Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

There has never been any private detective as cool as Sam Spade, and I mean that most sincerely.  Dashiell Hammett based him on his own experiences as a Pinkerton detective, but unlike his other fictional detective, the nameless Continental Op, Spade isn’t just doing his job, he is the job.  Hammett stated once that Spade was the detective that every detective wishes that he could be and occasionally approaches, on their best day.  If you’re asymptotically approaching awesome then you’re just catching up to where Spade already is.  He’s that kind of guy.

It’s also worth pointing out that you might not actually want to be him, since Spade is also really low-down and mean.  In fact he is a colossal prick and not in that “jerk with a heart of gold” way.  When his partner gets killed, his first action the next business day is to call the sign painter to get the guy’s name off his door – he reveals that he thought the guy was a dumb son of a bitch and was just waiting for their annual partnership agreement to expire so he could kick him out anyway.  In addition, he was sleeping with his partner’s wife, maybe just to spite him, since Spade doesn’t seem to think very highly of her either.

The partner got killed helping out a new client, who in fine pulp detective tradition is a beautiful lady who walked through the door with a story of trouble.  Which, of course, Spade and his partner didn’t believe, but they did believe in her cash, so they were willing to go with it.  The name she originally gives is a fake; later she claims to be one Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but I don’t know if we’re supposed to believe that either.  Spade doesn’t trust her and treats her pretty badly throughout, but she did get his partner killed.  That doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her too, of course.  But then whatever affection he might have for her also doesn’t stop him from strip searching her when he thinks she might have stolen some money from him and, towards the end, throwing her to the cops to face a capital murder charge.  When she pleads for him not to, he seems genuinely surprised that she believes his personal feelings are going to have any bearing on his actions.

Along with O’Shaughnessy come a succession of oddballs and goons, including Floyd Thursby (killed offstage), the morbidly obese Gutman with his henchman Wilmer, and the unfortunate Joel Cairo, a man of undefinable Mediterranean ancestry who the narrative takes every opportunity to insult and degrade for his homosexuality.  I guess in the movie version they couldn’t just explicitly come out and call him a “fairy” like the book did because of the Hays code, so they just cast professional weirdo (and real life all-around gentleman) Peter Lorre and gave him a perfumed handkerchief and let it go at that.  Subtlety was definitely better in this instance.  I mean, Cairo is a bad dude because of all the legitimately bad stuff he does, like murder and arson, his sexual preferences aren’t really relevant to that.  It's rough reading for a modern audience, really.

Anyhow.  This bunch of misfits is after the Maltese Falcon, which is a priceless, jewel-encrusted artifact.  It could have just as easily been a suitcase full of money or a delicious cake recipe; all that really matters is that Gutman and the rest of these jerks want it.  Gutman thinks that Spade knows where it can be found, since O’Shaughnessy and Thursby had stolen from him what he’d previously stolen from some Russian general who allegedly didn’t know what he had.  But actually this unseen Russian dude is smarter than the whole gang of thieves from the very beginning.  As Spade says, “Jesus God, have you people never stolen anything before?”  And this is when he’s still trying to ingratiate himself with them.  None of this motley crew seem to know what they are doing with regards to crime, only Gutman seems to have a reasonable fence for this treasure anyway, and their ineptitude would be funny, if it weren’t for all the murders.  As it is, it’s still pretty funny.

Spade doesn’t personally kill anyone in this book, and doesn’t even carry a gun, for that matter.  He does beat up a couple of people and take their guns away, though in one case it’s Cairo and probably wasn’t all that tough.  In fact, that’s one of the best scenes – Cairo comes in, pulls a gun on Spade, and demands to search his office.  Commence beating and gun-grabbing.  After Cairo regains consciousness, they have a brief discussion and Spade gives him his gun back, which is a bad idea since Cairo then steps back a little farther, and searches the office at gunpoint for real.

The whole book is like that.  These crazy people are going around doing nonsensical things, and Spade is always a little bit ahead of them.  Towards the conclusion he gives a couple of hints that he might not actually be as bad as he’s making out, but I don’t know if it’s true or even if he believes that it’s true.  For the ultimate detective, at the end it’s all about style.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Conqueror Trilogy by Conn Iggulden

There’s a scene toward the end of the third novel in this series that encapsulates the stakes of this work very nicely – a city hasn’t paid its tribute to Genghis Khan, and he’s ordered an example to be made.  Consequently, when the Mongol army breaks the walls, they spend all day rounding up the 160,000 citizens that didn’t die during the siege and then spend most of the next day executing them all before taking everything valuable out of the city and razing it.

This is a bad day for the Mongols since it takes such a long time and all that hacking dulls up their swords.

What to say about a man who would order such a thing to be done?  And this wasn’t his first turn at the massacre rodeo, either.  The various Mongol conquests caused at least 30 million deaths and as many as 70 million deaths – an astoundingly modern-sounding total considering it’s the thirteenth century and all, and none of our modern efficiencies existed yet, so someone had to personally go out and stab these folks (except of course in the cases of mass starvation or disease in besieged cities).  Admittedly some of this continued after Genghis himself died, but we’re still talking about a man who presided over tens of millions of killings of his fellow humans.

Iggulden’s trilogy, which is strong historical fiction, shows Genghis as more than an ordinary man.  At the same time, it also shows him making mistakes, failing to see the big picture, and having the sort of ordinary family troubles that beset us all.

The first book in the series follows the future Genghis (called Temujin at that point) as he is a young man in a small clan in a tiny part of Mongolia.  He’s a tough kid and he leads a hard life, and his ambition is to one day be the khan of this band like his father is.  Since he’s the second son, this may prove difficult.  But then his father gets murdered by his enemies, neither he nor his older brother are old enough to effectively assert control, and the new khan exiles their whole family to solidify his own power.  Genghis ends up killing the older brother and growing to adulthood in an extremely hardscrabble and desperate way with his mother, sister, and three remaining younger brothers. According to history, that all really did happen.  And then there was a spark, or there must have been a spark.

Genghis decides that all the tribes need to stop fighting among each other, but in order to do that realizes that they need an overall leader.  Who better than him?  And so he begins recruiting a band of men from other un-tribed and exiled men like himself, making a name for himself by raiding the enemies of the Mongols, learning strategy.  Eventually he’s got enough men to take control of one clan, then his father’s, then a bigger one.  The book ends with Genghis declaring his intention to become Khan of all the tribes.

The second book begins as this ambition is realized.  Genghis has been absorbing more and more tribes into his army.  Those remaining tribes that don’t want to give their allegiance to him realized that they couldn’t stand on their own, and made their own alliance against him.  But it’s too late, the last battle occurred before the book even really starts and the focus is really on what Genghis wants to do next – attack the Chinese kingdoms to the south that he feels have been manipulating and marginalizing the Mongol people for centuries.

In the third novel, Genghis ignores China for a while since the Khwarazmian Empire has made a personal insult to him and he decides that this cannot be tolerated.  If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the Khwarazmian Empire before, that’s because of what the Mongols end up doing to them here.  This, like many of the other major events in these novels, is not fictional.
There’s a lot of brutality in these novels, like you might expect.  People get shot with arrows, crushed by siege weapons, starve to death, covered in molten silver, and in one case just get chased until they drop dead of pneumonia.  Genghis himself kills probably hundreds of people, with typical weapons frequently, but also with the sleeves of his armor, and in one memorable instance picking a guy up and breaking his spine over his knee.  (This individual has always been described as scrawny, this isn’t an 80s action movie move exactly.)  At the same time, Iggulden appears to have scaled back some of the atrocities just a little bit – Genghis is portrayed as having two wives, one of whom is a Chinese princess.  In reality, Genghis had at least six Mongolian wives, numerous foreign ones, and spent so much time with other women that 5% of the current population of the Earth is his direct descendant.  He is tactfully suggested to be raping various captive women on a couple of occasions, but in truth I’m just as happy to not read pages and pages of sexual assault, and probably Iggulden just didn’t want to put that in there.

The central paradox in this series is the fundamental problem of child rearing.  People under harsh privation are often tough and awesome as a result, and they want their children to also be tough and awesome, usually in the same ways that they themselves are tough and awesome.  At the same time, privation sucks.  Intentionally raising your offspring under privation when you don’t have to is a dick move; removing the privation ensures that your kids will not necessarily share your outlook or your priorities.  What is a great warlord to do?  Adding to this problem for Genghis is that he’s not sure that Jochi, his oldest son, is actually his own son – his wife Borte had been kidnapped by Tartars around the time of Jochi’s conception and, well, you never knew for sure back then.  He treats Jochi really coldly as a result and is oblivious to the fact that this harsh treatment has made Jochi into the ideal successor in most ways.

Genghis also suffers from a certain lack of vision.  He’s certainly not stupid, he’s a master of warfare and leading his men, and he quickly realizes the importance of certain practical skills, like siege engineering.  And his men aren’t out of control barbarians, either, their environment has made them into disciplined warriors.  At first, Genghis’ plan is simply to kill everyone who’s not Mongolian, but then his advisors persuaded him that living Chinese can pay tribute, and he also realized the utility of sparing people that quickly surrender.  But in truth he doesn’t need the tribute, and by the end his people are carrying around literally tons of silver and gold that they don’t have any particular use for.  Genghis doesn’t need money, since he just takes whatever he wants, and he doesn’t really want anything more than to have big feasts, go hunting, ride fine horses, sleep with women, and fight.  Silk is useful since he can use it as armor, iron’s good for weapons, but he doesn’t really understand what people want with gold.

Since he doesn’t care about or have any use for cities, he’s not a very good administrator.  So it’s sort of a shame that he conquers so many of them.  His advisors and sons recognize that the Mongols are going to need to make some philosophical adjustments if they’re actually going to rule an empire and not have to go around re-conquering every city every few years, but getting Genghis to agree with that is more difficult.  He didn’t get where he was by listening to people.  And in that sense this book is a tragedy, since you can see the seeds of the Mongolian Empire’s dissolution in the decisions that Genghis makes.  He makes it hard for his successors to have orderly transitions of power and he isn’t really that interested in making their jobs easier.

It’s also a tragedy, of course, that so many other people had to die for Genghis Khan to achieve whatever it was that he was trying to get out of life.  It’s a strength of the series that Iggulden manages to make you feel a little bad for Genghis, and showing some of the Mongols’ genuinely amazing deeds, without dehumanizing their opponents.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Papers Please by Lucas Pope

There has been a lot of ink shed (of both the real and virtual varieties) about how much “moral choice” systems in video games suck.  Often you’re given the opportunity to be either the paragon of virtue or a monument to vice, without much in between, and usually the “evil” choice involves going around murdering everyone you meet, even when there’s no particular reason for it or direct benefit to you from doing so.  There’s really a paucity of nuanced evil in the world of video game design.  And that’s why all those AAA game developers need to sit down and take a page from this independent developer who’s managed to put together the best moral simulator that I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, if you can get through this and not have an emotional reaction then you need to turn in your Homo sapiens card, no joke.

First, the mechanics.  The game takes place in the early 1980s in a fictional shithole Eastern European Communist dictatorship.  You have won a labor lottery and been assigned to work as a border control agent.  When you open up your shop, a stream of pathetic sad sacks will file into your checkpoint and present you with various documents so they can enter the country.  Personally, you’ve got some family members dependent on your salary for food, rent, and heat.  You need $55 per day to cover your basic expenses, and you get paid $5 for everyone who gets processed through the checkpoint, so you need to see 11 people per day in order to not draw down your savings.  If you run out of money, your family members will get sick, raising your expenses as you need to get medicine for them.  If you can't come up with the cash, they'll die.  If you go seriously into the red you may be imprisoned for debt yourself.

The interface is claustrophobic and well-designed to never give you quite enough room to spread out.  You have sufficient but not ample time, and although the documents start out simple enough, your bosses at the start of every day tend to throw in various requirements and by the end of the game there will be twenty or twenty five different failure points for documents.  If you let in someone with a discrepancy in their paperwork, you get cited.  If you turn away someone without a discrepancy, you get cited.  More than two citations in one day and you start getting substantial fines, meaning you can’t beat the clock by just letting everyone in, or turning everyone away.  Your superiors are apparently omniscient about this since if you make a mistake, you will be cited.  And you won’t get paid for your last “client” if you go past 6 p.m.

The gameplay itself is pretty simple; the would-be traveler presents you a passport and supporting documents, which you check for internal consistency and accuracy.  Do they look like their passport picture?  Appropriate identifying information?  Does the information on their passport match their visa?  Are any of the stamps or seals forged?  Have any documents expired?  Did they get their polio vaccination within three years?  Do they happen to be on a most wanted list somewhere?  Did they get the right kind of permit?  Okay, proceed, citizen.

All of that said, it doesn’t necessarily sound all that fun.  In fact, if you were me, you might say that sounds a lot like that summer job I had in the business office of a tile factory where I had to keep cross-checking dates and SKUs on a bunch of triplicate forms in an ancient computer system.  And maybe you’ve had a job like that too.  But the presentation is amusing enough that you really get to make a puzzle out of it – it’s satisfying to spot the minor error and hit that red stamp.  And then when you do approve someone you tense up for a minute while you wait to see if you made a mistake.

Now if that was it, I wouldn’t have made that statement about “moral choices”.  The fact is that this is one of the most interesting game ideas that I’ve ever seen.  You are a cog and a peon, and that’s about all you’ll ever amount to, regardless of what choices you make.  And right away you start getting to make them.

In addition to the randomly generated wretches in line, you’ve got a fair number of scripted encounters.  Some of these are desperate people who need asylum, or want to visit their loved ones, or need surgery, or so forth.  These people will inevitably have paperwork deficiencies.  Do you want to let them in anyway, despite the fact that you’ll get a citation for that and it may take food out of the mouths of your family?  Or do you deny them, in deference to the arbitrary rules of your superiors, who are a bunch of dicks and treat you like a dog?  It’s up to you, and while most of these choices don’t have long lasting repercussions, some of them do, and they aren’t immediately obvious.

You also have the opportunity to take bribes to let undesirable sorts such as drug dealers and sex traffickers into the country.  You can make your own rules about what you will and won’t tolerate; you sometimes even have the option to take the bribe and then deny the people anyway.  At one point along the game you gain the ability to detain suspicious people; this is not necessarily better than just denying them, since it takes longer and interrupts your work flow, but one of the guards offers to split his detainee processing fee with you, which makes it profitable to detain everybody you can, even when they are probably innocent of anything more serious than not catching a clerical error.  Is it worth sending people to the mercies of the secret police for minor offenses to pad your own wallet?  Up to you.

And this secret society of revolutionaries – do you help smuggle their members through the checkpoint?  Do you accept their huge bribes?  Can they help you if you are caught, and are they in fact any better than the current regime?  Will you help out your friend the border guard and allow his girlfriend through the checkpoint?  Will you hang the artwork made by your son on the wall, although it’s against regulations?  Are you prepared to refuse your bosses’ girlfriend admission although she has neglected to get anything close to the proper documentation?

Up to you.

This is a rare game where you’re not going to really “win” anything and all of the endings are, fittingly, ambiguous at best.  In one path you keep your head down and stick to legitimate graft, and are rewarded with the opportunity to enter an endless game mode, where you can keep analyzing paperwork forever or until you screw up enough.  In other words, a pie eating contest with a prize of more pie.  Way to go, comrade, I’m sure selling out all your ideals was worth it.  Of course if you don’t sell out your ideals it may end up going much worse for you personally, and who even knows about the general population.

In short, this game has managed to encapsulate the typicality of bureaucratic evil.  Instead of grand acts of malice for little discernible reason you have the opportunity to engage in petty acts of tyranny for totally understandable, if ultimately futile, reasons, such as if you decide to go ahead and take the citation to reject the perfectly valid visas of people who lip off to you.

If there’s anything negative to say about it, it’s mostly that it’s made by a single developer in a couple of months, so it’s pretty short and I’m not sure that it has all that much replay value.  Still, if there were elements like this in bigger titles it would increase the sophistication of video game plots by a huge degree.  And you will actually get annoyed at people who hold up the line by forgetting to give you the paperwork, and how you have to keep telling people to check the back of their ticket for the passport phone confiscation hotline.  Seriously, don’t these people read the bulletins?  I’m trying to do my job here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Most of the science fiction that I grew up reading was from the 50s-80s, and quite a bit of it featured hyperdrives, interstellar empires, and the uniqueness of humanity.  I guess it said something about the cultural mood of the time; most of it was written by men (and I do mean men) who figured they’d beaten the Axis and conquered the atom and that we’d get to the laws of space and time in due course.  Now that said, we live here in the year 2013 in an environment which is in many respects vastly more technologically advanced than the worlds proposed by some of these authors, but we remain distressingly Earthbound with nary a space empire in sight.  Perhaps as a response to this, perhaps for other reasons, there’s been a surge of stories about what happens when we just can’t get off this rock at all.

There are a couple of approaches to this.  Some of the SF examining this question simply involves humanity going extinct over time, but some other works deal with technological fixes.  Vortex is something along those lines.

Vortex is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Spin and Axis (I refer to them as the “Angular Momentum Trilogy” but they may have a more official name, I don’t know.)  Spin was a Hugo Award winning novel and one I enjoyed quite a bit – the setup for that one was that one day, all of a sudden, the entire Earth gets enveloped in a membrane that separates the planet from local space-time, so that time is passing much, much faster outside the membrane than inside it.  It turns out that there are vast networks of computing machines in the depths of interstellar space and they do this to worlds with intelligent biological life.

As to what they do, it’s complicated.  The life cycle of tool-using intelligences is short compared to the Hypotheticals (as they are called by some of the humans, although they are very real) and in order to maximize the time they have available, the Hypotheticals use singularities to create warp gates and allow the biologicals to colonize other planets, something that is otherwise infeasible.  The Hypotheticals connect Earth to another planet (dubbed “Equatoria”) which is a great place to live.  There’s another gate on Equatoria that’ll take you to yet a third planet that people can live on, although it’s not quite so nice.  And another gate on that world as well.  It takes the Hypotheticals a couple of billion years to set all that stuff up though, which is why they use the time-disrupting membrane to allow them to finish this project.  And, I suppose, they’re doing this sort of thing all the time.

All of this is revealed by the end of Spin.  You may have noticed that missing from the above paragraph is the question of why the Hypotheticals go to so much trouble to help out alien intelligences that they barely know.  Well, first of all, it’s not clear so much that it’s a “favor” since you don’t exactly get to opt in to this project, it’s something that gets done whether you want it or not.  And it’s also not entirely clear that it’s for anyone’s benefit at all.  There’s a guy in Spin who finds out somewhat more than he wants to about the Hypotheticals, and a whole sort-of-cult in Axis that ends up not necessarily liking the answers they get either.

There are two parallel stories in Vortex, one of which follows Turk Findley, a major player in Axis who has been removed from the galaxy by the hypotheticals for the past 10,000 years.  The other story is more of a frame story and involves the planet Earth somewhat before the events of Axis, but after Spin.  And although it does tie the story together, I liked Findley’s bit much more, and will be discussing it more.

Findley finds himself disoriented and recovered by a group of people who believe that he’s been touched by the Hypotheticals and will be the key to what I guess I’d describe as apotheosis.  They also snag Isaac, a young boy who was packed to the gills with Hypothetical technology back in Axis and who’s also been gone.  So they head to Earth back through the gate despite the fact that no one’s been there in a while and things weren’t going so well when they were, and find that it’s been rendered inhospitable to human life.  Or, for that matter, multicellular life of any kind.  Effects of climate change due to burning all the fossil fuel reserves of both Earth and Equatoria; it seems that caused eutrophication on a massive scale, poisoning the seas and filling the atmosphere with hydrogen sulfide gas.  Pretty rough.

Now, this isn’t necessarily the end of humanity since there are still plenty of people left on the various other planets, but the question does arise as to why exactly the Hypotheticals would go to so much trouble to ensure that humanity has the opportunity to expand to other planets but do not take any action whatsoever to either prevent humanity from wrecking its planets, by either technological or more brute-force means.  The people that Findley has fallen in with originally believed that the whole point of the Hypothetical exercise was to eventually uplift humanity to god-like status, and this particular problem of evil sort of throws a wrench in that interpretation.

I would remind the reader that one possible solution to the problem of evil is that god is not omni-benevolent, though.

At the same time, the Hypotheticals aren’t mustache-twirling super villains, either.  They’re really above most of that nonsense, or possibly aren’t even capable of villainy as such.  Way back in Spin one of the characters explained that their computational networks are so vast and so necessarily slow that they had a hard time noticing or even comprehending the life of a single organism, and even that character didn’t really understand what they were doing.  Toward the end of Vortex we do finally get an explanation, of sorts, of what precisely the Hypotheticals are up to and why, and the last twenty or thirty pages of the book are amazingly grandiose and spectacular in the absolute finest tradition of SF.  Both the time scale and the epic scope are pretty awesome indeed.

That said, some of the middle portions of the book do kind of drag on a bit.  And as I said above, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the frame story that much, since it tended to get a little preachy at times.  Nonetheless, if you read Spin and enjoyed it, I’d say the last part of this one justifies the admission.