September 2011


When I was a lad, when let loose in a mall, I would make a beeline for the science fiction section, where I would check if J.R.R. Tolkien had written the Silmarillion yet, and if not, if there was anything else like it.  And back then there wasn’t anything like it, but Ballantine Books would republish anything in its vaults that wasn’t quite LOTR: Mervyn Peake, David Lindsay, and E.R. Eddison.

(I don’t know what happened to swords & sorcery; I don’t recall ever seeing it.  I didn’t even see a Conan book till college.)

I picked up The Worm Ouroboros, and I’m not sure I ever finished it; the prose was extraordinarily difficult.  And for over thirty years A Fish Dinner in Memison has stood on my shelf unread, quietly retaining through all those years the title of Best Fantasy Title Ever.

I finished it last night, and it’s truly singular— in both positive and negative ways.  In some ways it’s quite horrible, and it’s a mess structurally.  But the intensity of its vision can get to you after awhile.

First you have to get used to his prose.

She dismissed her girls, Myrrha and Violante, with a sign of the hand, and, while the nurse braided, coiled and put up her hair, kissed the flowers again, smoothed her cheek against them, as a beautiful cat will do, gathered them to her throat.  ‘Dear Gods!’ she said, ‘were it not blasphemy, I could suppose myself the Queen of Heaven in Her incense-sweet temple in Cyprus, as in the holy hymn, choosing out there My ornaments of gold and sweet-smelling soft raiment, and so upon the wind to Ida, to that princely herdsman,

ὂς τότ’ ἐν ακροπόλοις ὄρεσιν πολυπιδάκου Ἵδης,
βουκολεσκεν βοῦς, δέμας ἀϑανάτοισιν ἐοικώς…’

Oh, he does provide glosses for his lapses into Greek or Latin (not for those into French or Italian); the reader, don’t you know, can be assumed to have studied the ancient languages but not to have recalled every word.

Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to take seriously sentences like this:

And Barganax’s face, as by star-leap received up into that heaven, rested, unseen, unseeing, where, as it had been two doves, her breasts sat throned, ivory-smooth through the silk, violet-sweet, proud, and Greek.

The prose does contribute to the atmosphere, which is a strange and unapologetic mixture of philosophy, romantic adventure, and sensuality.  Moorcock and Miéville had trouble with Tolkien; they’d be gobsmacked by Eddison, who’s the most aristophilic writer I’ve ever read.  It’s not that he wants to oppress the commoners; he doesn’t even glance at the commoners.  Occasionally a rural worker appears, purely as decoration, but he has even less interest in economies and cities and statecraft than Tolkien.

Rather, he’s interested in noble characters.  The man are brawny, proud, and bearded, and their business is intrigue and war— though poetry, painting, and philosophy are also approved.  The women are more than their equals, invariably beautiful, imperious, independent, aloof, and passionate.  They inspire worship, and woe to the man who trusts merely to his position or good looks to woo an Eddison heroine.  He must suffer rejection first, show respect, and above all never bore her.

The world these characters move in is full of splendors, both natural and man-made, lovingly described— though it’s clear that to him, mountains and beasts and gold and silks never quite do justice to the beauty of his women.

If that weren’t enough, the book is an exposition, both directly and in allegory, of Eddison’s own metaphysics, which apparently starts from Spinoza but reminds me much more of Romanticism.  He simplifies the values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty into one supreme value— Beauty.  This then informs a cosmic dualism, masculine Love and feminine Beauty:

Infinite and Omnipotent Love creates, preserves, and delights in, Infinite and Perfect Beauty.  Love and Beauty are, in this duality, coequal and coeternal; and, by a violent antinomy, Love, owing his mere being to this strengthless perfection which he holds at his mercy, adores and is enslaved by her, while Beauty (by a like antinomy) queens it over the very omnipotence which both created her and is her only safeguard.

The sensuality, the delight in the endless variety of nature, of human affairs, and of eros, are thus not accidental; they are the very purpose of the universe.  The male characters are to some extent avatars of God/Love; the female characters are, even more, avatars of the Goddess/Beauty.

Structurally, as I said, the book is a mess.  For one thing, Eddison has insisted on intermingling sections set in his fantasy realm, Zimiamvia, with sections on Earth, chronicling the love affair and lives of two English aristos, Lessingham and Mary.  The latter bits make for a weak early-20C romance, which despite its brevity takes the time to cover an entire cricket game and reproduce a story written by the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, plus repulsive bits of politics:

And your unhaired woman (they’ll be as common as the cartway soon) and your unmasculated man, are part of the engine, worker ants, worker termites, neuters: worthless lives to themselves, which only exist to run the engine…

He goes on to explain that the big mistake of WWI was giving an armistice, rather than carrying the war “to destruction clean through Germany”.  Well, he was writing during WWII when it was easy enough to feel that the Prussians hadn’t been sufficiently beat down the first time.

A bit later he clarifies that his ideal is a Greek city-state, with a population in the tens of thousands.  The aspect of modern life that gave Tolkien the horrors was evidently industrialization; what bothered Eddison was not even the fall of aristocracy but population.  You can only have a termite society because people are as numerous as insects.  It makes sense in terms of his ideal: bold lusty men and women, powerful and individual.  Strong as they are, they get lost in a crowd.

The 20C sections are largely a failure largely because he makes his central couple as heroic as he can.  Lessingham is a brilliant painter, an indispensable diplomat, a fabled soldier, and a canny businessman.  Oh, and he worships his wife.  It’s just silly.

The Zimiamvian parts are much better— the larger-than-life characters work better in a larger-than-life world.  There’s an attempt at danger— a plot against the King— which is resolved in an unusual and interesting way… only this happens a third of the way through the book!  Then the story concentrates on the romance between the King’s illegitimate son Barganax and the Lady Fiorinda.  The major obstacle is that Fiorinda is already married, but we’re among Olympians here, and conventional morality need not apply; it’s explicitly stated that the man is not worthy of her.

(Fiorinda appears on Earth a couple of times, bridging the two narratives, though this is never explained, beyond the strong hints that she’s a particularly clear avatar of the Goddess.)

As conworlding, it’s kind of inexplicable.  There’s a handsome map provided, and Eddison obviously relished creating geographical names, as well as the intrigues of the nobles.  Fiorinda has a couple of handmaidens who are dryads and change shape at will.  But the world hardly exists as a world; it’s more like the Arcadian backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a stage for the players to strut upon, without the distractions that would arise setting it in an actual historical reality.

There actually is a fish dinner, which turns into a symposium on Eddison’s cosmology, with a subtext of Barganax’s seduction of Fiorinda.  (He already succeeded once, but she’s made it clear that she is not to be taken for granted and must be won anew each time.)

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I’ve never played Gears of War, but this article at Slate makes me want to, especially the part about how the designer’s main credo is to concentrate on what makes a game fun, and make every aspect of that fun.  E.g, a shooter consists mostly of running, shooting, reloading, and taking cover, and (according to the reviewer) it succeeds on making each of those activities satisfying.  There’s even a minigame for reloading, turning a frustrating few seconds’ wait into something engaging.

Now, on the whole I think they’ve got the right idea.  Something you play for fun should be fun!  We can start by asking what are you doing as you go through the game.  Does it match what the game is supposed to be about?  Some games have a certain mismatch:

  • GTAIV.  About: gangsterism.  Main activity: driving.
  • Left 4 Dead Vs.  About: survival.  Main activity: dying annoyingly.
  • Far Cry 2.  About: the moral anomie of being a merc.  Main activities: driving, taking out checkpoints, doing A and B in order to get malaria pills.
  • Assassin’s Creed 1.  About: stealth assassination.  Main activity: getting in highly public fights in the streets; attracting comment by dashing up walls; riding a horse.
  • Civ 5.  About: Building a civ and destroying enemies.  Main activities: shuffling units around, hating on Napoleon for backstabbing you before you were ready to attack him.

By contrast, look at a few games that get this exactly right.  In games as diverse as Borderlands, Portal [1, 2], Mirror’s Edge, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, you spend almost all your time doing what the game is about and what it’s good at. 

Partial mismatches are partially bad.  Mass Effect 1 is worsened by having to spend way too much time managing a very lackluster array of weaponry, not to mention trivial side missions that feel like they were stamped out by an AI.

The next question is whether that activity really is fun.  A combat game with a boring combat mechanic needs work.  Dragon Age Origins is an example here.  If you play as a warrior, you spent a lot of the early levels just watching your warrior fight, since you haven’t earned many fancy moves yet.  And the decision to use dice rolls instead of aiming throws away a huge opportunity to rely on player skill.

Mirror’s Edge gets it right; the game is about moving from point A to point B– the story and combat elements are just distractions.  And the mechanics of doing so, the puzzle elements, and the visceral feeling of being there all combine to make it compelling.

However, I’d disagree with the article in one very important aspect: frustration is part of what makes a game fun.  Call it “challenge” if you like, but if you’re not frustrated fairly often, it’s not challenging enough.  E.g. the early levels of Fallout 3 and Fallout NV are my favorites, in part because you’re a weak nobody who eagerly picks up single stimpaks and a handful of ammo.   Portal 2 wouldn’t be as fun if there were no moments where you thought “Damn, I just don’t have enough portals to make this work.”

But it’s a weird balance.  I found Prince of Persia and Braid too frustrating to play.  I’ve been replaying Dead Space at medium difficulty, and I’m happy that I was able to get past the point that defeated me before.  But it isn’t fun to have a boss fight and be completely out of rifle rounds.

Diversity is key, too.  Repeating the same thing over and over gets dull (so I’m not sure I’d like Gears of War after all).  A mixture of stealth and combat works wonders, and I might as well plug Beyond Good & Evil again for not only including both, but throwing in a few more diversions, such as racing and photography.   Half-Life 2 also mixes up the combat with vehicle sequences and puzzles, as well as varying the enemies from soldiers to zombies.  Portal 2 introduces new puzzle elements as it goes.  Borderlands mostly relies on its awesome array of weaponry; the weapons vary in interesting ways and there’s the constant draw of hoping for a really good one in the next chest.

I basically tired of Fallout NV because I hit a part of the game (starting with Freeside) where all there is to do is run from one person to another talking (and the writing in the game is just not stellar enough to make this work). Despite its gorgeous level design and fascinating villains, I think Bioshock falls down in this area too; it’s just shooting and zapping.

Kindle users are cheap, or something; the e-book has not been dancing off the e-shelves.  So I lowered the e-price to $3.99.  That’s so low that’s it’s barely a price at all!

Also I reformatted the book without hyphenation (which was screwing up the Kindle version), and redoing the Dzebyet samples (which were showing up as black boxes).  So if you got the earlier version and that bugged you, get the update.

Very interesting article on the evolution of money from David Graeber, an anthropologist.  Apparently economists since Adam Smith have been telling a story that before money there was “barter”.  You’d have a cow and somebody else had arrowheads and, having failed to invent money, you’d work out a direct trade. 

Problem is, anthropologists have been looking for such a system for two hundred years and there just isn’t one.  Individual barters exist, of course, but no barter systems (with the exception of protocols that have emerged in societies where money was already invented but is temporarily unavailable, such as prison).

Instead there’s a plethora of exchange systems, all tied inextricably to the rest of society.  Often the basis is generalized reciprocity.  You want those arrowheads, you praise them, and the other guy gives them to you.  He loudly declaims any desire for recompense, but of course you both know that you owe him one.  At a later point you have a cow and he needs one and you give it to him.  It all works out because you are part of a tiny community, know each other, and any injustices will cause trouble.

Also see this post, where he describes some protocols for trade between different primitive communities, where a trade involves the whole communities, threats of war, and wife-swapping.  Homo oeconomus, the purely rational trade envisioned by Smith, need not apply.

Where did money come from?  In the Middle East, at least, Graeber suggests two major sources for the idea of a unit of value:

  • The accounting systems of large non-state enterprises– namely, temple complexes.  These were complex institutions which had land, farmers, workshops… they started reckoning things in silver and grain just to keep track of things.  Note that money existed as a means of valuation long before it existed as a unit of exchange.
  • Legal systems.  In particular, there was a desire to establish set valuations for things that were damaged: physical goods, lives, body parts, even one’s honor.  He notes that medieval Welsh law codes included precise valuations for all the things found in a home, from cooking utensils to floorboards, at a time when no markets existed where these things could be bought.  You wanted these valuations not to buy the things, but to get recompense if someone destroyed them.

Anyway, much food for thought for conworlders, especially if you have a stage of development before the invention of markets.

One of the books I picked up at the Borders sale was Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World.  I was looking forward to it, as Cole’s blog is an essential resource on the Middle East.  But I can’t really recommend it, unless perhaps you’ve never read another book on Islam or the Middle East— and if that’s the case there’s plenty of other books that would do better— George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, for instance.

The basic problem is breeziness.  He covers oil dependence, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel and Lebanon in a little more than 200 pages.  He covers the basics, tells you how to disentangle the radicals from the nationalists, the various Islamic sects from each other, explains the craziness of the US’s “Islam Anxiety” and where Bush went wrong.  But there just isn’t room for much in each chapter.

I also get the impression that he wrote the book in exasperation at George Bush’s endless incompetence, and the half-cynical half-stupid attempt by Republicans to goose up an undifferentiated Islamic threat as a replacement for the Cold War.  Well, if you can’t see why it was unlikely that a nationalist secular Iraqi state would cooperate with al-Qaeda, or why Shi`ite Iran won’t be contained by (but also won’t dominate) a democratic Iraq, or Afghanistan is so disunited, then Cole will carefully explain it to you. But in the meantime Obama got elected, and then the Arab Spring happened, and we really have a whole new set of concerns and opportunities.

Anyway, bottom line: blog still good, book is so-so.  (I’d give a link, but WordPress has cleverly redesigned its interface so none of the buttons work on the Mac.)

I picked up Civ V as a Steam special, which is still going on this weekend– $12.50, so grab it if you haven’t yet.

My initial reactions are mostly negative, though take this with a helping of salt: there may be only so much Civ a man can play, and I spent most of that on Civ2 and 3.  So it may be that there’s just too little to rekindle the affair than that it’s actually subpar.  (Plus, so many things have changed that it feels like a slog to re-learn the tech tree or learn what the best units or buildings or civs are.)

To start with the positives, it’s more gorgeous than ever, city states are a great addition, I love the city itself having ranged attacks, and so far I haven’t seen any of the morasses that could plague 3 and 4.  Maybe that’s just because I’m playing at a low level, but I haven’t seen anything like the money gap that can ruin a game of Civ4, or the popular dissatisfaction that made waging war difficult in Civ3.

It’s cute that the leaders speak in their own languages.

On the neutral side: hexes.  I barely notice them and can’t say they improve or don’t improve the game.

The biggest negative is that the game feels like it’s pushing you to have no more than a handful of cities.  There just wasn’t room for more than four in my section of the map.  Which would be OK if the game was scaled accordingly, but it still seems designed for huge empires.  E.g, in one of those four cities, I was looking at production times of 33 turns for a swordsman, 30+ turns for any building.  My capital is better, but the end result is that it takes forever to research anything or to build up an army.

Napoleon declared war on me twice; fortunately he was easy to send off.  But the one offensive war I tried was a fiasco.  I got rid of the enemy’s units, but also lost almost my entire army– I think I had one troop left, plus a Great General.  Neither of us could go anywhere.  The lesson I learned was that half a dozen units weren’t enough– but remember it takes dozens of turns to build up even that far.  How many would I need to actually get at his cities?  And this is playing on an easy level.

Recent Civs have seemed to play down militarism more and more, making a game for people who want to handcraft a lovely little civilization and win while never fighting a war.  But frankly I find that dull… a few space races are enough.  I like building up an empire in order to fight a war, and if I can’t do that very easily, it just isn’t that compelling.   

I think the UI has gone downhill.  It’s spare and dramatic, but it’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on.  I had no idea, for instance, whether my cities are happy or not, or how to automate a worker, or what the tech tree looks like.  I’m sure all that is in there somewhere, but it’s not as obvious.  Many things were nicely presented in Civ4 that take additional keystrokes to find or show now, such as which leaders want to trade luxuries; along the same lines, when you research a tech, you have to click again to choose the next one to research. 

Minor gruntles:

  • It takes forever to be able to use the ocean.  (In Civ2 I’d be exploring the seacoasts via trireme for half the game.) 
  • Repetitive useless voice-overs: “You may find this information useful.”
  • The tiny units.  I liked the three-unit dudes from Civ4.  The units are now so multiple and small that you can barely see what they are, and you can’t zoom in as far. 
  • Why do they implement Steam achievements, but break Steam screenshots? 
  • Wonder pictures are just not as good as Wonder movies.
  • Dumb unit promotions, seemingly limited to terrain adaptation. 

I was afraid that this version would be a huge time sink, but it’s looking like that’s not going to be a problem.  I’ll probably fire it up again and try to take out Napoleon, now that I know he has only two cities.

I read Stross’s The Fuller Memorandum not long ago.  It’s good as usual, though two of the major plot points I anticipated (it’s nice to be surprised instead).  However, I’m starting to have some quibbles about the whole Laundry concept.

Briefly, it’s hard to write even ersatz spy novels without absorbing the spy-novel mentality, and that feels rather right-wing to me… and it’s about ten times more so when it’s dealing with magic and Lovecraftian horror.  The basic idea, after all, is that there is knowledge that must not be known.  You don’t want every 14-year-old hacker figuring out how to summon alien mind-eating intelligences.  Thus, you know, secret agency, triple top secret, etc.

Fine, but this is pretty much diametrically opposed to both democracy, and to the best notions of how science progresses.  In this book Stross posits that increasing population is going to trigger the end of the world.  Isn’t that something that might merit breaking open the “top secret” stickers so we can get some wider input?

I know, nukes.  Publish plans for a nuclear weapon and you’ll undoubtedly quickly make aquaintances in high places.  But one, we concentrate much more on restricting the technology than the knowledge (which is really almost impossible; nukes after all are now a half-century-old idea).  And two, we certainly don’t hide the very existence of nuclear weapons, or prevent voters from knowing about them and taking them into account as they vote.

There’s a reason we don’t generally restrict knowledge and technology to an elite– it throttles both, and leads to authoritarian callousness.  There’s a certain disconnect because Stross is fairly left-wing himself, so I’d expect a little more undermining of these tropes.  (He goes out of the way, in fact, to show that the Laundry is a typical hidebound bureaucracy, and makes some extremely morally dubious decisions about its own employees.  But so far we haven’t got the Laundry equivalent of a Wikileaks, or even a Seymour Hersh.)

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