Cool people in the house! With the continued shit-show that is daily existence for most of us, we’ve continued to turn to different creative media as a means of escape. Frankly, it’s one of the only things I know that’s keeping myself going these days as the remainder of it is predominantly just one unending scream.
As always, we want to hear what you’ve been up to! Talk to us in the comments or in our community group to join in on the conversation.
What We’re Watching
Yes, God, Yes (2020)
I’m a pretty indifferent atheist. Sure, discourse from the evangelical right fires me up like any card carrying non-believer. But I don’t really consider atheism part of my identity like some of my friends and the r/atheism crowd; it was kind of just the natural progression of my thought process the longer I considered the merits of religion. And even though I served as a deacon and scripture reader at church up through high school, my family were protestants who went to a congregational church, meaning there was a lot more of the “God is Good” talk than any fire and brimstone stuff (there’s even a gay pride flag hanging in the fellowship hall).
So suffice it to say, my time attending a Bendictine Catholic college near where I grew up was fascinating. I wouldn’t choose the same school again given the chance, but I valued my education, made some lifelong friends, and set myself up for my career. Can’t complain. But given my background, experiencing Catholic culture firsthand was a bit of a culture shock, even if I should have seen it coming before I ever set foot on campus. My experiences interacting with students, faculty, and monks (yes, we had monks) was truly eye opening. All the givens I grew up with among my friend group (pro-LGTBQ+, pro-choice, a lack of overt racism or dogwhistles, etc.) were sudenly very much up in the air everytime I met someone new.
This might have been a relatively brief, selective look into Catholic life, but Yes, God, Yes (2020) brought back waves of nostalgia about my time on campus. Karen Maine wrote and directed a brilliant look into the trials and tribulations of growing up Catholic, thanks in large part to the performance of Stranger Things actress Natalia Dyer. With brutal honesty and a great deal of humor, the film explained so many aspects of what I experienced among Catholic 20-somethings.
Dyer plays Alice, a junior at a strict co-ed Catholic high school in the Midwest in the early 2000s. Yes, that means plenty of nostalgic references to internet chatrooms, flip phones, and late ’90s alt-rock. Alice’s sexual awakening serves as the main focus of the movie, and specifically how that fits into her Catholic upbringing (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). As she attempts to embrace her sexuality in secret, Alice runs into a nasty rumor with a Catholic school twist, to the point where educators hear and believe the chatter in the halls. This prompts Alice to sign up for a retreat sponsored by the school, where her attempts to escape her urges end up backfiring. More importantly, she learns that the school’s puritanical messaging is being forced on her by imperfect people (or in another word, hypocrites).
Dyer’s young demeanor and performance help the 25-year-old sell Alice as the perfect protagonist to show us the natural consequences of sexual repression. But more importantly, Maine provides an excellent script to help drive this point home. The comedy she includes throughout the movie always has a bit of a dark underbelly; while you’re laughing, it’s hard not to cringe at the thought that Catholic leaders and the kids they’ve taught have genuinely said and/or believe these kinds of things. Most of it revolves around sex shaming, which always seems to be directed at the girls in the movie while the boys get off much more easily.
But beyond sex, the movie takes subtle shots at the opressive, “adults know best” approach of the Cahtolic church, and how that permeates into Catholic households. During conversations with her dad, it’s clear that Alice is expected to attend church every sunday (at least), even when she goes off to the local state college that he assumes she’ll attend so she can be close to home. And of course, the dynamic of fear Alice has between the head priest at the school and the lead school administrator is pretty unsettling, at least as someone who went to regular public school.
Even though I laughed and cringed in equal measure, I think that’s what makes Yes, God, Yes so successful. It’s an honest portrait that’s perfect for reformed Catholics and non-believers alike. And with a runtime just over an hour, it’s easy to rewatch and pick up on some subtle comments you missed the first time.
What We’re Reading
Marge Piercy – He, She and It (a.k.a. Body of Glass, 1990)
Despite having been well-regarded enough at the time of publication to have inspired an entirely new (if rather dubious) subgenre of utopian scholarship (see Lyman Tower Sargent’s “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited” (1994)), Marge Piercy’s He, She and It has fallen into relative obscurity, especially compared with her more well-known and (perhaps overly) revered Woman on the Edge of Time (1975). Which is a shame, because by far the superior novel and – as I have discovered upon revisiting – one of my absolute favourite books of all time.
The elevator pitch on the novel – published under the better-sounding, although less descriptive title Body of Glass outside the US – is that it’s a cyberpunk retelling of the Hebrew Golemn myth about a cyborg who reads Frankenstein (1818/31) and has sex with cool old hacker ladies and their daughters but, of course, it’s far more complex than that. The book provides a kind of “missing link” between Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam series (2003–13), which shares a lot of its setting and symbolism – except it’s much better and more refined than either.
When I first read He, She and It late last year, it was the best book I’d read in years and it more than retains that honour twelve months later. It’s rare that I re-read a book for fun, let alone within the span of about a year or two, but when Audible released an audio version of it last month, I jumped at the chance to revisit it and I’m sure I will again one day soon. Revisiting the novel has confirmed that it is indeed an absolute all-timer for me, that might be right up there among the absolute best books I’ve ever read. There are so many superlatives I could throw at it: It’s easily the best cyberpunk book I’ve ever read and handles the genre’s philosophical qualms and curiosities with far more depth and nuance than the genre is usually capable. It’s also maybe the best Frankenstein adaptation/retelling, with only H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau – another all-time favourite of mine – to challenge it.
Audible literally just released a new audio version of Woman on the Edge of Time, for anyone who wants to check that out. Also, turns out Piercy wrote a third science fiction novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), which I shall begin reading immediately. Judging by the blurb – which promises a story about “four teenagers” occupying their highschool in protest against the “military draft and ‘the system’” – I doubt it’s going to be as good as He, She and It, but, as I’ve pointed out at length above: little is.
What We’re Listening To
Over the fall, I worked on several different projects, in the great Jordan Jerabek’s words, “to save democracy or whatever he’s doing.” While I was actually pretty excited to work on these projects, the month of October completely drained me. After election day, a little Pete time was long overdue. And when I need some time to myself, I turn to great works of history. The denser the tale, the better. With that in mind, I have to very, VERY strongly recommend the Revolutions podcast.
Creator of the show Mike Duncan originally started podcasting with his award-winning History of Rome podcast (which I’ll absolutely tackle someday myself). When it ended in 2012, he came up with a new idea: teach everybody about the cascading series of major revolutions. He’s covered the big ones: the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution (which, hoo boy, I forgot how all-encompassing it was), and currently making his way through parts one and two of the Russian Revolution.
In addition, he’s covered the Haitian Revolution, Simon Bolivar and the South American revolutions, and even just politically unstable eras such as the following 2 French Revolutions in 1830 and 1848. You might think the guy had to give something short-shrift along the way, but Duncan manages to dig very deeply into every aspect of these revolutions. At the same time, Duncan also knows what to tell you and what he can skip over. Many times I found myself chuckling for no reason when Duncan says something like, “And one of the politicians stood up to speak in support, but his name doesn’t matter and he didn’t do anything else so who cares about him.”
The main reason I’ve been checking him out is that I’m very interested in finding parallels between historical periods. Duncan is equally interested in the concept as recurring figures and ideas get special notice whenever they come up (looking at you, Marquis de Lafayette). The Revolutions of 1848 come to mind, as do both the American Revolutions and the English Civil War. After all, those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it. I’m doing my part to learn all I can so we don’t repeat these mistakes. Check it out on whatever podcast app you’ve got.
What We’re Playing
Art of Rally
Art of Rally
“To do something dangerous with style is art.” So sayeth the giant Buddha statue that welcomes you to the beautiful world of Art of Rally. The game is immediately enticing: a gorgeous, technicolor world awash in soft, vibrant palettes and an unobtrusive synthwave soundtrack set the stage for what appears, on its face, to be a relaxing and meditative take on the recent wave of arcade-style driving games with retro aesthetics. The camera’s bird’s-eye view gives you a wide, disconnected scope; the road below gently caresses your car as it sits at the starting line. You can count the polygons on most cars and environmental objects as the music gently pulses, the background a serene and idyllic sunset over a Finnish lake or a crisp blue sky above Italian wheat fields speckled with white and red flowers. It is a pleasant, chilled mood par excellence. However, get into your first race, and you’ll immediately find that Art of Rally is anything but relaxing until you have a solid understanding of automotive physics.
I would hardly call this game demanding or punishing in the same way as more serious racing simulators – you don’t really need a steering wheel setup to do well – but Art of Rally is certainly a game that expects a serious time investment from players who seek to master its mechanics. The cars buckle out from under you and spin with frightening ease, especially on icy or wet roads, and understanding braking is just as much a part of your technique as knowing how hard to lean into a turn. As you grow to know your car – its specific engine, its sensitivity and turn radius – you begin to get a feel for how fast you can throw it around a corner, how far in advance to start leaning into a turn, when to slow down or just slam on the brakes and drift through a switchback. It’s exhilarating. I struggle to find times in games that I’ve been as thrilled to execute something so simple as I feel when I successfully calculate a drift in Art of Rally.
What you eventually realize about Art of Rally is that while at first the game’s challenging physics and laid-back style may seem contradictory, they intersect at the exact point developers Funselektor desire: the entrance to the flow state. The art style, gorgeous as it is, is supremely easy to read above all else, feeding you information well in advance and allowing you to plan your speed going around a corner with clarity and precision. This, combined with the level of moment-to-moment attention the game’s difficulty demands, quickly meld together into a singularly enjoyable experience of flow, that feeling of full involvement and complete focus on the task at hand. And once Art of Rally’s got you there, you truly do understand the artistry of the experience: you learn, you develop technique, you practice, and finally you achieve. It’s no small investment but the reward is genuine skill. It takes time, but once you’ve become the game’s eponymous artist, this is a nigh impossible game to put down.
My continuing exploration of non-FromSoftware “Souls-like” offerings has led me this month to Immortal Unchained, a little-known and severely underrated effort by Toadman Interactive from 2018 that was doing the “Dark Souls with guns” thing well before the lauded Remnant: From the Ashes (2019). While Remnant certainly feels better to play, Immortal Unchained sticks more closely to the Souls formula, presenting the player with sprawling, hand-crafted levels to explore and challenging enemy patterns to memorise and master, rather than essential boiling down to a procedurally generated, Resident Evil 4 (2005) style shooting gallery.
Immortal Unchained is maybe the hardest and most frustrating Souls-like I’ve come across so far. When I first dipped into it – a few months ago, before starting Mortal Shell (2020) – I bounced straight off it, and it’s taken me a while to come back. I think this is more the game’s fault than mine. For all its eventual glory, Immortal Unchained really doesn’t put its strongest foot forward. The game’s opening areas are really bland, and often infuriatingly difficult until you manage to acquire some more advanced weaponry, which doesn’t really open up until the mid-game (the “Emerald Monitor-Gun” was an absolute gamechanger for me). Hot tip: one you find a weapon you like you want to be upgrading it as much as possible, don’t hold onto those upgrade materials!
The game has its shortcoming. Along with the difficulty curve, which often relies on cheap ambushes and save-point traps, most sections are far too long and repetitive and some of the enemies utterly unrelenting. It’s also pretty buggy. Playing on PS4, it crashed completely a few times and I found myself having to resort to the game’s kindly provided “cyanide pills” more than a few times after becoming irreparably stuck in the geography. The game even skipped one of the major bosses entirely, after quitting out and going back he just wasn’t there anymore, and the next gate was open. I’d got him down to under a quarter health though and really wasn’t too fussed about skipping over him and getting on with the exploration, having already experienced the bulk of the fight.
All in all though, I really enjoyed Immortal Unchained; so much so that I immediately bought the “Storm Breaker” expansion upon beating the final boss, which is currently driving me nuts with its pesky scorpions, but keeping me hooked with its spectacular environments. Interestingly, the game draws more from Demon’s Souls (2010) than its more well-known progeny with its sectioned off areas and slower, more deliberate pace, and has some surprisingly solid lore and a cool meta twist to boot. Highly recommended, especially if you, like me, can’t yet justify shelling out for a AU$700 PS4 and an extra AU$120 to play Demon’s Souls with a new set of paint. Just know what you’re getting yourself into: the Apexion staircase be damned!!!!
[Update: the DLC is trash and the Drowned Commander can bite me.]