Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - My Year in Books

Way back at the start of the year, probably in February or March, I happened upon the “reading challenge” hosted by Goodreads. I’d been using the site before, sporadically, to catalogue my books (it turns out I have too many books, and especially, too many comics), but it was only with the reading challenge that I started to get really into it. I set myself a target: fifty-two books for the year, so in other words, one new book per week.

I was a bit arbitrary with what would count and what wouldn’t. For starters, it had to be a “new” book, one that I hadn’t read before, so re-reading the first two Mass Effect novels didn’t count, but my first time through the third did. On the other hand, I cut myself some slack when it came to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Although I’ve read all but the most recent ones from the last few years, I read many of them when I was very, very young and when it came to re-reading The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, amongst others, I found I could barely recall them. So, rediscovering those early Discworld novels counted as “new”. I neglected to count individual comics or trade paperback collections thereof, except in the case of maxi-series like Batman’s The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, and Hush (two of which I read in their stupendous Absolute format). I also didn’t, and couldn’t, count all the stories I read in the digital pages of Analog and Asimov’s, since I could only add things contained within Goodreads’ database – even though I did count a couple of shorter stories elsewhere, like Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report and Will Wheaton’s Hunter.

So, how did I do? In the end I fell short by five ‘books’. I’m currently reading Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque and finding it quite the uphill battle, partly due to the length (somewhat dwarfing the shorter novels I’d been consuming recently) and partly due to the content (another multi-perspective venture into the Japanese psyche, as is her oeuvre). I don’t think I did too badly all things considered, taking into account the many stories I read, even full length serialised novels, in the SF magazines I subscribe to. I’d also have been a couple of books up if I’d counted some re-reads, though on the other hand if I subtracted anything I’d read before, able to recollect it or not, I’d have been some ten or twelve books further behind.

As for what I actually read...? In more-or-less the order consumed, since Goodreads is a little inconsistent in portraying that:

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett
Hunter – Wil Wheaton
The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski
Equal Rites – Terry Pratchett
Mort – Terry Pratchett
Deus Ex: Icarus Effect – James Swallow
Sourcery – Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Minority Report – Phillip K. Dick
Neuromancer – William Gibson
Burning Chrome – William Gibson
Count Zero – William Gibson
Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett
Halo: Contact Harvest – Joseph Staten
Pyramids – Terry Pratchett
Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett
Eric – Terry Pratchett
Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett
Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett
Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major,
Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years,
Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years,
Adrian Mole: The Lost Diaries 1999 – 2002,
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, &
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years – Sue Townsend
A Scanner Darkly – Phillip K. Dick
Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson
Mona Lisa Overdrive – William Gibson
Real World – Natsuo Kirino
Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett
Dead Space: Martyr – B. K. Evenson
Batman: Dark Victory – Jeph Loeb et al
All Tomorrow’s Parties – William Gibson
Absolute Batman: Hush – Jeph Loeb et al.


Robert Reed's "A Billion Eves" was one of my favourites from this year...
I find it interesting looking back on that list and being surprised, seeing titles on there that I’d completely forgotten about. I saw a tweet, recently, from someone noting that the books they’d read on Kindle had stayed with them less than the books they’d read physically, and I was wondering how that added up for me. Unfortunately I’ve rather skewed the results, as I got back from Japan in the middle of the year and promptly switched back to reading far more physical books than digital, meaning the more recent books are the physical ones and thus fresher in my mind anyway. To confuse matters even more, I read far more books earlier in the year, devouring them during my commutes or during downtime at work, and so a few have inevitably been lost in the glut of all that reading. Having said that, I think what’s interesting, looking back, is that many of the stories that have stuck with me the most are short stories. This is the year that I ‘discovered’ William Gibson, amongst others, but it was his short story collection Burning Chrome that I think I enjoyed the most out of everything of his that I read. Similarly, a few stories from Asimov’s and Analog – and that Asimov’s collection, ­Enter a Future – are amongst my favourites for the year as a whole. The thing that links them all, Gibson and magazines alike? I read them all on my Kindle.

Incidentally, if some of the best stories I read this year were shorter things from collections and elsewhere, then undoubtedly the worst was the frankly embarrassing Dead Space: Martyr – but I’ve already said as much elsewhere.
... as was Gibson's unnerving "Hinterlands"

Next year, I think I’m going to set myself a more reasonable goal. Perhaps twenty-six books, or one every two weeks. I think I managed to strike a good balance this year, encouraging myself to read more without reading for the sake of the challenge alone. Certainly it made good use of my free time when I was living in Japan and seemed to spend endless amounts of time on the train, going back and forth. Now that I’m in the UK and any commute I have is in the car, I have a lot less downtime where I could just read – instead I’m most likely at home, where my consoles or television demand equal attention. As a goal, it also acknowledges the amount of time I spend reading my subscriptions, which I’m currently a little behind on having been focusing on finishing Gibson’s Bridge trilogy and slogging my way through a second Kirino.

So, 2012. Twenty-six books. Go!

(P.S. When I finally finish it, I’m already planning on counting Grotesque for 2012. Twenty-five books. Go!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

William Gibson's Idoru

IdoruIdoru by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the William Gibson book I'd been dreading, where the amount of Japanese flavour he weaves into almost every story leaps into the foreground and the whole thing is set in Tokyo, and everything from the title to the time it was written suggested it would be too much of a book by a Japanophile, for Japanophiles. As I read more and more of Gibson's work, though, I had the growing impression that he really did 'get' Japan, or at least see it in a way similar to the way I do, and actually, Idoru is laced with little observations that tie into that. There's a moment where a girl in the bathroom in the back room of a nightclub sees a poster for an American white supremacist rock band and wonders what it's doing in Japan, but then notes that 'her father had said you could never tell what the Japanese would make of anything', and I think that pretty much sums it up.

I still don't actually know why it's called "Idoru" instead of "Idol" or "Aidoru", though, which is something that will bug me forever because I'm a pedant.

Idoru actually seems particularly interesting now, in 2011 (several years after it is set, if I'm not mistaken, though I'm not sure when exactly the Bridge trilogy takes place beyond "just after the Millennium") in that it concerns a virtual singer, the titular idol, and only last year - or was it this year? - Japan's AKB48 was found to have a new, virtual member; a synthetic singer whose public face was pieced together from other members of the band. The idol in Idoru is a little more complex, perhaps owing more to the artificial intelligence in Gibson's earlier Sprawl trilogy than to AKB48, but it struck me as an interesting moment of life imitating art.

As for the actual story, as you peel away the Tokyo flavour, I was a little less enthralled. Things start well, with the typical multi-perspective mess of Gibson characters, and over the course of the book all those threads get pulled in together, but by the end I was left more confused than anything else. There is a denouement, of a kind, but not one that felt satisfying - unless, perhaps, the story is going to be picked up in All Tomorrow's Parties. Idoru, though it contains some of the same characters, feels less connected to Virtual Light than the various books in the Sprawl trilogy did, though, so I'm not sure what to expect of this final part. I think part of the problem here was that, as in Mona Lisa Overdrive, one of the primary perspective characters has little idea or understanding of what is going on. Gibson is actually great at writing these characters, colouring the world with their viewpoint, but in this case I couldn't help but feel it detracted from my understanding of events.
In the end, this was an interesting foray into how Gibson sees Tokyo, or saw Tokyo, back in the early or mid '90s, with a curious story that may have further repercussions in the final part of the trilogy. There are a lot of interesting ideas in here, things that reminded me in part of Snow Crash and Stephenson's thoughts on the early internet - things like the Walled City, of the kind of computers people use, of people learning in school of a time when there wasn't an internet. In the Sprawl trilogy, Gibson predicted a cyberspace quite unlike the one we ended up with. In the Bridge trilogy, as he closes with the present, we see a world like ours, but distorted. I'm extremely curious to see where he goes next.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

B.K. Evenson's Dead Space: Martyr - Review

Dead Space: MartyrDead Space: Martyr by B.K. Evenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Warning! This review contains major story spoilers. For the review with spoilers hidden, click here.]

I'm a big fan of the Dead Space franchise and the backstory that the games have set up in Dead Space, Dead Space 2 and Dead Space: Extraction. There's a wealth of other media, too - a comic series, a graphic novel, two animated movies, an iOS game, and a Live Arcade/PSN downloadable game. The quality really lurches all over the place when it comes to the 'extended universe'. I really enjoyed the original comic, but hate both animated features with a passion, for example.

I was intrigued, then, by Dead Space: Martyr. It promised to go into the origins of the Church of Unitology, the religion at the heart of much of what goes on in the Dead Space games. The Unitologists worship divine "Markers", relics they belief can grant them eternal life, together - the unity in their name. In the games, Michael Altman is viewed as the founder of their Church, with "Praise Altman" being a familiar refrain. Martyr shows he wasn't exactly a willing prophet, looking at how he was one of the researchers who discovered the original Black Marker's signal at the centre of a crater in South America.

What you get is a story that, while interesting, often seems poorly or just carelessly written. It's hard to feel Brian Evenson had any investment in the franchise or its characters, even though at times he manages to pull together some compelling sequences - particularly when looking at the effects of the Marker on the psyches of the researchers and military personnel working with it. More than one character succumbs to madness and hallucinations, and he usually handles those sections with aplomb. Other parts of the book seem perfunctory at best, with one chapter describing the secret half-underwater floating research facility they bring in to raise the Marker from the bottom of its sunken crater being particularly bad. Even hanging a lantern on it as being like a 'sci-fi novel' doesn't really excuse it.

Going back to the characters, well, it's a really mixed bag - but nothing in the bag is very good. Altman himself is neither likeable nor offensive, being something of a non-entity going through the motions of researching the Marker and dealing with the consequences of interacting with it. Other characters are generally quite shallow, either being killed off soon after their introduction, or lingering on to demonstrate just how bad they are - the cartoonishly villainous Markoff and his torture-happy subordinates are the worst example of this. It's one thing to suggest that the military or a corporation might seek to exploit the Marker - it's a sci-fi trope that always makes me think of the Weyland-Yutani representative in Aliens, if nothing else - but typically there's a motive, or a rationalisation, beyond the characters apparently being evil for evil's sake. I did wonder if the Marker was meant to be influencing their personalities, as it does drive many to madness, suicide, or murder, but even before interacting with it Markoff is hardly an angel.

Ultimately, I think there's very little here for anyone who isn't a fan of the game, and a pretty dedicated fan at that. If you can overlook some of the writing and characters, you do get a look at the origins of Unitology and how Altman becomes their prophet - a reasonably convincing arc (for the most part - but I'll get to that) as he realises he can exploit the early Unitologists' belief in him as a prophet to prevent further disaster. We also get some insights into what the Marker is, and what it does, though it isn't presented in the clearest of ways. You get the impression that the developers/EA want the meat of the story to come out in the games, not any tie-in media, which is fair enough - but the insights you do get become a bit thin on the ground, and there's not really enough 'novel' here to be an enjoyable read even without learning anything new.

Unfortunately, much of what is achieved with Altman's arc is tossed out in the last few pages, with what has to be the worst ending I've come across for quite some time. In a baffling move, Evenson tosses out the relatively subtle legacy Altman would have left behind by pretending to be a true prophet when he was really just exploiting the Unitologists to get their help. Instead, Markoff and his evil psychiatrist buddy Stevens imprison Altman for a period of time before literally sitting him down at a table and doing their best Bond villain impression as they explain how they are going to invent the legend of Altman as the founder of the Church. As if that wasn't ham-fisted enough, Markoff then has Altman tossed into a chamber with a Necromorph while he and his cronies drink champagne and watch. And as if that wasn't bizarre enough, they make a tremendous point of arming Altman with a spoon. I really wish I was making any of that up.

Aside from the hilariously bad ending and the mediocre-with-moments-of-intrigue earlier on, it's also worth noting that the book doesn't seem to have been edited particularly well. There are typos here and there, including a few lines that simply don't make any sense - the villain at one point points out to a man he's about to have killed "I warned you, you aren't expendable." Sorry, what's that? Don't you mean he is expendable? Finally, in what seemed like a wonderful face-palm moment after that terrible ending (I really can't get over it), Evenson has an acknowledgement section - in which he thanks EA and Visceral for their 'first-person dismemberment' game. I'm not really sure what to take from that. Dead Space is a third-person game (Extraction aside, but that's an outlier), so one gets the impression that either Evenson hasn't played it or simply doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to videogames. That's fair enough, to a point, but I also can't believe no one in EA's marketing department caught it. It just seems emblematic of the lack of thought that went into the book.

Two stars. Read at your own risk. It's not the worst story in the world, especially in the genre of videogame tie-in media, but other companies have put out increasingly high quality works - Karen Traviss's Gears of War books are particularly outstanding, adding depth to the universe whilst being great stories in their own right. Martyr, sadly, doesn't even come close.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Walking Dead - What Lies Ahead (S02EO1) Recap & Review

The Walking Dead S02E01 – What Lies Ahead

“Last season on AMC’s The Walking Dead...” is how the show comes back, and my first thought was just ‘Really?’ Not ‘Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead’ or even ‘Frank Darabont’s...’, but oh yeah, AMC sort of lost its famous show runner between the seasons. I’m not yet sure how losing Darabont is going to play out. A lot has been made in the TV-watching media about how he’s been replaced with someone much worse, but frankly I wasn’t all that impressed with what they did with season one.

So how does season two kick off?

With a bad, bad monologue; Rick on his radio again trying to contact Morgan. Or just getting his troubles off his chest, if you think it might be an impossible task. The monologue is obviously meant to serve in part as a recap of season one’s peculiar finale. In case you forgot, the series took a serious detour from anything the comics have ever depicted, and the gang found a CDC facility with one lone, suicidal scientist. It wasn’t an interesting story, and it wasn’t handled well, so I’m glad they seem to have moved on from it pretty quick. Still, the monologue is clunky, and seems extra clunky after following that ‘previously’ recap.

In S2, the gang has finally departed from Atlanta, and we catch up with them rolling down the highway, apparently on their way to Fort Benning. Dale in his RV pulls up short with an “Aw jeez” as he apparently fails to notice an enormous, lane-spanning roadblock of wrecked cars until he’s right on top of it in broad daylight. They decide to try to worm their way through the blockade – how exactly did it end up like that, anyway? Did people just floor it into the back of standing cars, flipping over? Are zombies meant to have done it? – whilst scavenging supplies.

First, though, Lori has to utter the dreadful line “It’s a graveyard”, presumably referring to the bodies no doubt contained in the cars. So... this is a graveyard, but all your looting of Atlanta was just fine? Lori is a terrible, terrible character in the series, lurching between strange proclamations like that to a bizarre gotta-have-it-both-ways love triangle with Rick and Shane. Her berating Shane for not acting like Carl’s dad was just bizarre.

That roll of Gerber tools that Carl found though? Nice.

Dale, Master Lookout.
Before long, however, Dale on lookout duty spots a walker (did they call them walkers in the comics? I can’t remember). Like the roadblock, he’s a little slow on the uptake – when Rick sights in on the first zombie, considering taking a shot (I was ready to go ballistic if he took it, even with just one zombie, considering what they’d learned in season one about gunfire attracting hordes), it quickly becomes clear there are dozens of zombies coming.

A herd.

Now that's a herd
Herds become a bigger part of the comics later in the run, so its interesting that we’re seeing them in season two of the series, well before a lot of other interesting things have happened. I’d say it was a nice reference to the mythos of the comic, but it’s not really handled too threateningly. A herd in the comic is something terrifying, unstoppable, a seemingly endless wave of zombies rolling over everything in their meandering path. This herd wanders by, mostly fooled by our intrepid heroes... hiding beneath their cars.

What? Did the zombies lose their sense of smell, or something? I know we’re not dealing with walking geniuses, here, but the zombies have proved adept at hunting in pitch darkness and have previously been fooled by the living draping themselves in the stinking entrails of the dead – so why exactly does hiding under a car stop them noticing where folks are?

It’s almost a perfect plan, anyway, except no one remembered to shut Andrea in the RV, and... er... T-Dog (I had to go look his name up on Wikipedia. I only know him as ‘stereotype they included so someone would have an antagonistic relationship with the white supremacist’) manages to go fumbling around the car wrecks, slices his arm up real good, and nearly gets himself killed. Fortunately, Daryl, the resident redneck extraordinaire, turns out to be some kind of zombie hunting Sam Fisher, sneaking up behind the walker after T-Dog and taking him down, hand-to-hand, with one of his crossbow bolts.

Did I mention Daryl is the only character I like from the series? That they added, I mean. Glenn and Dale are also kind of okay, and not too far from their comic counterparts, but Daryl is the only ‘invented’ character I’m at all fond of.

As for Andrea... In the comic, Andrea is a bad-ass. I’m assuming there was a time when she wasn’t a bad ass, but she very quickly manned up (so to speak) and dealt with the zombie apocalypse by becoming a scarred, sharpshooting ass kicker. In the series, she’s a gloomy, ranting, possibly suicidal, easily scared wet sock. She manages to dispatch the zombie hunting her after being handed a screwdriver, but then spends the rest of the episode badgering Dale for her gun – something Dale is understandably a little reluctant to hand over, considering he had to drag her out of the exploding CDC building against her will. I suppose they might be taking the long run with Andrea, building her up into something more impressive, but they’re really taking their time about it.

A disaster is nearly averted, but thankfully, the little girl Sofia manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a series of pitch perfect how-to-fuck-everyone-over moves, she crawls out from under her wreck too early, runs screaming off into the woods when pursued by two slow-moving walkers, nearly pulls Rick’s gun on them when he catches up to her, fails to heed Rick’s instructions to stay put whilst he takes care of aforementioned walkers, and proceeds to lose herself in the woods. What follows is a long, long search – the bulk of the episode, really – with perhaps the only highlight being Rick and Daryl’s hilarious gutting of a dead walker to check its diet didn’t include small children.

“How many things you gutted, anyway?” Daryl smirks, before proceeding to bludgeon his prey to re-death with a knife. Well Daryl, I’ve gutted none, and I know how to open up a zombie better than that.

They have a brief detour to a church with an automated bell ringing out over loudspeaker, during which a few unsatisfying conversations are hashed out – Lori vs. Shane, Shane vs. Andrea, Lori vs. everyone in the group (did I mention I hate Lori? I did? Oh good). There’s no sign of Sofia, though, leaving Shane, Rick and Carl to continue the search.

Deep in the woods, they come across a deer, and the way the scene is set up had me anticipating quite a different denouement – one I wasn’t expecting at that point, as it hadn’t really been set up at all, but that does feature in the comics. Instead, Shane is about to take down the deer, but Carl has a manic grin on his face and starts walking towards it so Rick waves his buddy/cuckold down. Then there’s a gunshot, and both deer and Carl are dropped. Kind of shocking, but then, it’s not like Carl isn’t put through the ringer in the comic – I just didn’t expect it so soon. Or, wait, did this actually happen? I’m getting all mixed up now.

As the credits prep to roll, there’s a “This season on...” flashforward, which does some nice spoilering. It looks like we’ll be seeing the farm from early arcs of the comic, or something approximating it, so perhaps the survivors will be picking up a few new... er... survivors. It looks like Andrea is going to continue flip-flopping on the whole life or death business instead of learning to be awesome. It looks like there are going to be military helicopters, further pushing the series far, far away from the comic that spawned it.

It’s hard to gauge exactly how this does as a second season. I’m going to keep watching it, but it irks me that there’s a lot of potential here – not just potential from the comics, which aren’t always perfect either, but just the sheer potential of a long-running zombie TV show which has never been done before. It’s such a shame to waste that potential on hammy acting, bad monologues, and melodrama. I think it is a bit of an improvement on season one, though, so let’s see what happens. There’s plenty of room for it to improve, as well as plenty of room to spiral down even further.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dead Space Extraction (Wii) Review

I’ve come around to the Wii pretty late in its life cycle – the Wii U has already been announced, and is expected next year, and actually, I don’t even own one. My friend was finally lured onto it by the promise of the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, though, and that meant an opportunity for me to catch up on a few Wii exclusives (and ports) that I missed.

At times, it’s a pretty underwhelming list. Some of the things I was interested in have turned out to be, well, pretty bad – like the Wii version of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which has some of the most awful controls I’ve ever encountered. Though I never completed it on the Gamecube – I was playing it in Japanese, and eventually, it defeated my language abilities at the time – I recall enjoying it quite a lot, and looking forward to experiencing it in English where I could enjoy the story more, as well as find the various tutorials and puzzles less frustrating due to having an added layer of “Did I just understand that right?” on top. On the Wii, all that playability seems to have been thrown out of the window in favour of every gimmicky control Nintendo could think to throw at it. I guess it was an early title for the Wii, and they wanted to differentiate it from its NGC origins, but man, they really screwed it up.

Don’t even get me started on the surreal translation, but I’ve grown to just really hate a lot of official translations, Nintendo’s included. I think it’s the fact that a lot of Japanese dialogue in games, movies, and anime is very colloquial, and especially when written down, features a lot of dialect stuff that in English just looks stupid and unnatural. It didn’t stop whoever translated the speech of the starting area villagers in Twilight Princess, giving them an odd, “y’all”-filled cowboy dialect... with incongruous “bud”s thrown in left, right and centre. “Y’all finished fishin’ there, bud?” “Y’all done with the horse-ridin’ tutorial there, bud?” “Y’all sick of readin’ this stilted dialogue there, bud?” But I digress.

So far, though, the standout has been Dead Space: Extraction (depressingly, followed by Metroid: Other M. I have no attachment to the Metroid franchise whatsoever, but even I can see Team Ninja have really gone to town and butchered it – but get beyond the even-worse-than-Twilight-Princess writing and voice acting – oh, the voice acting – and the gameplay isn’t half bad, and makes interesting use of the Wiimote). Extraction is the once-Wii-exclusive, now-PS3-bonus extra prequel to the original Dead Space, covering a group of survivors from the mining colony as they escape to the USG Ishimura, and leading into the events of the rest of the franchise (with an interesting little nod to Dead Space 2, I might add; particularly interesting, as the storyline in Extraction is continued in the Dead Space 2 DLC ‘Severed’).

Technically a rail shooter, the game feels quite far removed from the find-it-in-an-arcade style experienced I had envisioned. Much of your time in the game’s 10 chapters is spent ‘exploring’, albeit without much control in where your characters goes, or watching cutscenes. You do get a few chances here and there to make choices about which path to take, or opportunities to take control of the camera and check a room for hidden items and ammunition pick-ups. The telekinesis ability from the ‘proper’ console games is here and used (mostly) well to let you grab items that drop from enemies or are just littered throughout the levels, and stasis is back too, allowing you to temporarily freeze or slow opponents and the very occasional puzzle element. I think almost all of the weapons from the original Dead Space show up, in addition to a couple of unique ones like the security officers’ standard pistol. Most of the weapons appear more or less unchanged, though a couple have a slightly different alternate fire. Some, like the Ripper (a spinning circular saw blade held out on some kind of telekinetic tether) take advantage of the Wiimote in that you have the flail the thing around, though sometimes it’s more effort than reward. You also get a melee attack by swinging the nunchuk, though it’s far from as visceral as Isaac Clarke’s aggravated stomping.

I mentioned that the telekinesis was “mostly” used to good effect because there is one downside to all the time the game spends developing atmosphere, characters, and story: throughout it, you’ll be telekinetically grabbing at every shiny object on the screen, desperate for health pickups, a little more ammo, weapon upgrades or hidden audio and textual logs. A character might be making a poignant speech or revealing some important plot element, but you might miss it entirely, the glowing white ball of your telekinetic power (with accompanying sound effect) drowning it out or obscuring the action. It’s not like you have a choice in the matter, either – this isn’t a case of “sure, you can mess with the gravity of the game by choosing to run into a wall or shoot your gun off during ‘serious’ moments”; the game has been deliberately designed to encourage you to be grabbing at everything that isn’t nailed down, and there are hidden items even during important story moments. It’s all a bit schizophrenic.

At least the story is good, and ties in well with the rest of the franchise. I’m a big fan of the first two games, and the first, Templesmith-illustrated comic series/graphic novel (featured in Extraction in its hit-and-miss motion comic under the bonus features). Other things have been less successful – the first animated offering, Downfall, was sheer crap. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to sample the second movie or comic series, or the tie-in novel. There’s a definite purpose behind it all though, a fairly well-thought out storyline unfolding about Unitology, the markers, and the necromorphs. Little scraps of information are meted out across the different games and tie-ins, and Extraction is no different, serving to offer up a parallel storyline to Isaac’s journey.

It’s not perfect, both as a game in general and a Dead Space game in particular. Co-op is implemented as a simple drop-in thing, not affecting the storyline. That means that your first person view develops a second targeting reticule (that many have already noted is ridiculously big, obscuring enemies at range). It’s as if your character is dual-wielding the various weapons, which gets ever more ridiculous during frantic moments such as hacking a door control at the same time as fending off waves of enemies – or visibly reaching out to climb over a ledge while still being able to shoot both weapons. There’s one scene I’d love to explain but don’t want to spoil, but would basically require the character in question to be using a gun with his feet – two guns with his feet, if you’re playing co-op – given the way things are playing out on-screen.

The enemies, the necromorphs, are mostly taken from Dead Space, with a couple of additions. I could’ve done without the odd flying ones that seemed to mostly be an annoyance, and some enemies don’t quite act how you’d expect based on the main entries – there are tiny spider-like necromorphs, for example, that tend to swarm over you and must be shaken off. In Extraction, that action falls to shaking the Wiimote frantically/frustratedly. Normally these things are disgorged from the belly of a morbidly obese necromorph, but while that enemy is present, killing it “incorrectly” doesn’t result in the tide of spider-things you’d expect in Dead Space. On the other hand, the staggering ones with glowing bombs attached to their arms are back – and their volatile appendages can still be shot off, grabbed with telekinesis, and hurled at other enemies.

And, despite the general strength of the story, there are a couple of moments that are let down by odd dialogue choices or slightly weak voice acting – Lexine, in particular, is not a strong character, while Gabe Weller’s macho one-liners soon begin to grate (his first, however, is just dandy). The dynamics of the group you’ll spend most of the game with are quite odd, with Aliens-esque corporate suit, unshakeable-to-the-point-of-being-a-caricature security grunt, homicidal detective, and girl who somehow manages to ham it up despite, presumably, not being mo-capped. And who also refuses to stop wearing a miniskirt despite ample opportunity to put on a space suit or engineering rig, yet repeatedly complains about being cold. Finally, there’s an interesting story choice late in the game that actually spoils a major element from Dead Space. If you’re coming to Extraction having already played the other games, it’s not a problem, and like a lot of the game – visiting areas easily recognisable from the rest of the franchise – is a nice nod to later events. It’s just indicative of a strange kind of “Who was this supposed to be for?” atmosphere that pervades the game and its release, seeming utterly out of place on the Wii.

Is it an essential part of the Dead Space experience? No. It is, however, an interesting and fun diversion, and is especially worthwhile in rounding out the fairly confusing episode in Severed. It’s a real shame there doesn’t seem to be a follow-up coming, though perhaps one can hold out hope that the story will be continued post-Severed in other DLC, or perhaps the whole Extraction side of the franchise will be supported in a PSN/Live Arcade type game – or even, perhaps, on the Wii U?

... Or not, you know. Given Extraction apparently sold terribly on the Wii. Who’d have thought it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Welcome Back to Blighty

Well, this blog has come full circle. I started it whilst preparing to head out to Japan to live and work, and now I'm back in Leeds where I was studying for my CELTA certificate in the first place. I went to Tokyo not knowing how long I'd be staying (it turned out to be around nine months) or where I'd be working (I ended up staying with the Gaba Corporation for, more or less, the duration). I left a little while before my working holiday visa ran out, fairly sure that I wouldn't be returning to Tokyo again in the future - at least not for any job that requires working through the interminably long, hot summer. In the dim and distant future I would love to travel back to Hokkaido and work there somewhere, as my brief visit to Sapporo and Otaru was definitely the highlight of my stay.

So now I'm back, applying for work again the UK. Helpfully, the Tory government has seen fit to cut funding for ESOL programmes, rendering my CELTA training pretty worthless - all the while, bleating on about how there needs to be greater integration, how people need to buck up and learn English. On a related but unfortunate note, returning from Japan has been a massive drain on my finances. It is entirely possible to earn a decent salary when in Japan, provided you get the right jobs and especially if you aren't living in an rent-expensive area, but I (foolishly, in hindsight) was focusing more on being in Japan than on stocking up on cash. This has, as you may imagine, backfired.

Nevertheless, there are jobs going, here and there, and the current 'time off' is giving me chance to catch up on some reading - PKD's A Scanner Darkly, over the weekend; in honour of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's imminent release, I'm thinking Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men next - and some gaming - Yakuza 4, which on the one hand is more of the same, and on the other introduces a few new tricks. The whole engine seems to be getting increasingly clunky, though, and considering the amount of voice acting in modern Western RPGs, the old excuses for how much text there is in it really start to fall apart (especially considering it's a PS3 exclusive, and therefore has access to all that Blu-Ray storage space). Once I actually have a more stable internet connection, one that isn't, ahem, borrowed from an unsecure network and only accessible by balancing the laptop in LOS of the window, I'll be spending more time applying for jobs and catching up on pending applications - until then, I'll be in Kamurocho.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Warning: Contains Transhumanism!

I used to read a blog, the Slacktivist, written by one Fred Kaplan who posted extracts from the Left Behind series of Evangelical/post-Rapture novels (ahem) along with witty dissections of them backed up by Biblical scholarship – that is, he wasn’t just mocking them for their terrible writing, but also trying to look at what makes some of the content either weird or disturbing. That insider’s insight was what elevated it above mere sporking.

Bored in my hotel, I navigated over to the site, only to discover that Kaplan had mysteriously disappeared over to a different server, but seems to have essentially bequeathed the old web address to the people who used to comment on his posts – at least, I think that’s what happened, because I wasn’t particularly taken by the new content and didn’t feel the need to delve too deeply into the politics. What did catch my eye, however, was the site’s ‘trigger warnings’. I have fairly limited exposure to social justice-oriented blogs and sites (women’s rights, disability rights, and so on), where trigger warnings are used to mark out sensitive topics so that they’re not stumbled onto accidentally – a kind of NSFW tag for the mind – but the concept strikes me as a useful one, used correctly.

This site did not seem to use them ‘correctly’. One might surmise a useful warning would be: this post discusses rape. This post discusses child abuse. Not: this post discusses the debt ceiling. By all means, include in the synopsis that this is about the world’s continuing, depressing financial ruin, so if you’re bothered by that sort of thing or simply sick of hearing about it you can go elsewhere.

What really struck me though was a series of posts by one blogger, marked out as – amongst other things – containing a trigger warning for transhumanism. I frowned and wondered, does this person mean something other than what I mean by transhumanism? Is it meant ironically? I could imagine the debt ceiling warning being at least partially ironic, partially genuine – the idea that people’s lives may have been adversely affected by the economic situation is obviously not outlandish, even if the debt ceiling talks themselves don’t seem to represent anything more than petty politicking. Warning: this post may make you think about those ridiculous debt ceiling talks! Mildly amusing, but it seems to undermine the very idea of the trigger warnings. If they’re essentially nothing more than content tags – the very tags I use on my own posts, pointing out what contains ‘gaming’ and what contains ‘Japan’ or what contains ‘travel’ related content – then they aren’t ‘trigger warnings’ at all, and serve no valid purpose.

Yet we go back to transhumanism. Fascinated, I decided to investigate further, and gradually grew slack-jawed with disbelief. Essentially, in between presumably banal comments on the Republican Party (Teabaggers! That was witty for about ten seconds, wasn’t it?), someone has decided to share their fan fiction amateur science fiction. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, incongruous though it is amongst posts about Michelle Bachmann’s presidential campaign (and even more incongruous, linked from the ‘Slacktivist collective’ that now seems largely aimed at social justice topics), but I was compelled to delve even further, back to the author’s posts on transhumanism itself – I was still wondering, after all, if one or the other of us was confused about transhumanism actually meant. Is there some other, potentially triggering meaning?

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: At least, not to this person, though their description of transhumanism is fascinating in its own right. Essentially, it’s telling that they explain their introduction to transhumanism was through the sourcebook for a role-playing game – that is, through fiction. It’s telling because my introduction was also through fiction, as transhumanism is a concept still largely confined to sci-fi (think the manga/anime Ghost in the Shell, Star Trek’s famous Borg, or the Deus Ex series of videogames amongst much, much more). Sure, there are plenty of philosophical discussions of the ideas involved in it, and modern technology takes us closer and closer to some of the transhumanist ideals or technologies that pop up in that kind of fiction, but these things aren’t pursued in the name of transhumanism – they’re pursued in the name of the philosophy of the mind, of biotechnology, of prosthetics, of artificial intelligence.

They pitch transhumanism as “... the belief that humanity can use technology to take control over nature.” I’d argue that that isn’t what transhumanism is at all, unless you want to modify it to ‘take control of their own nature’. Typically, I’d suggest it’s the desire – or the philosophical standpoint that this desire is a good thing – for that old sci-fi trope: to become ‘more human than human’. It’s to use technology to live longer, or better, or to be capable of things that humans are not currently capable of. To draw on that most incorruptible of sources, Wikipedia describes it as “ international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”

Yeah. That, more or less.

My exposure to the fictional side of transhumanism has largely been through near-future stuff, so I tend to err on the side of the more predictable or more immediately achievable. In reality, we’re already getting to a stage where prosthetics are as good-or-better than the real thing in limited case – see Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee runner, who has drawn significant controversy for his attempts to run in the able-bodied Olympics. Part of the problem is, or was, that not only do his carbon fibre legs give him a significant weight advantage, he was seen as not training as hard as athletes of a similar calibre – Martyn Rooney, a fellow runner, apparently ribbed him about being a “fat git”. Even before losing the weight he has done to be more competitive and potentially take part in the 2012 London Olympics, his legs were allowing him to be in the same league as an able-bodied runner. The question has become ‘What can he achieve when training even harder?’.

Smartphones can feature augmented reality, overlaying navigational data over the view through the phone’s camera. We use the internet, and especially reference sites like Wikipedia, as external memory, eliminating the need to remember so many facts (one can make many arguments as to whether this is positive or negative, and whether or not it constitutes ‘knowledge’, and whether you still need to be educated enough to be put that knowledge to valid use, but the fact remains you are now able to simply click through and with a brief bit of research gets answers to any number of questions – and as the number of ever more specifics Wiki-type sites explodes, the questions you can answer, the knowledge you can outsource, become ever broader). Life spans in the developed world have increased considerably with better medicine, nutrition, and understanding of the human body (though, again, that’s not the full story considering problems with obesity, or situations like Japan’s famously long life spans decreasing as Western food becomes more popular and brings its attached problems).

Unlike the above cyberpunk staples, though, there’s a lot of transhumanist thinking that is confined very much to speculative fiction, no matter how much fringe research might currently be looking at it (or even just thinking about it, speculatively yet realistically). Questions like ‘When do we stop being human?’, a sci-fi favourite, start coming into play when you consider how much of the human body you could replace with prostheses, how far we could be changed biologically to live forever, whether we could exist as a consciousness inside a machine – these are interesting questions, and valid ones to ask if you’re serious about advocating that kind of research, but nevertheless are strictly questions about the future.

The blogger I’ve been writing about doesn’t seem to think so. They namedrop things like augmented reality (though discuss it as a cure for deafness, so I’m not sure if they’re thinking of the same thing everyone else is on that one) in the same breath as ‘uploading your mind to a computer’ and ‘nanites running amok’, as if all are equally likely or due to arrive at the same time.

I return to that blogger because it was through him that I discovered the conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama, in Foreign Policy’s ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ report, called transhumanism... well, called it one of the world’s most dangerous ideas [the article is buried behind an annoying log-in, but is free]. Both Fukuyama and the above blogger seem to be obsessed with the potential future, not the immediate benefits – though you could make an argument that it is important to think about that future, if you’re starting down the path towards it. Fukuyama raises some valid points, but closes with:

“The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.”

Basically, he’s only looking at biotechnology, for one thing (his 2002 book, Our Posthuman Future, is similarly revealing with its subtitle of ‘Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution’) and ignoring everything else about transhumanism, every other stream of research or thing it might be trying to achieve.

What really amuses me, though, is that both seem to be living in a sci-fi world already. It’s a common enough theme in anything that deals with transhumanism: you’ve got the people who are for it, and against it, and both seem to pursue their ideals with almost religious fervour.

Given my interest in transhumanism in fiction, I’ve often wondered if, in reality, such things as ‘better-than-human’ prosthetics or other advances became possible, would it spawn such an anti-transhumanist movement? Fukuyama’s comments suggest that yes, they might. I just hope that should the time come, transhumanism has better speakers on its side.

A glib aside: for someone who purports to be interested in social justice issues and describes themselves as strongly into "postgenderism", they spend a remarkable amount of time referring to intersex people as hermaphrodite and linking gender with sexuality, and conflating lower case deafness with the uppercase Deaf community. I almost feel bad for picking out these things, but if you're going to tag your work with a trigger warning for transhumanism, you're only drawing attention to the fact you have no idea what you're talking about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging...

...because I'm sharing a laptop, now, and never seem to find the time to do a proper update. It's my last two weeks of work, too, even though I'm barely at work for them, and things are getting a bit hectic scheduling international removals, wrapping things up with the company, and er, playing Halo: Reach. It's Bungie Day on the 7th of July, perhaps the last Halo Bungie Day as the series is now the purview of 343 Industries, and I've been getting back into matchmaking in preparation. After slogging through the campaign on Legendary for the 'Monument to All Your Sins' solo achievement I'm thinking of posting some of my thoughts on the series, and especially on Reach, but like everything else it's on the backburner.

In other news, Rammstein are touring again! After such a long break before the 2009-10 tour, I figured it would be a while before I had a chance to see them again, especially as they're currently in North America (I believe for the first time?). Instead, they're touring Europe again later this year, and I've been coordinating an international effort to be in a position to buy tickets to the German dates due to restrictions on where I can use my debit cards from. It's going to be so, so good to be back in the UK where that stuff... well, it'd be nice to say doesn't matter, but let's at least say matters less. At least living in the same country as most of my finances, electronics and subscriptions means much less conflict than when I'm living in Japan. Current plan: Vienna on the the 23rd of November, Berlin on the 25th, with a couple of days around either side to spend time in Austria and Germany, to which I've never been. Aside from the fact that Rammstein are unbeatable live, I'm particularly interested in seeing what photos I can come up with this time - even though on the previous two tours, I always managed to take a camera with a half empty battery that inevitably ran out before the best stuff.
Rammstein, Nottingham, 2005
So, I do hope to blog more - I've a lot to say before I leave Japan, and hopefully, I'll still have things to talk about once I'm back in the UK. For now, though, there'll be a slight delay.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fire in Ikebukuro, Going Home, and E3 Reactions

Not long ago, I was awoken by sirens, only to stick my head out of the window and discover that a building just across the tracks was on fire and the neighbourhood was full of police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and gawking bystanders. I, of course, just snapped a few photographs and went to work.

The big news, though, is that I'm going to be leaving Japan in just about two months. I've already booked tickets, at extortionate one-way prices, to return to the UK on August 15th. It's not an easy decision, despite Japan's weather doing it's very best to drive me out of the country - it's already unbearably hot and humid, and the rainy season hasn't even kicked in yet, when it gets more humid but a little cooler. Then the rainy season ends, and it gets hot again whilst remaining humid. More than that, though, is work. For the last few months I've split my hours between two offices, one in Ikebukuro and one in Otemachi. Last month, the managers at Ikebukuro decided to take a collective leave of their senses, and started trying to increase the number of teaching staff present on weekends by driving out anyone who wouldn't arbitrarily bend to their whims. As the manager at Otemachi put it, it was somewhat baffling. Now, I'm working full time at Otemachi, but the longer commute - especially in the worsening summer - is starting to make it deeply undesirable. At this point on my working holiday visa, it isn't easy to pick up a worthwhile job that would provide enough money to live out the rest of my stay - there are, of course, part time jobs that might provide potent but irregular boosts of cash, but these can't be relied on, and full time work is almost out of the question if you can't commit to contracts of a certain length. Japan, as I've mentioned before, is suffering a saturation of English teachers. Sadly (for the students, and the state of the industry as a whole), it's also suffering from a saturation of underqualified English teachers who are more or less grandfathered in due to having been here before the competition heated up.

Going Home

That in mind, I have two choices: commit to full-time work on a sponsored visa, or go home. I've weighed it up, and I'm going back to the UK. I'm hoping to find ESOL work there, though the coalition government has kindly cut funding for that - all the while demanding immigrants must learn English, of course. Petrol prices are booming, the job market (even ignoring the collapsing ESOL one) still looks dire, and inexplicably the Tories and the Lib Dems are still in power and doing their level best to ruin the country even more, so I've picked a perfect time to go back. In addition to work, I'm looking at filling in some of my knowledge gaps through the Open University, and perhaps applying for a masters programme in the 2012-13 academic year.

There's plenty I'll miss about living in Japan, and Tokyo in particular - Sapporo aside, my excursions to other cities and locales hasn't enamoured me of the idea of living elsewhere in the country. Unlike my first year here, as an exchange student, I'm not leaving because I've had a terrible time, something I increasingly blame on the terrible handling of that year abroad programme by the University of Leeds, and certain utterly inept bureaucrats and teachers at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Undeniably, though, Japan is an extremely difficult place to live. Everything from perpetual treatment as an outsider, tremendous cultural and lingual gaps (mitigated, only slightly, if you actually speak Japanese because many Japanese people will refuse to even try to comprehend you), alien ideas on the availability of groceries, and impossible-to-adjust-to weather due to the over reliance on air conditioning... it's enough to drive a sane person mad.

I'll miss the food, though - the Nepalese café nearby being something of an anomaly - but once again I'll miss Japanese fast food, places like Yoshinoya and Hanamaru, and also Japanese takes on McDonalds and Burger King which are of a much higher standard than in the UK. I'll miss izakayas, too, with their bizarre menus and all-you-can-drink prices. I won't particularly miss restaurants - they tend towards the over-priced, anyway, and it can be a pain to find things you enjoy eating. I'll miss a reliable public transportation system, even if it is frequently crowded beyond reason. Perhaps most of all, I'll miss the sense of safety - despite the phrase "Japan is not a safty [sic] country" becoming a meme amongst my peergroup, based on the fact that the Japanese don't believe they're especially safe, I can't imagine a place more pleasant to live in terms of crime than Tokyo. One of the largest and most populous cities in the world, and I've never worried about having more than my umbrella stolen from the rack outside the convenience store. I cannot say the same for England, where merely existing seems cause for concern. Ah, chavs, how I do not wait eagerly for your renewed presence.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to getting back to a country where I can indulge in my hobbies, either at more reasonable prices or just at all. I've railed against region locks before, which is something that severely limits my ability to enjoy everything from movies, to television, to videogames, books and music. Oh, and comics. There are quite a few series I follow - The Walking Dead, Fables, DMZ, and a handful of Marvel titles for starters - that I'm looking forward to catching up with. Unlike games, where it's merely expensive to get a hold of them, or movies, where it's either expensive or illegal, comics are more or less unavailable in Japan (though you will occasionally see graphic novels or trade paperbacks in book stores stocking foreign books, or second hand in places that cater to genre fare, and I did once spot a Japanese edition of Watchmen that I almost bought...). There doesn't seem to be anything like a western comic shop, though, but I have been meaning to check out a place in Shibuya (my loathing for that place aside) that may actually be a comic shop.

I'm also looking forward to more mundane things, like living in a house instead of a one-room apartment, getting my dog back, being able to drive again (I've probably forgotten how), and most importantly, being able to eat. Yes, I enjoy some Japanese fast food, and I've lived off a steady diet of tofu and noodles here, but that's because buying ingredients to actually cook is heinously expensive (and then there's no oven to cook with anyway, and only one electric hob). I can't wait for the availability of real food from actual supermarkets, of buying things in bulk instead of miniaturised, individually-wrapped portions. I can't wait to be able to go out one day a week and be able to pick up the shopping for the rest of the week, instead of having to shop on a more or less daily basis, each day staring in horror at the price of Japanese fruit, vegetables, and meat (the only stuff that's cheap is tofu and noodles. Bread is marketed as some bizarre luxury item...).

I'm not looking forward to English milk, though. I don't know how the Japanese do it, but it never seems to go off.


Halo 4. No, really.
So, this year's E3 has come and gone, and frankly it was a bit of a disappointment in terms of big announcements or surprise showings. Despite that, there were a lot of new trailers, new gameplay reveals, confirmations of things long-rumoured (like the latest entry in the Hitman franchise, Absolution, and Halo 4). There was big news from Nintendo, with the unveiling of it's Wii successor, the bizarrely named Wii U (incidentally, does anyone else think the 'U' in 'Wii U' looks awfully like Ubisoft's Uplay logo?). I honestly wonder if there's some kind of internal competition at Nintendo to outweird themselves, in both naming conventions and design.

Wii U and Controller
The Wii U, of course, seems to capitalise on ideas once brokered by older Nintendo games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords. To whit, those games combined the GameCube with the Gameboy Advance, utilising the handheld for... well, for other things. Sadly I never had a GameCube at the time, and I haven't come around to playing Four Swords yet despite it literally sitting on my shelf right now. A moment's research reminds me that lots of other GameCube titles supported the use of the link cable, too, and I now recall playing Wind Waker and having my good friend Sorrel unhelpfully bomb me instead of my enemies while using the GBA... ah, good times. Sort of. Anyway, the Wii U has the most insane console controller I've ever seen, with a screen embedded in the middle of it (yet somehow it still looks better than Sony's infamous PS3 batarang controllers). I still don't own a Wii, so news of a successor-console doesn't exactly light me on fire. On the other hand, I am looking forward to things like Skyward Sword, so maybe - just maybe - I'll be jumping aboard the Nintendo current-gen bandwagon sooner rather than later.

ME3's Shepard, Kaidan and Liara
Sony also released more details on its next-generation handheld, the awfully-named Playstation Vita, and Microsoft unveiled new features for Kinect in so-called 'core' games like Ghost Recon and Mass Effect 3 (features leaked alongside box art some time ago, unfortunately). Neither the Kinect presentation or a new handheld are particularly exciting. In terms of games, as I said, there were a lot of fresh appearances and some welcome confirmations, but nothing mind-blowing. Halo 4 only got a teaser trailer, and I worry about the direction of the series sans-Bungie. Halo Wars, the only other Halo game not to feature them, didn't excel - though that was mainly because the late Ensemble Studios seemed to spend a great deal of time developing a competent control scheme for a console RTS, then throwing that out of the window with a campaign whose missions revolved around impossible degrees of micro-management. The Anniversary update of the original Halo is a bit more welcome, as it really does have one of the most enjoyable campaigns I've ever played - I've wasted many, many hours on that final Warthog run on co-op. I particularly like that it's going to be just a reskin of the original game, as the Monkey Island updates were, allowing you to switch back to the original graphics at any time.

Probably my favourite trailer from the event came in the form of Ubisoft's latest Assassin's Creed, Revalations. As well as showcasing the fantastic CGI previously deployed in the series' earlier trailers, it features the great song Iron by Woodkid:

Going Forward

Yellow Blaze Tattoo
I've got two months left in Japan, more or less. I'll be finishing work at the end of this month, leaving me some free time to try and cram in things from a sort of 'Japan bucket list'. Some of those things - stuff like climbing Mt. Fuji, visiting various distant locations like Okinawa, Kyushu and Shikoku - are probably going to fall by the wayside due to minor details like financial deprivation, a complete lack of physical fitness, and an intolerance of the Japanese summer. Others, like visiting the amazing artists here are hopefully going to go ahead, and indeed are already booked. I also intend to visit the incorrectly sized Tobu World Square, return to Yamanashi and at least walk around the foot of Mt. Fuji, and perhaps even squeeze in at least one more long distance journey.

Having said that, I highly doubt this will be my last time in Japan. I've already got the urge to come back on a tourist visa and take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, which you paradoxically can't access as a resident. It makes exploring Japan's more distant locales - especially places like Hokkaido - affordable. In the long run, I may even return to Japan again to work, especially if I can get a job in Sapporo or the rest of Hokkaido, with Interac or something similar. Before anything like that, though, I want to travel more widely - I've already spent almost two years of my adult life out here - and work on my academics, as well as my writing.

There's more to life than slumming it in Tokyo, after all.