Monday, March 28, 2016

The Bird Catcher by S.P. Somtow

As an exercise in increasing my posting regularity, I’ve decided to initiate a delve into the world of contemporary fiction. Previously, my examinations have remained relegated to 70’s science fiction dystopias. But I’m going to try something completely different:
(drum roll)
Edited by literary great Lavie Tidhar. Published in 2009. Packed full of who knows what.

A Note on Speculative Fiction
The first thing you may notice from this book is that it’s not science fiction. The hard capital S and Fs indicate this is instead a collection of Speculative Fiction. Which is what scifi calls itself when it wants to escape from the grim science/fantasy genre shelves at the local bookseller. Hard SF is normally scared s-less by normal sci-fi tropes. I’m not expecting to run into any spaceships or aliens with weird bumps on their heads. But maybe I’ll be surprised.

A Note on World Authors
If you are from a non-English-speaking country and you are writing in English, it is going to take extra work. Each word is going to be that much more valuable. You’re going to try to get to the point without a lot of digressions. At least that’s my thinking when I read distinctly international fiction like this.
Plus, in the same way that Settlers of Catan had to be really good to make the jump from Germany, I feel like these stories had to work extra hard to get to where they are today. But I might be wrong there, too.

Without further ado, the first story in this collection:

The Bird Catcher by S.P. Somtow

If I had to “pigeonhole” The Bird Catcher into a genre, it would probably be horror. There’s not really any ghosts or monsters, but there is a serial killer. In fact there may be a couple of them.

The Bird Catcher starts off in modern day Bangkok and then flashes back to post WWII Bangkok and then the tiny fishing village of Thapsake. The main character (never named), his mother and finally a shadowy companion are all fleeing survivors of a Japanese internment camp in China, who settle as foreigners in Thailand.

Cages within Cages

The feeling of being trapped in a cage is the ongoing motif for The Bird Catcher.
The narrator has escaped a gruesome fate, but the prison has followed him. The Buddist practice of “making merit” by releasing birds is examined critically, the narrator notes the birds’ wings are clipped, and often return quite soon to captivity ready for another customer.
The narrator feels trapped by his circumstances and as a foreigner in a different culture. He feels trapped by the horrible dreams he has from the camp.
But on the other hand, Thailand seems like a pretty nice place in many respects. The narrator has friends. The weather is beautiful. Play is unstructured and offered in generous amounts. There's plenty to like.

Humans are on the Menu

No matter how wonderful the rest of the country is, the narrator can’t help but feel drawn to the brooding half-witted mentally-scarred man Si Ui.
Si Ui only has a few lines in the story, 90% of which are “Hungry!” and “Si Ui Hungry!”
Si Ui has seen some stuff from his internment camp days, and the narrator bonds with him over this. They wordlessly appreciate each other’s company and shared experience. Si Ui introduces the narrator into the world of bird catching, which he is remarkably good at.
They kill some birds. They eat some birds cooked. And they eat some birds raw.
And some of those birds, they might not be birds, but little girls from the neighborhood.

Fractured Minds and Hungry Bellies

Much connection is made between the empty hunger of surviving horrific events, the simple hunger when you want to eat, and the compulsive mental hunger a serial killer feels that draws him to his next victim.
Only problem is, I’m not convinced this is a real thing. History is full of people who have survived the worst human experience can offer, and they don’t turn into some kind of liver-eating monster.
If you are a kid, and your parents are murdered by Santa Claus, you aren’t going to dress up as Santa Claus and start punishing people. That’s an overused trope from the very bottom of the horror barrel. Yet the narrator constantly refers to the hunger inside him born from the camps and how the killing of birds suddenly grants him this relief he has never had before.
Serial killers apparently do often have tragic events in their past. But I can't help feeling there's plenty of people who are just born that way.
If this was a real thing, liquor companies would be out of business and human overpopulation would no longer be an issue.

Explaining Something to a Child

One of the most authentic feelings I got from this story was in the framing. The narrator’s flashback to his bird-chomping days is told from his perspective in the modern day. Walking to a decrepit freak show museum to show his grandson the mummified remains of Si Ui the Liver Eater, he attempts to explain the significance of his own memories to a boy who really could not care less.
This is parenthood at its most real.
When your son or daughter is a baby, you think about all the things you want to tell them. Perhaps not necessarily about your dabblings with cannibalism, but important life lessons or learning opportunities.
But here’s the real truth: there is not a single fact or figure in my head, not a single fragment of information, that holds any interest beyond the strictly short term to my son. 
Anything I tell him, I can see Minecraft continuing uninterrupted somewhere behind his glassy eyes, waiting for me to finish so he can go do something interesting.
At the end of the story, the narrator tucks his grandson into bed and hops a flight back to New York. After which he’s probably going to eat some people, I guess.


I’m not sure I should be rating these. What would I even give them? Stars? Thumbs? Dead birds?
I’m not going to grab a zip-line and fly down to the local library to hunt up more fiction from S.P. Somtow. But I also feel like I got something out of it.
Will I like the next story in the collection? The only way to find out is to read my next blog post.

Coming Soon: “Transcendence Express” by Jetse de Vries. See you then!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Out for Bloodborne: The Card Game

“Go out, kill monsters, and take their’s a family game.” -- Eric M. Lang, game designer

You want blood and the monsters are practically bursting at the seams with the stuff. Only problem is, you’re not the only one on the trail. Other players are trying to grab what’s rightfully yours and the only by successfully navigating their help/interference will you come out on top when it comes time to collect the spoils.

A week before now, the video game Bloodborne was barely in the realm of my awareness at a all. That all changed during the GAMA trade show, when I found out Eric M. Lang was developing a short, fast card game using the official license.

Lang spilling the beans

Racing for Blood

One of the first “deckbuilding” games to arise out of the bacterial soup left behind by the impossible success of Dominion was Thunderstone. After years of successful expansions and a new edition, Thunderstone is still at its heart adventurers awkwardly buying gear and fighting monsters.
The monsters don’t feel like monsters. And the gear doesn’t feel too much like gear in many cases.
The same basic play is available in a faster framework now with all the different versions of the DC Comics Deckbuilding Game. Players take turns buying smaller stuff until they have enough gear to make the jump into the big bad guy deck, earn the big-boy victory points, and move the game closer to its conclusion.
One of the problems I see with both of these games is plodding inevitability. Each player’s turn is completely separate, with little you can do to affect your opponents. Except for a couple of really crushing cards (I’m looking at you Power Drain), you can plan out your turn pretty nicely no matter what your opponent does. You lay your cards down, something happens, you go on to the next turn.
According to Lang, in Bloodborne all the turns are going to happen simultaneously. Actions will be resolved in a changing turn order, and everything you do will possibly have an unintended effect on both you and your opponents. And during the turn, you will have to play by the seat of your pants much like one of my other favorite games.

Pressing your Luck

The “Whammies” in Bloodborne look like they can come at any time. You won’t know what attacks your fellow players are using until they do it. You also won’t know how much damage the monster you are fighting will deal until it does it. Combined, players will be uncertain they will survive each round and the temptation to leave the encounter and save your remaining resources for the next encounter will be fierce.
The example Lang brings up in the video is the Blunderbuss. You can use both melee and ranged weapons in Bloodborne. But when you use the Blunderbuss, you also do damage to anyone trying to execute a melee attack that round. You might accidentally get caught in the crossfire, which is of immense benefit to the Blunderbuss firer if you don’t survive to collect your share of the blood.

The video game: monsters are tough!

Licensed to Die

An official license to use the intellectual property from some other media empire can be the kiss of death. Lang notes the card game is designed to appeal to the digital players of the video game first, and carries some simplification versus the type of game a board gamer would expect.
This can be good or bad, and no one will know until Bloodborne gets played.
If you need a current example of a official license cash grab, look no further than the Ghostbusters board game, already moving forward on a sequel that makes yet another iteration of a very derivative concept.
On the other hand, it might be awesome.
I appreciate "simpler" games as much as anybody. Often board game mechanisms find ways to be more elegant the smaller the surrounding apparatus becomes. And whenever the turn order in a game is all mushed together, with no safe time to plan strategy, I find I get extra excitement in the process.
So Bloodborne might make a good card game. But like the video game, you’ll have to keep vigilant and not rush into anything until you know exactly what you’re dealing with.
Because once you’ve plunked down your hard-earned blood to the shopkeep, there’s no do-overs.