Review: The 37th Parallel

The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America's UFO HighwayThe 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.

Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.

There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.

There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.

Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.

Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.

There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.

A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.

Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.

With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.

It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.

Apparently the park manager is supposed to *manage* the park

Holy heck, I just realized that I’ve been playing a major portion of Jurassic World: Evolution entirely wrong.

In a nutshell: the game has two types of ratings to determine the success of your parks. One is a dinosaur rating, which uses the total number of dinosaurs, the number of distinct species, the cumulative ratings of individual dinosaurs (based on completeness of gene code and addition of genetic modifications), and the general welfare of the animals to determine how well your park is doing. The other is a guest rating, which looks at security, capacity, and satisfaction to similarly assess the human side of the park’s performance. Both ratings work on a five-star scale, and the average of their scores dictates your park’s overall five-star rating.

Guest satisfaction has always been a struggle for me. It’s easy going at first because you don’t have that many guests, so throwing in a few basic goods and services (restaurants, shops, and restrooms) will satisfy them enough. But as the park grows with the draw of more and better dinosaur attractions, guests demand more. I’ve always struggled to get from 4.5 stars to 5 stars because my dinosaurs toward the later stages of a park’s life are so popular that the park is overrun. I manage it, but it often requires a lot of buildings that make my park look ugly and cluttered and that slow down the performance of the game. And even then, guest opinion oscillates quite a bit. I remember using the trick of shutting down and reopening parks to get the guest count down so that I could beat the system and get a five-star park rating when I was ready to move on to the next island.

Only there’s no reason to “beat the system” because you can build a successful park that stays steady at five full stars, no matter the island or challenges before you. I’ve been overlooking obvious management features all this time.

Most buildings aimed at guests have three types of features to control: the number of staff, the type of product sold, and the price of the product. I’d fiddled with these controls before on many occasions, but I never found much rhyme or reason behind them. I don’t know if these features have been improved since release or if I just didn’t spend enough time with them, but they’re crucial when used correctly. As your park builds in popularity, you should be looking to your structures to see which specific buildings are popular. They might warrant staff increases if they are maxed out with visitors; that way, more guests can use a given building at a time. In contrast, it might be time to tear down a seldom-used facility that’s not contributing to guest satisfaction or park revenue. As something gains in popularity, people are more desirous of premium items at that location, and they are more willing to pay more. Manage these features, and you can have a tremendously successful five-star park that still looks neat and orderly, that doesn’t have constant fluctuations in guest satisfaction, and that more efficiently uses limited park resources (chiefly space and power).

I don’t think I ever figured this out before, not even back when I completed the original campaign the first time around. If I did, it was late in the game, I may have never maximized the value of that knowledge, and I must have forgotten in the many intervening months before I returned to the game. But I doubt I figured it out, at least not fully, or else it’s hard to understand why I found the sandbox and challenge modes to be such a turn-off. Now the challenge modes are piquing my interest more, and I think I will check them out once I get through the copious story content available (and after I go back to optimize my other parks in this campaign save file).

I wrote the following in my original review of the game:

There are a lot of deep statistics that are never explained anywhere in the game, but you only have to get a cursory understanding of any process to make it work. I still don’t fully understand how staffing, item quality, and price affects guest satisfaction with a particular store, and other than knowing that sales price should at least be higher than my own cost, I never did bother to figure it out. I didn’t need to. After I grew frustrated with one park always hovering around 4.5 stars because my continued success would draw down guest satisfaction as demand would continuously outstrip supply, I discovered via a forum tip that you could just close your park down briefly–then everyone would be excited with the reopening and the overcrowding would be gone, solving the problem for a while. Again, the game can be challenging, but it’s typically open to being exploited–and since it’s all about the bottom line with profits and divisional reputation, the game sort of encourages that exploitative mentality.

That doesn’t read like someone who ever figured out how to manage guest buildings. In my defense, my experimentation never really seemed to pay off. I’d try too early in a park’s life, when screwing with the values was more likely to increase how much a facility was costing me, instead of rewarding me with increased paying guests or higher profits. Later in each park, the process of building new stores was so ingrained that I didn’t ever seriously reconsider my tactics. Now I know that some buildings would go unattended even as guests complained about a lack of a good or service that those buildings supplied because they weren’t placed in areas of high guest activity, near major pathways or exhibits. Simply adding more buildings wasn’t solving the problem. Guests weren’t going to go out of their way to find a hidden restroom tucked behind a power plant; they’d instead wait on the overcrowded, obvious restroom and complain about that. It’s a realistic system, but one that is never explained in the game.

It’s a little embarrassing that it took me this long to figure it out. At the same time, at least I did manage to figure it out on my own!

While I thought this was worth writing about because it showcased a more complex hidden system within Jurassic World: Evolution while providing a hopefully amusing personal anecdote, I’d be glad to hear that someone considering the game, or already struggling with its management systems, found this and saved themselves a lot of time and frustration! And I’d sure love to hear any other tips or tricks people have for providing the best park management experience for all their guests. It took me this long to figure out this basic gameplay component. I shudder to think how long it might take me to learn and master more advanced strategies…

What’s that in the trees?

I’ll probably have a more traditional post up tomorrow, but for today, I just want to share a screenshot I took last night in Jurassic World: Evolution with the Capture Mode feature. I’m just thrilled by how it turned out; it might be my favorite screenshot I’ve taken in the game, and it feels like it captures a lot of the mood of the franchise. I hope you like it!

tree rex

Reopening the park

I’ve spent much of my free time over the past week playing a lot of Jurassic World: Evolution again. I hadn’t touched the game in over a year, but the realization that I’d missed out on several newly released campaigns, and a lot more dinosaur content releases, got me excited to get back to the park. After a binge of DLC purchases, I was ready to start. And I was immediately amazed by the breadth of updates, even outside of what came with the new expansions.

The flavor of the base game has changed somewhat. New facilities have been added. New dinosaurs are available. There have been a variety of gameplay tweaks. And most entertaining for me, dinosaurs can now attack and damage ranger vehicles. With this new spice added, I decided my first objective would be to start the original campaign over again with all these new features baked in. So that’s what I’ve been doing so far. My old save is lingering as a milestone to mark my former accomplishments, but I want to play through the original content while dealing with additional guest needs and dinosaur threats. That choice to start anew has been rewarding for me so far.

That decision also means that I haven’t really touched much of the DLC content–the primary reason I wanted to get back into the game! But I’m fairly confident I’ll keep playing and reach all that eventually. In the meantime, I’ve perused the many locked research topics that have been added with the expansions. Boy, am I eager to get to some of the new prehistoric creatures included! And I might be most excited about the return to the original Jurassic Park in an alternate universe story set after the events of the first film.

It’s fascinating to realize how many of my initial gripes, and how many items on my ideal game version wish list, have been addressed with the new content. It also seems that I anticipated some of the directions that they went with further development. The game feels far more robust. Of course, that means that I’m now far from 100% complete with the game–and reviewing some of the achievements, I’m not sure I ever will get there. But that’s okay!

I’ve found that I’m also more willing to forgive the game’s flaws. I think it helps that I knew what to expect. The only direction for my opinion to go is up, as I react to new features. I already really liked the game, and I’m really impressed by how much the game has been improved in the base experience. But I do still get the feeling that the base game’s story probably should have at least included the Secrets of Dr. Wu expansion; we’ll see, but I think that it will probably better resolve the main campaign’s story.

I love spending time with stories set in this franchise. Especially while I find myself drawn to comforting experiences, I couldn’t ask for better entertainment than an in-depth involvement in the operation of Jurassic World.

Reviews: Bloodline / Xenozoic

Bloodline (Star Wars)Bloodline by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Claudia Gray’s Star Wars writing. I love Leia as a character. Gray’s Leia, Princess of Alderaan was a fantastic story about this beloved character by a writer I enjoy. Bloodline possesses these same traits, and yet I struggled with it. Partially, I’ve just found myself busier than usual for a while now. But I also found myself again and again making a choice to read other books or comics. It’s not that the writing’s worse here. And Gray did a fantastic job writing an older, wiser, wearier version of Leia (a version that was written and published before the Leia of Princess of Alderaan). That said, I guess I just found myself bored with it.

Bloodline follows Leia over two decades after the Battle of Endor. She’s a respected senior legislator, pragmatically trying to keep together the political faction of the Populists, who believe in decentralized government and who are in opposition to the Centrists, a party with a strong authoritarian streak. Government has ground to a standstill because the increasingly polarized parties refuse to cooperate, and there is no strong executive in government to create compromise or shepherd policy. The novel concerns itself with two major developments: the neutral planet of Ryloth, home to the Twi’leks, seeks aid from the Republic to uncover a rapidly growing and incredibly influential new criminal cartel while the Centrists advocate for the creation of a First Senator to bring order to the government and to force the legislature into actually producing results once more. Leia takes the initiative in investigating the crime cartel, even as she is nominated to be the Populist candidate for First Senator.

Over the course of the novel, Leia forms a bond with Ransolm Casterfo, a younger and more idealistic senator who initially comes off as villainous because of his love for collecting Imperial armor and his belief that Empire is the best form of government. We come to find that he is an honest, principled man who may believe in a strong central government but who still hated the abuse of authority as represented by figures like Darth Vader or the Emperor. And in the end, he finds himself in opposition to most of the other Centrists, some of whom are actually backing the crime cartel while others celebrate the Emperor and want a return to tyranny.

Leia also finds other allies among the younger generation, including a former racer turned senatorial aide and an overly eager starfighter jockey. They have their own subplots and interrelationships. (The racer has a particularly unexpected mystery that appears abruptly and quickly explains her career change late in the book.) These other characters are important because they represent the generation to follow Leia, but their importance is undercut by their lack of use in later stories. Meanwhile, Han only briefly appears, living his life as a manager of a racing team, and Luke and Ben are known to be off training but otherwise only appear in the story by reference.

This is Leia’s story. In some ways, it makes sense to table other key characters. It also allows for emotional vulnerability, as she is cut off from her traditional supports. However, the absence of Luke and Han feels big enough to be distracting at times. And while we see Leia forming the core of what will eventually become the Resistance, the new characters don’t ever really get wings to do their own thing; they’re caught in Leia’s gravity.

Ransolm Casterfo leaves the biggest impression, proving to be a strong foil and ally for Leia throughout the book. In Ransolm, Leia sees hope for restoring balance to the Republic. She sees the potential for compromise, for reaching across the aisle. Without getting into more specific spoilers, it is enough to say that that hope is crushed, leaving Leia with only the option of forming a covert Resistance in anticipation of the threat of imminent civil war to come. Ransolm is an interesting character, but his fascist cosplaying and admiration for an authoritarian government are never really adjusted or adequately challenged. Loving an empire so long as evil cultists don’t rule it doesn’t stop you from being a fascist. Yet after admonishing him repeatedly, largely from a place of pure emotion, Leia eventually just accepts that this is part of his identity. One could certainly chart real-world analogies in this book, and I’m not sure the implications of a character like Ransolm and Leia’s relationship to him are all that great.

Still, if I said that Ransolm was why I struggled with this book, I’d be lying. I was just not particularly engaged with the pace. It’s a lot more talking and reflecting than in a lot of Star Wars stories, but the ideas being discussed aren’t very deep. Star Wars always seems to struggle when it attempts to accurately portray politics, and I think that’s where the book falters a little bit as well. It’s trying to be too granular, lacking the usual bombast. Yes, there are big revelations. Yes, there’s a bombing, a duel, and at least two intense chase sequences. But that’s more par for the course for a contemporary political thriller, not the usual excess and swashbuckling adventure of a Star Wars story. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as compelled by the story being told here. But there’s nothing really bad about the book, the ideas, or the depiction of the characters. I guess this one just wasn’t really for me!
XenozoicXenozoic by Mark Schultz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long loved just about anything with dinosaurs in it, but the pulp action, gorgeous art, environmental messages, and sense of history contained within Xenozoic makes it so much more than just a collection of fun stories about prehistoric beasts.

I vividly remember two Xenozoic stories from my childhood, which I encountered in the colored re-releases under the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs brand. Those two stories are “The Opportunists,” in which one of the two protagonists, scientist-ambassador Hannah Dundee of the Wassoon tribe, manages to turn the annoying pterosaur scavengers around the City in the Sea into an early threat detection system for mosasaur attacks, and “Last Link in the Chain,” in which the other protagonist, eco-warrior mechanic Jack Tenrec, becomes stranded in the wilderness on a return from patrolling for poachers and finds himself hunted by a ferociously determined theropod. (There’s a lot of wild and expansive lore in this series, and I trust that concepts like Wassoon, the City in the Sea, or the spiritual order of Old Blood Mechanics will quickly make sense if you start reading this comic.)

I’ve been itching to read the full series for years and never got around to it. It didn’t seem to be widely available, but I think I also dreaded the potential that my nostalgic fondness would be shattered by reality. I finally broke down and bought a collection of the black-and-white original Xenozoic Tales, and I was happily surprised to realize that it’s still great. Those two stories were still full of spirit, dynamic art, and excitement, and they weren’t even the best stories in the series, I’ve found. With age, and the context of the whole series, I more strongly appreciate the environmental and political themes underlying the series. I also like the wild mad-science pseudo-explanations for the resurgence of a variety of prehistoric life from multiple eras of Earth’s history in the wake of man’s near-extinction. Interestingly, for a series spanning the late eighties through the mid nineties, Schultz quickly hints that the characters are living in a world following environmental collapse from climate change, with a history of atmospheric deterioration and rising sea levels. From the beginning, much of the story is set in a flooded New York City.

A cool thing about Schultz is that he’s clearly willing to improve his work over time, rather than sticking to an established and familiar appearance. His art style grows and evolves over the series. Characters change, become more distinctive. The prehistoric creatures, dinosaurs especially, get updated over time to make them more in line with evolving understandings of what they looked like. In comparison to Jurassic Park, which largely started off on the edge of scientific perceptions of what dinosaurs were like in the flesh but then allowed the images to stagnate as science moved on, the continued (though gradual) evolution of the depiction of dinosaurs is thrilling (and also serves as a fun glimpse into the evolution of pop culture paleoart).

The only disappointment about this collection is that it ends. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I want more. It ends in the middle of a major plot arc! There’s a lot of story still to be told! I sincerely hope that Mark Schultz eventually returns to this project. If you like dinosaurs, classic cars, pulp adventures, or comics, you really should check this out!

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My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Retrospective: The Black Hole (1979)

One of my friends loves Disney’s 1979 sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole (directed by Gary Nelson, who is probably better remembered for his television work or the original film version of Freaky Friday), and he has encouraged me to watch it for a while now. I was interested by the premise, and with Disney+ making so much of the Disney back catalog available, I had no excuse not to watch it. It is the first of many Disney sci-fi and fantasy films from the seventies and eighties that I hope to watch over the coming months, and it was an interesting first choice indeed.

The premise is initially simple: the crew of a deep-space exploratory vessel discovers a long-lost research station somehow floating just above the event horizon of a black hole. After almost being pulled into the black hole’s gravity, they dock with the seemingly derelict station, and over the remainder of the film, they discover its secrets. But there’s so much weirdness layered on top of and woven between that simple premise. Please keep with me here–I’m going to get into a lot of the dumb and the bad at first, but it has its charms.

The movie starts off weird: the first two minutes and twenty-six seconds play the parade-style score over a black screen. We’re introduced to the (all-white) crew, with one blonde woman among the overwhelmingly male presence. This woman is a doctor, but most people refer to her by her first name, including the enigmatic surviving leader of the space station. She also possesses ESP, a concept that isn’t really developed much at all other than to provide a convenient plot device: she can communicate telepathically with the ship’s robot assistant. How does she possess such a power? Why is it treated as normal? How can you use telepathy with a robot? Why is the only woman, who is a doctor, largely characterized as someone who can feel deeply and sense the emotions of others?

The robot, on the other hand, is a purely Disney droid. He’s absolutely adorable. He’s bold and sassy and speaks in popular sayings and riddles. He acts like a vulnerable puppy at times but he always gets the job done when called on. IMDb informs me that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, who does great work providing a warmth, earnestness, self-assurance, and dry wit to the little bot. As much as Vincent seems particularly engineered to be cute and likable, I can’t help but buy in completely. He was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the movie. He was probably the most heroic, and he was easily the most competent, all while poking big ol’ eyes out of his tortoise shell of a torso. And really, this seems exactly how you’d want to design a robot interacting closely with humans in an enclosed environment: overwhelmingly capable, but reassuring and cute, someone you’re bound to like and feel safe around. He’s the anti-HAL.

Much of the rest of the movie doesn’t make as much sense from a design or scientific perspective. The ship designs are cool enough but not especially memorable. The depiction of the black hole (and gravity, and anti-gravity, and exposure to vacuum, and comets, and so on) was wonky and certainly bad science even for the time. The ending in particular seemed to want to have a mind-bendingly bizarre conclusion like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it falls flat, playing heaven-and-hell tropes far too literally without saying much. That we would have heaven and hell displayed was clear enough early on in the film, when characters would make melodramatic statements about how a black hole looks like hell itself or could contain the very mind of god.

You can feel Disney’s desire to cash in on the sci-fi space adventure genre. Star Wars premiered in 1977. Alien came out earlier in the same year as The Black Hole, and that year also saw a Buck Rogers reboot. Flash Gordon would release a year after Disney’s foray into the craze. Dune would come out in 1984. Sadly, The Black Hole feels like a movie chasing after the greatness of Star Wars and Alien, like the others. Its special effects are impressive for the time–but Star Wars and Alien look better. It has crisp, distinctive sound design, but it often likes to play with dated B-movie sound effects. John Barry’s score is somewhat generic and mundane, like a knock-off of a bombastic John Williams soundtrack or the older sci-fi serials that preceded them all, although when Barry’s score goes for an eerie refrain instead of more pomp and circumstance, it can be effective. At its worst, it makes action scenes feel even flatter than they would be without music, which is really saying something.

That said, I respect writers Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau for at least telling a new story. In a world awash with more Star Wars and Alien films, and plenty of other franchise staples, reboots, sequels, remakes, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to see something different. The story and the production both seem a bit unrefined, but this also gives the film quite a bit of quirkiness. And while the movie released into a post-Star Wars world, it feels more like it was an eighties movie designed to appear like a fifties or sixties scif-fi pulp adventure. It felt more like Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet or the original Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though the story doesn’t betray the slightest hint of scientific awareness, with plenty of nonsense shoved in, it nonetheless focuses on a small team of characters who must face the unknown with logic, heart, and bravery. They aren’t going to start/end a war or get swept up in a religious crusade. The appearance of the costumes and set designs felt more of that earlier sci-fi era, as well.

It also did something I loved, something I believe I’ve talked about on this site in other contexts before: it mixed a big space sci-fi story with the intimate creepiness of a Gothic horror tale. That’s an element of the plot that I haven’t even really touched upon. But the secrets of this eccentric and isolated science station leader, his missing crew, and the robotic army he’s assembled slowly unravel through unescorted detours to observe hidden proceedings in remote rooms down abandoned halls, or in melodramatic yet polite conversations in an ornately appointed dining room. You can guess the abominable scheming of the villain in advance, especially if you recognize the tropes. That element of the film’s plot was almost as engaging as Vincent’s storyline, and more interesting. But I actually don’t want to get into further details here, because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, even decades after it came out, I think it will be more fun to find out on viewing it.

I don’t have much to say about the cast; the acting was serviceable, but I wouldn’t point to a stand-out performance, aside from Vincent and his charming older-model counterpart, B.O.B. (and wow, that’s apparently an uncredited Slim Pickens–no wonder I liked him). Other than that, whether an otherwise star actor or obscure talent, none of the performances were stellar (get it? space joke). Maximilian Schell portrays a megalomaniacal, amoral, and charismatic villain who veers toward desperation as his plans deteriorate. Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Yvette Mimieux are forgettable as the ship’s crew (yes, Anthony Perkins is forgettable here), but their scoundrel of a journalist attache, Harry Booth, is played with self-important bluster and a layer of sweaty sleaziness by Ernest Borgnine. No one’s acting is ever really bad–it’s just lackluster. But I suppose they did what they could with the script, which generally lacks much emotion or nuance and makes sometimes arbitrary character choices.

I discussed a lot of the weirdness and faults of the movie above, but I hope I also highlighted its charms and eccentricities. It was a fun family space adventure. It’s definitely a product of its era, and yet it reached back to pull themes and ideas from times that preceded it. It’s serious and goofy and engaging. It wants to be metaphysically intriguing, though it doesn’t have much to say. I never got bored with it.

To my friend who recommended it: thank you for the suggestion; even though I didn’t love it like you do, I did have a fun time!

Hellier

I’ve mentioned The Spooktator before. It’s a smart and funny podcast that explores the paranormal from a news and pop culture angle, with a decidedly skeptical bent. It’s also the only podcast I’ve continued to listen to with any sort of dependability, though I’m often weeks or months behind. I just caught up on several episodes (which covered a good portion of 2019), and in so doing, I heard several references to the documentary series Hellier.

In Season 4, Episode 4 (“Frogman and the Vampire Hunter“), they briefly allude to Hellier in relation to the Loveland Frogman (9:54 to 12:20). One of the hosts, Hayley Stevens, remarks, “I think Hellier is definitely worth watching if you have the time,” although she notes that it’s a bit too long and drawn-out. That was enough for me to seek the show out, available as it is on Amazon Prime.

Hellier is not the type of show I’d normally watch. Its basic premise is that a paranormal investigative team attempts to find goblins in Hellier, Kentucky, that are roughly reminiscent of the fantastical descriptions of the monsters in the Hopkinsville case. It’s such a ridiculous premise that I normally wouldn’t seek it out, wouldn’t even find it, and certainly wouldn’t watch it. And so much of the five-episode series is obvious bunk, but it makes for compelling television because of the unintentional insights into true-believer paranormal enthusiasts. What starts as a monster hunt quickly devolves into an intimate examination of a small group of fringe thinkers who struggle to piece together a compelling narrative that they can star in, even as all the evidence collapses around them. There is so much to observe about how people dig deeper into fringe beliefs, how they frame their identities around those beliefs, and how we can all grasp for greater meaning and connection in disparate events.

Stevens also wrote a review of Hellier on her blog. I didn’t get around to reading the review until after watching the show, but I would recommend starting there before you decide whether to view the over-long chronicle of these investigators’ misadventures yourself. She does a better recap than I would, anyway, and I don’t want to merely repeat the same critiques here.

That said, there are a few points that I took away from the series.

  1. To rational thinkers and those familiar with scientific investigation, it is clear that correlation does not equal causation; coincidences do not indicate any deeper meaning than what we read into them. But apparently, fringe thinkers have invested in ideas like synchronicity: when they see small coincidences, they look to them for greater meaning. They will even try to force meaning from disparate events, if they can find a way to connect them, no matter how strained.
  2. On a similar note, fringe thinkers are willing and eager to find evidence in non-evidence. A lack of evidence, or even evidence that contradicts a claim, can mean to them that shadowy forces are attempting to misdirect them. Rather than stepping away from a fringe theory, they double down in the face of an evidentiary void.
  3. Random occurrences are channeled into a broader, overarching theory. It’s not enough to believe in ghosts, extraterrestrial invaders, Bigfoot, or goblins; they must all somehow be connected, at least if you’ve invested in paranormal ideas as a true believer for long enough. When you go to a small town to find goblins, and it turns out that no one there has ever heard of any, but many people have tall tales of UFOs and Bigfoot sightings and recent footprints of prehistoric birds and even caves with the eerie cries of phantom babies, then the goblins must somehow be manifestations of the other sightings, or the goblins must be part of a misinformation campaign meant to get the team into the area to investigate the other stuff (or to just go off on their own and try to psychically contact the source of all this stuff). The team seems to need to fill the unknown with the known, even if they have to manufacture knowing. They turn chaos into order.
  4. These investigators are incredibly credulous. Even in the first episode, it was obvious to me that the goblins story recounted by their anonymous contact was a hoax. The photographs of prints looked like they could have been produced by gorilla gloves; the blurry night-time photos showed nothing at all, but the investigators were quick to etch out imagined outlines of glowing grey aliens. For much of the series, they clung to the belief that their contact was real, not a pseudonym for a hoaxer, even as evidence mounted that no one with that name ever set foot anywhere near Hellier. (And they trusted a second contact because that guy mostly wrote things that reminded them of The Mothman Prophecies and obscure occult essays.) Things they should have done before even considering a trip to the town, like contacting local records departments or attempting to back-trace IP addresses, are saved for when they become increasingly desperate in Hellier. And at every turn, the mounting body of evidence indicates that the events were a complete and total hoax, an effort by some prankster to draw them out and waste their time. As Stevens notes in her review regarding the use of a particular “experiment” performed by the team, much of what occurs merely serves as “further opportunity for the investigators to interpret randomness as meaningful.”
  5. There are some great stories that come out of these weird investigations. I knew that already, of course; it’s why I continue to loosely follow paranormal news despite believing in none of it. But I still found the goblin story that started this all to be rather creepy and well-told. The eventual ideas brought to the investigation by the team (something reminiscent of the Men in Black, occult codes, cosmic intention guiding their actions, interdimensional beings slipping in and out of our reality in a variety of guises) are fascinating sci-fi/fantasy concepts in turn. And the show’s conclusion, where the researchers walk away empty-handed, with no insights after much weirdness, feels rather like an existentialist revision to a Lovecraftian tale. The great cosmic forces at work are too big to even glimpse, grasp, imagine, let alone be driven mad by. It’s too bad that they don’t leave these ideas in the realm of fiction, that they instead believe in them and want us to believe, too.

That all said, I’ll probably watch when Season 2 comes out.