Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

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Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

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Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

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Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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Cringe Fest 2017 Is This Friday!

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CALLING ALL WRITERS AND CREATIVE MINDED PEOPLE!

Ever felt excluded from the high brow poetry slam crowd in your hip local coffee shops? The Spectatorial & UC Gargoyle team up to present Cringe Fest, a FUN-draising event for all, as we celebrate the trials and tribulations you faced in becoming the artists you are today.

We invite you to dredge up your most embarrassing past writing: your angsty break-up poetry, your deep teenage thoughts, your fan-fiction starring you and Harry Potter, and share it in front of a bunch of people who have definitely also been there.

We will also have baked goods, juiceboxes, and other cool stuff for sale as part of fundraising for The Spectatorial’s next issue. More details to come. Bring us the change buried in your sofa!

Please send us a message on our Facebook page or email us at thespectatorial@gmail.com in order to get a spot on the list of readers for the night.

When: Friday, March 24, 7-10PM

Where: University College’s Junior Common Room

Admission will be PWYC (no one turned away!!). If you give $2 or more, you’ll be entered in a raffle to win free books, goodies, and other fun prizes!

AGM and Elections Info Meeting this FRIDAY!

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Do you want to be on The Spectatorial‘s staff next year? Do you want to make a difference in our constitution? Then this is your chance!

Come join The Spectatorial for our Annual General Meeting and Election Information night!

Date: Friday, March 10

Time: 5-7pm

Place: Hart House South Sitting Room

At the AGM, we will read through our current constitution and vote on any amendments and/or additions. This is YOUR chance to get your voice heard and directly impact the future shape, structure, and operations of The Spectatorial!

The Elections Information Meeting will cover all the information you need to know in order to apply for a position for The Spec‘s 2017-18 staff. What are contributors’ points? How do I get them? How do I make my application stand out from the rest? Our current editorial staff will be in attendance to answer all these questions and more!

This meeting is STRONGLY recommended for all members interested in being on staff next year. This is your chance to shape U of T’s only genre journal in 2017-18.

Note: This event is wheelchair accessible. If you have any concerns regarding accessibility, please don’t hesitate to contact us at thespectatorial@gmail.com.

Bounty Hunters and Space Cowboys: Comparing Killjoys and Firefly

Killjoys and Firefly entered my repository of favourite TV shows in much the same manner. In both cases, I saw a few posters and heard snippets of plot. Judging from this incontrovertible evidence, I dismissed both shows—who had ever heard of a space cowboy anyway?

In both cases, however, I ended up grudgingly watching a mid-season episode at the behest of family members. I immediately realized the error of my ways, and feverishly watched the entirety of the first season.

Though I greatly enjoyed Killjoys, I couldn’t help noticing that my introduction to the series was not the only thing tying it to Firefly. Airing just over a decade after the unfortunate demise of the Joss Whedon classic, Killjoys shares many of Firefly’s characteristics. The premises are generally convergent—both follow a small cast of mercenary characters who take on any and all jobs (provided they’re paid well), up to and including smuggling bobble head geisha dolls.

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Mal arguing with Inara, Firefly

Both also make use of a space western vibe, featuring settings such as arid locales, small run-down bars that have hints of futuristic technology, and rural communities on backwater worlds. They have a similar political dynamic—a large interplanetary government oppresses and mistreats its rebellious citizens and colonists  (The Company and The Alliance).

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The Company, Killjoys The Alliance, Firefly

There is also a marked economic dichotomy between the citizens of rich, central worlds and the pioneer-like border worlds where the crew spends most of their time. With a few exceptions, both shows feature a very similar cast of characters. Because Killjoys has a smaller central cast, some its characters encapsulate more than one of the roles taken up by characters from Firefly.

There’s the unorthodox gunslinger captain with a traumatic past (Dutch and Mal).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Mal, Firefly

The loveable mechanic who can fix most anything (Johnny and Kaylee).

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Johnny, Killjoys

Kaylee, Firefly

The less intellectually-endowed soldier type (D’avin and Jayne).

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D’avin, Killjoys

Jayne, Firefly

There’s a character who has been neurologically altered by a shadowy government agency to be a nearly invincible killing machine when cued (D’avin and River).

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D’avin, Killjoys

River, Firefly

The humanized sex worker (N’oa and Inara).

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N’oa, Killjoys

Inara, Firefly

The devout priest who’s more than he seems (Alvis and Book).

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Alvis, Killjoys

Shepherd Book, Firefly

There’s the doctor who gave up a cushy life on a rich world (Pawter and Simon).

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Pawter, Killjoys

Simon, Firefly

The female action hero (Dutch and Zoe).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Zoe, Firefly

And lastly there’s the covert assassin who likes stabbing people and is a little bit weird (Khylen and Early).

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Khylen, Killjoys

Early, Firefly

Even some of the episode plots are congruent. This is especially remarkable because there were only fourteen Firefly episodes and Killjoys’s first season contained only ten episodes. Both feature episodes where the heroes are hired to protect a pregnant woman and her companions, who are looked upon unfavourably by their respective societies (a safe house of surrogates in Killjoys and a group of sex workers in Firefly). These companions turn out to be more capable of handling their own defense than either crew anticipated.

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Episode: “Vessel,” Killjoys

Episode: “Heart of Gold,” Firefly

There’s also the episode wherein the crew attempts a salvage mission on what appears to be an empty transport, only to encounter a gruesome surprise (“A Glitch in the System” and “Bushwhacked”).

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Episode: “A Glitch in the System,” Killjoys

Episode: “Bushwhacked,” Firefly

However, Killjoys and Firefly differ in one rather important aspect. Firefly was cancelled after less than a season, spawning a legion of disaffected fans. Killjoys, on the other hand, has been renewed for a second season. Both shows did not garner very impressive viewership numbers in their first seasons—Firefly, in fact, had a larger average audience by a significant margin. Given the shows’ multitude of similarities, the obvious question is, why has Killjoys been more successful?

The channels on which the series aired may have something to do with it. Firefly aired on the more mainstream Fox, while Killjoys plays on sci-fi specialist Space, which would (you’d assume) be mainly the domain of viewers who enjoy series such as Killjoys. Further, since Space does not depend on ads for revenue, lower viewership numbers are less of a problem. However, I think there are deeper reasons for the difference in success. Despite their similarities, Firefly and Killjoys differ in tone and in the relative importance of their characters to the world they inhabit.

Though the main cast of Killjoys is often shown as being at the mercy of the higher ups of both their own bounty hunter organization, the Reclamation Agency Coalition (RAC), and the ominous anonymity of the Company, they also often wield a surprising amount of power. Dutch is easily able to negotiate a cancellation of the Company’s kill warrant for D’avin; she is also cleared of a number of charges on multiple occasions by both superiors at the RAC and a member of the Nine (the conglomerate of families which rule the central world, Q’resh) with whom she is in frequent contact. Dutch (and later D’avin) are also later marked out for a special RAC program involving human enhancement techniques.

The crew of Firefly’s Serenity, by comparison, were called “a bunch of nobodies” who are “squashed by policy” by managers at Fox. This was intentional—using the US’s civil war as a model, Joss Whedon constructed the crew to be a relic of a vast galactic civil war, wherein the Browncoats (synonymous with the grey uniformed Southerners of the American Civil War) were routed by the Alliance. This arrangement allowed the show to examine the psychological effects of the end of such a war upon the members of the losing side, and their subsequent search for new lives in their changed world. Given their defeated status, the cast has very little political pull (the latter events of the movie Serenity aside); the plot frequently revolves around the crew slipping through Alliance patrols, with the understanding that capture would lead to inescapable imprisonment.

The economic and legal status of the crews in both series are also at odds—every main character in Firefly (with the possible exception of Inara) is either dead-broke or wanted (as well as broke). The crew of the Serenity are also acknowledged criminals. Though they take on some legal employment, the vast majority of their jobs involve illegal activity. The threat of bankruptcy grounding the Serenity is constant (the fact that one episode is entitled “Out of Gas” is rather telling).

The Killjoys, in contrast, though complicit in some illegal activity, are legal employees of the RAC. According to Johnny and Dutch, Killjoys are paid quite well, and have relatively comfortable lifestyles when compared to the average citizen of the Quad.

These differences also manifest in the shows’ tones and central problems. Killjoys is generally a light, sci-fi action show. Though most episodes are loosely centered around a particular warrant, Dutch’s relationship to powerful and shadowy forces that are seeking to control the Quad underlies many of the events of the series. Dutch and her crew are involved in important events that alter the future of the entire system (e.g. the assassination of one of the Nine families and the bombing of Oldtown) and are presumed to play an important role in the political future of the Quad.

Firefly, though frequently comedic, has a darker tone (this was, if you’re wondering, also something Fox had a problem with—the network pressured Joss Whedon to make Mal “more jolly”). The crew’s main problems are related to money and/or personal, small-scale problems. Though Mal and company can be said to have altered the future of their galaxy in the Serenity movie, their potential for causing radical change is non-existent—the Alliance’s control is absolute—and they are generally uninvolved with larger political issues.

Overall, these differences are responsible for the success of Killjoys and the cancellation of Firefly. At least in the boardroom, Killjoys is a less risky, more mainstream type of show. Though it occasionally deals with contemporary issues (e.g. environmental damage and drug use), it is generally filled with mindless action, predictable plot sequences, and idealized characters who have secretly been groomed for a leadership role. Firefly deviated from this traditional structure to focus on unusual content (rebels who lost their cause and have no ability to nor intention of renewing the fight). Everything that made it one the best television shows of all time—everyday problems and ordinary characters who lack the predestination common in many speculative shows—made it unpalatable to the Fox brass.

-Contributed by Christopher Boccia

The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

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This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

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This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

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The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Why I Play Dungeons & Dragons, and So Should You (If You’re Into That)

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Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Okay friends, it is time to talk about my favourite subject.

Despite the rise in nerd culture, Dungeons and Dragons still has a bit of lingering stigma. The problem is that many people do not understand it. When you ask non-nerds about it, often they’ll make references to teenagers running around in sewers dressed in wizard robes, or mumble something about demon summoning and satanic rituals (I mean, that sounds fun too, but it does not really have much to do with D&D—unless that is how you want to play, in which case: you do you, buddy).

Even nerds will sometimes shrug and say, “I’m not that kind of nerd.” It’s as if D&D players are some kind of off-brand super nerd: a lower rung in the nerd hierarchy that no one likes to acknowledge. However, if you like fantasy, storytelling, and hanging out with friends, I think you should give this game a chance.

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy improvisation game played with friends. You have a Dungeon Master (or DM)—yes it is silly, but the game does have its glorious roots in the 70s after all, so we need to get past this, guys—who acts as the storyteller and main author of the world. Think of it like a fantasy novel, but each player brings their own protagonist to the table, each with their own personalities and goals. Together, you weave a story as unique as the people playing the game.

Every group I have been a part of has had a completely different dynamic. You could play a character-heavy intrigue game full of alliances and betrayal, a heroic coming-of-age story, or even the rise of a villain. Alternatively, you can just battle monsters and collect loot, Diablo-style. Unlike video games, there are no “invisible walls” limiting what you can do; the narrative is purely based on the creativity of its players.

What makes D&D special is that it provides a framework in which to tell your story. Its core mechanic involves dice-rolling, where your character’s success or failure in a task depends on their skill—represented by bonuses or penalties added to the dice total—and on pure luck. This last part is what draws you into the game: the stakes are real, and every time you engage in combat, you are risking your character’s life along with all of the personal investment you have in their continuing story.

Putting your characters in “danger” can lead to the most creative and memorable experiences in the game. I’ve seen situations where, when the chips were down, a player in trouble has pulled out the most off-the-wall solutions and just rolled like a boss to pull it off. These moments can stay with you for years; I still look back fondly on many of my own close calls.

Dungeons and Dragons also provides a large range of pre-made settings and adventures, plug-and-play style:  if you are new to the game, the developers have your back. Many experienced DMs engage in what is affectionately called “home-brewing,” and create their own rules, maps, and other features customized to their players. So if you really want to play a gunslinger in a medieval fantasy setting, your DM can make that happen in a way that keeps the game balanced and enjoyable for everyone.

I really want to emphasize the social aspect here. Unlike playing an online game, D&D lets you sit around a table, along with some snacks and a case of beer (or whatever floats your boat). In short, you should play Dungeons and Dragons because it is fun.

Now that I have given you my spiel, those of you who are still reading may be asking, “So how do I get started?” What a great question! If you are not asking that, you do not have to read this next bit.

First of all, you need to find a group of like-minded individuals who are interested in playing. The best size for a group is around five people (including the DM), but you can play with as few as two and as many as you can fit in one room.

If you want to do some window-shopping before you commit, there are a few recommendations I can make. Critical Role on Geek and Sundry (also on Youtube) is a show where a bunch of “nerdy-ass voice actors” (their words, not mine) get together and record their D&D sessions for the world to enjoy. If you are into anime, cartoons, or video games, you may have heard of some of them: Matthew Mercer is the DM, and the players include Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Sam Riegel. Orion Acaba stayed on for the first twenty-five episodes before moving on to other projects, and there are several exciting guest stars that make an appearance throughout the series.

I cannot emphasize how amazing it has been to watch this show and its storyline develop. From a slightly glitchy first episode to the jaw-dropping latest episode (fifty-eight was a personal favourite—I may have cried a little), this show is definitely worth your time. Matt Mercer is a master storyteller. He’s the kind of DM I aspire to be, and he really demonstrates the heights of what a game can reach.

I have also recently started Acquisitions Inc., a podcast of Penny Arcade fame—being only six episodes in, I am a little late to the party, but it has been highly recommended and from what I have heard so far I feel comfortable passing it on to you. They play fourth-edition Dungeon and Dragons, which is slightly less streamlined and intuitive than the newer fifth-edition, but it is still great.

You will need some gaming dice to get started. The rulebooks can be pretty pricey, so if you are not sure you want to commit (and you live in Toronto), the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library at 239 College St. lets you peruse them for free. Look for the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook—that’s where everyone starts. There are a myriad of supplemental materials once you have gotten past that, so feel free to go wild!

If you are an aspiring DM, I recommend Matthew Colville’s Youtube series on how to run a game. He lays things out in a really accessible, straight-forward kind of way that I found really helpful when I started DM-ing (not too long ago, I might add).

And that is all she wrote! I hope this helps you.

Go forth, friends, and play!

Contributed by Eleanor Crook

Arrival – A Case of Déjà vu

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Walking into Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, I only knew a little about the movie. I knew that it was based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang which I have not read (it’s on the shelf). I knew that it was starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. I was pleasantly surprised to see Forest Whitaker around the ten minute mark. I knew this was going to be a movie about first contact with aliens. And yet as the movie began, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen this all before. I mean that as the highest of praise, incidentally.

Twelve alien space ships land on Earth. Nobody knows why. Professor of linguistics “Louise Banks” (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US government and sent to the alien arrival sight in Montana, where she is partnered with “Ian Donnelly” (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Together, they are charged with finding a way to communicate with the visitors.

As Louise and Ian learn to communicate with the Heptapods (cheekily dubbed Abbot and Costello by Ian), Louise begins to uncover the Heptapods’ strange circular written language, which has no beginning or end, and begins to have flashbacks to her daughter Hannah, who died of an incurable disease.

Right away this is where Arrival separates itself from so many other “first contact” movies. In Louise and Ian, I can see every goofy pair of scientists in science fiction, sidelined as the comic relief while someone brash and bold fires a rocket wrapped in the American flag to save the day. But not this time. Arrival has billed itself as a film of intelligence, and it remains so to a fault.

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But still, Arrival is intensely aware that it belongs to a canon. Maybe not to everyone in the audience, but to someone like me, who lives and breathes science fiction of this nature to the point that it’s tattooed on my body, I can see where all the elements come from. I can hear Close Encounters of the Third Kind in sound effects of the Heptapods. I can see 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar in the aesthetics of the alien ships. I can see The War of the Worlds in the design of the aliens, and District 9 in the TV news footage of the world’s reaction to their arrival. I can even see Independence Day in the scale of the story. Hell, I can see E.T. in Louise’s growing connection to the Heptapods, and Slaughterhouse Five in the nature of the aliens themselves.

I can see where all these elements of famous science fiction staples were drawn together to make this film, but this is far from a bad thing. Sharply aware of the pastiche of its particular sub-genre, Arrival focuses on what makes it so smart.

Every shot of this film is beautiful. From a spaceship hovering over a field in Montana, to Amy Adams framed by the sunset streaming through her backyard window, to the interior of the spaceship itself, every frame suggests a world that is vast and expansive.

Louise is an interesting character. She’s a workaholic, a loner, has a sense of humor, empathy, and everything else that an interesting lead in a movie like this needs to have. The only thing that stretches my suspension of disbelief when it comes to Louise is how nice her house is. I’m not sure what school she’s a professor of linguistics at, but there is no way on Earth (pun intended) that she can afford a beautiful modern home in the woods overlooking mountains. No way.

In Arrival, we get two stories, and both are equally interesting. We get Louise and Ian learning how to communicate with Abbot and Costello. The movie spends a lot of time and energy on discussing the Heptapods’ written language. They write in beautiful, arching spheres, with no sense of linear time. Within their language, past, present and future happen all at once. Louise and Ian are learning to communicate with their Heptapod ship, even as eleven other nations around the world begin to communicate with their own ships. Tensions mount as the nations of the world start refusing to share. Arrival becomes a story about overcoming differences, and learning to cooperate with one another.

For those with an eagle eye, the first time the Heptapod language is explained, a big twist is given away. At least, part of it is. Yes, I have no problem saying that there is a time travel element to this story. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The second narrative is about tragedy, as we follow the story of how Louise’s daughter Hannah grew up, why her father left them, and how Hannah dies. This is about a grieving mother learning to cope with the death of her daughter, and understand that even though death is inevitable the time before death is still worthwhile.

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Arrival is a story about grief, and making connections, and aliens, and time. It never fails to be smart, it never devolves into the action-oriented blockbuster format of so many others, it never falters in the ideals that it strives to put on screen. It is everything that a modern science fiction movie should be.

If you want to go see a movie that does science fiction right, with intelligence and integrity, is beautiful for every frame of its runtime, and might make you cry like the little baby we all secretly still are, Arrival is the movie for you.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan