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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 4, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Fog, Games, Clarence Thomas, Austen biography

So we went to the Halloween Store on Battleground and went crazy. Well, I went crazy. But not so crazy that I didn't heed my wife when she looked at some of the cool disgusting things they had for sale and said, "You can buy it, as long as I never have to look at it or handle it as long as I live."

Since this would require that I buy a different house in order to decorated it for Halloween, those truly disturbing items remained unbought.

I did, however, buy a fog machine. The goal was to put it under my car when we had our annual trunk-or-treat party in the church parking lot. That would be cool, right? To have fog coming out from under the car, hovering over the ground?

Then our church canceled the trunk-or-treat party -- there was a scheduling conflict -- and so the fog machine became a device for our front porch on Halloween night.

It's good to remember that fog machines used on stage in concerts or plays are usually much larger than the small home-use machines sold to ordinary consumers -- and cost far more, as well.

The fog machine we bought worked fine, once we decoded the directions. For instance, the instructions made an oblique reference to ice -- but never said where to put ice or what it was for. Finally we realized that the tiny pellets drawn in one spot on the directions were supposed to represent ice cubes -- though proportionate to the drawing, they would have been ice cubes made in thimbles.

Anyway, even when I plugged it in and ran it, fully charged with fog juice and ice, nothing happened. I thought maybe it was defective. But I decided maybe it needed to warm up. So ... I let it sit for a while and then activated it using the hard-wired remote control.

That was the ticket! I nice puff of thick smoke came out and hovered low to the ground.

The trouble was, it would only pump out fog for about ten seconds. Then you had to wait a minute or two before you could do it again. Nothing in the instructions suggested this was how it was supposed to work, but then, nothing promised that it would be a continuous fog generator, either.

So we had the fun of puffing out fog whenever trick-or-treaters came up. If the machine was in the mood. Usually it was. I don't feel cheated; but I don't feel thrilled about it, either. We're keeping the machine. We'll try it again next year. But we won't count on it.

*

It's comin' on Christmas, as Joni Mitchell sang, and while some people hate that the Christmas decorations go up on Halloween night, I'm always impatient to get rid of the ghosts and witches and get those snowmen and Santas and nativities on display.

Which is why I'm already talking about games you might want to think of getting as gifts -- or as family activities for the holiday season.

Last Christmas, I pored over the "Games 100" issue of Games Magazine -- something you can certainly do for yourselves. Of course, it's really the "Games 200" issue now, because they review 100 traditional games and have another hundred electronic games on a separate list.

Last year I got our family so many games that we couldn't try them all. Those we did try, I've already told you about, the railroad-building game Ticket To Ride being the hands-down favorite among a very good list.

Some of those games, however, ended up stacked on shelves in the family room until this fall, when my wife said, "It doesn't make sense for us to buy any new games until we've tried all the games we got last year."

Thus, at the rate of about one a week, we've been trying them out -- and having a great time doing it. Well, usually.

Frog Juice is a fairly simple game of collecting cards, but with a Halloween motif. (But don't fret -- we've played it after Halloween and it's still fun.) The idea is that you are collecting ingredients for spells, or using magical powers to cast those spells.

Once you've taken cards, they are out of play and you can't lose them, so there are no sudden reversals. It's a game that kids as young as eight can enjoy, and that we adults had as much fun with as, say, Rat-a-Tat Cat or Uno. It's a pleasant time-passer, especially when the goal is for adults to play games with children that both can enjoy.

The game Ark looked like it would be a lot of fun. (If it hadn't, we wouldn't have bought it. Duh.) The animals drawn on the cards are cute. It's fun that there are animals in the pack that definitely did not make it onto the ark (dinosaurs, dragons, etc.).

The animals are either carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores; some thrive only in a cold climate, others need a warm climate, while others thrive in either. They are also divide into sizes designated by the numbers 0, 1, 2, and 3. And then there are the animals that have special attributes.

There are also cards representing cold-weather food and warm-weather food.

What makes the game fun are the almost infinitely complicated rules. These are also what makes the game nearly unplayable and often tedious. The "ark" is divided into chambers that can hold up the three animals, but you can only put them into a chamber based on these rules:

Carnivores cannot share rooms with herbivores unless the herbivore is larger than the carnivore. Herbivores cannot share a room with plants that they might eat. Cold- and warm-climate animals cannot share rooms. And then you toss in the special rules and real chaos begins.

I suppose if you played the game enough, the list of what can and can't share a chamber becomes second nature. But we didn't enjoy it enough to play it that far. I suspect that children will have an easier time remembering all the can'ts and musts than adults do; it may be a game that, like most videogames, you just turn over to the children with their quicker (but emptier) minds and let them have at it.

We realized after playing through it a couple of times that we would never come upon an evening when someone would say, "Let's play Ark!" There would always be about a dozen games we'd rather play. So despite the fact that Ark is well made with cute cards and pieces, it is going to Good Will.

Manhattan is a skyscraper-building game. On a board with eight cities, you can place building pieces that are 1, 2, 3, or 4 stories high. There are points for having the most buildings in a city, for having the tallest building on the board, and for having the most buildings under your control.

Like Ark, Manhattan has very specific rules about what can and can't be played on a particular building. For instance, you can take over a building by adding a piece to the top of it -- but only if, upon adding that piece, you will have placed a majority of the stories in that skyscraper.

Also, there are cards that control where you have permission to build. Think of them as zoning laws -- they're only a little more arbitrary and random than the zoning laws in real cities. Each card shows where, on a city's grid, you can place a building piece. Unless you have the right card, you can't add on!

There's a deft touch about the cards -- they are oriented according to where you're sitting. So when I'm holding a card, sitting in the North position, it allows me to build in a certain square in any of the city grids; but someone sitting in the East, West, or South position, holding the identical card, would each be forced to place their building piece in a different square in the grids.

It takes a few moments to get the system -- especially because the printed rules that come with the game are only in German. You have to go online to get the English-language rules of Manhattan, and it's obvious that the translation was not done by a native speaker of English. (You can find the rules at http://www.gamecabinet.com/sumoRulesBank/Manhattan.html.)

The game is actually a rather abstract three-dimensional variant of Go -- but I find Go tedious and this game quite enjoyable. We will play it again, and I recommend it.

Taluva is quite similar to Manhattan in that it's about placing objects on the table according to strict rules and collecting points by using the rules more cleverly than your opponents. There's very little luck involved -- it's all about thinking ahead.

The coolest thing about the game is the stacks of cross-shaped "tiles" that represent volcanos and the nearby jungle, rock, meadow, or lake terrain. In each turn, you place one tile and then place a building -- either a hut, a tower, or a temple.

You can either place your tile on the table, connecting it to the tiles already played, or you can set it down as a "volcanic eruption" -- you center your volcano over a volcano already shown, and then the other parts of the tile cover up and "destroy" any huts that are in the way.

I won't try to tell you all the rules of placement -- better just to get the game and play it. Here's the odd thing. Taluva's rules for placement are more complicated than Manhattan's, and may even be just as complicated as Ark's. But where Ark was tedious, Taluva is fun. Why?

Both games were designed to look great, and they do. Both require you to remember a set of rules and then find ways to work within them to achieve goals.

I suspect that what makes Taluva much more fun is that you can see your settlements grow and assess how everyone is doing with a single glance at the playing field. It makes sense right from the start.

But there is a bit of a learning curve. Sometimes you have to read the directions more than once to grasp what they're talking about. Once you have it, though, it's a lot of fun.

All these games are also very quick. If it takes half an hour to play Manhattan or Taluva, you must have been chatting a lot between turns. Games of Frog Juice take only ten minutes.

And games of Ark take no time at all, since we don't play them.

*

Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court was a watershed in American politics. It was the point where the Leftaliban showed that there was no depth to which they would not sink in order to accomplish even secondary political goals.

It's worth remembering that when America watched the Senate confirmation hearings, and saw for ourselves Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, we believed Thomas. Later, the Left pounded people with their absolute certainty that Hill was the "victim" and their incessant jokes about Thomas, so that many people now believe Thomas actually did something wrong.

But since then, we've seen the double standard very clearly. Bill Clinton, for instance, really did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, despite his denials and Hillary's accusation of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But the Left -- and the national media -- kept insisting that nothing had been proved until right up to the moment he finally confessed. And then they insisted that actually having sex in an extramarital relationship with someone he met when she was a White House intern was "private."

Compare that with the treatment of Thomas, who was impugned by only one witness, and that one completely unbelievable. Hill's behavior after the supposed harassment by Thomas was inexplicable if the harassment had really happened: She phoned him repeatedly after he helped her get her university teaching appointment; she spoke his praises to the people she met. No one corroborated her testimony except people who had other reasons to hate Thomas (e.g., he fired them for incompetence), and no one every made such accusations against him until after she had spoken.

It was and is obvious that Thomas was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, period; yet because he was a chosen victim of the Leftaliban, he remains an object of ridicule and scorn, while Hill is still invited to speak at Leftist universities and called for quotes whenever Thomas is in the news.

It was and is obvious that Clinton did everything he was charged with in Monica-gate, yet the people who caught him in his perjuries are still treated as if they were the criminals -- Kenneth Starr, for instance, was accused of all kinds of evil deeds, and Linda Tripp was actually prosecuted for daring to tape record her conversations with Lewinsky! Meanwhile, Hill, who obviously committed perjury, is treated like a hero.

Thus the Left has demonstrated an utter disregard for truth and law. Facts don't matter, laws don't matter -- all that matters is winning their point.

The odd thing about all this is that because I date the end of the last shred of honor among the Left to Clarence Thomas's nomination hearings, I have, without realizing it, avoided Clarence Thomas himself. He simply brings to mind a subject so painful that I prefer to leave it out of my conscious thinking as much as possible.

So when I saw his memoir, My Grandfather's Son, on the bookstore shelves, I thought, Good, I'm glad he's having his say. Then I walked on, without the slightest interest in reading it.

Until it dawned on me: Who is going to read this book? Certainly not the Left and their dupes and stooges, who have already passed a grossly false judgment on the man and therefore cannot permit themselves to treat him like a human being. And with the African-American community apparently in thrall to "leaders" who dare to say that black people who don't accept their political dogmas are "race traitors," will American blacks read this book?

There in the bookstore I reached the conclusion that I was the audience for this book: A white guy, middle of the road politically (except, of course, in the eyes of the lunatic fringe on both the Left and the Right), who knew that Thomas told the truth at his hearings, and knew that ever since then the Leftist national media was going to have to disparage every word, vote, opinion, or action of the man they had so unfairly victimized.

If I didn't read the book, I'd be succumbing to their campaign. Clarence Thomas did not cause me the pain that had made me avoid mentions of him -- he was the primary victim of those who caused that pain, and who continue to damage America and the world with their absolute devotion to lying as an instrument of power.

So I bought the book.

And guess what? Not till the very end of the book -- and I mean the very last few pages -- does he even tell the story of becoming a judge and of fighting the nomination struggle. That portion is simple, honest, and not vindictive, though he isn't shy about telling the truth on the worst liars (it makes you want to wash your hands after just thinking about Joseph Biden).

But most of the book is a powerful and moving story of a young black male in a country where that was far too often a capital offense. He was a victim of some of the worst problems blacks have had to overcome -- the white-inflicted problems of segregation and prejudice, and the self-inflicted abandonment by too many African-American males of their responsibility for fatherhood and husbandhood.

Thomas's story is an inspiration for anyone who has ever faced adversity. There were people who helped him, yes -- but they helped him because they saw him as being worth helping. He wasn't anointed from on high by do-gooders, he forced himself into their view by his own commitment to doing well -- and doing good.

Don't pick up this book because you've chosen sides in the great divide between truth and slander in American politics. Pick it up because it's a great story that deserves to be told. And if you're African-American, forget all the lies you've been told about Clarence Thomas. Read his story yourselves and then decide if you aren't at least a little bit proud to have this man sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States.

But you don't have to be black to admire and identify with Thomas. You just have to be someone who has been treated unfairly and didn't let it stop you from doing your best.

*

I already reviewed -- and highly recommended -- the movie Becoming Jane Austen. But I couldn't help being suspicious that all the best bits in the movie were simply made up.

That's why I had to buy Jon Spence's biography Becoming Jane Austen, to see just where fact left off and fantasy began.

Spence's book is a remarkably well-written biography. Working with the same data that has led several previous writers to create completely dull biographies of this fascinating woman, Spence was able to spin a completely accurate story that clearly distinguished between known facts and plausible speculations that fit the available evidence.

The book is compulsively readable. It's a model for how popular biographies of long-dead people can and should be written. And yet it never leads you into falsely believing things that simply can't be proven, though they seem likely. Always we are given Spence's evidence so we can decide for ourselves what to believe.

As to the movie, the verdict is: The climactic nearly-running-away scene is completely unjustified but could have happened; everything else either certainly did happen or might well have happened or happened, but not at the time shown.

In other words, the movie is way above average in fidelity to real history. Much more accurate, for instance, than Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan or JFK or An Inconvenient Truth, all of which purported to tell the truth.

But good as the movie is, if you have to choose between seeing it and reading the book it was based on, read the book.


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