.

The final volume has transcended its designation as “graphic novel” into the realm of deep, epic elegy. A fitting one for the King of Dreams, consist of not just words but pictures. And boy don’t each picture tell a thousand stories?

I have a long history with The Sandman. My first encounter with it was as a grade school student, seeing it mentioned in a local otaku magazine due to Yoshitaka Amano’s (of Final Fantasy fame) eventual involvement in the form of The Dream Hunters. In a long chain of association, of one-thing-lead-to-another’s, I ended up finding myself spending late nights Wikipedia hopping, trying to piece out the story, to no avail. And with good reason. In The Sandman, Neil Gaiman makes full use of his medium; mere synopses could do no justice. That the term “graphic novel”, so attached to Sandman thanks to an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman, invokes the idea of a novel liberally illustrated is rather unfortunate as it sells the series short to potential readers1. Not that it needs any further endorsement. But The Sandman is indisputably comics, and it is so much better off for that.

In the process of slowly saving up to buy a copy of the canonical ten volumes of Sandman I ended up deciding what my “Sandman Library” would have. Aside from the aforementioned canon, I wanted a copy of The Dream Hunters, arguably the title that set me on this path, as well as Endless Nights. I also wanted Alisa Kwitney’s The Sandman: King of Dreams “coffee-table” book, mostly because of how cool it looked. And, to cap off the collection, I wanted Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

I never really expected to complete my Library, so much so that for a time, I referred to it as my ideal Sandman Library. The ten volumes alone that forms the bulk of it are expensive and hard to come by. The rest are even rarer and pretty niche, making chances of reprints slim. However, thanks to some fortunate turn of events, my ideal turned into reality at least in quantity, if not in composition, just in my second year of college.

My Sandman Library

I got everything I wanted, save for The Sandman Companion, but in its place I got The Sandman Papers, a collection of academic articles discussing the series. Overall, I could not call myself disappointed with what I ended up with. I have, after all, read everything Neil Gaiman wrote about the Sandman.


Coming from a childhood saturated with Japanese animation, it was quite a jump going into The Sandman. Gothic, at stretches bordering on eldritch, the art was, admittedly, not what I was expecting, especially considering that my earliest exposure to Sandman, no matter how trivial, is because of Yoshitaka Amano.

It is maybe largely due to this discrepancy in expectation and reality that I did not enjoy the first five issues as much as they are praised. They definitely have their moments but overall they felt like just a series of books. Well-written no doubt, but as far as an overarching plot is concerned, there was not much. The Sandman compilations I have, as pictured above, feature a blurb that claims you can read the series either in sequence or as standalone books. That claim holds strong for the first five compilations.

But Fables and Reflections is an inflection point. It may be ironic to say this of a volume that is explicitly a short-story collection but it is an excellent one to set the tone of the second half of the series. Destruction and Orpheus feature after being mere foreshadows of allusions in the first half. The history between the Endless siblings is also hinted at, laying ground for the developments that occur in the next volumes.

I call volume six an inflection point because this is the part where I will beg anyone who would care to listen: do not read anything from volume six onwards out of order. Damn whatever the blurb says.

It is also at this point where The Sandman had a curious effect on me. This is one of those anecdotes which might have a “mystical” air about it especially since we are talking about the King of Dreams here. But it happened, and you can make what you want of it. Back then, I would read a chapter (an issue) of Sandman just before I get whatever formal sleep I can. And that sleep would be refreshing. Sometimes, it would even end with the pleasant memory of a dream but overall, I just remember them to be good sleep, waking up feeling some kind of catharsis.

Lastly, I would say that Fables and Reflections marked the part where the series’ art style took a turn to my taste. I used to think that this is an effect of technology: that Sandman ran for so long that the evolution of comics printing is evident across its run. I used to think that it was largely thanks to technology that, by volume six, the art more closely–though ever so slightly–resembled the Japanese animation I am accustomed to. But lately I’ve come to learn just how much of it might actually be a creative decision on Gaiman’s part.

Or, maybe, it was still more of a creative constraint than decision. It’s just that Neil Gaiman knew his medium well and so played into its strengths and danced to its limits.


When I first took an interest in Sandman I remember foolishly wanting to collect the series on a per-issue basis. Call it naivete: the closest I even got to this was finding one issue–I no longer remember which–in a thrift sale in a shop2 in my local mall which sold an assortment of geeky items. Items I could not afford back then, relying on the mercy of my parent’s purse, but which I certainly returned to when, in adulthood, I found myself well-funded for my hobbies and sundry. Money does not change people, I guess.

Maybe today, if I ever come across another solo issue of the canon Sandman, I would buy it and then keep it in its case, never to be opened, preserved for posterity, and wait until the price for such things sky rockets so I could cash out.

Or maybe, nostalgia will get the better of me, and I will tear it open (after, of course, washing my hands very thoroughly) to breathe in comics fumes from the 90s, see the ads, and compare the original as published with its counterpart in the compilations.

My naive desire to own Sandman in its original serialization was somehow fulfilled a few years ago when Neil Gaiman decided to revisit this particular universe and wrote a prequel, Sandman Overture. Now, buying Overture on a per-issue basis (as opposed to waiting for the compilation that will surely come) was more than a matter of repressed-wish fulfillment. It was also a matter of logistics: my bookshelf, full as it is, could not accommodate another volume of Sandman. It could, however, fit individual issues in between the compiled volumes already housed.

Books before they were crowded

Still, in some strange way, I got something I have already given up on.

But it does not stop there. By the magical convenience of the internet and of public-key cryptography–the combination of which allows online shopping to be a thing–I have, recently, found myself in possession of the missing volume in my Sandman Library: Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

My ideal Sandman Library has been realized in full. And more.


A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.

~ Italo Calvino in Mr. Palomar (?)

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

~ C.P. Cavafy, Ithaka

Like a stereotypical book maniac, I’ve always taken pride in owning “rare” books. Although over time I have come to realize I’m small fry, more like a kid calling trash and trinkets his treasure than a rich eccentric European Lucas Corso would have loved to plunder. My “rare” books are not exactly what book catalogs would list as rare or valuable; they are better termed as niche and maybe expensive, at least relative to my economic well-being at the time of acquisition. A first edition hard bound copy of Deathly Hallows, an omnibus of C. S. Lewis’ nonfiction, two volumes of Borges’ complete works, one for poetry and one for prose–you get the idea3.

Getting a credit card gave my hubris something else to feed on. Books that are maybe not as expensive, though so niche as to be not distributed locally: Templar by Jordan Mechner, of Prince of Persia fame, a comics (“graphic novel”) about a heist perpetuated by members of the eponymous knight order; The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, a German sci-fi author who, as of this writing has not had much of his work translated into English; the complete Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, a beautiful (aesthetically and literarily) sci-fi series written as a pseudo-Victorian memoir. Maybe, just maybe, I could lay claim to having the only copy of these books for miles around, if not in the whole country4.

That includes The Sandman Companion. Secondhand but in good condition and a first edition too5. I would have loved to complete my Sandman Library sooner, maybe around the time I actually got the bulk of the canon, but I guess you can’t rush the universe’s schedule.

I no longer remember what I expected to get out of reading The Sandman Companion. But as I finally laid my hands on my own copy, the anticipation was stale, my expectations almost nonexistent. This was, to me, just a round of honor, just for the sake of completion. At this point I felt like I have read almost everything about The Sandman‘s canon: from interviews of Neil Gaiman, to his blog posts, to The Sandman Papers, and even King of Dreams. Maybe, it would be a shallow kind of debriefing, one where I’m told this is what this activity was going for (like it was not plain to see), this is what happened (like it did not happen to me), and thank you very much (I’d thank you too, out of courtesy).

I could not be more wrong. This Ithaka is not a resting place after all that I’ve encountered. It is more akin to a final adventure, the last one to give the whole escapade its form before I, maybe, really close off this library.

In format, The Sandman Companion is the odd one out in my collection. The bulk of the book is a transcript of Hy Bender’s interview with Neil Gaiman. The content is formatted in a way that is a bit reminiscent of magazines although maybe that should not be so surprising given the nature of the content. What is more unusual are the boxed insets of text that litter the interview transcripts: tidbits of information that is tangential to the topic at hand but was not directly brought up in the transcribed conversation. It reminds me of a common layout element in computer books for end users6.

Reading the Companion is like re-experiencing the whole series in completely prosaic form. The discussion on each volume starts with a summary of the volume concerned but where this differs from my early Wikipedia-hopping is that Bender does not try to tell a story but, rather, explain the inner workings of Neil Gaiman’s creation7. That the story is told in some way nevertheless is a mere side-effect of the process. Fittingly called, The Sandman Companion is like a pleasant tour guide in a beautiful country, pointing you to the wonders you shouldn’t miss without getting in the way of you establishing a personal connection with the place. Alas, the guide is only as good as the country.

Finishing the companion is like finishing the series a second time around. No less bittersweet, it is like a reunion with old friends concluded: we’ve caught up and reminisced, now it’s time to get up and go back into the world. But this time–and I would concede that this feeling might be unique to my circumstances as a reader and a Sandman fan–the conclusion comes with a sense of closure.


“[T]hat man would be scorned by all the others: by the king, by the conceited man, by the tippler, by the businessman. Nevertheless he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Reading the Sandman today is a completely different experience from reading it just as the series progressed. Today, it is unavoidable to be spoiled by statements about the series: how it is about change, that Morpheus dies in the end. Heck, it is not inconceivable that “spoilers” like these could be someone’s gateway into the series. It’s just that the Sandman canon will no longer be the terra incognita it was for those who were lucky to be able to follow along.

Although, as I could attest, spoilers are not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps ironically, what I envy those people is in how Sandman came in trickles for them. An issue a month, I feel, is just the right pace for the intricacy of Gaiman’s story to settle. Repeatedly reading Gaiman summarize his two-thousand-page opus as a story about change, and how the King of Dreams’ inability to deal with this causes his demise, made me take this message for granted that by the end of my first reading of Sandman I am unable to definitively illustrate how it is about change, and how this inability to accept change ultimately kills Morpheus. Shame for such a self-proclaimed Sandman fan.

What I realized from reading the Companion is that beneath the huge ensemble of artistic talent behind the series, beneath the prestige it has accumulated, the Sandman is actually more similar to St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It is about change, yes, but it is also about dreams and hearts8–the things that make us human. Morpheus–like the grown-ups the titular prince encounters in St. Exupéry’s work–is too concerned with his function that he loses sight of how he and his function relates with everyone else. Despite being the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, there is nothing human in Morpheus’ core. And this inability to be human is what he cannot accept that he orchestrates his doom to give way to a new Dream. This time, a Dream that is human in form and humane in the execution of his duties.

I used to admire Morpheus’ approach in life for its stoicism. Perhaps I still do. In the celebrated special, The Song of Orpheus, Morpheus tells his son, the mythological poet who lends his name to the title, the lover of Eurydice:

You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life.

And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.

She is dead. You are alive.

So live.

Solid advice, even echoed by Morpheus’ down-to-earth (and, oddly, much more humane) sister, Death. When Orpheus visits her, she tells him

It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.

Go on with your own life. You have many things to do: many songs to play and sing.

But what differentiates the results of Morpheus’ conversation with that of Death is their further reaction to Orpheus’ grief. Where Morpheus is dismissive and will not hear any more of Orpheus’ laments, Death is understanding and sympathetic to Orpheus’ plight. Ultimately, it may have served Orpheus better had Death not considered Orpheus’ plan to petition his case before the gods of the underworld. But what Death understood and Dream did not is that what mortals want above all is choice, a say in the matter. What Death’s boon gave Orpheus is some semblance of control over his plight. Losing Eurydice to a snake bite on their wedding night, Orpheus is a victim of fate. Looking back at Eurydice’s shadow just as he is about to step out of Hades’ is his own choice, his own failure. Hades’ may have been cruel, less than fair in the deal he struck with Orpheus. But alas, this misfortune is a direct result of Orpheus’ choices. His grief is, finally, his own.


I wanted to go a step further on this final storyline…and so started lobbying for DC to publish directly from Michael (Zulli)’s pencils.

Michael used to send me his pencilled pages, and they’d be breathtaking; and then they’d come back after being inked, and there would inevitably be some loss of detail… Inking came about because it’s easier to reproduce dark lines than feathery pencil work but by 1995, I felt that technology was at a point where anything could be scanned in, even pencils.

DC was very doubtful, so Michael drew a test page of Death with an eagle…the page that resulted was absolutely gorgeous, with no loss of detail… DC ultimately acceded to the idea and let Michael do issues 70 through 73 in pencils only, with no inker.

~ Neil Gaiman on the art style of the first half of The Wake as transcribed in an interview with Hy Bender in The Sandman Companion.

Among The Sandman‘s accolades is a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 courtesy of the issue A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back then, this caused such a controversy that future editions of the World Fantasy Awards explicitly banned mere comics from being nominated9. This had the curious effect that, to date, A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears the distinction of being the only comic to win the said award, let alone being nominated.

I have been told that a hallmark of good art is in how it changes with its audience. Something read in your teenage years could take on an entirely new meaning when re-read in your mid-20s. This is definitely true of The Sandman.

The debate about what is and what is not art will rage on, maybe until Death has put the chairs on the tables, turned the lights out, and locked the universe. But meanwhile, I imagine them–ideas, realized and repressed alike–going about their merry existence in some platonic realm, maybe Dream’s. Happy to be whatever they are, be that a comics series or a children’s book about wizards attending school. The vanity of labels does not concern them.

Dream and Death

Life, after all, is but a dream.

  1. Ironically, my gateway to Sandman, Yoshitaka Amano’s The Dream Hunters, fits this connotation of the term “graphic novel” down to a T. []
  2. Which was called Skybucks for some reason. Not to be confused with a certain coffee cafe chain so well-known nowadays. []
  3. I am so sorry. I can’t seem to write about The Sandman in this blog without bragging off in some way or another. What a show-off! []
  4. Dear me, there I go again. I should really get this topic moving now, to prevent showing off. []
  5. I promise this will be the last time I brag off in this post. []
  6. Which, again, comes as no surprise once you learn that Hy Bender authored a bunch of For Dummies books. What a leap. This info was hidden in the back flap of the dust jacket of my copy, which meant that this was actually the last thing I learned from the book. []
  7. And hence, I call it a re-experiencing, not a re-reading. []
  8. In the chapter for The Doll’s House in The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman notes that, “If you leaf through the series you’ll find either an image of a heart or the word heart in virtually every issue. Hearts are a major part of what Sandman is about.” I am currently re-reading the series in search of these hearts. []
  9. Or, rather, reiterated the rule that comics are not eligible for the said category. True to a recurring theme in The Sandman, the story of what really happened depends on who you ask. []

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…

ciri

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

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.

Dark and Clear Skies

Slowly, the Scorpion emerged from the horizon, into the heavens, just in everyone’s plain sight. It was gigantic, with burning orbs for pincers and armor; in the night’s darkness the Scorpion was unmistakeably recognizable. The Moon has long set and the Hunter has been gone even longer. The sky was for the Scorpion to crawl.

We lay on the white sands waiting for the Scorpion to reveal itself entirely. First came its pincers. Then its long body with its burning red heart. Then its tail, the stinger. But it was not really for the Scorpion that we waited hours for. Near its tail, as if stuck with its stinger dragged around as the Scorpion prowled, is a sight more beautiful, more majestic than a celestial scorpion—a sight I have made it my life goal to see. At the end of this particular Scorpion’s tail flowed forth not poison but milk.

Fun fact: Being that our Solar System is located in one of the arms of the Milky Way, we can view part of it from our outpost here at Planet Earth. As our night skies stand presently, the Milky Way is situated at the “tail” of constellation Scorpius; should you let the myths have their way, also known as Orion’s archenemy. As an additional marker, the Milky Way flows from the teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius.

(So does the Teapot coat the Scorpion’s tail with Milk? Or is the Scorpion pouring Milk from its stinger into the Teapot? Is not the Teapot a Milkpot maybe? Is Sagittarius trying to avenge Orion? Reader, I leave you to decide.)

In case it is not yet obvious, I have been a fan of astronomy all my life. In fact, one of my main motivations when I got myself an expensive camera (the SLT A35) was to photograph the night sky. Much so that I christened my A35 “Getsurikai”—a BLEACH-inspired name which translates roughly to “moon grasp”.

Alas, contemporary life is not exactly friendly to night-sky shooting. Add the fact that, as a hobby, I only get a handful of chances throughout the year to try out my experiments. My progress in this interest has been slow.

I’ve experimented more than a few times just to learn how. I have tried it on the kit SAL 1855 lens when I bought a tripod. Needless to say, my attempts—done from our rooftop on the darkest nights our area will allow (which still isn’t that dark by the way)—ended with faint, out-of-focus traces of Orion. Else, you would’ve heard from me before now.

My luck proved better with the SAL55200. At 200mm focal length, shooting the moon became quite doable. That, combined with my XPeria Z and my Celestron 70AZ (codenamed “Lippershey”) produced some images I’m quite proud of.

A Hole in the Sky
Taken with the SLT A35 + SAL55200

The Sattelite Shooter
The Celestron 70AZ

The Subtle Lights of Our Sattelite
Taken with a combination of the Celestron 70AZ and the XPeria Z.

And suddenly, Getsurikai started to live up to its name.

But I wanted more! I wanted the stars. “Aim for the stars so if you miss at least you hit the moon” right? Well, I’ve somewhat hit the moon. I want my stars.

Enter the gorgeous SAL 1650. When I bought this lens, I did not really plan to use it for astrophotography. I have been laboring under the (wrong) impression that what makes astrophotography is a kick-ass telephoto lens (reasoning that you need a telescope to do astronomy so to do astrophotography, you need a telephoto lens. Seriously.)

What gave me the idea to use the 1650 was this shot, taken last summer.

DSC02650

 

Compared to the other shots in this post, I know this one does not offer much merit. But look: it got a few stars and one planet, sharper than I ever got them. And that is with all the light pollution from where I stood and with a shining moon to boot, not to mention the exposure time of a mere 5.7s. If that does not win any photographer’s faith I don’t know what will.

But still, the opportunity for dark and clear skies has yet to present itself.

Until a few weeks ago.

Say what you want about the Philippines but we have a friggin’ Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS). I’ve been lurking in their group for some time now but I never really got the opportunity to join one of their events. That is, as I’ve said, until a few weeks ago.

In PAS’ 2015 stargazing event at Puerto Galera, I finally got this shot. What it lacks for in exposure, it makes up for in photography lessons learned and sentimental value. I dipped my toes in the hot sands of Puerto Galera not expecting that I’d have an appointment with the lovely Milky Way, wearing stars for jewelry.

The Light in Dark Skies
The Light in Dark Skies

In a moment of trial-and-error, I realized what I have been doing wrong all this time. Ironically, what got my ass is the fact that I tinker with my camera’s settings far too much. I should have left my white-balance at Auto. Color-correction is really no help here.

And of course, repetition is what builds skill. Fortunately, PAS held another stargazing event barely a month after the one at Puerto Galera, this time at Big Handy’s Grounds at Tanay, Rizal. And I got this shot which will now always keep me in awe and wonder about things way larger than myself.

Delight in Dark Skies
Delight in Dark Skies

(Mandatory disclosure: I almost did not get this shot because, again, I tinkered with my camera’s settings too much! This time around, the culprit is my aperture setting.)

Of course, these adventures have more stories than what I have just related. I’ve met some interesting people along the way but they don’t make it into this story as that risks making the narrative incoherent. Maybe, someday, I get to write about that and them.

Isn’t astronomy a nice reason to travel?