Saturday, June 28, 2014

Harry Potter Reading Challenge #6 - The Half-Blood Prince

I've had a little bit of a break from Harry Potter, as reading five of the novels (and watching the corresponding films) can be quite exhaustive, especially the angst-laden The Order of the Phoenix. The sixth book is noticeably more cheerful in terms of Harry's outlook, but that vibe of angst doesn't go away. As always, spoilers ahead.

Before I start - Romance alert! Eugh. Yeah, The Half-Blood Prince does have a series of subplots revolving around the romantic interests of some of the characters, and Rowling's sometimes problematic treatment of her female characters rears its head again. Ginny is bouncing between boyfriends, Ron is trying to be protective of her whilst dealing with girls he's interested in (and they begin to get interested in him), Hermione is trying to wrestle with her feelings for Ron, Harry suddenly begins to be interested in Ginny (it could have been a clever reversal of Ginny crushing on Harry, but Rowling goes almost Freudian with it) whilst struggling to deal with Cho's rejection of him, Bill Weasley is engaged to Fleur (from The Goblet of Fire, her 'Allo 'Allo French accent still present), Fleur's presence turns Hermione, Mrs Weasley and Ginny into extremely catty people, etc., etc., etc. It's a big mess, and the way it's handled doesn't help. Many of the girls come off as jealous and spiteful, whereas the boys have more interest than they can seemingly deal with. It feels like just another way in which Rowling puts down her female characters - if they can't have physical flaws then they must act in flawed ways that relate to their sex or gender. Would Luna or Hermione have their behaviour put under so much scrutiny within the books if they were male? These problems are further compounded by the suddenness of the changes - I felt as if Rowling had realised she had just two books left of Harry's tale (as this is the penultimate entry) and that certain content had to be put in.

We're introduced to a character as "a tall black boy" (reminiscent of the "tall black girl" description from the fifth book), and this stands out as it's one of the few - if not only - times a character's race is implied via a description. Other characters of a racial minority generally have names that work as racial identifiers (e.g. Cho Chang and the Patil sisters). Towards the end of the book I found another jarring gender-based comment (I am ignoring the idea of Crabbe and Goyle using the Polyjuice potions to turn themselves into girls as disguises for a dozen reasons), this time from Professor Slughorn. When faced with the idea of closing Hogwarts, it's implied that keeping the school open is the right choice but closing it is the wrong one, so when Slughorn backs the idea of closing it's implied he is in the wrong to do so. He asks the other professors if mothers will allow their children back after all that's happened. Not parents, but mothers. I find this comment particularly odd because of the number of characters who have lost their mothers in the series - Harry, Luna, Neville (in a way), etc. - or those who look negatively at theirs or who don't know them (Hagrid, the discussions about Tom Riddle's past, etc.), so for mothers to be singled out is not a positive thing, not least because it implies that mothers are over-protective.

At one point Rowling actually calls out herself on reusing a plot point - Harry has a used textbook that contains improved potions recipes as well as hand-crafted spells, and he blindly forges ahead and uses them. This is picked up by Ginny not long after this discovery and she chastises Harry for using it, but after some light testing from Hermione, the book is deemed safe. As might be predictable, the book gives Harry the tools that get him in trouble later on. Other prominent plot points in the book are often moving down predictable paths, but thankfully there are moments where unexpected and interesting things happen. Except that one about the book very near the end. Oh dear. Talk about hamfisted.

Well, what's good? I'll just put that in the summary. Seriously.

Summary: You know, I'm hard pressed to pick out any one thing I like about this book. Ginny and Luna, two of my favourite characters, aren't really shown as anything except accessories, though they have their moments. I think that actually typifies this book - the memorable good moments are exactly that. Moments. They're one-liners or they're small details, or they're the way Rowling moves from one moment to the next. It feels like things are building up, but less like a skyscraper and more like a Jenga tower. There's holes in the plot, there's leaps of logic, there's a dozen things you can pull out, analyse and find poor. And yet Rowling's greatest strength is in making you overlook (but she can't make you forget) when this happens. I devoured these 600-odd pages in a couple of days and I am left wanting to see how this ends.

I suspect it has something to do with nargles...

Favourite Moment: Harry and Ron's one-liners to Snape during various Defence Against the Dark Arts classes.

Least Favourite Moment: Harry getting a bit angsty and shouty again.

Improvements From Earlier Book(s): It's not The Order of the Phoenix.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Games Done Quick - Starts Soon!

On Sunday 22nd June, the bi-annual 'Games Done Quick' happens again with Summer Games Done Quick, a weeklong streamed event hosted by Speed Demos Archive, with near-constant video game speedruns, and all donations going to charity (Doctors Without Borders).

If you don't know what the event entails, I'll try to explain. Speedrunning is trying to get through a game as quickly as possible, typically exploiting broken or overlooked issues and bugs to manipulate the game to progress much faster than normal. This includes skipping optional sections, skilled shortcuts, pixel-perfect controlling and so forth. There are different categories for speedruns which define what must be done in order for the run to be successful – an example would be an All Bosses category which means all of the bosses must be defeated otherwise it is an unsuccessful run (even if the game is finished). On top of these runs, there are races where two or more runners compete to beat the game first. With most runs, the runner is accompanied by friends and other runners who will help explain to the viewer and audience what's going on, why and how certain things work, as well as providing moral support. The runs usually take between 30mins and 1hr30mins, but a few take minutes and others a few hours depending on the way the game works or how much research has been done on it. There's even the chance a run might be the new world record!

The donations all go to charity, but some runs have incentive levels - these can be anything from something the runner will wear whilst playing, the file name of the game, the character used, a post-run showing of specific glitches (this also happens if the run comes in well-under target) or targets within the game. Funny things can also happen during the runs if big donations are met, so it's always worth keeping an ear or an eye out for those. The schedule is here, and it auto-adjusts to your time-zone so you can plan which - if any - you're going to watch. If you miss any, they'll end up on the Speed Demos Archive YouTube channel (and usually those of the runners themselves).

This isn't just about gaming. It's about a community coming together to raise money for charity – in fact, to date, the combined total from the events run by Speed Demos Archive is over $2m USD (half of that total was the most recent event, Awesome Games Done Quick 2014), so this isn't something small.

For more information, check out:
The Wiki page of Speed Demos Archive which explains speedrunning a little better than I did, and has information on past events.

The Speed Demos Archive website, with an extensive FAQ on their standards, methods and what speedrunning is.

The Games Done Quick site itself, which has a few details on the event itself as well as the event schedule.

Finally, I've added a video showing a short speedrun which should hopefully give an example of what the event will be like.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Noble Sacrifice - A Star Wars Prequel Trilogy Re-Watch

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy - even hint at its existence and a chunk of geekdom hisses like an insulted snake, baring its fangs as it readies itself to strike with years of anger, frustration and disappointment. It's no secret that the prequel trilogy is one of the most hated products of the Star Wars universe - if not 'geek' culture as a whole - and even today it still generates quite a strong negative reaction. I was about nine when The Phantom Menace arrived and at the time I really liked it, but I never had the same interest in the second and third films (in fact, I never saw the third film until around 2011/2012), so my own perspective on them has been a little different.

It does go without saying that the prequel films aren't as good as they should have been. We could be here all day listing the trilogy's flaws, but generally speaking these criticisms are valid and do point to issues that are still prevalent within Star Wars today – for example, my issues with the costuming of a lot of the female characters as well as the near-complete lack of LGBT+ characters in the official (and official non-canon) works. But I will say this much for the prequels. They have brought Star Wars to new audiences, they have captured the imaginations of millions of people, and we have had some good come out of them - an example being the extremely successful and popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon series, as well as arguably allowing the future fun of the quirky LEGO Star Wars mini-movies. They also keep us talking about franchises we consider important and show fans that their beloved properties aren't above criticism, but also could be argued to show production companies that bad products will often keep their negative reputations into the future.

I don't know what I will achieve by rewatching the films, but I hope that with a similar technique to my as-yet unfinished Harry Potter reading challenge I will find some merit in the prequels – moments to enjoy and to cherish – but also give my own take on why certain scenes or ideas are problematic. And yes, I will have a ~lot~ of fun with the much-loved and much-respected romantic scenes in Episode II.
Or just maybe I want to see two of my favourite bounty hunters again – Zam Wesell and Aurra Sing. Oh, girls, don't ever fail me with your awesomeness.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A New SF Signal 'Mind Meld' & More!

[I'm a little behind on posting this - Sorry Rob!] I was asked to participate in another of SF Signal's regular Mind Melds, this time by my ex-reviewing colleague Rob Bedford (of Rob's Blog o' Stuff, SF Signal, SFFWorld and more), and it was on the topic of how long you generally own books before reading them as well as what's the longest a book has sat unread. If you want to read my contribution - along with that of other fans and reviewers such as another ex-colleague, Mark Yon (also of SFFWorld) - then please head over to SF Signal and get reading!

I'm also hoping to spend tonight tweaking my blog a little. There'll be no major changes, but over the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to get a few posts done as well as a potential 'viewing' challenge. If anyone pays attention to my Twitter feed they may well have a good idea of just what I have in mind.