Friday, July 14, 2017

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

It's time to revisit the Laundry Files series; I did an overview of the first five at one point, but it's now time for the eighth volume in the series, followup on The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks.

I've overall been a fan of the Laundry books, although I did think that overall the third and fourth books were the best of the bunch.  The first two were written before Stross had an overall arc or overarching plot in mind, and with a couple of exceptions the events of those books are generally glossed over as the series continued to find its own voice.  And while I liked many things about the more recent ones, I also felt they came with serious drawbacks and plot holes.  Therefore while I was always up for reading a new Laundry novel, I wasn't considering them entirely essential.  So I was pretty happy to discover that The Delirium Brief was the best one in years, and may be the best one yet.

However, it also requires a pretty thorough knowledge of events occurring in books 3-7; it's possibly the worst starting point that you could imagine.  And I'm going to proceed to talk about why I liked it so much, which involves ruining the (well done) plot twists, so if you want to read it without spoilers please go do so now and then come back when you're finished.  This will be here when you get back, after all.


All right.  One of the things that I've always liked about Stross is that he's one hell of an idea guy, and also one hell of a logical implication guy.  He comes up with some pretty nutty stuff, and he's also prepared to follow chains of reasoning to likewise unusual ends.  Unfortunately, the thing that I tend to like least about him is that he will get more interested in a new idea and drop what he's working on.  The last couple of Laundry books have had endings that can charitably be described as "abrupt" and uncharitably described with worse invective; they've also suffered from a tendency to info-dump and build unreleased tension.  As a result you tend to look forward to the next one as resolving some of these issues and then it just . . . never ends up happening.  It also seems like at least some of the recent ones have been early drafts without much revision.  For instance, in the recent case of The Nightmare Stacks this led to a frankly bizarre love subplot.  In order to work properly, the characters needed weeks or months to interact, but the demands of the main plot (an invasion of alternate-dimensional humanoids) made it happen over the course of days.  There are other issues like this throughout books 5-7, although overall they're pretty interesting.

Here, however, Stross had to go back after the Brexit vote and do a substantial rewrite of this one.  I'm not sure what exactly he needed to change (since the book takes place in an alternate 2014, before even the Scottish independence referendum), but he felt that the political situation called for it, and as a result this one is much, much better flowing than the last few have been.  It begins right in the aftermath of book 7, where over ten thousand have died following the destruction of Leeds following the invasion of the alternate-dimensional elves.  The UK government looks really bad and now they've come to have knowledge of the Laundry, that secret, hidden agency which deals with occult defense.  Accordingly, the government promises to bring them to heel and to accountability. 

For a cosmic horror novel, this one also hits a fair bit of everyday horror as well.  Bob Howard starts out by meeting with a US Postal Inspector (occult text division) who basically states that the US government has already fallen.  To what, we don't know, but apparently it's so bad that even other horrible monsters are afraid of it.  No saving throws, no additional warnings, no last-minute desperate fighting.  Just a fait accompli.  Perhaps this was the subject of the rewrites, and the comparison to modern politics is depressing.  You just turn around and suddenly your government is under the control of eldritch abominations.  I can relate to that.

Before long, Bob's been called in to testify in Parliament and on TV.  At first this looks like the civilian government is going to reassert control in a staid bureaucratic fashion, but then the decision is abruptly made to shut the whole thing down and hire external contractors to perform these functions.

As omniscient observers, we can tell this is a really awful idea, for two main reasons - first, we know and love all those scamps who work at the Laundry, so we know that they've really got the best interests of the realm at heart.  And second, which is a pretty big one, is that the proposed contractor is affiliated with Reverend Raymond Schiller, who is (gasp) an American and (double gasp) the slave of the extra dimensional soul-eating horror known as the Sleeper in the Pyramid.  Schiller even being on this plane is bad news since as of the end of book 4 he was stranded on a dead plateau on an alien world.  As it turns out he's not dead, but he's not exactly just Schiller anymore in there either.  (Schiller's also got version 2.0 of brain-controlling parasites that have moved on from just eating tongues - there's some really awful body horror going on in this one.)

However, the Laundry has always worked in the shadows and the critiques made of their operations and methods are actually pretty reasonable.  They've never managed to get any support from the press, from Parliament or from the public, and much of what they do is frankly not believable.  What did they think was going to happen on that inevitable day that they were forced into the spotlight, with no allies?  They knew that day was coming - they had Pete working on the civil defense plans - but they never adequately prepared.  And they came to widespread public attention following a massive disaster that killed thousands of people, so they look incompetent as well.  Although the government is making a very serious and in fact existential mistake, it's not done entirely without reason.

This leads back into my previous observation that Stross is good at implications; he's also good at misdirection.  He's led us into this false sense of certainty that the Laundry are the good guys here.  Yes, they are defending humanity against creatures that would happily devour the lives and souls of every person on earth.  No, they don't go to the extremes displayed by their American counterparts (the OPA, a/k/a the Black Chamber) which extensively uses demons and violence.  But we've always known that they make their employees take a binding oath which compels them to both secrecy and obedience.  At first this seems like a joke on overbearing workplace practices and maybe played for laughs a little bit, but if you really think about it that's amazingly scary and obtrusive, not much different from the slavery of the Black Chamber.  And as it turns out when the organization disbands the very first priority of the senior-most members is to figure out how to re-bind all of their employees.  You know, with soul-destroying oaths.

Bob quickly finds himself on the run, using the organization's remaining resources to accomplish a couple of missions and try to prevent Schiller from taking over (first) the government of the UK, and (subsequently) the entire remaining population.  He takes the new oath administered by the Senior Auditor and obeys his mission directives.  Here's a few things he doesn't consider - becoming a free agent.  Approaching the media.  Renegotiating the employment agreement that he's got, or reconsidering how the Laundry is organized.  Even choosing to die is an option.  But no, he simply does what the Senior Auditor tells him to do, which is probably his reflex by this point since he hasn't really had any choice in the matter up until now.  And in so doing he crosses his own personal event horizon from which there's probably no going back.

There's no good guys left in this novel, so at the end it's a pretty hefty gut punch when you realize that they've managed to stop Schiller but only by utilizing methods that are - at best - equally extreme as the threat they averted.  And we've confirmed that Bob maybe isn't really Bob anymore, or perhaps more accurately that he's still Bob-shaped and was once Bob.  I have been more annoyed than anything with the cliffhangers and non-endings but this book managed to wrap up its primary plot and still tease effectively.  I eagerly await the stories to come of Bob under the New Management; although, at this point it's pretty clear that when they talk about the end of humanity when the stars come right, they really mean it.  There's no more shutting-down-the-portal-at-the-last-minute safety to be had.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone

Interesting - it's been exactly one year since my last post.  Naturally I knew it had been a while, but just couldn't bring myself over to check.  It was about that time that I was really getting concerned about the election, and then following the election I wasn't really motivated to do much of anything for a while.  Plus we had a new baby to look after, and a larger not-baby who still needed some affection and assurance she wasn't being replaced, and entropy in the house, and work, and one thing and another.  In other words, typical life stuff.  Still no excuse, I suppose.

Nonetheless in the interim I did at least read sufficient stuff for another few years of posts.  Having utterly failed to finish up the Hugo nominees of 2016 I'll just move forward and talk about something that I enjoyed immensely and didn't know that I wanted to read until I did.

The Craft Sequence encompasses five novels (for now, there's a sixth coming soon), which are written out of chronological order but have helpfully indicative titles to let you know where you stand in the order of things.  Three Parts Dead, the first written book, is therefore the third sequentially, while Last First Snow, the fourth written, is something of a prequel.  They're all available on the Kindle store at really reasonable price points.  I suppose that the genre that you'd classify these under would be "urban fantasy", but what Gladstone has done here is explicitly analogize magic to the corporate form.  I've seen books where magicians are ninjas, kings, computer programmers, even just generally geeky, but I've never seen one before where they're explicitly lawyers or CPAs.

I'm not the sort of attorney that works at a large corporation or a huge corporate firm, but I'm familiar enough with the pressure to constantly bill more hours.  Admittedly my clients pay in good old American money and not souls, but the concepts is there.  In the backstory, there were once gods that ruled the land, and granted their worshipers with various blessings in exchange for their prayers.  And, in at least some cases, sacrifice.  The priests of these gods got some explicitly supernatural powers and Applied Theology was where it was at.

Until, of course, some enterprising souls discovered that pure human will and the power of starlight was able to perform Craft, allowing the supernatural with no god required.  The subsequent God Wars saw the gods broken and many even destroyed, and the Craftspeople ascendant.  At this point they had to sit down and actually rule the land they'd taken.  The most powerful of them transcended their mere flesh and became the Deathless Kings and Queens, immortal, unbelievably potent liches of pure magical might.

Most of this is experienced from the ground level, as it were.  The main protagonist of the first novel, Three Parts Dead, is a recent <ahem> "graduate" of one of the Craft schools, owing student loans of several dozen souls and hired on to a firm to perform a resurrection of a dead god, a task she has to worry is somewhat beyond her.  An experience totally familiar to anyone in their first professional job, if not exactly in details.

What I really liked about this series is that it tries very hard to be even-handed.  The Craftspeople definitely had some legitimate beefs about the gods, particularly those where human sacrifice was performed, so it's easy to assume that they're the good guys here.  However, there's a streak of Nietzschean will-to-power pervading the practice of Craft; many practitioners aren't especially ethical or moral, and at least some of them rule as harshly as the gods ever did.  Plus Craft is really cool and all but it runs on entropy, so heavy Craft use is making the world gradually uninhabitable.  Divine magic (being magic) doesn't have that limitation.  Some of the most unscrupulous Craftspeople are actually trying to hasten the destruction and reach out to the stars - leaving the rest of us in the lurch.

One interesting geographical feature is the desert city of Dresediel Lex, formerly ruled by sacrifice-demanding gods who also enforced a strict caste system.  They probably didn't notice or even care too much when selecting the lover of some low-class schmuck named Kopil for sacrifice; if they'd known he would become the infamous King in Red they might have maybe thought about it a little harder.  But unlike the gods, the King in Red can't just make it rain by divine will and his city is constantly growing.  As a result he's burning out more and more surrounding water and hoping to continue to buy time to do . . . something.  Do Phoenix, Las Vegas or L.A. ring a bell?

Kopil's actually something of a standout character.  He's first seen in Two Serpents Rise as a generally benevolent figure, but you have to reconsider him after Last First Snow where he puts down a revolt with excessive force, albeit for somewhat understandable reasons.  Despite his incredible power he's got a bunch of complexes, and most of his friends don't call him back anymore.  If you've ever wanted to read a book about a depressed, gay, immortal skeleton mage then this is the series for you.

I do have some questions about just how powerful the practitioners of Craft can be - even fresh out of school they're so mindbogglingly tough that it borders on unfair.  And, for that matter, like most books involving magic, some of the conflicts are resolved in unsatisfying fashions by methods that weren't previously explained to be possible.  Nonetheless, I liked many of the characters, I liked the world, and I liked the idea that first-years at Craft firms have to work nights and weekends to get enough billable hours to satisfy their dread masters.  And there's enough analogy to think about but not so much it beats you over the head, or even really gives you the suggestion of an answer for that matter.  Definitely good beach reading, if there's a beach in your future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I had a half-finished version of this one sitting for months, and couldn't bring myself to complete it until now.  But I'm going to talk about the four Hugo best novel nominees that I read this year, dammit, and this is one.

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

So begins Neal Stephenson’s latest opus, the first line of his by-now-usual 880-page bricks full of so many ideas that any attempt to summarize the thing would probably end up nearly as long as the novel itself.  And it would be no sin if it simply failed to live up to that first sentence, because honestly how could it?  That’s possibly the best first sentence in all of SF, if not literature generally.  Or at least not that far off, anyway.

I reviewed Reamde some time ago, and summed up there my general feelings about the trajectory of Stephenson’s work, which is to say that I personally consider it somewhat erratic and less essential now than of late, although I really did like much of Anathem and didn’t consider Reamde to be outright terrible.  But here Stephenson has done both many good and many bad things, intermixed so tightly that it’s essentially an azeotrope of wonderful and questionable.  I honestly don’t know what to think about the whole thing, or whether I should tell people to run out and get it, or stay far away, or maybe to do both at the same time. 

Massive spoilers ahead, by the way.  If you don’t want to know, quit now.

Anyway, Stephenson has basically delivered three books into Seveneves for the price of one (big, fat) book.  The first is an interesting technical examination of the end of the world.  The second is a harrowing psychological horror story with an SF background.  And then the third is a very strange SF future novel.  They don’t co-exist well, and why would they?  They’re practically different subgenres.  And although each one is individually well executed (well . . . maybe not the third so much), cramming them all together is like trying to mix toothpaste and orange juice.

Anyway, the moon blows up without warning and becomes seven moonlets, plus a bunch of dust and rocks and crap.  At first everyone thinks this is not a big deal, since gravity is still in effect in the universe, so the seven pieces are basically in the same place as the moon has always been.  Then the pieces start smashing into each other and making more pieces, and now all of a sudden the scientists of the world realize there might be a problem.  The scientists of the world are represented by one Dr. Dubois, who is an obvious stand in for Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (Many of these characters are obvious generic versions of real-life individuals, such as Dubois, another character who’s sort of a combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and a girl heavily inspired by Malala Yousafzai.  This is a little strange to read, honestly, since such topical characters are not exactly typical for Stephenson.)  A discussion of the orbital mechanics of these various collisions is above my skill level and pay grade, but it seems reasonably plausible.  The upside of all this is that the debris will eventually create a nifty ring system around the Earth.  There is a little downside to that, though - it will cause a heavy, mostly constant bombardment of the planet for several thousand years.

The Heavy Rain, as Dubois dubs it, is due to start in just a couple of years and will sterilize the planet.  At this point the various nations come together – sort of – and using their next-Tuesday AD level technology begin to throw a bunch of stuff into orbit, using the International Space Station (or rather, the fictional, somewhat cooler version of the ISS that exists in the novel) as a hub.  The planning and construction of the Cloud Ark, as it’s called, is rendered in loving and technical detail that will bring a smile to the heart of hard-SF buffs everywhere.  Then the world ends about 1/3 through the novel, although frankly everyone is a little bit more polite about it than I think they might actually be if such an event occurred in real life.  It might help that most of the people that are worth lifting off the planet are intelligent Stephensonian badasses, and are therefore pretty stoic about the whole thing, almost to the point of mental illness, actually.  In fact at one point Dr. Dubois thinks to himself that it would probably be better if his family was actually dead rather than just waiting to die, so he could stop worrying about them all the time and focus on his work.

You know, let’s go ahead and discuss this further.  The details given of the end are pretty clinical – when the Heavy Rain begins in earnest, the first major bolide strikes in Russia, and then more and more impacts take place throughout the world.  Manhattan is swamped by a tidal wave, the forests all over the world begin to burn, the radio goes quiet in one city after another over the course of just a few hours, and by the end of the day presumably every single human being still on the surface of the planet has died – of impact, fire, flooding, you name it.  We’re not given many ground-level details since our protagonists are literally above it all, but it’s still pretty harrowing.  And then they chin up and soldier on, despite what one would assume is horrible PTSD and depression.  I actually found it more difficult to read than it apparently was for the protagonists to live through, and this may have been the first serious tonal jarring that I had.  There are more to come.

The second third of the book then commences, with a series of major engineering challenges and minor fuckups that snowball into catastrophe.  There’s a problem with the Cloud Ark – it’s too low, and it is sort of open to question as to whether it was actually intended to work at all, or was just a method for the various governments of Earth to pretend to be doing something and avoid a Mad Max type scenario, and if so if they’ve basically just traded a quick death for a messy, protracted one.  They’ve got to raise the thing up to a much higher orbit, which involves probably the best action of the novel, as well as probably many happy research hours for Stephenson working out various sorts of orbital mechanics.

This second part of the novel is downright harrowing and outright cruel.  Space is a pretty crappy place to live, and it’s full of dangers for both the wary and the unwary.  The people that got sent up do finally start to have some manifestations of psychiatric problems, compounded by the fact that most of them don’t really have all that much to do, and they end up engaging in backbiting and crazy conflicts, made worse by the fact that they don’t know what they are doing, are starving to death, and randomly dying in various heinous ways.  Eventually the protagonists manage to lift up their habitat to the (relative) safety of the largest moon chunk left standing, but by that time there are only eight women left alive.  As in, to their knowledge that’s all that is left of the entire human species.
And this is the time that the whole thing takes a left into Crazytown and doesn’t emerge.  One of the eight women is post-menopause, but she turns out to be the world’s greatest geneticist and offers the other seven (Eves, get it?) the chance to optimize their descendants in whatever way they see fit.  One chooses raw intelligence.  A second, strength.  A third, bravery.  The fourth, kindness.  The fifth, social skills.  The sixth chooses adaptability.  The seventh declares her hatred for all the others and the whole system and declares that her descendants will compete with the rest in all their chosen fields (except kindness, because screw kindness I guess.)

You might notice that the seventh there is openly hostile to the others and essentially declares war against them from the very beginning.  You might ask yourself why the others decide to humor her vendetta.  You will ask this question in vain, among many others, such as: is this situation really survivable, given how screwed everything has been up until now?  Is it even remotely plausible that they’d be able to do advanced genetic manipulation at all, notwithstanding the terrible conditions that they are in?  And is it even conceivably possible to say that you are going to just simply create people that are smarter or stronger even if you can do as much genetic tinkering as you like?  Would it really be feasible to have seven+ human subspecies interacting in close proximity for thousands of years without substantial genetic crossover to elide these distinctions?  Is it really likely that over five thousand years, that linguistics and culture would not have shifted to the point where sagas from the founding of their orbital colony are still obsessively studied and remembered?

The third section of the book has a lot of these issues if you sit down and think about it.  In some ways this is unfortunate, because it’s reasonably interesting in its own right, if somewhat implausible, but it just doesn’t really follow from what’s gone before.  It’s now five millennia since the events in the first two thirds of the book, and the Hard Rain is over (due to time, and due to the space denizens moving the rest of the debris into the ring, somewhat ahead of schedule).  They’ve been reseeding the planet with plants and with animals, and now they’re ready to move back down.

The most plausible aspect of this scenario is that they’ve also reinvented war.  Fighting in the space habitats that are now the home for humanity leads only to mutually assured destruction, but the descendants of some of the women are enemies and they can fight just fine down on the planet.  You’ve got the Red faction and the Blue faction, but good luck really trying to care about the basis of their disagreements, or who is on whose side, or why.

Although I didn’t really like this whole last section of the book very much, I have to say that it’s certainly a bold move in a novel to suddenly shift gears completely about 70% of the way through, with what amounts to a totally new cast of characters with new motivations in what as well may be a totally new setting.  Stephenson has to start all over with the world building, and he unleashes what is basically a new quest.  It’s hinted that some people may have figured out what was behind the destruction of the moon in the first place, but if so that’s never resolved.  And if you are expecting a conclusive ending, don’t – it simply ends with another major (and implausible) reveal.  Turns out there were other options than space, and if those worked it probably would have been a better idea to focus on them in the first place.

All that said, there are some good moments throughout – snappy Stevensonian dialogue, some interesting characters, and a definitely unique and enthralling setting.  By all rights any book that covers this much stuff should be a complete mess, and it sort of is, but only Stephenson would even attempt such a thing.  The fact that it doesn’t entirely succeed doesn’t detract from the nobility of its failures.  Anyhow, I don’t think it’s ever safe to count Stephenson out of a Hugo race, since he’s a notable fan favorite, but I believe the book is overall just too uneven to beat out Uprooted and The Fifth Season this year.  But if you've been a Stephenson fan in the past, this is going to give you some of what you like about him and a dose of what you probably don't.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

What can I say?  Life intervenes and I just haven’t been feeling like writing much even when I do have time to read, which isn’t as often as I’d like.  But as it happens, I’ve read four of the five best novel nominees for this year’s Hugo awards, and I’m going to try to say something about all four of them.  (As for the fifth, I’m sorry Jim Butcher, I think I might actually like your stuff, but I’m a completionist at heart and that’s an awfully big commitment.  Please comfort yourself with your large pile of money in lieu of a little-read post on some random guy’s blog.  I’m sure you will understand.)

Starting off then with Uprooted, which just picked up the Nebula Award and is probably the favorite for the Hugo this year, and in my opinion deservedly so.  I hadn’t read anything by Novik before; apparently this is something of a departure from her usual oeuvre of Napoleonic-era fantasy novels, but I’m already favorably inclined to it by virtue of it not being a setup for a huge fantasy trilogy or more.  It appears more or less self-contained and covers a frankly staggering amount of plot in a reasonably slim volume.  She makes it look easy, which is even more impressive, since it’s the sort of thing that gets noticed when you mess up and rarely commented on when successful.

Anyhow, the novel follows Agnieszka, a 17 year old farmgirl who lives in a fantasy analogue of Poland (you should have guessed by the name, and if you didn’t, you’ll figure it out by all the other names.)  They’ve got ongoing tensions with the neighboring kingdom of Russia Rosya.  But for Agnieszka and the area where she lives, the real issue is the Wood.

Major shout-outs to the Wood here.  This is seriously a messed-up place, and clearly distinct from your average forest, even the average evil one.  If you’re stupid enough to enter the Wood, then the best thing that could happen to you is that one of the horrible monsters in there kills you.  If you’re less lucky, then you might get shoved into a corrupt heart-tree, anchoring the constant advance of the Wood and undergoing mental torture until you lose your identity, before continuing to endlessly suffer while not even understanding why.  If you’re really unlucky, then you may end up corrupted by the Wood first, betraying your kin and village before ending up with the endless suffering bit.  The Wood also isn’t content to stay behind its borders; it’s always attempting to expand, sending out spores of corruption, raids of evil creatures, miasmas, and so on.  Anyone going in there gets possessed, it’s no respecter of persons.  One of the best settings I’ve seen in a novel in some time, and despite the best efforts of everyone it’s winning.

The sensible thing to do would probably be to cut bait and run screaming the hell out of there, but you know how those stubborn country folk are, they are going to hold to the last.  (And as it turns out there is a bit more to it than that.)  The king has set up a wizard in the area to hold the line as best he can; he occasionally loses a village here and there but he does his best.  He’s allegedly immortal, and goes by the name “Dragon”.

Every decade, he picks a 17 year old girl from the local villages, who lives with him in his creepy wizard tower fortress before being released after the ten years is up.  These girls leave with a sack of money and a case of wanderlust – they go home for a bit and then skip town for the big cities or other shores.  He’s been doing this for some time, and all the girls claim that Dragon doesn’t touch them.  The villagers don’t exactly believe this, but since he’s their immortal feudal liege lord and a sorcerer to boot, no one bothers to complain.  As the novel begins, Agnieszka, who is naturally 17 years old and up for the choosing, reflects on how she’s going to miss her good friend Kasia.  Clearly Dragon will choose Kasia, she’s beautiful and kind and her mother has groomed her for her whole life in the skills that she will need to serve a nobleman.  Agnieszka is plain, and clumsy, and can’t keep herself presentable for more than fifteen minutes, and so it’s a shock to her (if not the reader) when Dragon ends up teleporting her to the wizard tower to begin her apprenticeship.

Note I said “apprenticeship” there.  It’s almost immediately clear to Agnieszka that she’s not exactly getting the same deal that the other girls usually get – she finds friendly notes from previous holders of the position that Dragon will usually just ignore them as long as they have dinner ready on time, and that it’s not such a bad gig.  However, Agnieszka is almost immediately harassed and browbeaten by Dragon, who eventually lets on to her that she’s got magical talent, and he’s required by the laws of the kingdom to offer her training in the area.  With the Wood out there and trained mages being the only real way to hold it at bay, they can’t let a single adept go to waste.

In many novels of this type, it would turn out that Agnieszka is the most powerful magic user the world has ever seen.  And that is . . . sort of true.  At first she chafes under the tutelage of Dragon, who is practically a martinet when it comes to pedagogy, but it later turns out that the areas where she’s gifted are different, and that maybe she just has different sorts of skills.  Dragon is a rigid academist, so at first he doesn’t even see why Agnieszka should bother trying to do it her way, but a couple of impressive results later he begins to come around on her usefulness, and later to both of their surprises (if not the reader’s) perhaps more than that.

One of the many things that I liked about this approach is how it plays with some of the typical clichés you expect in fantasy novels of this type.  Agnieszka has some successes in simply trying things that wouldn’t have occurred to Dragon or some of the other more classically trained magic users.  However, sometimes these things also come back to bite her, since she’s not aware of the reasons why more skilled mages wouldn’t have attempted it.  (They usually have good reasons, you see.)  It also turns out that the Wood is not stupid, and is perfectly willing to try and find an upside in its losses if it can.  Her inability to comprehend the full depth of the Wood's malevolence nearly ends up having disastrous results on more than one occasion. 

There are also a couple of really impressive setpieces throughout the book – one ill-advised foray into the Wood, for one, and a harrowing account of a battle at the wizard tower, for another.  Turns out that one of the most powerful tools that the Wood has at its disposal is using people against each other.

As much as I like this overall – and it’s great, by the way, absolutely worth a read – there are a couple of little things that set me off it in parts.  Agnieszka is a great character, but she sort of randomly veers between incompetence and masterful competence in unpredictable ways.  Maybe this has something to do with being 17, but sometimes she’s really quite masterful at personal interactions and sometimes she’s not, and the disparity can be somewhat jarring.  I am also not personally a fan of the “oh I’m so clumsy and messy, mercy me” type of characterization.  Fortunately this gets set by the wayside reasonably early on, or at least dialed back to an acceptable level.

The book does benefit from a very strong ending, which I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Suffice to say that we find out exactly why the conflict between the Wood and humanity as a whole began, and in a world where some mages spend their immortal lives forging weapons of death, that empathy can be as potent a force as spell-forged steel.  It manages all this without getting too sappy or unrealistic.  It’s a hell of an achievement.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Starcraft II - Legacy of the Void

The original Starcraft is praised in many circles for its intricate worldbuilding and storytelling, as well as becoming something like the national sport of South Korea.  The sequel was a long time coming, and while the gameplay was widely praised (lack of LAN support aside), the storyline of the first installment, Wings of Liberty, left people awkwardly shifting their feet and clearing their throats.  “Well, what do you expect,” you might say, “it’s video game writing.”  Still, even for the genre, the writing was pretty bad, and it lacked focus.

Then came the second installment, Heart of the Swarm, and that one was better, although still pretty heavy on the clichés.  In fact it basically dealt with the transformation of an evil orange space monster into slightly less evil purple space monster, but there were some cool setpieces and wasn’t terrible.

Someone at Blizzard has been thinking carefully about all this stuff, because now we have the third installment and it’s actually pretty good!  I wouldn’t say it’s original, exactly, because it isn’t.  And it’s not deep.  In fact, to go on in detail would be to damn with faint praise, and that’s not really my intention.  Instead, they’ve gone to the well of one of the oldest battle tropes – the idea that it’s you versus a horde of enemies, and you’re going to stand there and fight all the guys.  You get to be Horatius, or Leonidas, or the Viking at Stamford Bridge – you get the picture.  And you even get to win, since it’s that kind of party.

I’m not really going to go into the multiplayer aspect here, partially because I’m not good enough to have a real opinion on it and partially because it exists outside of the single-player game, really.  I watch the occasional pro game, and they’re playing such at such a different level than my usual Tuesday-night scrap fests that it’s hardly even the same thing.  Suffice to say, if they were trying to speed up the game and add more micro twitchery, they have achieved it.

Spoilers from here, if you care.

Anyway, I have read that the original draft of LotV was going to have Zeratul try to join the scattered Protoss tribes, but that is not what they ended up going with.  Instead, Artanis is the hero here; you may remember him as the guy from Brood War who used to work for the mighty Tassadar and had a shoulderpad and a loincloth.  He has now upgraded to a big fancy gold armor suit and is the ultimate authority figure in the united Protoss nation composed of the survivors of the Zerg’s attack on the Protoss homeworld and the shadowy Nerazim faction.

(Incidentally, what is up with Blizzard and hostility to democracy?  Okay, the Zerg are a bunch of semi-feral monsters under the absolute control of a couple of powerful psychics, which you can understand.  But the question about the humans is whether they’ll have a good emperor or a bad one, and the Protoss apparently couldn’t get along without an absolute dictator ultimately in charge of everything.  Well, at least he means well.)

Artanis has assembled a mighty fleet with the intention of reclaiming the Protoss home planet of Aiur from the Zerg which are still encamped there, but just as he’s about to launch the invasion, his old friend Zeratul pops in (literally) and says not to.  Everyone’s pretty upset at Zeratul, considering that he was instrumental in saving the life of and then repowering Sarah Kerrigan, the greatest known living enemy of the Protoss, but Artanis hears out his concerns before ordering him to be arrested and the invasion to commence.

Naturally it all goes pear-shaped right from the start, and the evil god Amon takes control of the psionic link between Protoss in order to gain himself a huge force of slaves and a powerful fleet.  Artanis himself only avoids this fate by Zeratul embracing the fate of all mentors, and he is forced to escape Aiur in a mothballed Protoss relic ship which fortunately enough contains within itself a bunch of powerful weapons of war.

The narrative here is greatly helped by the simplicity.  Amon is evil, he wants to kill all the life in the galaxy besides himself and a couple of his minions, so you have to stop him doing that.  It’s really not ever explained precisely why Amon wants to do this, but the writers do occasionally drop a few hints.  There’s probably not really a satisfying explanation which would make sense, so it’s just as well that they avoid it.  In some ways the lack of a particular plan besides aggressive nihilism pares it down, since you've probably seen a bunch of other space operas with this plot and can use your own experience to fill in something satisfying for you.

The first couple of installments of Starcraft II suffered from lack of narrative focus.  In Jim Raynor’s story, you were sort of aimlessly tooling around the galaxy, taking various commissions for money but not having a particular plan in mind.  In Kerrigan’s, there were a number of elements that didn’t make sense, but overall you wanted revenge against a particular guy and ended up getting it.  However, you took the circuitous path towards getting it.  Here, every mission is structured around either getting something to help you fight Amon, preventing Amon from carrying out parts of his evil scheme, or just plain fighting Amon.

Sacrificed in this simplicity is some of the complexity involved in prior Starcraft games.  Everyone who is not Amon’s slave decides to help you out, since otherwise Amon is going to kill them.  Amon has slaves from all three of the playable races who serve him without question and allow you to have matchups against all sorts of opposition (and can create phantoms of any game unit, so he can have any unit mix whether it would make sense or not).  That’s pretty much it, with the exception of the Tal’darim faction of Protoss.  They’ve been introduced as antagonists before and they did serve Amon willingly, but one of their leaders figures out that they’re on the “eventually kill” list and decides to join up with you.  This leader, voiced by John De Lancie, is absolutely the comic highlight of the game.  But even he does not betray you – at least for now.  This also neatly elides moral concerns, since regardless of what your other allies have been up to before, at least they’re not omnicidal maniacs.

Well, except maybe Kerrigan, who is forgiven by Artanis with more ease than you might think.  But no, her reform from the previous game is legitimate, so she’s not just screwing everyone over like she has been known to do from time to time.  Actually all decisions are made pretty easily; at one point you arrive at and then almost casually blow up the planet you came to evacuate.  And you are going around freeing all the old Protoss doomsday weapons and forbidden projects, under the assumption that not doing so is the worst option.  Fortunately this works out well for you.

The missions themselves appeared to my mind to be harder than those in the previous single-player campaigns, particularly on the hardest difficulty setting.  This is allayed somewhat by the fact that you can get powerful void rays in the later missions which have such an absurd damage output that it almost doesn’t matter what gets thrown at you.  The last mission is a doozy anyway, though, especially for an average player like myself.  There’s a distinct lack of the traditional RTS mission where you start out with one base and six peons and have to grind out the map – most of the time you are single or at most double-basing it and racing against a clock of some sort, although sometimes the “clock” is just increasingly powerful enemy waves that will eventually overwhelm you, and sometimes it’s an actual clock.

There are choices to be made, but unlike the prior two chapters, none of them are permanent.  Unlike WoL which had consumable money and research and HotS which had the irreversible mutations, you have the power to mess around without repercussions.  You have up to three choices of unit in each of ten categories, but you can swap them out every mission if you want to and there’s a master archive where you can do it again differently if you so desire.  The units are basically familiar if you've played the Protoss before, but there are some new (and classic) ones, and typically they have one or more special powers that would be way unbalanced in multiplayer.  Your ship also has a set of hilariously overpowered special abilities you can mix and match as you choose and upgrade over the course of the missions.

Then at the end there’s sort of a ham-handed attempt to bring closure to the story through a three-mission epilogue, one for each of the playable races.  This is brief and not entirely satisfying, but it does at least indicate that someone at Blizzard has been thinking about story just a little, since it basically re-retcons some of the more questionable story elements from the prior two games.  It’s probably good that Zeratul died before he learned that all those prophecies he was so keen about were just made up to trick him, or he would have been pissed.

Anyhow, if you’ve played the prior two chapters in Starcraft II and are sitting on the fence about this one, don’t be, it’s probably the best of the three.  On the other hand, while I’ve had a lot of fun with it, I don’t know if I could recommend the entirety of the game as a groundbreaking impressive effort like the first one was.  Then again, what is?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment

Many years ago, back when computer games were still a niche market and adventure games were a serious concern in that niche, Sierra Entertainment was the 800 pound gorilla of the genre.  They were famous for interesting design choices, risk-taking, good graphics and sound, and outright brutal sadism.

No, really.  Sierra games were famous at the time and infamous today for featuring convoluted logic puzzles, to the point where it was questionable whether they were a game company or a hint book company.  They were also famous for killing you in creative ways, sometimes without giving you any indication of what you could do differently or why you had died.  Believe me, I know.  I spent quite a bit of my lower teens banging my head against various Sierra challenges, so this is the voice of experience talking here.  When I say “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore” this is not an overstatement, firstly because adventure games are pretty thin on the ground generally at the moment, and secondly because it’s against every modern adventure game design aesthetic to make a game like that now.  They really don’t make them like that anymore, and frankly that’s probably a good thing.
The LucasArts philosophy won over – you can’t die, and you can’t screw up for good.  From a design perspective, it’s almost certainly better, but as the years have gone by, designers have noticed that you can’t really do certain sorts of puzzles in this framework.  Hence the rise of “Telltale” style adventure games, which purport to allow you to make choices and live or die by the results of those.

Life is Strange is a bit of an odd beast, from French developer Dontnod Entertainment.  It advertises itself as a choice-based adventure game, making some welcome tweaks to the Telltale style of choice based gaming, and also says that the choices you make throughout will affect how the game proceeds.  Unfortunately that’s only sort of true, but even so, this is a very interesting effort even if it ultimately falls a little short.

Your protagonist here, Max Caulfield, has recently moved back up to the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Arcadia Bay in order to complete her high school education at Blackwell Academy, which is a private school devoted to education in the visual and other arts.  Max is a talented young photographer, and getting into Blackwell is a culmination of her hopes to make this her profession.  At least that’s what we’re told about Blackwell – okay, our introduction to it is in fact a hipster teacher giving an insufferable lecture about Diane Arbus, which fits.  But most of the other students are out of a movie set in just about any high school – such as a clique of rich snobs who torment nerds and geeks.  Not that nerds and geeks can’t manage to have plenty of social dysfunction, but I don’t know why there are any football jocks at this school at all, and probably half or more of the male students ought to be gay or at least open to question.  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of these characterizations as the first episode of the game unfolded.

That said, you’re in this class when all of a sudden you have a vision about a tornado flattening the whole town, and afterwards while calming down in the bathroom there’s a spoiled, crazy boy who enters the restroom, talking to himself and brandishing a gun.  Max sensibly hides in the back as another girl enters the restroom, confronts the boy, and is shot.  Something breaks inside Max, and suddenly she’s back at the lecture from a few minutes before, with the ability to turn back time at will.

Just in case you’re wondering, the cause of this ability is never explained.  Whether it’s scientific, magical, extraterrestrial, divine, or something else entirely is forever a mystery.  This is probably a good thing from a storytelling perspective, but it’s a great mechanic for this game.  Max basically has three discrete powers related to time travel:

1)      The first manifestation and also the least useful one, she has visions of the future;
2)      The most common use of her time travel power, she can rewind time back a few minutes from her perspective (which conveniently happens to be scene transitions, usually).  She and any objects she’s carrying stay in place, but other objects and people revert to their initial conditions, including their memory of conversations.  This is also functionally a form of teleportation; she can also, for instance, kick down a locked door, go through it, rewind time to repair the door to its original condition, and then simply unlock the door from the other side.
3)      Her most powerful ability is also the most capricious one – she can focus on a photograph that she was in or present for and return her current consciousness to her past body at the time it was taken.  She can’t leave the immediate vicinity of the picture or stay for more than a few minutes there, but she can make changes to what she originally did at the time. 

Ability #3 there is pretty terrifying, really – there’s some sort of ongoing timeline, and her present consciousness will return to her body at approximately the same time she left.  But in the interim there may have been any number of changes, which Max wasn’t actually present for and can’t control.  The implication is that she’s actually overwriting the consciousness of alternate universe Maxes – if she’s not, it’s something equally freaky – and in any case she doesn’t actually know what she’s been doing for years, at least in some cases.  Ability #2 is also filled with potential for abuse.
You could set a pretty powerful SF story with these premises, and they basically avoid doing that and set up a high school drama instead.  With a little bit of Twin Peaks.  Somewhat to my surprise, it mostly works.

Anyhow, it turns out that the girl in the bathroom is coincidentally an old friend of yours, Chloe Price, whom you didn’t recognize at first since she’s now got blue hair, a sleeve tattoo, and an attitude problem.  She’s also the chew toy of nature and nature’s God or whatever passes for those around here, since without Max’s intervention she will repeatedly die; of shootings (on three separate occasions), illness, even getting run over by a train.  At first I didn’t really like Chloe, her teenage histrionics rubbing old misanthropic me the wrong way, but I eventually came around on her.  At least I ended up being impressed by how multifaceted she ended up being, although I don’t think I’d really be that interested in actually hanging out with her.  I’m sure that feeling would be mutual.
You have to investigate a little bit and spend time snuffling around the fringes, but there’s a lot of material on most of the side characters in the game.  Most of them have more than one or two things going and they’ve got hidden complexity.  The school’s alpha bitch is a closet anime geek and has complexes big enough to hang a hat on, one of the other social butterfly types is having a personal crisis and will react really well to kindness.  There’s a guy who is pathetically in love with Max and doing that teenage boy hanging around dance where he’s just waiting for Max to make the first move so he doesn’t have to risk rejection.  (You can throw him a bone if you want, which I didn’t, because fuck those teenage memories, thank you very much.)  Or you can just sort of bulldoze right through and not deal with any of this.  I appreciated the care that went into it.  Oh, and one of the characters is an insane serial killer.  Just throwing that out there.  The game does that too, you’re going through the typical high school melodrama stuff and then all of a sudden Max is duct taped to a chair in a freaky rape bunker out in the middle of the woods.  And then there’s all the messed up supernatural happenings – birds dying, whales beaching themselves, unexplained snowstorms and eclipses.  Is it all connected somehow?  Are you responsible for it all?

The Telltale-style games that I’ve played have mostly provided the illusion of choice without you really having much say in how the game unfolds.  Sure, you can save Alice or save Bob, but then it turns out that whoever you saved dies in the next scene or episode anyway, so your choice didn’t amount to all that much in the end.  In some sense this is understandable; the game developers have only so much time and money, so they can’t render the environments as if you were to decide to have Max haul off to an underground cockfight or something.  However, the time travel mechanic allows you to adjust the small things to your liking; if you piss off someone in conversation you can rewind and try again, you can not break the snow globe, things like that.  What you can’t do is seriously change the path of events.  The crazed rich kid confronts you in the parking lot.  You end up in a confrontation with Chloe’s stepfather and a drug dealer in a junkyard.  You can save the life of another of your classmates and get rewarded with a bonus scene a few episodes later, but you can get the same information whether you talk to her or not.  Essentially, you can change how people are disposed to you, but the same basic events unfold no matter what you do.

There aren’t, strictly speaking, a whole lot of puzzles here, but the time travel mechanic allows some really interesting takes on adventure game tropes, particularly dialogue trees.  In traditional adventure games you have the same conversations over and over.  In Telltale-style games you can have dialogue choices impact the story, but the results aren’t always obvious and you have to play the scenario again if you want to do it differently.  Here you can experiment to see how people will react to various conversational gambits and if you don’t like it you can just rewind time and try again.  You can also learn things in conversation that will open different dialogue trees – in one example early in the game you can try to impress some skater dudes, but the first time through they will rightly dismiss you as a poser.  If you want, you can then have the conversation again, using your new command of the slang, and inspire one of them to attempt to do a difficult trick to impress Max.  (He fails and suffers an amusing injury, which you can choose to fix or not.)  On the whole, though, the puzzles aren’t that inspired overall.  This is more of a story and dialogue game as opposed to a real puzzle-solver, although there are some unique physics things you can do related to your time travel / teleportation skills.  The non physics puzzles are typically item collection.  (That said there are some fun time travel scenarios, like when you have to impress Chloe by telling her what is going to happen in the diner where her mom works.)

Time travel is a pretty well-worn genre by this point, so there are really only just so many ways you can take the story.  In fact, there are really only two that I can think of.  You can have a situation where no matter what you do, it’s always been that way already (the stable time loop).  Or instead you can have a situation where you can change the past and alter the future that way.  So there are a couple of obvious culminations for how this story will end, and unfortunately Dontnod goes with one of the more obvious ones.  I say it’s unfortunate because everything at the end comes down to a binary choice which leads to one of two endings, regardless of any of the rest of the stuff you have done up to that point.  I was thinking that I’d have to play through the game again in order to get some different endings, but really it comes down to just two and you can choose either regardless of what you’ve done up to that point.

It’s too bad that the ending is so lackluster, because you really do have quite a lot of ability to choose your own path right up until that (admittedly pretty effective) horror show section in the fifth episode.  You can be friendly and try to solve problems, or be a dick to people.  So, in a sense, the story ends up being about how the week has changed Max, not how Max changed the week, and a lot of that is up to the player.  There’s a lot of things to like here, and a lot that doesn’t work, and maybe like actual teenage years it’s hard to tell which is which.  Fans of unconventional adventure games may want to check it out.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett (contains spoilers)

Apologies for the long gap without entries.  I've been in something of a funk with my reading lately - nothing so great I feel compelled to write about it, nothing so terrible I feel obligated to warn about it.  It's been picking up a bit lately, though, I'll have some more by the end of the year.  Truthfully I've got about four or five of these things half-finished that I sort of can't bear to complete out of inertia or who knows what.  I've been sitting on a partial review of Ancillary Sword for nearly a whole year now (it was okay), and Neal Stephenson's Seveneves (parts really good, parts really bad, overall okay) and even the complete collection of Sierra's Quest for Glory videogames (better than average!)

But Terry Pratchett's final book?  Sign me up.

The greatest witch on the Discworld has been Esmerelda Weatherwax for many years.

You could have asked her, she would have told you.  You could have asked any other witch, for that matter, and they would have hemmed and hawed a bit (witches do not like to admit weakness) and they probably would have said that most witches were in agreement that Granny Weatherwax was the best, and to the extent that they had a leader (witches aren’t followers) that it was probably Granny.
This isn’t to say she was the nicest witch.  No, Granny Weatherwax was born to be mean, and every good deed she was forced to do was something that irked her down to her very core.  And she wasn’t the most learned witch.  She was, in fact, sort of a back country hick, and made up for in cunning what she lacked in book knowledge.  And she may not have even been the most powerful witch – it’s been suggested that her friend Gytha Ogg might have strictly had more mojo than Granny did, and she’s been up in plenty of situations where raw power wasn’t up to the task.

No, she was the greatest witch.  And that means that she never backed down from a challenge, never left anything undone, and never admitted doubt or weakness.  It’s true that she was sort of the Batman of witches – thinking it was easier to make people fear you, because you don’t want to be dependent on those you fear.  And it’s also true that she was not always the most helpful, that her usual trick in treating the ill was to give them a placebo and tell them they felt better.  But if you were really in trouble – really, really in trouble – then she would not leave you in it alone.

This, the last Discworld book, isn’t her story.  But it still sort of is.

Pratchett’s death in March leaves this work in a quasi-finished state.  It’s mostly here, but close readers will note that it’s considerably shorter than the last couple of Tiffany Aching novels have been, and there are parts throughout that do not appear to have been entirely finished.  There’s more superstructure than usual visible throughout, the pacing is off in a few spots, and it’s uneven here and there.  But despite the second Death Star-esque flaws, and it does have several, this is easily the best Discworld novel in years, and a good place to set the great turtle to rest.

Tiffany Aching has starred in her own subset of YA Discworld novels, of which this is the fifth one.  She started out at age nine in Wee Free Men.  She’s older now – when last seen in I Shall Wear Midnight she was 15 or 16 years old, and some time has passed.  (Figuring out how much exactly is an exercise for an even more obsessive reader than me, but it must be at least four years and possibly more.)  During this time she has gone from being a witch recruit, to an apprentice witch, to a full-fledged witch.  And now she is called upon to be the chief witch, the hag o’hags, following the demise of Granny Weatherwax.

Sad as it is, it’s been coming for some time.  Granny’s arc was essentially done – she’d fought the good fight for many years, defeated some powerful foes, and always come out on top.  The last few books featuring her have noted that she wasn’t as physically strong as she once was, and lately she’s been shifting into a mentor role in Tiffany Aching’s books, and we all know what the eventual fate of mentors is.  But perhaps that’s unfair; it’s clear that Tiffany Aching has been set up to eventually replace and possibly even surpass Granny, and because of Granny’s nature she cannot be surpassed and continue to live.  This was set forth explicitly in Lords and Ladies – the cost of being the best is that you have to be the best, and that means every single time, no exceptions; at least if you’re the sort of person that Granny Weatherwax was.  This left the narrative arc at something of a standstill.

Weatherwax isn’t killed by misadventure or her many enemies, though.  She dies the death that Pratchett himself set forth as a Victorian ideal – at home, with cat, of natural causes.  Furthermore she died after a full day’s work and in possession of all her considerable mental abilities.  Nonetheless, it is her time, and like any good witch she knows it.  She doesn’t go gently into the desert exactly, but she knows that Death comes for us all, and goes more or less willingly.

She leaves everything but her cat to Tiffany Aching – the cat can make up her own mind, after all – and now Tiffany has plenty of problems.  Learning from Granny Weatherwax was hard enough, but replacing her?  Not at all to be scoffed at, especially since she’s trying to hold down both her home territory of the Chalk and Granny’s old holding in Lancre.  It’s a lot of traveling and responsibility for a young lady, even one who’s got as much awesomeness as Tiffany does.  Now she’s got some literally big boots to fill, and all those witches to herd.

Out there in the multiverse, though, some of Granny Weatherwax’s ancient enemies have felt her passing, and feel that now is time for them to come through to the Disc once more.  The Queen of the Elves, her most implacable foe, is returning.  At least I think it’s the same Queen of the Elves – the text is a little vague on this.  Some of the other Disc materials have stated that there’s more than one Elf Queen.

Pratchett’s elves are essentially psychopathic fashionistas, something of a parody or extreme example of celebrity culture.  They’re dangerous, but also they appear beautiful to the observer, and you find yourself doing what they want you to do.  They’re without remorse and the things they find amusing are . . . not.  Unfortunately for them, the Disc has moved on since they last tried to take it over.  There are railways now, and iron everywhere, which is not something that the elves are really prepared to deal with.  But there are many witches now, and witches started at least in part to fight the elves in the first place, and the stage is set for a confrontation.

If the book has a major structural weakness, that’s probably it.  We get to see an elf (almost?) redeemed, which fits in with what Pratchett had been doing thematically the last several years but conflicts with just about everything we’ve heard about Discworld elves up to this point.  And the invasion actually doesn’t go all that well – the last time in Lords and Ladies the witches only just barely managed to hold off the incursion, and this time the result is not seriously in doubt.  It is also resolved very abruptly, in one case with a major antagonist being pimp-slapped to death, which is I guess a pretty impressive way to go out but just sort of happens.  I think that Pratchett may have expanded on this somewhat had he lived to revise this one a couple more times.

At the time of I Shall Wear Midnight, I thought that the Aching books had reached a natural conclusion and that further novels were overkill.  Having read this one, I realize that I was both wrong and right; correct as far as that goes, but giving her the chance to step out into the world without Granny as a backstop really made it worthwhile.  In some sense the passing of Granny Weatherwax cannot be helped but compared to Pratchett’s own death; and this is right and proper.  Like her, he made his mark on the world, and will be missed.