Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett, 1989)

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Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett (1989).

Score: side-splitting.

For the last decade I’ve been told many times that I should read Discworld novels because they’re incredibly witty, funny and in general the greatest thing since bread came sliced. I picked up The colour of magic in part because there were selling it at the newsagent’s as part of one of those periodical collections and why not. Sort of enjoyed it but every other Terry Pratchett book I had picked up afterwards with the sole exception of Small Gods didn’t do the trick for me.

They had told me they were hilarious! But I was already thirty pages in and I wasn’t laughing, and the story wasn’t that great either. Now I feel there were several reasons that this was happening. One was that I was in a specially pretentious phase of my life and fun adventures were not what I wanted to devote my reading time to. Another was that either I was reading translations or trying to read the original but didn’t have enough English vocabulary to understand it.

The third reason dawned on me when I came across this post by Tumblr user blackboard-monitor. I had tried to start with The colour or magicThe light fantastic, Sourcery, Equal Rites and Mort, none of them generally regarded as a good entry point to Discworld. So I decided to follow her advice and pick up Guards! Guards!. And now it all makes sense.

Guards! Guards! tells the story of Sam Vimes, alcoholic, loser and captain of the (plumeless) Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The other two members of the Watch, Sergeant Colon and Nobby, were perfectly happy trying random house doors to make sure they were locked and not running too fast after criminals lest they catch them, while Vimes drank himself senseless, when they got an unexpected volunteer. Carrot Ironfundersson was raised by dwarfs but maybe he’s not one himself seeing that he’s six feet six. Carrot is also inconveniently fond and knowledgeable of rules and laws, and that might be just as well when Ankh-Morpork is attacked by a dragon summoned by the secret brotherhood The Elucidated Brethren in order to overthrow Lord Vetinari the Patrician.

Guards! Guards! is quite funnier than any of the other Discworld novels I’ve read except for Small Gods and I agree in recommending it as an entry point. Most of the funny moments come from the comments, eccentric descriptions and hyperboles on the part of the narrator, though the dialogue and story don’t stay behind. In this novel, the parody focuses on noir and detective stories as well as dragon-related folklore. Also there was a source of laughter I wasn’t expecting and that is Lady Ramkin. Though apparently she’s parodying high-class horse breeders, my family bred cats for over a decade and cat breeders are exactly the same. I was amazed at how accurate Pratchett’s portrayal of that world is, including Lady Ramkin herself.

If you don’t appreciate “genre literature” you’re probably not going to like any of Discworld, though you’ll have a hard time denying Terry Pratchett was an incredibly cultivated man. If you’re all for fantasy and folklore and not sure where to start with Discworld, this is an excellent choice. Also, try to read the English original if you think you can handle it because there is so much wordplay and untranslatable puns that even a great translation will not do it justice.

Homeland, Season 1 (2011)

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Homeland, season 1 (Showtime, 2011).

Score: outstanding.

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is a determined, hardly deterred by rules CIA agent who also happens to be taking treatment for a psychiatric disorder. While involved in the War on Terror, one of her sources tells her that an American prisoner of war has been turned. Ten months later U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued after he had been held hostage for eight years and left for dead. Following her gut, Carrie decides to put Brody under illegal surveillance as she’s convinced he’s a terrorist preparing an attack on U.S. soil.

If I have to say one thing about Homeland is that it’s cleverly written. The cliffhangers are well placed, the dialogue is natural (especially good in negotiation scenes) and mostly avoids exposition. The pace is almost perfect, never stopping, not giving away too much, not waiting too long to resolve foreshadowing, not spelling out everything for the viewer but not being unnecessarily cryptic or confusing. The good guys are flawed and make mistakes, but at the same time they’re mostly quite likable. The bad guys are human and their motivations are nuanced to go further than “we’re terrorists because we hate freedom, har har”. There are even a few instances of characters that look like stereotypes who are turned on their heads and presented as something more complicated than a sad commonplace (e.g. Prince Farid, Aileen Morgan). Despite being mostly a thriller, some run-time is devoted to the characters’ personal lives and their backgrounds. I know the show has been criticized for its portrayal of Islam and though I’m quite ignorant of it, it seemed to me that Homeland approached the topic quite carefully, both by presenting good and bad characters from different religions and backgrounds and by giving evil Muslim characters some character development, humanity and understandable motivations.

The main attraction of season one is whether Brody is a terrorist or not. And the tension is kept masterfully. For every hint that Brody is indeed a terrorist we’re given two that he actually isn’t. For every hint that Carrie is just delusional, we’re given two that she’s really on to something. Even when something looks crystal clear, you keep thinking: “but there must be more to this… the correct explanation cannot be the simplest one.” The last three episodes or so kept me jumping in my chair and fist bumping the air. I haven’t been so excited watching a TV show since Breaking Bad.

Technical aspects are okay, the only thing I hated in this area was the nauseating shaky handheld cameras that made no sense in almost every scene they happened. Everyone’s acting is natural and credible, but Claire Danes has everyone for breakfast every episode.

All in all, great experience and worth watching. Let’s see how long they keep it up, as it is very exceptional that any team of writers can keep writing this well for more than four seasons.

Birdman or (The unexpected virtue of ignorance) (A. G. Iñárritu, 2014)

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Birdman or (The unexpected virtue of ignorance), directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2014).

Score: The expected vice of snobism.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a forgotten movie star once famous for playing the superhero Birdman on the big screen. Decades have passed and now he’s trying to be taken seriously as an actor by adapting, directing and playing the main role in a Broadway production of What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver. Just a few days before opening night, an “unfortunate accident” happens to Ralph (Jeremy Samos), the weakest of the actors, and Riggan refuses to let the understudy take over. Fellow actress in the play Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests they hire Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is a talented method actor also known for being difficult to work with. As opening night approaches, Riggan is haunted by an inner voice of his that craves popularity, grandeur and admiration for his talent. A voice he’s very familiar with and tries to shut up.

Watching Michael Keaton playing the run-of-the-mill actor trying to come back and Edward Norton playing the insufferable method actor has a voyeuristic quality about it. I’m not sure if the casting decision is genius or so heavy-handed it’s not even funny but there’s that. All the cast does pretty good jobs.

The most striking feature of the movie is that it’s shot and edited as a false continuous shot, with only sixteen visible edits, which required perfectly timed and choreographed performances from the actors. Rope was made as a seamless shot for the suspense value of the corpse being at all times present in the room and played around with. Memento is edited in a chronologically inverse order in order to play with themes of loss of memory. Son of Saul is shot entirely following the title character around in order to have the audience sympathize with him. You might or might not like these movies but I think we can all agree that they used special editing for a reason. I’m still at a loss as to why Iñárritu chose to shoot this in a false single take other than “because he could”.

While the movie first deals with themes of ambition, obsession with recognition and awe from the mass, it later moves on to the ages-old topic of true art, how it is only attainable by me and my very talented friends and certainly by no one who ever made a living by playing a superhero, those abortions of the entertainment industry (1). I’m really tired of that conversation and as a fellow writer I don’t want to play that game. I hope Iñárritu is enjoying both his Oscars.

All in all, it’s not especially bad. But it’s not especially good either. Way to go, butchering critics for not risking anything and making a movie about who’s allowed to make good movies, instead of actually making one.

(1) I know it’s really off-topic but I cannot help but link to this video, which I found on this excellent article, where Robert Downey Jr. decided it was a good idea to counterattack by quipping “I think for a man whose native tongue is Spanish to be able to put together a phrase like ‘cultural genocide’ just speaks to how bright he is.” It’s such a kindergarten feud these grown ass men are having about troo art *affected gesture* that I can’t even. By the way, I don’t speak any English, I dictate all of this to a very intelligent donkey who translates it and then I ride it to work.

***SPOILERS***

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Cloud Atlas (Wachowski, Tykwer and Wachowski, 2012)

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Cloud Atlas, directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lilly Wachowski (2012).

Score: a kick in the balls to the original work.

So, here’s the thing. I really like Book!Cloud Atlas. It’s like one of my favourite books ever. I’m aware that not every adaptation has to cater to my tastes, so I did my best to be open-minded and patient with this movie, but it’s just a cumulus of bad writing decisions and fatal oversimplification of the source material. The Wachowskis have a talent for grabbing fascinating source material (sometimes their own) and butchering it into something that wants to appeal to the unthinking mass and also fails at that.

Film!Cloud Atlas is made of six different intertwined stories that come to show that everyone is connected and all actions have consequences. The stories range from an adventure in the Pacific in the Nineteenth Century to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii centuries into the future.

Book!Cloud Atlas is an extremely subtle and intelligent work. The six stories are very different from one another and feature characters with distinct voices, backgrounds and even living in different literary genres. There are underlying themes and symbols that connect the stories to one another, as well as foreshadowing and shoutouts that go back and forth. So apparently, the Wachowskis and Tykwer picked it up and went: “The moral of the story is that everyone is interconnected, so we’re going to make this as painfully obvious as possible!!”.

And how did they do that, you might ask. By casting the same nine actors in every role in the movie with very few exceptions. The original work features English, Maori, Moriori, Jewish German, American Latino, White American and Korean characters (and some of races yet to exist), and for some reason they are all portrayed by six white men, an African-American woman, an Asian woman and an African-American man. This means we are delighted with the sight of Halle Berry playing a white German woman, Hugh Grant playing a Kona (Pacific natives from the future, most likely not white), Tom Hanks playing a steroid-ridden, inexplicably East-European version of an English man and Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy all playing Korean characters. There is a whole section that takes place in Seoul and they only bothered to hire an Asian actress for the protagonist because hiring real Asians for the rest was too mainstream. It’s sad to hear Hae-Joo mispronouncing his own name. It’s even more humiliating to behold that Doona Bae appears in every segment too… as an unimportant character in the background so someone can check her off a list. To say nothing of the artificially aged characters. Rufus Sixsmith makes sense because he appears both as a young man and an old man, but why do we have to endure Hugh Grant made up to look like Denholm Cavendish? I thought we had learnt a lesson fromPrometheus… And when you think you’ve seen it all, you get Hugo Weaving and James D’Arcy playing female nurses. No demographic is a challenge to these chameleon-like monsters of acting.

It’s not only discriminating but also short-sighted and uninspired that they made these casting decisions. It’s not possible to blame this on marketing. You could get this movie greenlighted by having just Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent in it playing Luisa Rey, Zachry and Timothy Cavendish and then you could have properly cast everyone else. It would have been cheaper and also it would have employed actors belonging to minorities. And it wouldn’t be so embarrassing to look at. I’m not saying any of these actors are bad. It’s just that you can’t be good at everything. You cannot speak every language, master every accent and sure as hell you cannot be every age, gender and race. The correct choice is to step aside and let someone else play that role, someone who is the right person.

Book!Cloud Atlas is not so much about what’s going on as about how the characters are narrating it. The characters have different voices, biases and prejudices and they even live in texts from different styles and in different formats: a trans-Pacific journal, letters from a bipolar musician to his lover, a murder mystery, a comical autobiography by a grumpy old man, a dystopian adventure narrated in an interview and a post apocalyptic lysergic oral tale. If you’re going to adapt this into a movie, you have to deploy your whole arsenal of visual storytelling because you’re not allowed to tell these stories, you have to show them to the viewer. And Film!Cloud Atlas also fails at that. Timothy Cavendish is deprived of his snarky and unpleasant nature and having Denholm lock Timothy for sleeping with his wife deprives the whole story of any interesting complexity, though I have to admit the in-universe adaptation of “The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” was quite funny. It is never explained what a fabricant is and why Sonmi is in danger for having shared Yoona’s secret. Fabricants are given sexuality and their struggle is reduced to revolting when a customer slaps their ass (not that you shouldn’t revolt when someone slaps you without your consent, it’s just that it’s a revoltingly oversimplified reading of “An Orison of Sonmi~451”. You don’t have to agree with my reading to agree to this). The chase scene with Hae-Joo is ridiculous and the story makes no sense at all from then on. Sonmi is imprisoned for no reason and then she writes her declarations. Robert Frobisher is stripped of his intellectual erudition, which made a contrast with his psychological helplessness, while his storyline is watered down and melodramatized, taking away its complexity. Luisa Rey’s background as a writer relegated to writing gossip columns is gone, along with the recognizable tropes of a good noir story. On top of all that, this movie features one of the most idiotic lines I’ve ever had the disgrace to hear: “My uncle was a scientist but he believed that love was real– a kind of natural phenomenon.” I could go on and on about this but I’m afraid it’s already getting boring.

It has good things, mostly technical aspects. Special effects and production design are good, but that’s not enough to save the movie.

If my opinion is worth something, don’t waste your time with this. If it makes you look at the book with suspicion, please don’t. It’s a wonderful book.

No man’s sky (Hello Games, 2016)

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No man’s sky, developed by Hello Games and distributed by Sony Interactive (2016, PS4).

Score: we’ve all been scammed.

I had already sort of decided to not buy any more games in pre-sale a few weeks before No man’s sky was released but it turns out I had reserved it months ago, so not wanting to lose the deposit money and being a bit overly optimistic, I decided to buy it anyway. The collector’s edition. It came with a T-shirt.

The game dumps you on a random planet with a broken spaceship and tells you to gather materials to mend it. The tutorial is fairly non-invasive, which I liked a lot. It’s not one of those tutorials with an annoying mascot that goes: “Walk up to this rock and press A! Very good!! Now do the same with other twenty rocks!” It just lets you figure out stuff and if you die, well, too bad. (Spoiler alert: I’ve played five or six hours and I haven’t died once.) Once you’ve fixed your spaceship, you can take off and go to a different planet within the same system. There is an excuse for a questline involving getting a better engine so you can travel to other systems, which basically involves speaking to an alien janitor and getting a blueprint from them.

The only guide for stuff to do are milestones. Milestones cue you to walk around for as many clicks as possible, interact with aliens, learn alien words, hoard money, destroy other ships, destroy sentinels, survive in extreme conditions, visit different star systems, and discover every single species on a planet. So off I went. I really like playing the hoarder and the scrap merchant. Every game that I play that allows it, I pick up every piece of rubbish I find lying about, craft other items with it, sell it, trade it, enchant it, make potions with it, you name it. So I started scanning everything and picking up all the materials I could. It was fun, on the first planet. The PC walks really slow. But I didn’t mind because that means it’s realistic! Why would a space merchant be able to trot around for half an hour straight? I found a cave and got lost in it. It was really huge and contained a lot of minerals and animals I could scan, but after half an hour I realized there was no way I could find the way out. The game doesn’t have custom waypoints that I’m aware of and it doesn’t lead you out of caves or anywhere else. Waypoints are stationary and if there is a rock wall between you and your goal that’s too bad.

So I reloaded a previous checkpoint and promised I would be more careful with caves next time. I was kind of tired of this planet and my pockets were full, so I took off. The instructions for piloting the spaceship are meager, so I found myself failing and running out of fuel until I figured it out. It tells you to point to the sky and go. I assumed the process was at least semi-automatic, so I guessed the ship stopped tilting when it reached ninety degrees, but it turns out it doesn’t so I did a beautiful three-sixty and almost crashed my sorry ass on the ground. I managed to get out on orbit and my long-distance engine turned off when I ran out of fuel. So I was stuck with my short-distance engine, which is extremely difficult to tame, I assumed because of inertia and momentum. I wanted to go to a space station but was unable to because I kept falling to the bigger bodies that were around. I liked this realistic physics quirk until I figured out that if you turn off every engine you become stationary and then can aim for the body where you want to go, which means you also save a lot of fuel. Yes, you read it right. You can be stationary. In space.

For a game that bothers so much with being realistic in some points, it gets very silly in others. Your exosuit and spaceship have limited slots for carrying objects. The problem is that one tiny pearl takes up one slot, the same slot that can be filled with 250 kg of gold. No, you can’t stack pearls, I tried. I chose another planet and went down. Many of the specimens were exactly the same. I thought to myself that must be because this system is colonized by aliens, so it’s only natural that they brought species from their home planet and that’s why they’re here. You can also discover landmarks, which involves walking up to a beacon and powering it on. But if there’s a beacon here, someone must have put it there, right? How can I discover a place where someone else already laid a beacon? I found knowledge stones, which teach you alien words. One by one. Thank goodness it looks like the PC is very good at playing charades. Later I found alien beacons, which are like the most disappointing things ever. You get this flavour text where it explains that this beacon was placed by aliens to contact other species and you get immersed in their culture and history and when it’s done it says: “You learnt these aliens’ word for ‘parallelepiped’”. Thanks, that will be really helpful when I go up to the space station and try to barter with the alien there.

You can’t call your spaceship to where you are. You either walk back to it or use it to go half a kilometre from where you already were, which involves using up a quarter of your maximum fuel reserve just to take off. If you decide to walk, there is a very handy chronometer that tells you how many minutes of your life you’re wasting. Scanning specimens is also very annoying, because it doesn’t tell you how many there are. It just says something like “Flora: bountiful”, or “Fauna: nonexistent” when you land on the planet. These planets don’t look like they have different ecosystems at all so I’m assuming if you linger in a particular area long enough you’ll be able to scan everything. I wouldn’t know because the only scanning milestone I have I got by speaking to the alien janitor on a planet where there was absolutely nothing. Who sets up a post in a planet with no food or water? Seriously. Also, since it’s already clear that multiplayer experience is nonexistent, why do I have to manually upload my discoveries? The only thing that does is giving you money, so why would I not want to do that?

Once I had a jump drive I packed my shit and flew to a different system. Landed on a planet and that’s when I was convinced I had been cheated of my money. It looked exactly the same. The same marshmallow-looking plants. The same skittering creatures. The same minerals over and over. They just had spots on them or were a tad greener. The floating stones, for goodness’ sake. I don’t know if they added them because they looked cool or because the game went like “oh, I procedurally generated an ore of bronze in midair, how awkward”. I didn’t have to endure any bugs or crashes, thankfully, but there are plenty of videos of people who have.

There is no combat. Some animals might attack you, but the weapon you have is no fun at all. It takes ages to reload and it’s hard as damn to aim. There are no incentives to hunting, other than alerting the drones so you can destroy those too and get a trophy. No space pirates, bandits or scavengers. Damn, there’s more competition when you go pick up mushrooms in the countryside. And the mining laser overheats all the time–ohgodwhydoesitdothat?? So I have to spend longer mining this bloody boulder?

I haven’t played anymore. The game is there on my shelf giving me the puppy eyes. I don’t want to play it. Even if it weren’t the greatest thing since came bread came sliced I would play it a few more hours. But I don’t feel like it at all, I feel cheated of my time but more importantly of my money. It was a good idea, but sacrificing fun and playability to a quirky concept is not. Exploration as the main theme, great, but give it a 20-hour story mode or something, even if it’s not the main attraction. Give me more storage capacity if I’m supposed to be mining for resources and then trading them. Give me a reason to hunt, something to run away from, give me weapons, give me something to do other than shoot at rocks and scan the same small dinosaur over and over. Maybe it’s best to have a scripted universe where interesting things happen, or have a procedurally generated one that’s smaller and has more variety. I don’t know, there are many things that could have been done better.

It’s a game literally made by fifteen people (no, I’m not making that up) that’s been bloated to the size of a AAA and hyped shamelessly. Sean Murray, the Managing Director, had the nerve to stroll around the media telling lies about what the game would do. We were told you could do whatever you wanted with it, that you could potentially play with other people, that all the planets would be different and you could never explore them all. Where’s the becoming a galactic hunter? Where’s the becoming a bandit? Where’s the becoming a polyglot? Where’s the becoming a treasure hunter or miner? Where’s the fun?

It’s really sad that this is not an isolated incident. Developers and distributors are getting into a very nasty habit of lying about the games they are making and buying off professional media so people will buy whatever crap they’ve made. The game doesn’t have to be good. They just have to hype you enough so you will cough up the money before it’s too late. And if we keep buying into their crap, there are not going to be any consequences. Hello Games and Sony have my money and there is no way in the world they’re going to give it up. From now on, I’m not going to make reservations for any more games, I’m going to check out user and independent reviews and I’m going to let early buyers take one for the team. I’m not going to be the early buyer anymore, I’m tired of being made fun of. Scammed, more like.

Being positive, I now have a T-shirt I can wear to Silly T-shirt Day in my office.

Resources:

New disappointment discovered: No Man’s Sky by CrowbCat on Youtube.

El timo de No Man’s Sky by JinoGamerHC on Youtube. (Spanish)

Where’s the NMS we were sold on?, original Reddit post recovered in onemanslie.info.

The world’s end (Edgar Wright, 2013)

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The world’s end, directed by Edgar Wright (2013).

Score: the weakest of the Cornetto Trilogy but still worth watching.

The peak of Gary King’s (Simon Pegg) life was in the summer of 1990, when he was just starting his adult life and went on an epic bar crawl called The Golden Mile with his four best friends. They never got to the last of the twelve bars on the crawl and this has been bugging Gary ever since. Twenty years later, when all his friends are employed, married and moved to London, but he has stayed a free spirit, Gary decides to reunite the old gang for one more go at The Golden Mile. But the town of Newton Haven of today is hiding a terrible secret and Pete (Eddie Marsan), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Andy (Nick Frost) are going to be dealing with more than they bargained for.

The movie’s not half bad, but not as funny as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. The dialogue is not as witty, the gags are not as funny, the plot is a bit nonsensical and the narrative stalls much more than in the other two. Besides, the change in tone a third into the movie is going to be a deal breaker for a lot of people. As the huge nerd of sci-fi that I am, the tropes that Wright chose are not very attractive to me, which is not to say they’re not interesting tropes– this is more a matter of personal taste. The final duel with the bad guys I found not that satisfying, though I did like the actual ending.

That being said, you can tell this is the one that managed to have the biggest budget and especial effects, which is not bad in itself. I found Nick Frost a bit dull in this one, but I’m amazed at how funny Simon Pegg can be when playing wildly different characters. That guy is on to something.

All in all, worth a watch.

Hot fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)

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Hot fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright (2007).

Score: coptastic!

This love letter to buddy cop stories, whodunnits and police procedurals starts when outstanding London Met police officer Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) gets forcibly sent to a countryside village and paired with laid-off and childish fellow officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost). Sandford has the lowest crime rate of the whole country, mostly because their police station is very indulgent with offenders, but Nicholas is on to discover a quite nefarious plot…

Apparently, Wright and Pegg picked up Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary and crammed every single cop movie cliché they could in the script. And it shows. It will be difficult to single out every one of them, but the atmosphere is quite well achieved (also I was reading Guards! Guards! at the time so I was very well immersed in the whole crime genre thing). Everything that happens follows a very obvious trope and the only times that tropes are not followed it is because they are being parodied. It could be argued that the film is a bit too long and could have been trimmed here and there, but it manages to keep you with a smile on your face most of the time.

Simon Pegg is really funny as the uptight, virtuous cop as opposed to the manboy he played in Shaun of the Dead, while Nick Frost is there being Nick Frost. The environment is that very British and very endearing thing British comedies do that I absolutely love: my dad loves British comedies with a vengeance and I guess, like father like daughter.

Worth your time, funny, witty, not revolutionary but you’ll have a good one.

Without you there is no us (Suki Kim, 2014)

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Without you there is no us: Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite, by Suki Kim (2014).

Score: A unique take on life on North Korea.

Suki Kim is a Seoul-born naturalized American citizen who in 2011 managed to infiltrate a North-Korean university by posing as an Evangelical missionary and English teacher. What makes her book different from other nonfiction pieces about North Korea is that she’s one of the few foreign writers who has managed to infiltrate North Korea and gotten a glimpse of what the Juche doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s not the only one anymore, though: John Sweeney published North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State in 2015. Still, Kim’s book is an insightful read worth your time.

Kim taught English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, attended by the privileged sons of the elite. Despite that fact, Kim describes poor nutrition, lack of heating, constant blackouts and general dearth suffered by the elite of a country that boasts about being the best in the world in everything. Being the most brutal dictatorship in the world, the students weren’t allowed to visit or call their family or friends, devoted their spare time to forced labor and couldn’t say anything negative about their country, ask about the outer world or even suggest that anything could be better outside North Korea.

Kim combines her narration and description of the events at PUST with historical background of the Korean conflict through memories of her own family: how people were snatched into North Korea in the beginning of the war and never heard from again, such as Kim’s uncle on her mother’s side. How she as a South Korean longed for peace and reunification and how deep the wounds of separation run even in a Korean that emigrated to the US while still a teenager.

Kim mostly focuses on her young, innocent students. She describes how they systematically lie as a way of life, how used they are to watching their words and changing the subject each time it gets prickly. How they brag about impossible things such as having cloned a rabbit in school and how clueless they were about what was going on in the outside world, never having heard of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, LeBron James, Facebook or Twitter, and being vaguely aware of Harry Potter. I am really surprised at how much crap Kim managed to get past the radar, including newspaper articles on all of these, or maybe the counterparts were gradually exposing these future leaders to the outside world as part of their grooming. I have to admire Kim for her infinite sympathy and affection for her students. It could be easy to forget that these young men are also victims despite being so close to the top of the pyramid.

While most of the book focuses on PUST students, during the teachers’ rare and supervised outings to absurd museums and apple farms, Kim described being able to make out emaciated people working all day everyday on farms and factories, bossed around by government officials. Was that carelessness on the minders’ part, or is the truth of the country much more monstrous than that?

You might have noticed that there are two titles going around: My time with the sons of North Korea’s elite: a memoir and Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite. The reason is that, as explained in “The reluctant memoirist”, Kim’s editor insisted that her work be marketed as a memoir, due to the literary nature of her journalism and for sales reasons. “By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?”, Kim writes. When the book came out there was controversy about her methods, accusing her of betraying her employers for money, and the actual substance of her findings was disregarded. Despite being the first undercover journalist in North Korea and protecting the identities of everyone involved. Despite the fact that going undercover “is generally viewed as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame.

Though the accusations of deception and fraud endured, Kim won one battle: her book was no longer marketed as a memoir but as an undercover report. I really liked the style: she added personal insights but kept them separate from her narration and description of the events she witnessed. She is very careful to not make accusations and makes an effort to be as objective as possible. Literary journalism has been doing what she did for decades and there was never a problem. Did the backlash happen because of ignorance, because she was a woman, because she was Asian or all of the above? Hard to know.

To wrap it up, informative, unique an well-written. Worth your time.

Resources:

TED Talk: This is what it’s like to go undercover in North Korea.

“The reluctant memoirist” in New Republic.