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Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweetest of Sounds Turned to Raging Thunder: Silverthorn and Ghostly Trauma

It's no secret my musical taste is pretty questionable. And part of that deeply questionable taste is an abiding love for symphonic metal concept albums. But there's concept albums and there's concept albums--not everything can sustain an entire article. You have to have a really compelling story, like say, an alien on a galaxy-spanning rampage in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

Kamelot's album Silverthorn is such a story. I'm continually fascinated with this album, in fact, because of the concepts it's particularly preoccupied with, and the way its recurring symbols haunt it, lurking within a twin(n)ing and reflexive narrative. Silverthorn is really an album about trauma and how the failure to grapple with trauma leads to further violence and trauma, all in the context of a Victorian gothic setting. This is interesting to me because it feels like a departure to me from the kind of masculine posturing present in so much metal, and it's also deeply engaged with a kind of hauntological tradition, a tradition of gothic ghost stories in which the repressed returns with a vengeance and the boundaries between the natural and supernatural are hazy at best.

Now, critical to the album is one particular motif which haunts the contents, a set of notes that I'll call the Silverthorn theme--not Silverthorn the album but its namesake, a beautiful silver-tipped cello bow.

It is this cello bow that in the climactic scene of the narrative becomes a murder weapon.

Yeah, I wasn't kidding when I called this a gothic story. This is a story where extended families die out in mysterious circumstances, characters chase ghosts through labyrinthine churches, and people get stabbed through the heart with musical instruments as part of sinister plots. And part of the reason I love this, like I love most metal really, is that it's simultaneously ridiculous in the extreme while also being carefully composed and deeply compelling. This is the space that the Gothic at its best tends to inhabit. Think of Bill Sikes being chased by the ghost of the murdered Nancy in Oliver Twist, ultimately being driven by this possibly imagined pursuit and the very real pursuit of an angry mob to an accidental self-hanging. This is our domain for this album and core to understanding it, I think, is this interplay between the over the top and the emotionally resonant, as well as the ambiguous status of the haunting.

Anyway, the Silverthorn motif, which can be found in the chorus of the title track ("Pale in the moonlight, the bringer of pain...") haunts the album, weaving back and forth across its narrative as the reverberations of the story's central trauma rattle an entire family to pieces. If this is a somewhat ambiguous ghost story, the ghost just might be the Silverthorn motif itself, a melody that the main characters can never seem to escape.

Now I don't think this is necessarily an album where you have to understand the story in detail to understand the music. The album gives enough details to help you puzzle out some of the basic story, and the very compressed narrative of the (shockingly pretty damn good) video for Angel of Afterlife provides an overview, albeit one that has an odd relationship to both the album itself and the written story of the album (more on this momentarily). The basic thrust though is that this is a story about a tragedy that befalls a family and how they fail spectacularly to grapple with that tragedy. Which of course I love, people failing spectacularly to deal with the world is kinda my bread and butter; it's why I'm an Evangelion fan. So this family of nice Victorians has two twin sons, Robert and an unnamed narrator, and one younger daughter, Jolee, and the story starts with an accident involving the three children where the sister is dragged by a kite that the three of them are playing with into a river and is swept away. The boys, blaming themselves for her death, and terrified of punishment, hide their knowledge of how the accident occurred, but mark their skin with a word to remind them of their involvement in her death:



Thursday, June 30, 2016

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: George RR Martin and Tolkien as Fellow Travelers

My first introduction to A Song of Ice and Fire was as a deconstruction of fantasy. George RR Martin's epic (now a "daring" and "brave" television series which you can see on HBO if you turn the brightness and contrast on your TV way, way, WAY up!!!) is, I was told, dark fantasy, with lots of shades of grey and violence and sex and so on.

It is, the subtext and sometimes the explicit text ran, not like Lord of the Rings. Or at least not like the traditions of Tolkienesque fantasy. This review of a recent episode of the (brave! genius! award winning!) tv show for example takes umbrage at the fact that the ending of a battle "has replaced that deconstruction with a blatant lift from Tolkien’s book, with the Vale forces riding in to save the day like Gandalf riding in to save Helm’s Deep." The notion of Tolkien and Martin as in some sort of competition or stark (hah) contrast is in the zeitgeist, is what I'm saying.

Having recently read the books, though, and also recently revisited The Lord of the Rings, I can't help but see this as more a product of a very narrow reading of Tolkien, and of Martin.

Some of this reading is possibly derived less from the source texts themselves but from Peter Jackson's adaptation. Look, I'm not gonna pretend that I haven't been deeply frustrated with The Lord of the Rings films since I was like 12. A lot of the stuff that most resonated with me as a kid ended up weirdly flattened, sensationalized, cut apart, or altered beyond recognition. And in the process everything got a lot more simple. I'm personally never going to forgive The Two Towers for introducing some fucking nonsense Aragorn Falls Off A Cliff subplot only to make up for it by hacking huge holes in the plot of Faramir, one of my absolute favorite characters. And others have written about some of the ways that in Jackson's hands characters like Saruman lose their thematic reason-to-be, becoming one note villains rather than complex and tragic figures.

Martin has suffered some of the same problems from the "brave" adaptation of his books, an adaptation I can't claim to have seen much of but which on a basic stylistic level seems to be run by people who don't understand that "dark fantasy" doesn't literally mean that all the sets should be chronically underlit and the characters should all wear the most drab clothing possible. I mean given that in the original text the Others are described basically as evil elves and the show develops them into ice orcs, and given that no one is walking around in the show with dyed-green beards like they commonly do in the book, it's pretty clear that they're more interested their sense of a "grim and gritty" aesthetic than what the text is trying to actually say.

Unfair? Not really. The critically lauded masterminds behind the "adaptation" literally once stated: "Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” 

My contempt, I'd say, is well earned.

As a result perhaps of these less than stellar adaptations that have overtaken the originals, and as a result no doubt of Tolkien's many far lesser imitators, and probably to some extent as just a result of overexposure and fan discourses sort of overwhelming the original texts, a pretty remarkable fact has become obscured:

Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are much more a part of the same thematic tradition than in opposition. Basically, on a lot of levels, Tolkien and Martin are interested in the same stuff, and talking about the same things, and traveling on the same paths. And in fact some of their same formal "stumbling blocks"--things that people find particularly infuriating--parallel each other and do similarly important work within their respective narratives.

And to explain just how this makes sense, I want to talk a little bit about a book called The Worm Ouroboros.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

StIT Reviews: Like A Duck in the Rotors of your Flying Car

I anticipated having a bit more of a barrier between this set of reviews and the last one but what can I say? The other articles I'm working on are trickier than I expected for various reasons and I've had to push them back a bit. I'd expect the first one of those to hit next week, depending on which one is giving me less trouble in the intervening time. (If you want some hints as to where those are going, there's some information on my Patreon.)

Since I'm so plagued by the present being deferred into the future indefinitely, it seems fitting that the material I've cobbled together for this set of reviews all pertains in one way or another to the way futuristic science fiction visions keep kinda letting me the fuck down.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

I Have Played

I have played quite a bit over the past month, but the way I've played hasn't exactly been consistent. Oh, I think I've gotten better at playing the game the way I think it's meant to be played, and the way most (though not all) other players play it, but I've also played it a whole slew of other ways as well. I probably should have played it a year ago, when it was culturally relevant, but I have played it now, so now is when I've got to write about it. And I've got to write about it because I feel compelled to parse out all the different ways in which one might play what is really a fairly simple game.

In you are a cell among other cells floating in agar, in some sort of petri dish. As you float around you can eat nutrients, or eat the other players in order to grow larger. You control your floating direction with the mouse, and you have the ability to divide explosively in half with "space," and jettison nutrients, shrinking your size, with "w."

What's fascinating to me is that it's very possible to play the game a number of different ways that all constitute achievements of victory through a variety of self-generated goals. The strict "goal" of the game is to stay as huge as you can for as long as you can and the game does encourage this by way of the leaderboard and leveling system, which seems to be based on raw size, time spent at that size, and cells consumed. So the game does have rewards--in the form of skins and a minutely larger starting mass--that encourage certain playstyles, but it's also possible to totally rewire your sense of the game's goals, and I think that helps us consider what a gameplay experience should look like, and what that says broadly about other forms of interaction and communication.

So let's talk a bit about how I have played

I take great pride in my terrible jpg artifact covered pictures thank you very much.

Monday, May 30, 2016

StIT Reviews: The Gnostic and the Satanic

Many of my articles are driven, to a greater or lesser extent, by necessity. I have to weigh writing an article against considerations like: can I fill out a full 3000-4000 word piece on this topic? Or: does anyone but me give a shit about this thing? Or: has anyone but me even HEARD of this thing?

So, frustratingly, I often find that there's stuff I'd like to write about that just doesn't fit the usual format of StIT. Nevertheless, there's loads of stuff I want to cover, and I have enough of a readership now that I want to make people aware of smaller projects that they might otherwise miss.

With that in mind, I'm going to start putting out articles like the one you're about to read: articles that are composed of smaller reviews or spitballing about particular topics, linked by some sort of loose theme. These are articles not intended to scoop up new readers but as something for longer-term readers of the blog, stuff designed not to get hits but to open up space for me to explore stuff I'm passionate about in a fairly off-the-cuff way.

The following reviews are just four of a nine that I've written so far. The rest can be viewed by my backers on Patreon starting at the $1 tier. I'll be adding more reviews periodically, but right now this exclusive body of work contains writing on Grant Morrison's Action Comics, a summary of China Mieville's theories of Weird and Hauntological horror, some discussion of squid people, and a review of the first two books in the Song of the Lioness quartet from my perspective as a transgender person.

If this stuff seems interesting, I welcome you to become a backer to see all the reviews.

It's kinda like a direct line into my brain as I respond to what I'm reading.

Oh, and hey, you know what I have banging around in my brain a lot?

Gnostic Christianity.

Particularly since Homestuck just ended with a conclusion that was, as I predicted four years ago, Gnostic as fuck.

So let's talk about some stuff that's engaged with Gnosticism in interesting ways.

Panel from Lady of the Shard

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"We're Still Friends Right?" Fanfictional Trauma and Captain America: Civil War

"Forty million readers follow the Gumps. ... If I could prove it I would say there are exactly 16,847,915 3/4 people writing to Sidney Smith, care of the Chicago Tribune, with suggestions as to what he should do with the Gumps next. And inasmuch as most of us take the Gumps seriously and expect to have our suggestions followed, the problem of these suggestions is a real one, after all."
--William Fleming French, describing an example of the problem of fannish engagement for newspaper comic The Gumps, quoted in Jared Gardner's Projections
There are really only two places you can have the villain of one major franchise sing a song from another major franchise. One of those places is in fanfiction.

But hold that thought while we talk about this image from Age of Ultron and what it can tell us about Captain America: Civil War.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Just Peachy: Homestuck, Act 6, and Difficulty

==> Storming the Ivory Tower Writer: Fondly Observe Libations

You, which is to say I, observe your, which is to say my, IMMACULATE DOMAIN, containing my IMMACULATE CHAIR and IMMACULATE SELF. You (read: I) have cleared away all those EXTRA SAM KEEPERS which were clogging up the joint, repaired the roof that's been busted for SEVERAL YEARS, and finally gotten some NICE WINE which you (still me) are currently fondly regarding.

You (I) have achieved the absolute apex of God Tier powers, which includes among other things fixing roofs, ushering extraneous versions of people gently but firmly out of the narrative so they don't clutter up things for the real, true versions, and to make absolute pronouncements with assured certainty, which everyone will accept automatically you're sure (which is to say I am sure).

==> StIT Writer: Demonstrate Abilities.

Act 6 and Act 7 do a much better job of addressing and resolving character arcs than [s] Cascade does.

Boom. See that?

Staggering in its radical brilliance but fundamentally undeniable in its accuracy.

(Sam Keeper): What? You can't just say something like that and pat yourself on the back! There's loads of stuff you'd have to explain to make that make sense to people.

==> StIT Writer: Ignore Unwelcome Intrusion

(Sam Keeper): Are you listening to me? You're leaving out so much important information, like even ignoring the fact that you haven't explained why you're even MAKING that comparison, the comparison is only interesting if you talk about a bunch of other stuff that Act 6 is doing. I mean yeah the whole act is basically about experiencing difficulty and working through that difficulty rather than expecting flashy magical solutions, and that APPLIES to this comparison, but the comparison really isn't interesting unless you talk about all that stuff first!

(Sam Keeper): In fact, even people that seem to agree with me that the end of Homestuck was pretty great take as given the idea that [s] Cascade resolved a load of stuff, and they position [s] Act 7 in opposition to this.

(Sam Keeper): Look, just, fill people in a bit! Act 6 is difficult but that difficulty is really interesting and worth talking about, so let's talk about it!

==> StIT Writer: Indulge This Walking Narrative Cul-De-Sac

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Homestuck, Destiny, and why Social Constructs are Bullshit

==> StIT Reader: Survey The Mayhem

You enter the pub to find that things are EVEN WORSE THAN USUAL. Most notably, there seem to be MANY SAM KEEPERS. This is a terrible development, you think to yourself. And you are correct. One Sam Keeper was already just about all that you could handle. This is ENTIRELY TOO MANY SAM KEEPERS.

The most agitated looking of the Sam Keepers is PONTIFICATING ABOUT SOME BULLSHIT.

==> StIT Reader: Listen to pontification

Sam Keeper: Oh god, who could have possibly predicted that my extremely nebulously defined and possibly totally bullshit powers as the mythic Page of Paper could have caused so many problems? All the jumping I've done recently between various places has just created all these weird, kind of creepy alternate versions of myself, and now the whole blog is stuck under some mountain... I'll never finish my epic quest at this point and grow up to be a Well Adjusted Adult! And I have this whole article to write about how totally perfect and unassailable every aspect of Troll culture is! What the heck am I going to do???

==> StIT Reader: Offer to listen to Keeper's excellent theories about quadrant shipping

Hell no. Keeper made her bed and she can sleep in it. Or more specifically she stole your chair and she can sit in it. Yeah, that metaphor scans, kinda. Anyway it's probably just Keeper's intractable destiny to fuck everything up forever.

Hold on, though, it looks like one of the other Keepers has something to say.

==> Sam Coper: Sort this mess out

Sam Coper: You know Alternian culture is bullshit though right?

Sam Keeper: What the heck? Who are you?

Sam Coper: I'm you, but way, way calmer. Way calmer. Jesus buddy. I'm the you that actually learned to cope with things instead of doing an acrobatic fucking pirouette off the handle every time something goes wrong. And also I figured out that I can make this God Tier outfit have a cool skirt and shit, look at it!

Anyway, for real though, Alternian culture is bullshit, and so is your destiny, and that's... actually kind of a huge theme within the comic.

Sam Keeper: Ok, look, you're gonna have to break this one down for me a bit more.

Sam Coper: With pleasure.

See, Homestuck, among many other things, reveals that lots of stuff we think is natural or an inescapable fact of reality is actually a social and historical construct! And in fact, Homestuck shows that our identities might be a lot more free and fluid than we think.

==> StIT Reader: Try to understand.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Neighquiem for a Dream book release!

I am thrilled to announce that Neighquiem for a Dream has been fully released.

Containing all my articles on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and one all new exclusive article, this book charts the early promise of the show and its fandom, all the way to its slide into ignominy and disaster!

Starting with one of the first articles that put me on the (admittedly fairly small) map as a blogger, this collection covers a long history of StIT articles and is accompanied by brand new commentary exclusive to this collection. Additionally, an exclusive article appearing only in this collection, "Trans Night Mare," examines the recent episode Brotherhooves Social and what its use of the transphobic "Man in a Dress" trope represents from my perspective as someone who began my gender transition alongside the growth of MLP's popularity.

Neighquiem for a Dream is available as a full PDF collection to $5 subscribers to the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon, but you can also access the text, including the exclusive bonus article, at lower reward tiers:


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Fandoms Are Not Your PR Department: Lexa, The 100, and Fan Exploitation

TW for antiblack and homophobic violence

Last week The 100 returned to the air with a bang. Specifically, the bang of a gun being fired point blank into the head of a handcuffed and kneeling black man.

Last week I posted my article on the death of lesbian character Lexa and its narrative failures to the subreddit for The 100. It was promptly deleted, I assume because it falls under “soapboxing,” one of the many, many apparently forbidden forms of discourse on that particular subreddit’s bafflingly extensive yet conspicuously noncomprehensive list of rules.

One of these events is, of course, far more culturally significant than the other, but what I want to argue this week is that they form, together, parts of a larger assemblage that is The 100 as cultural phenomenon. And it’s an assemblage that deserves to be looked at, because I think it can help us understand some of the major problems in fandom spaces today, and maybe offer some solutions.

The notion linking these things actually comes from the Variety article on Lexa’s death that I also referenced last week. It’s a significant article because it represents a wider cultural acknowledgment of the harmful way that writers and directors exploit vulnerable members of their fanbases.

While I appreciate what the Variety article is doing, however, I’m a little leery of the way this issue has been presented. To my mind, the presentation seems to emphasize in particular the economic cost of not making fans happy, and while I understand why it’s tempting to make the argument from that standpoint, I’m also not super comfortable with the way it positions fannish activities as existing to economically support studios--existing as a part of corporate PR divisions, essentially. It seems like the argument is that if you just understand how to make use of your fans better, you can continue making money off them.

To me, though, this doesn’t actually challenge the dynamics of exploitation. Instead, it merely asks for a kinder, gentler form of exploitation.

To understand that, though, let’s talk a little bit about cultural context.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bad Execution: How Lexa's Death on The 100 Fails on its Own Terms

The 100 is a show on CW, but it’s pretty ok despite that. It’s actually deep as opposed to weirdly pseudo-deep like you get on a show like The Flash, it has some cool things going on narratively, a pretty diverse cast… good stuff, really.

Until recently, when the showrunners managed to piss away a lot of the good will they gained over the last few years in truly spectacular fashion by manipulating their queer fanbase in the name of hyping up a storyline that only sort of works on its own terms. I want to set aside, at least until next week when I’ll be roasting some people on a spit, the question of the wider social media interactions that have led to fans of The 100 and queer fans in general proclaiming that we deserve better. That’s important stuff, but not what I want to talk about this week.

Pictured: a symbolic representation of the iceberg that this particular titanic smashed into at full fucking speed

No, this week I want to come at the issue of The 100 and its missteps from the perspective of story structure. I’m particularly interested in that approach because as recently as nine days ago head writer Jason Rothenberg was still informing a sycophantic pop press that while he may have misjudged the social media dynamics at play here, ultimately he “stands by the story.” What I want to really dig into is how the writers of The 100 could have misjudged their story so badly, and why, despite their hopes that they could transcend a lengthy history of homophobic tropes, the story fails purely on its own terms.

Before we get to any of that, we need to explore just what a “Clexa” is.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

But Nobody Gamed: Undertale vs The Difficulty Discourse In Gaming

Well look I'm sure you can play a browser game with a controller if you just TRY harder to-

Oh, welcome back! My good friend Vivian James and I were about to play Undertale! Why is Vivian James here again you ask? Well, it's simple, really. I want to talk about difficulty, and as a True Hardcore Gamer Vivian has lots of experience with difficult games.

But Undertale is difficult in a way that a lot of True Hardcore Gamers seem to hate, and even resent. Some of this is because of the queer and female and queer female characters... some of this is because they just hate anything popular on Tumblr... but a lot of it is because these guys just for some reason can't get over how difficult this game is. Not mechanically, I mean. No, they can't get over how difficult it is affectively--how difficult it is on a visceral emotional level. And they really, really seem to hate how challenging it is when it comes to typical game content!

For this reason, a lot of gamers seem to have denounced the game entirely.

Vivian, as a hardcore gamer, what do you think of this attitude?

You don't think so?


And like the last two games we discussed, Undertale offers a particular kind of horror experience that's outside the realm of the typical horror game, a kind of horror that assaults the player directly. Tonight I want to talk about this element of Undertale, why it's important, and just what it means that so many of the people who consider themselves True Hardcore Gamers, the same people, perhaps, that would like to see themselves as Vivian James's comrades in arms, hate the way this game challenges them.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

And All Shall Be Well: Fallen London and The Allure of the Un-Fun

and all shall be well and all shall be [munch slurp chomp] shall be well and [gulp crunch gurgle] all manner of things shOH HELLO FRIEND I didn’t see you there. I was just so absorbed in my meal. I’ve been so ravenous lately. So hungry. Like I’ll never be full ever again. Let me light some more candles, we need more candles don’t you think? More light.

That’s better. Ah, it’s actually fitting that you should catch me at my supper! Because tonight I want to talk about a game called Fallen London, and a particularly frustrating piece of content within the game. I want to talk a little bit, too, about our idea of “fun” in games and how a game experience designed to make the player miserable fits into our ideas about what a game is.

Why should this be relevant to my meal, you ask?

Well, eating upsetting things seems to be a major theme in Fallen London and its companion game Sunless Sea, in which you may (will) end up eating the crew of your boat. It fits with the setting’s overall cosmic horror aesthetic. Consuming things that lead to you becoming less and less human is a pretty fascinating running idea for a game trying to do cosmic horror effectively, particularly since so much cosmic horror has traditionally involved glimpsing the unspeakable. It adds a whole new sense to the mix and all the horror of taking something into yourself that slowly changes you into something less (or more) than human.

And this is nowhere more apparent than in the currently-on-hiatus storyline called Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name. Yes, “Eaten.” It’s in this content, I think, that we can see purely refined one of the most interesting aspects of Fallen London: the game gives you the opportunity to do things that are bad for you, things that will result in a negative gameplay experience, which the game clearly spells out as bad for you... and then you do them anyway. This is a fascinating horror experience and, like the experience offered in The Last Of Us, presents a kind of game difficulty outside of what we’ve culturally accepted as valid for games. It’s a kind of difficulty that simply isn’t fun.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Horror After Humans: Beautiful Landscapes and Difficult Affect in The Last Of Us

Well look I know that rattling the controller around to charge the flashlight feels distracting but I’m sure if you just let yourself get used to the motion controls--Ah! You’re here! Excellent! We were just about to start playing a game!

Who’s we?

Oh, just you, me, and my friend, fellow trans feminist Vivian James!

She's wearing her Genderqueer Flag hoodie it's very stylish
I decided to invite James over because I wanted to talk about difficult games, and she’s, well, a bit of a difficulty junky. Vivian James is a hardcore gamer, and she and I share an interest in games that really push your limits. It seemed natural that she should help us play The Last Of Us.

What, you don’t think The Last Of Us is that difficult? I suppose if you’re just looking at gameplay… but what about the dark and affecting storyline? What about the hard decisions the game forces you to make, or the perhaps unsatisfying and even frustrating ending?

No, tonight we’re interested in a different kind of difficulty than a difficult puzzle or difficult boss battle or difficult timed jump. In fact, I’m particularly interested in talking about one of the most difficult things in The Last Of Us. Difficult to explain, at least.

To properly explore that, I think what we need is a change of scenery to something more fitting for a horror experience. Something like…

The bleak and desolate wasteland known as the New Jersey Pine Barrens!
Ah, that’s better! What, you don’t think this is a proper setting for a horror game? Well that’s convenient, because it’s the difficulty that comes from setting a horror game in such a beautiful landscape that we’re going to discuss tonight!