AEL: A Christmas Carol, Miranda Lambert albums, Locked Rooms, B9-9 revisited, Skyrim

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens — As I mentioned in my Christmas movie roundup, it is a family tradition to read this story aloud every Christmas Eve whilst eating a smorgasbord of eclectic snacks. It takes a few hours, and we’re all hoarse and weeping by the end. I don’t remember how long we’ve been doing it, but the end result is that we all know this story pretty damn well. And we’ve discussed it as a whole and at various minute points pretty thoroughly over the decades — which means that, having more than satisfied my need for discussion, my thoughts here may be more incoherent than ever XD

Remember my whining about vague Christianity in Middlemarch and other literature of Victorian and adjacent periods? That rant is not applicable here. Christianity is very present, but at the same time mentioned directly only in quick, concise bursts so as to establish its presence and then move on — though the overwhelmingly moral tone of the story as a whole remains, at least obviously in the author’s mind, fundamentally Christian. I find it works for me extremely well.

Fred’s speech near the beginning about how he’s always thought of Christmas is particularly well constructed. I like it, personally, because it starts out with Christianity but allows for an interpretation of the holiday separate from the religious (while admitting that Fred and probably the author cannot see that separation as feasible). Really, really well done.

However, I think that this story’s status as a specifically Christian work — even one whose Christianity is specified so discretely — does a certain amount of damage to it as art of any other kind. It’s interesting to read the reviews of A Christmas Carol from Dickens’ contemporaries and note that they all seem to focus on the story’s efficacy as a moral work rather than its artistic merit.

And I’ve always thought of this story as… maybe not the most well written thing Dickens ever produced. It’s great and I love it, but there are a lot of elements in it that just aren’t as tight or consistent as they should be, and overall it’s a very strange blend. And I think Dickens may have been allowing his desire to tell a moralizing tale to overcome his desire to tell an artistic one.

A lot of the time it feels like the story just isn’t sure what it wants to be, though it’s possible that modern ideas of genre are getting in the way here — that I’m trying to force into a box a work that has the shape of no box that exists today. Still, this time in particular, I was fascinated by the concept of A Christmas Carol as proto-horror.

In a lot of entries in the modern horror genre, I’ve noticed, there are certain elements — usually supernatural — that simply go unexplained. (Why/how did so-and-so come back from the dead as a murderous ghost/monster to kill all the peoples? Nobody will ever know.) And I find myself asking such questions about A Christmas Carol — why was Scrooge chosen for redemption? Does this happen a lot? What power(s) made the call for this to happen?

In some ways, that just adds to Scrooge’s characterization by forcing me to think there must be something special about him that made him worth going to all this effort to save. But in another sense, it pulls me into a horror-genre frame of mind that is very interesting during a moralizing Christmas tale.

This time through, brother made the interesting suggestion that the Spirits might appear differently to different people. Given how many Spirits we know there are (largely from Present’s mention of his brothers), it seems logical that, whether Scrooge is special or not, Spirits do sometimes appear to other people, regardless of the similarity or dissimilarity of their errands. And not only do I think brother’s suggestion is a logical one, it also pleased me in that it made me think of Silent Hill with its tailor-made imagery depending on the hangups of the victim du jour.

And then, after reveling in my thoughts of this story as horror or at least a lead-in to what we consider horror today, the brief and touching paean to the power of kindness and morality over the horrors of death (in the room with Scrooge’s corpse) makes it almost seem as if Dickens was aware he was writing a horror story up until then and suddenly rejected it — as if the horror genre was creeping up on a religious tale and got PWND. And honestly? I kinda like that as much as I liked considering it proto-horror all along. It seems rather tongue-in-cheek and charming, which is very appropriate for Dickens.

And then at the same time (i.e. whilst reading the story, not at the same point in the story), I get a whiff of proto- science fiction or fantasy when Scrooge seeks confirmation from Future by kinda breaking down what’s about to happen as if the concept of getting a glimpse of the future is unusual or difficult to understand — and then later explains, again with unnecessary care (especially considering whom he’s addressing), the concept of (essentially) alternate futures due to the actions of the present. Even in 1843, glimpsing the future was far from unheard of in fiction… but the need Dickens seemed to feel to render what was happening ridiculously comprehensible indicates, to me, that he was at least a little worried about at least a certain percent of his readership failing to understand. Which makes the story feel even more like a pioneering endeavor.

And of course it is fantasy, in that it’s primarily about fantastical elements. But I always feel that religious fantasy is a different animal, and sometimes (especially in these pre-genres-as-we-know-them works) leans more toward science fiction… not because there’s any actual science involved, but because the author would (in this case due to religious belief) have considered the story’s events feasible if not necessarily explicable — and “within the realm of Earthly possibility without fantastic influences necessary” seems like a good definition of sci-fi or at least what might eventually become sci-fi.

In any case, Scrooge isn’t very genre-savvy, obviously, on account of that not having been invented yet. He also carries the idiot ball a lot for the sake of the reader having things explained to them or surprises being sufficiently surprising. This kinda fits with the idea that he considers himself much blunter than he really is — a kind of deliberate obtuseness that extends to more than just plot convenience — but it’s also kinda silly.

I discussed Scrooge’s character mostly to my satisfaction in the Christmas movie roundup, but I will add a few thoughts here.

At various times when reading this novella, I’ve felt like Scrooge’s change in character happens a little too quickly. I mean, he alters his behavior immediately upon arriving in the past, and almost as quickly regrets his treatment of the caroling boy. Soon he’s remonstrating Past for its supposed lack of understanding of the emotional nuances of human companionship, declaring sympathy for Bob, and expressing deep sorrow.

In short (hah! Dickens joke), his closed-off heart opens like a bursting dam, but if the feelings he’s repressing are that strong, surely the dam he’s kept them behind for all these years would give more resistance?

This has always struck me as one of the inconsistencies in the story, and the redeeming explanation I propose to myself for it is that at first the changes, though they seem significant, really aren’t: they’re superficial personality alterations, minor resolutions, and mere acknowledgment of the undeniable fact that his earlier life held a lot of pain. At what point he starts planning real changes in himself — life-spanning and character-deep — the reader doesn’t know for sure, but it’s not mentioned until the Future section. So I guess, looked at in that light, it’s an acceptably gradual transformation.

This time it occurred to me that the three Spirits are somewhat like an initial vaccine and two boosters designed to stimulate the manufacture and then the continued production of antibodies.

A fascinating concept brother brought up this time is the reliability of the narrator. Typically, in a story like this where the third-person narration not only seems very omniscient but also almost specifically identified (“I am standing in the spirit at your elbow”), it would never enter into literary criticism to question its veracity. But however logical that assumption may be, it’s also fairly arbitrary. Who actually is this ghostly narrator, and how certain are we really that every word he gives us is exactly accurate?

In a literal or physical sense, I think it’s not impossible that our narrator is Scrooge himself. And in that case, every part of the story may be susceptible to question. Because even after redemption, might not Scrooge be just as inclined to self-deception and genre-blindness as he was beforehand? At the moment I honestly can’t think of any significant effect this idea has on the story… but it’s interesting to think about.

Certainly Scrooge has a telling moment regarding his perceptions of reality near the end, when he starts manufacturing proofs of his experience out of mundane and irrelevant items such as the gruel saucepan and the corner of the room… demonstrating the extremely human tendency to make faith a self-sustaining cycle just as his coldness was for so many years.

I had meant to finish my thoughts on the novella before those about various adaptations, so that those could refer to these, but obviously that didn’t happen. I will mention at this point, though, that Scrooge is surprisingly well known in his community for a character living in London in any time period, and, while that may have been a slight exaggeration on Dickens’ part in order to convey story-enhancing thoughts of other characters relating to someone they might not realistically have known, it also renders the opening number in The Muppet Christmas Carol amusingly accurate. And now for a few more, completely random thoughts.

“Ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed.” — This line is such a strong reminder of Eä and the song of the Ainur, it’s crazy. SoOoOo interesting what similar thoughts a couple of completely different Christian authors can have, isn’t it??

So I, like probably most Americans, consider “Merry Christmas” an Americanism and “Happy Christmas” a Britishism. I tend to prefer “Happy Christmas” myself, because “merry,” in that context, seems to adjure a bizarrely specific mood rather than wishing general happiness, but whatevs; they’re both fine. But in this novella, there’s a surprising lack of “Happy” and presence of “Merry.” So I wonder if the difference is a combination of time period and location.

LOLOLOL top and bottom couples.

What’s with Present going back and forth from being called “it” to “he” by the narration? It’s possible there’s some symbolic significance that I would recognize if I looked a little more closely, but with the level of attention I was paying this time around, it just seemed nonsensically inconsistent.

Aight, I think that’s it for A Christmas Carol this time around. It’s only almost February, so well done.

Miranda Lambert albums — I got these as a present from my Secret Santa at the work Christmas party (in case you hadn’t quite grasped yet how far I am behind on this AEL). I’ve been meaning to collect all of M.L.’s albums, but hadn’t gotten around to any of them except Four the Record, so it was lovely to receive two more for Christmas. Interestingly (actually, somewhat annoyingly), several of my co-workers, on seeing the CD’s I had received, made comments to the purpose of, “I wouldn’t have expected you to be a Miranda Lambert fan.” Which makes me wonder what a Miranda Lambert fan is typically expected to be like. But whatevs.

Platinum is a great album. One of the things I love about Miranda is her — for lack of a less trite and obnoxious term — sass, and that’s certainly present here. She has a great sound and a lot of energy and an entertaining attitude, and — while there are the obligatory boring tracks — her contradictorily almost languid-sounding sass really shines through much of this CD, especially in pieces like the title track and Little Red Wagon.

Priscilla is a delightful song, not only because of its sound but because (provided I’m interpreting the lyrics correctly) it’s a song about friendship and support between women that aren’t in competition with each other. Of course it’s all about how to deal with the men in their lives, but still. Friendship instead of rivalry FTW.

And Old Sh!t is so so cute. I may have mentioned before how funny and sometimes even charming I often find gratuitous profanity. Not sure why this is, but it may always be the case XD

The songs I specifically don’t like (not going to mention the really boring ones) are Bathroom Sink (awkward), Babies Makin’ Babies (awkward and kinda boring), and Automatic. Ugh, Automatic.

I know it’s always been a trend, but I feel like especially lately it’s become the cool thing to do to talk about other generations and how awful they are. Typically, people younger than you don’t know what real struggle is like, and modern times suck, but these days I also see a lot of “the previous generation really screwed things up for us and now they’re blaming us for everything wrong in the world.” And I hate it. All of it. Stop comparing your own life and abilities and motivations and all the minutiae of the collected experiences that make up an individual with those of someone else. There is no way to compare these things. Everyone’s struggle is unique; everyone’s experience is different.

I’ve heard “complaining about other generations” songs — many of them about the younger generation from suspiciously young artists — far more often in country music than anywhere else, and I feel like it may sometimes be an attempt at appealing to an older audience that might not otherwise be into this newfangled country sound. Ugh.

Anyway, though I like several songs on this CD very much, I don’t know that I can really choose a favorite, so let’s move on to the next one.

The Weight of These Wings is one of the most compelling album titles I’ve ever heard, but, sadly, a lot of this two-disc album is boring as shit. Also, the mixing on The Nerve is (deliberately) really strange a lot of the time, and I’m not sure I like it.

Highway Vagabonds and We Should Be Friends are OK. I might like Ugly Lights but for the aforementioned mixing weirdness. Getaway Driver seems delightfully gay, which really makes me wish it weren’t such a dull song. Pink Sunglasses is probably my favorite off The Nerve.

Meanwhile, I’m For the Birds is OK, and so is Six Degrees of Separation, but the rest of The Heart is just boring. How disappointing.

Sometimes I think country music exists in and reaches out to us from a world not just outdated, but that quite possibly never existed in the first place.

Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King — Actually all I really want to say about this now that I’ve gotten completely through it is that it does get a lot more interesting once that slogging middle part is over with… once you get back to the actual mystery and away from Mary’s somewhat tedious mental problems. The ending’s not bad.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine revisited — I finally caught up with all existing episodes of this show (actually I watched the last two at release!), and wanted to mention a few updated thoughts.

The character-based humor was starting to get a little… not old, exactly, but like it would be old pretty soon… like leftovers on just about the last day they’re palatable. I love all these characters, and I love learning more about them, but eventually when you’re writing this kind of one-shot limited character-based humor, you either have to start recycling the same gags ad nauseum or reaching further and further into weird characterization that doesn’t necessarily fit with what’s already been established.

And precisely when I was beginning to think this, fearing this series I’ve fallen in love with was about to start getting really tiresome, they changed up the formula. Seriously, the timing was impeccable. It wasn’t a major change — merely a shift to slightly longer storylines, a slightly more serious tone at times, and a greater sense of continuity — but it was just enough to keep the humor fresh and me entirely interest. BRILLIANT.

That said, I don’t know quite how I feel about Gina getting hit by a bus.

Skyrim — Once upon a time, I tried this game at my uncle’s house. I played for a few hours and then stopped because I wasn’t enjoying it very much. Then lately, largely because of some ridiculously funny YouTube Poops, I started very much wanting to try it again… and since Amazon had it for $20, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I believe the reason I didn’t enjoy this game at my uncle’s was that I was looking for an experience suited to the few hours I had to play, whereas Skyrim is… yeah, if you want to play Skyrim, you need to be prepared for the long-term experience, since it’s rewarding in the short term largely in the sense that you’re setting up an epic with a payoff far in the future. You need to have leisure to get way into it, and I certainly didn’t at that time.

So obviously I’m enjoying the hell out of it now. In many ways it’s very much like Might and Magic VI, which I’ve previously mentioned as one of my favorite games — just Skyrim has the most gorgeous scenery and lets me be an orc. And in addition to really liking the mechanics (once I had the difficulty turned way down to accommodate my completely skilless button-mashing style of play) and loving the vastness of the beautiful open world, there are also (just like in Might and Magic VI) a number of (sometimes inadvertently) hilarious aspects to the game that serve to enhance my enjoyment.

First of all, there are, like, two and a half voice actors. It reminds me of He-Man and She-Ra when I hear a couple of ladies, maybe one kid (maybe not), and a dude doing various fluctuating accents and vocal stylings (not quite on a level with the affectations of H-M/S-R, of course) trying to differentiate characters, and it cracks me up endlessly.

Secondly, when you drop a bunch of things from your inventory all at once, they literally explode out from you in a ring of random objects, and it never ceases to be funny, especially if you’re in the middle of battle. Like, I’m laughing out loud right now just thinking about it.

Thirdly, you can put buckets on people’s heads. Why is this a feature in the game? I don’t know. Probably just to make me laugh.

And fourthly, making Lydia carry stuff. She says that longsuffering line every time, and it just makes me all the more eager to load her down with mushrooms.

Most of what I don’t love about the game is fairly nitpicky. It sure would be nice to be asked for confirmation when you push the “drop” button in your inventory… I don’t know how many times (before I started equipping weapons exclusively off the Favorites menu) I threw my bow off a high ledge or wall instead of equipping it because I was getting ahead of myself and thinking I was pushing the “ready weapon” button.

Also, it’s super irritating how they constantly put stealable items on the counters of shops just next to the shopkeeper you interact with by pressing the same button you use to steal stuff. Oh, thanks, Skyrim, you’re right — I wasn’t looking to conduct legitimate business with this merchant; I was looking for a totally unnecessary new bounty in my hometown.

My absolute biggest complaint about the game, though (and that this seemingly small matter is my biggest complaint shows you just how annoying it is, in case you don’t happen to be aware), is the dialogue that triggers whenever you near an NPC. I don’t mind at all when NPC’s have each a single line of dialogue, even if that line might be kinda stupid, especially in a world this big with this many characters; you talk to them once, realize they only have the one line, and never talk to them again unless you specifically need to as part of a quest or something.

What I do mind is characters spouting their stupid single line of dialogue every freaking time I get within seven feet of them, without my having indicated that I might want to talk to them, without their taking into consideration whether someone else nearby is speaking, without any notion of rational behavior. I don’t care that you help your mother sell fruits and vegetables, I already know because you tell me over and over and over again, and don’t you have something else going on in your life that you could mention ever???

Of course for city guards there’s a bit more of an excuse, and sometimes it even feels natural — like when I enter Dawnstar and the first guard I walk past remarks, “You’ve come to Dawnstar at a strange time, friend. Seems everyone in this town is having nightmares.” Relevant information a city guard might seem expected to give a traveler, right?

But sometimes even the guards like to chatter random trivia about their personal lives at me with no provocation, or call me a “sneak thief” and tell me to keep my hands to myself even though I’ve literally never once pickpocketed anyone ever, and of course there’s that damned “arrow in the knee” line referring to a bizarrely specific scenario that seems, improbably, to have happened to many, many guards all over Skyrim.

Sometimes NPC’s have fairly interesting conversations with each other that are worth listening in on — but since other NPC’s will have their Idiot Dialogue triggered just walking past you, whatever pointless bullshit they have to say is likely to make it difficult for you to hear the conversation you’re attempting to listen to. And if a character is in the middle of their Idiot Dialogue when you enter a building, they’ll freaking follow you inside just to keep saying it!! As if you haven’t already heard it a million times, or as if you care!! Seriously who thought this was good design????

It’s massively immersion-breaking, too. I don’t know how much immersion I could ever feel in a game with all the hilarity mentioned above, but this certainly doesn’t help.

Still, I love the game world. As aforementioned, I love how huge it is, and how many tiny little interesting places are scattered throughout. The points along every road where things randomly happen are great too, making every game-playing experience unique — and not just unique for each player, but unique each time each player plays it.

I have to admit, though, that when it comes to worldbuilding, a lot of things don’t quite add up. OK, maybe not a lot of things… mostly just the role of women in this society. This is something I tend to see specifically in video games — it’s something similar to Women in Star Wars Syndrome (wherein the ostensibly egalitarian nature of a fictional society is undermined by the narrative that takes place there), only less narrative-driven and having more to do with the significance of characters: though there are a lot of women in various roles throughout the land, most of the major movers and shakers, the characters of greatest importance or prominence, tend to be male (the Greybeards, Ulfric, Balgruuf, and Torygg, to name a few).

And there is some narrative-driven undermining, too… not so much in the major storylines as in more minor ones, and not so much in overwhelmingly oppressive story choices as in a certain feeling… like when you hear in some town about a woman being beaten by her husband. Obviously this is a thing that happens all the freaking time in real life, and would certainly continue to happen even if half the women around you in any given place were skilled with a broadsword or fire spell. However, when you hear something like that mentioned (and certainly never hear about a man being beaten by his wife {not that I want to; just as a point of comparison}), it adds a flavor to the storytelling that isn’t entirely in keeping with the seemingly egalitarian nature of the setting. It’s like the writers were more than willing to establish an egalitarian setting, but were still stuck in a storywriting mindset more appropriate to the less egalitarian real world, one that’s just as willing to make use of tropes oppressive to female characters and less congruent with the fictional world.

This is a subtle drawback and not a deal-breaker, but it’s interesting and sad to observe. It’s like the occasional hint of a foul smell in an otherwise perfectly acceptable olfactory landscape. Someday maybe I’ll find a video game without it.

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