Saturday, June 28, 2014

Who Wants to be a Doctor? The "deadly game" subgenre and why The Hunger Games is a welcome addition

I hear it constantly, both in real life and online forums: "The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale!" People seem desperate to prove they saw Battle Royale long before they heard about The Hunger Games, as if that keeps their nerd cards current. I saw it first, too (*flashes nerd card along with an old imported copy*), but to say The Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale is like saying Interview with the Vampire ripped off Dracula.


Before Battle Royale there was The Running Man. Before that there was the novel it was based on, written by Richard Bachman (Stephen King). The Bachman pseudonym paid homage to Richard Matheson, who also dealt in high concept ideas. I don't remember where the proudly stupid Deathrow Gameshow figures into the mess, but the concept isn't new. It goes back almost a century to Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game and the subsequent movie. Seriously, that story is likely older than your parents.


That's not to say Battle Royale is a rip-off. All I'm saying is "the deadly game" is an awesome subgenre (TVtropes counts over twenty examples of the deadly game in film alone), one which has yet to be driven into the ground like vampires and zombies. Yes, these stories share the same idea, but ideas aren't protected by copyright in the United States. Only the execution of the idea is copyrighted, which means you're free to write stories about deadly games all you want.

And you should. It's, as the kids say, a hella fun. (Okay, I obviously have no idea what kids say anymore.) My tiny contribution is included at the bottom of this post.

Cutting Cards, my all-time favorite Tales from the Crypt

I think it's easy to see the appeal of the death show subgenre as long as you're honest with yourself:

A) It's satire of what passes as entertainment on television. Geraldo, Morton Downey Jr., and Jerry Springer have left behind a disgusting legacy American culture isn't going to cure anytime soon. The other day I was told there was a new show where contestants are dropped in the middle of the wilderness naked. When I asked which channel this was on, the reply was, "I don't know. I think it was Discovery or TLC."

B) Humans really had entertainment like this, perhaps most memorably in the days of Spartacus. I know people like to think they're above being fascinated by death, but have you ever seen traffic proceed smoothly past a car wreck? It's hardwired into us, this fascination with the macabre, not because we're sick, but because it's important for us to know What Can Go Wrong with our flesh vessels. Which is why I scream inside whenever I hear snobs whine about how distasteful the horror genre is—you'll never convince me the first stories told around campfires weren't about gruesome deaths.

perhaps my favorite film example of the deadly game

Maybe the reason some people dislike The Hunger Games is nerds' precious interests are finally going mainstream. Yes, it sucks that all of John Carpenter's movies are becoming pointless remakes. And yes, a lot of us actually found comfort in existing outside the "cool" groups with our love for speculative fiction and all weird things. But damn it, The Hunger Games is a surprisingly great interpretation of the death show. I'm glad kids are getting sophisticated stuff like this as opposed to Twilight and other superficial speculative fiction stories.

Most of all, I'm glad the death show subgenre will outlive me, that future generations will be much more accepting to the high concept weirdness literary critics used to shun. That's growth, people.


Several years ago my girlfriend was making fun of how ridiculous television was getting and said, "What's next? Who Wants to be a Doctor?" At which point I immediately walked into the other room and wrote the following story....

Who Wants to be a Doctor?
a short story by Grant Gougler

The figures slammed the foot end of Mark's gurney through a couple of doors which led backstage. He could already hear the crowd on the other side of the curtain. They were riled up out there, absolutely frenzied. In regards to the question posed by the show's title—Who Wants to be a Doctor?—it sounded like everyone in the world did.

The stagehands weren't paying any attention to him. He attempted to lift his head, kind of succeeded, and tried to plead for mercy. If his lips moved at all, he couldn't tell. The producers had shot him full of neuromuscular paralytics. The drugs didn't work on pain, of course. They only worked well enough to keep him quiet and subdued.

Mark heard the announcer's omnipresent voice: "Jane Slotham, come on down!" Then the theme music played while the randomly chosen audience member made her way down to the stage, squealing in excitement. She jerked the mic away from the host and introduced herself as a thirty-two year old homemaker from Ohio. She was a huge fan of the show. Her family never missed it.

"How 'bout that," the host said, reclaiming the microphone. "So you know the rules, but some of our viewers at home may not. Remind us, Sal."

"The goal is simple," announced an omnipresent voice, "operate on your patient, return his status to a stable condition, and sew him back up. If your patient lives for one hour, you win... an all-expense-paid vacation for you and one guest to beautiful Waikiki Beach in Honolulu!" 

The crowd went wild.

"All right, Jane. Are you ready to meet your patient?"

"I'm ready, Todd."

"Alright, ladies... bring him out!"

Four women dressed in nurse costumes shoved Mark towards the stage. As the curtain drew he caught glimpses of a laser light show sweeping the clouds of the fog machines. The stage lights were too bright for Mark to see the audience members, but he could feel their excitement, could fear their enthusiasm.

The crowd cheered the four assistants as they mugged for the cameras and parked Mark's gurney beneath the jumbotron. Then they blew kisses as they exited the stage. From his new angle, Mark could see himself on the big screen. He was shirtless and pale. Not a man anymore, but a cold corpse which hadn't realized it was dead yet. The corpse was strapped to a vinyl pad, puddled with various types of bodily fluids.

He would have to watch whatever they did to him.

The music faded as the host opened a sealed envelope. "Jane, this is Mark Saddle. Up until a few hours ago he was serving two consecutive life sentences at the World Correctional Facility for—get this folks—cheating on his wife."

The crowd heckled and the host patted the air to pacify them before they ripped their seats out of the floor.

"Jane," he said, "what's your initial assessment?"

"Well, Todd, because of the large amount of blood the patient has lost, I'd say that he's either the victim of a gunshot wound or a stabbing."

"That would appear to be the case, wouldn't it?"

"I'm going to go with... ummm.... knife wound. I don't see an exit wound and you did 'gunshot victim' last week."

"The advantage of being a longtime viewer, ladies and gentlemen." The audience laughed. "All right, Jane. We'll get you prepped for surgery and, in the meantime, you folks at home stay right where you are. We'll be right back!"

The theme music played them out to a commercial break. A prop comedian kept the audience warm while a stagehand helped Jane into her scrubs. Another stagehand wheeled in a cart full of stainless steel instruments, which gleamed like mirrors. Watching Jane's face as she mentally prepared herself for the torture she would soon inflict, a deeply suppressed part of Mark was glad he couldn't talk. He was finally famous.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Blade Runner: a love letter to the best SF film ever made


Earlier this month, Giant Freakin Robot revealed Neil DeGrasse Tyson's favorite movies. There was a lot one would expect to see on the list. There was The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes, which are three of my favorite films as well. The adaptation of Carl Sagan's Contact was probably the least surprising considering Sagan's influence on Tyson. On the more surprising side was a Michael Bay film and Deep Impact.

And then Tyson mentions Blade Runner as a runner-up: "This story was simultaneously deep and scary. But I never warmed to it the way so many lovers of the genre have. Which makes this comment more of a confession than a review." So, to recap, a Téa Leoni movie somehow made it higher on Tyson's list than Blade Runner. No amount of science can explain that.

Timothy Anderson's pulp tribute to BR

If you had asked me ten years ago I would have said my favorite science fiction film is 2001: A Space Odyssey because I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, the movie was something I could and did watch repeatedly. Blade Runner, on the other hand, was a bit of a mystery to me growing up.

I had the original version of Blade Runner recorded off of HBO or something and maybe watched it twice. One day, when I was about ten, I was browsing the video section of Wal-mart and came across Blade Runner: The Director's Cut. My parents bought it for me. While I liked it enough to watch it numerous times over the years (rewatching movies for me is somewhat rare, so that's already high praise) it never really clicked the way 2001 did. I think, at the time, I just liked the visuals, but found the rest a little too odd, a little too alien, to win me over at that age.


So sometime during the DVD days, I saw The Final Cut at Target. By then I was old enough to purchase things with my own money (this was less than ten years ago, mind you) and it was on sale for $15. I thought what the hell, I'll give it a shot. To this day I don't know what the differences between The Director's Cut and The Final Cut are, exactly, but I've rarely enjoyed a movie so much before or since I saw The Final Cut the first time. It was a revelation.

The film looks fucking amazing. The dialogue isn't once painful to listen to. The characters—even the "bad" guys—are completely sympathetic. There's a level of cool that harkens back to the Humphrey Bogart days. As William Gibson pointed out we've never seen a futuristic city such as that one:

"But the simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps—just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life—it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it."

In other word the city is the most prominent character of all, not to mention the only, if vague, explanation of what happened in the time between present and future.


Whatever the changes were which warranted a new edition aren't important. I think the real catalyst has little to do with the changes in the film itself and the person I became. By the time I watched The Final Cut I had read the Philip K. Dick novel the film is based on, but as much as I love PKD, I think that had little to do with my enjoyment of the film. Only every other chapter of the book is similar to the film and Ridley Scott, the director, confessed he never even read the book. Blade Runner is a living thing, something which ages like wine. The closer we get to going to Mars, the better we get at narrowing the uncanny valley in android technology, the better the film gets. It doesn't just grow on you, it grows with you.

I fear that Blade Runner can only ever be enjoyed by the most serious of moviegoers. In my younger years I just hadn't seen enough movies to realize how special the film was. I don't mean that as a criticism of casual moviegoers, I just mean that if you try to "watch" the film while babysitting or in a setting where people are free to talk, you're not going to get it. It's a film that requires the utmost attention to appreciate, a film that needs to be treated as an event rather than something to pass the time.

It is, hands down, the best science fiction film I will ever see.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is 80% off


The Steam summer sale begins early and, immediately, there's a whopper of a deal. I love Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. At the moment it's my favorite game. The base game is currently $7.99 ($25 for a 4-pack) and the two DLC offerings are $2.49 a piece. If you like space opera and 4x strategy, you cannot do any better than this (although some prefer Distant Worlds: Universe). You remember that part in Return of the Jedi when Luke looks out the window and sees the mind-bogglingly massive "last stand" battle taking place in outer space? Sins is a little like that, only bigger, if you want.

Even if you're familiar with games like this, I suggest slogging through the six tutorials, which take around five minutes a piece, before going head to head with an easy A.I. in a tiny map. A "tiny" map, by the way, has more than twenty planets to conquer and can take more than a day depending on your style of play. This is the game that'll be holding me over until Civilization: Beyond Earth arrives.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Birdman Begins?

I know there's a perfectly good explanation for what this movie's about, but I don't want to know it, not yet. Better to just let it exist as it is rather than seek an explanation. Mystery is fun in the age of internet.


It's good to see Michael Keaton in a leading role. It's been a while, hasn't it?

Friday, June 13, 2014

It was a year ago when Iain M. Banks died

Banks' final interview

Here's a short but sweet piece on Banks by crime writer Ian Rankin:

My fellow writer and occasional drinking companion Iain Menzies Banks died on 9 June 2013. When his cancer was diagnosed in the February of that year he emailed friends to share the news. The email was typical Iain – not at all downbeat or maudlin; almost jaunty, in fact.
He made sure that by the time word got out to the public at large, he and his partner Adele were outside the UK and away from the media glare, leaving some of us to meet at our spiritual home – the Abbotsford bar on Edinburgh's Rose Street – to shake our heads and mutter the usual well-meant cliches. Iain wouldn't have wanted to hear any of it, and when he eventually did join us for what turned out to be a last session together, we spoke mostly of other things, though he did joke about his jaundiced colouring, comparing himself to Grandpa Simpson.
I think there may be something about writing science fiction (or maybe just being scientifically literate) that makes you a positive person where it counts. Even though what I write isn't what anyone would call utopian, I'm severely allergic to the strict negativity about the future I read and/or hear on a daily basis. It seems Banks was positive despite a nightmare diagnosis. I can't imagine what it's like to be scared of the future, to not look forward to it, but I get the feeling more people than not are scared. And voicing this fear is sad, not to mention cowardly and counterproductive to what being human is all about.

We live in a world of cancer, war, racism, politicians, lobbyists, money, famine, superstition, and proud ignorance. I'm so sick of people who want to cling to this era, like this is the paragon of human existence, like this isn't just another historical trend that will pass. Anyone who wants humanity to become stagnate needs a swift kick to the head. Fuck the people and the politicians who oppose progress and change, and fuck the politicians who use these words as nothing more than slogans.

Yeah, I'm in an angry mood today, but I feel I've been assaulted (insulted) by constant cynicism and ignorance when it comes to viable solutions to the world's problems. We need more people like Banks, damn it. There are too many kids out there in danger of being infected by their parents' negativity. Negativity breeds inactivity.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Civilization Beyond Earth is my most anticipated game


Being a fan of Sid Meier's Alpha Centuari (arguably the greatest 4x strategy game ever), I'm seriously stoked for Civilization Beyond Earth. What's really interesting (and long overdue) is the inclusion of a tech web rather than the obligatory tech tree. It just makes more sense. 

Fall 2014 can't come soon enough.

At the moment I'm playing Distant World: Universe, an insanely complex real-time strategy game set in space. It's a little overwhelming until you realize you can automate nearly anything and focus on what you want. Is it a game that plays itself? Sort of, if you want it to. A popular strategy for beginners is automating everything but one ship and pretending to be the captain of said ship. Then you can slowly un-automate things a little bit at a time the more you get used to it. I'm not sure if I like it more than Sins of a Solar Empire yet, but it's growing on me. A lot of games like this take a while to click for me, but when they do it's a new addiction.

So it's the week of E3. I'm sure I'll be using this blog to nerd out over the next few days. Already I'm excited about quite a bit.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Is the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars VII?

J.J. Abrams tweeted the following handwritten note to fans:


"I wish people would stop leaking photos from Episode VII. And making ridiculous claims that the Millennium Falcon is in the movie. JJ"

The letter was photographed on top of a Dejarik table that looks suspiciously like the one aboard the Falcon. So the answer is yes. Yes, the Millennium Falcon is in Episode VII. Not that that's particularly surprising, but it's somewhat comforting that J.J. isn't going to be ultra-secretive for secrecy's sake, persisting even after the cat's been let out of the bag (as it was when the internet totally figured out the Khan "spoiler").

I know J.J. was the wrong guy to direct the recent Star Trek films, but I have a feeling he's the right guy to direct these. My only concern is, with the announcement of the spin-off films coming out in between direct sequels, we're going to get too much Star Wars at once. I want to look forward to the next Star Wars movie without the risk of the franchise becoming diluted with quantity. I want each film to be so breathlessly intense I need at least a year or two to fully process it. I'm not so helplessly bright-eyed that I don't understand why Disney wants to become a Star Wars factory, but the model works well for Marvel adaptations because that universe has been constantly evolving for seventy years, not because they created it all within a few years' time.

I am, however, excited about the new canon books. Seems like a good place to jump in for people like me who felt a little too overwhelmed by the enormity of the expanded universe. I've read some of Timothy Zahn's stuff, but didn't feel too compelled to read the rest. As for the comics that existed up until now, I haven't found too many that blew my socks off.