According to public opinion Richard Adams wrote two books. You already know the first one. The Plague Dogs is fine: it’s audacious, tense, exciting, and well-written. But it’s not Watership Down, and reading it gave me a greater appreciation for Adams’ earlier book, because it demonstrates some of the ways Watership Down could have gone wrong.

Rowf and Snitter are dogs subjected to horrible medical research at a government laboratory. A careless janitor allows their escape, and they take refuge in the hills of England’s Lake District, preying on sheep to survive. Rowf is a weary, cynical mutt who’s given up. Snitter is a fox-terrier, half-insane from experimental brain surgery. Combine their parts and you would have a single healthy animal. Their odds of survival aren’t good, but Snitter (who fills the visionary role Fiver had in Watership Down) has a vague idea that he might have once had an owner. Is this true, or a ghost from the crack in his head?

That’s part of the book; another involves the scientists at the laboratory trying to contain the story of the missing dogs and instead throwing gasoline on the fire at every turn. Soon the dogs are believed to be carrying a strain of plague, and half of Cumbria is out hunting them with rifles.

The Plague Dogs is curiously indecisive, never very sure of what it’s doing. All at once it’s a grim satire, anti-vivisection propaganda, a “naturist” ramble through rural England, and a thrilling animal adventure. The parts often work on their own but don’t become a harmonious whole.

The satirical elements are the worst. The research lab Rowf and Snitter escape from is called Animal Research, Science and Experiments (ARSE), the dialog between government bureaucrats sounds like Yes, Minister, muckraking journalist Digby Driver makes Rita Skeeter seem like Truman Capote, and there’s a fat Fleet Street magazine editor called Hogpenny because he’s fat, etc.

The book’s as subtle as a gunshot to the face. The scientists at ARSE are almost comically evil, torturing animals on behalf of makeup and cigarette companies.[1]I was reminded of the Onion article New Ted Nugent Cologne Tested On ‘Every Goddamn Animal We Could Find’. I’m barely joking when I call the place “Pawschwitz”. Rowf and Snitter receive identifying numbers at the lab: this was already troweling on the Holocaust subtext a bit thick, but Adams also can’t resist telling us that ARSE’s Dr Goodner used to be Dr Geutner and used to work at Buchenwald, at which point it stops being “subtext” and starts being “whacking the reader across the head”.

Digby Driver is implausibly lucky; always at the right place, always meeting the right person, always having them say the right thing. He’s also stupid: after unmasking Goodner he blackmails him for information on the lab escape, even though a Nazi war criminal on the government payroll would be a far greater scandal than two dogs running across the countryside.

I expect that most of The Plague Dogs’ readers wanted an uplifting adventure story about animals, but there’s little of Watership Down’s optimistic spirit. Adams’ rabbits were as capable and resourceful as Navy SEALs and the book’s happy ending felt deserved, because Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver created it through their actions. Rowf and Snitter are just helpless mutts, relying on luck and a clever fox to survive. The Plague Dogs contains a lot of “the dogs are in trouble, deus ex machina!”

This might be The Plague Dogs’ biggest problem; the protagonists are animals but the story is controlled by humans. Rowf and Snitter can’t even understand (let alone influence) what’s happening around them, and they have a passive role in their adventure: they’re not heroes, they’re victims. To advance the plot Adams has to constantly draw back the camera onto the human cast, almost to the point where the dogs feel as abandoned by the author as Snitter was by his master. The Plague Dogs ends up being a cynical, dark 70s version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, full of stinking yellow journalism and bureaucratic corruption…and then every few pages we get a scene of dogs huddling under a bush.

Watership Down had the right idea by only giving us the rabbits’ point of view. Humans existed only as supernatural forces akin to Greek titans: inexplicable and terrifying intruders into the rabbits’ world. We didn’t need scenes of Berkshire politicians taking bribes and authorizing a construction project in Sandleford. That would have just thrown the spotlight in too many different directions and onto too many characters, diffusing the light. The Plague Dogs commits exactly this error, and becomes so much the murkier for it.

It also lacks the largeness of its predecessor, its mythical heft. There’s no equivalent to the lapine language, no counterpart to the El-ahrairah stories. The only fantasies are the ones coming from Snitter’s damaged brain – and these aren’t inspiring, they’re sad, because we know what caused them. Adams’ frequent show-offy allusions to classical literature seem out of place. The Plague Dogs is no epic in the mold of Virgil and Homer: it’s a bleak book about a bleak world where heroes don’t exist.

In 1982 Martin Rosen “adapted” The Plague Dog as accurately as he could. I remember gray. Endless gray. It’s the most depressing film ever made about dogs: at least Old Yeller spent most of his film not being shot behind a barn.


No Comments »

A goliath of the 90s. There are days when I think you could watch Akira, Perfect Blue, Redline, this, and then stop watching anime.

But it’s flawed! Few things this excellent contain so many problems. NGE is tonally disjointed: the early “monster of the week” episodes look cheesy next to the later psychologically-driven episodes. The plot is always unclear and often incoherent, full of mystifying exposition dumps (ep20: “We can surmise that Shinji’s body lost its ego border, and he’s floating in the entry plug in quantum form.” […] “All of the substances which composed Shinji are still preserved in the plug, and what could be called his soul exists there as well. In fact, his self-image is pseudo-substantiating his plug suit.”) that create far more heat than light.

The story – to the degree it’s comprehensible – is riven with logical issues and internal contradictions. NGE has plot holes that simply can’t be closed no matter how hard you try. Fans have been analyzing this show for twenty five years without success: utterly basic questions such as “what’s an Angel?” and “what’s [character] trying to do?” are still unanswerable mysteries that spawn 10+ page forum flamewars in their wake, with users quarreling over the definition of some Japanese word or conducting exegesis of an offhand statement made by Hideaki Anno in a fanzine interview.

It’s a credit to NGE that fans are willing to take the effort. It’s an indictment that they need to. There simply aren’t any answers to a lot of NGE’s questions: just provisional rules that change from episode to episode, and from media to media. Given that SEELE knows the truth of Kaworu’s identity, why do they tell him what’s inside Terminal Dogma in ep24? Why does he then act surprised at what he finds there? Why can’t he sense Adam’s location, the way Gaghiel can? Given that the Spear of Longinus can instantly kill an Angel, why doesn’t Gendo use it until the Arael battle? Why is SEELE so angry about losing the Spear when they can create replicas? Which souls are in which Evas? Which numbers belong to which Angels? Does Eva-01 come from Adam or Lilith? What’s with Gendo’s habit of sending out Evas one at a time to fight an Angel, instead of all at once? How is the Third Impact triggered? Anime in general creates a lot of fanfic. NGE all but conscripts you to make fanfic, because the only way the show makes sense is if you rewrite it.

Most NGE fans would concede that the show looks smarter than it is. All the allusions to Christian mythology and Freudian theory mostly just turn out to be decorative wallpaper in the end, unrelated to the show’s main concerns. Why are Ritsuko Akagi’s computers named after the Biblical Magi? Because it sounds cool: there’s no deeper meaning and there’s almost never a deeper meaning. Westerners wear shirts with Kanji letters without caring what they mean, and NGE does the same for the Western intellectual canon. This isn’t always true (there’s some surprising philosophical acuity at times), but NGE occupies an uncanny valley of fun. It’s too hard for people who just want to watch giant robots fighting, but has too many generic seinen elements for fans of highbrow anime like Serial Experiments Lain.

But NGE does a lot of things right.

At the risk of sounding ten years old, the fight scenes look great. Maybe too great – they were fires that burned through Gainax’s modest budget, forcing a restructuring of the show’s final two episodes that remains controversial to this day. Basically, Anno’s big innovation was to fuse the then-stale mecha genre with biology. The “eva” mechas (piloted by children such as Shinji Ikari as humanity’s last line of defense against dimension-crossing “angels”) are cyborgs created from the flesh of Adam, the first being. It’s strange how this tiny detail completely fixes the fundamental problem with mecha genre: you’re watching hunks of metal punch each other, which gets dull. Eva’s battles are visceral and satisfying. When a punch lands on one of Hideaki Anno’s nightmarishly-designed monstrosities, you wince: you feel the flesh being pulverised. No matter how outlandish or surrealist NGE becomes, it remains a gruesome mortician’s table of a show: focused on bodies and mortality. Being an eighty-foot giant is not a reprieve from suffering: it just means you rot all the more.

The visual design of the Angels is superb, and their variety allows NGE to have its fingers in many pies. Fights involving bipedal Angels have a glorious city-smashing kaiju/tokusatsu character, the insectile Matarael evokes the “giant bug” movies of the 1950s, the aquatic Gaghliel echoes It Came from Beneath the Sea, the space-based Angels could be read as references to Leiji Matsumoto’s spacefaring adventures, and the bodyless Angels allow for tense Outer Limits-style conflicts that are fought in a psychological or emotional domain. The bizarre Leliel stands out as a wholly unique creation – I’ve never seen anything like it before, either within anime or outside it.

The editing is also excellent, full of slam-bang intercuts, and deliberately jarring transitions. The abrupt black title cards alone are a NGE trademark. Anno has a talent for overstimulating the senses that can best be described as Artaudian: happy music plays over tragic events, we sometimes view shots from deliberately awkward angles, or lose contact with a scene just as we’re on the verge of understanding it. It’s very hard to be bored while watching NGE. The material on the screen is as infuriating and fascinating as an optical illusion or a mirage.

And although NGE often looks smart when it’s not, it’s also looks dumb when it’s not, too. Newcomers to the show (who might have been recommended NGE as a thinking man’s anime) are often struck by how it clings to the genre’s basest cliches. Partly this is because NGE rebuilt the industry in its image (Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu were influential in establishing the kuudere and tsundere archetypes, respectively), but the more gratuitous fanservice moments were embarrassing even in 1995. The basic plot (a fourteen year old kid gets to save humanity in a giant robot while hot girls fight over him!) is wish fulfillment from a kid who gets bullied either too much or not nearly enough.

But as the show progresses, you soon see what Anno is doing: commenting on the cliches of mainstream anime. There’s playful subversion – the way the stale “harem” setup gets deep-sixed by an implied male-male relationship for Shinji, for example. The show as a whole reads almost like a knowing parody: it’s mocking itself, mocking you for buying into it. Most of the characters reach a fate that’s very out of line for their pre-set archetypical roles (the “mother figure” is quietly and cruelly destroyed, the tsundere’s psyche is snapped in half, etc), and this must have been intentional. Anno was gathering every up cliche and stereotype he could, and then throwing it all off a cliff.

He was right to. Anime is stylish and fun, but it can also be very limited. Its aesthetic choices will rise up around you like prison bars if you let it. Go on Crunchyroll and contemplate the sheer sameness of anime. How many shows are being made with exactly the same story? How many magical schoolgirls? How many harems? There are other ways of being, other stories to tell, and NGE embraces anime’s cliches just so it can destroy them publically in front of you, like the Inquisition burning heretics in an open village square.

Some have described NGE as “otaku-therapy“. I’m not sure that I’d go that far, but there’s a strong sense that Shinji is supposed to be you. NGE‘s final two episodes ram this home with startling force: how much of yourself will you give up to belong? Shinji is offered a choice to become part of a hivemind, or remain his own person. He makes his choice. Certain anime fans make theirs.

And NGE absolutely does have things to say about philosophy. It integrates Jungian theory (shadows, masks, the subconscious collective) and Schopenhauer (the Hedgehog’s Dilemma) into the plot in a way that makes sense and feels natural. It’s clearly made by someone intelligent – so how to explain the show’s sloppier plot elements? You’d almost wonder if NGE’s story even matters in the slightest, or if its plot is just more disposable-and-disposed-of cliche. By subjecting its plot to logic, we might be putting decorative furniture under a vice and hydraulic press. Yes, it shatters, but they were never the load-bearing part of the house.

In a breath, I would say that NGE entertains the casual viewer (“robots fighting each other, dude!”), disappoints the deep viewer (“the story doesn’t make sense!”), and entertains the really deep viewer (those who look past the story altogether, and view it as a kind of referendum on anime genre itself, as well as the toxic fanbase.) There’s a lot going on in NGE, and you have to look past battling robots to see it. It’s an anime almost impossible to stop thinking about. It raises issues that stick in your mind like particles of grit, refusing to leave. Grit is irritating and painful, but pearls are forged upon such.

No Comments »

I dream that I alone will be saved.

The seven seals will break, seven trumpets will sound, and seven angels will pour seven bowls of wrath over the Earth. Humanity is being judged on some small, trifling virtue that I alone possess. The only people who go to heaven will be those who avoid walking on the cracks between tiles. Or only those who drink from mugs while gripping the mug itself, not the handle. Or the intersection set of the above groups. Whatever it takes. The point is, I want to be alone on the lifeboat when the ship sinks.

I built a PC in a Lian Li O11D Mini Case. For a girl. Let’s look at some pics. Of the PC. Not the girl.

The name is a little misleading. It’s called “mini” because it’s a smaller edition of Lian Li’s flagship O11 Dynamic, which launched in late 2020.

The O11D-m is still just about the biggest thing ever called “mini”, measuring 420mm long, 380mm high, and 269.5mm wide, and with an internal capacity of 38 litres. The most striking thing when building in the O11D Mini is that it’s deep. Often I found myself reaching around the far side to feed a cable through…and suddenly I’ve run out of arm. In the words of famed historical orator “your mom”, this thing has too much girth.

It’s not a small form factor case. It can fit an E-ATX motherboard, arrays of fans on four sides, a 360mm radiator block, and can accommodate a 310mm+ graphics card such as the GeForce RTX 3090 OC, unlike my wallet, which can’t.

My parts for this build:

  • Lian Li PC-O11 Dynamic Mini Tempered Glass Case Snow
  • Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti OC 4G
  • Kingston NV1 M.2 NVMe SSD 1TB
  • Gigabyte B550 Vision D-P Motherboard
  • Corsair Commander PRO Link System
  • Corsair LL120 RGB White Triple Fan Kit with Lighting Node PRO
  • Corsair LL120 RGB 120mm Independent RGB PWM Fan White
  • AMD Ryzen 5 3600 with Wraith Stealth
  • G.Skill Trident Z Neo 16GB (2x8GB) 3200MHz CL16 DDR4
  • Corsair QL120 ARGB 120mm 3 Pack with Lighting Node Core White
  • Corsair iCUE H100i Elite Capellix 240mm ARGB AIO Cooler White

My requirements were for a modular, low-end PC that looks attractive and can be used to play games such as The Sims and won’t need to be touched again for about ten years. The O11D has large tempered glass panels and offers high levels of visibility, but unlike most cases that contain a lot of glass or acrylic it’s not a thermal disaster. Low temperatures will help me extend the life of the parts. Heavy mesh on the top and bottom will cut down on dust.

It weighs a ton and feels solidly constructed. It also has an interesting design philosophy: the PSU isn’t installed above or below the motherboard, but behind it. The positives to this are legion: vertical real estate is freed up, and there’s no ugly PSU shroud. However, there are two tradeoffs: the case is very wide, and you need a SFX PSU.

The O11D Mini is also fully modular, arrays of fans can be mounted on up to four sides, there’s room for a GPU in both standard and vertical configuration, and everything on the back can generally be piecemeal’d together in a various arrangements (PSU, IO shield, PCIe cutouts).

There’s no air intake on the front panel – just tempered glass. I went with a “chimney” style airflow design, pulling cool air up through the base, over my hot components, and expelling it through the top (with a secondary outlet on the back.) I have far more “out” fans than “in”, meaning I’m creating a negative-pressure air environment inside the case. This will probably be OK, although it will make the dust problem worse.

I went with all-NVME because I didn’t like the HD cage (I unscrewed it and threw it away), and also because it made my cabling situation easier.

All my fans and RGB are from Corsair. I recommend buying all these parts from one supplier, because you avoid the issue of incompatible cables and separate “ecosystems” within the computer that won’t talk to each other. All of the computer’s lighting can be controlled with one piece of software: Corsair’s i-Cue.

Even though I made things as simple as possible, I still had nine separate fans, each of which had two separate cables (a four pin PWN cable and a 3-pin ARGB cable), equalling molto cable spaghetti. I routed this through to the back part of the chassis.

Where was I going to plug these cables? My motherboard has six fan headers and two RGB headers.

I used three separate controllers to link all of my fans: a Corsair RGB Hub, a Lighting Node Pro, and a Corsair Commander Pro. The first two connected to the Commander Pro, and the last one plugged into my motherboard USB. Some care had to be given here because Corsair wants you to plug your lights in series – they need to follow a particular order.

Another complication – where was I going to put the three controllers?

I wanted to use double-sided tape to stick them to the back panel – but there was no flat surface remaining inside the case. All the cutouts for the cables have inconvenient raised edges (meaning there’s no surface for the tape to grip), and the white rail in the earlier photo is too close to the back panel. Mounting a controller there would have meant I couldn’t close the case.

I found a pretty clever solution.

I should have taken better photos, but those two raised projections are not part of the original design. They’re from the hard drive cage I threw away. I was able to screw them on, giving me two flat surfaces to attach devices onto with double-sided tape. The RGB hub was comparatively small, and I stowed it on the plate the radiator attached to.

Here’s how it looked after an hour of zip-tying cables.

With the cable shield back on, it looked fairly tidy.

For the front, there was nothing too weird. I just stuck everything in, making sure to avoid weird runs of cables. The O11D-mini is great fun to build in. No matter what you want to do, the designers are two steps ahead of you and have allowed you some way to do it.

I powered on the PC, and it worked.

My only planned upgrade path is for RGB cables.

No Comments »