I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts last night. In one big gulp. It looked fun and it was fun, though there was an adjustment period of about three chapters where I had to get into the right mindset. This is basically Christopher Moore territory, so if you like him you should like this and vice versa.

The premise: The redshirts on a ship greatly resembling the Enterprise have an alarming tendency to die on away missions. And they know it. A paranoid culture develops among the underlings on the ship.

Premise including spoilers that aren’t spoiled on the dustcover, but which are spoiled a little further on in my review: One smart redshirt, Ensign Dahl, finds out that the ship is actually fictional. Sometimes the Narrative takes over.  Physics goes out the window and plot contrivance rules instead.

It’s a quick read– most of the book is conversation, much of it snappy– with an extremely affectionate satirical streak.  If you liked Galaxy Quest, it’s that, with an entirely different plot.

I worry about things getting all meta, because I think the author can get carried away– as in, say, Alan Moore’s Black Dossier.  The emotional temperature drops and the work’s own Narrative goes off in a corner to sulk.  I think Scalzi takes on the challenge pretty well.  He treats the redshirts’ dilemma as an sf problem and figures out what smart people would to about it.  If he verges into a little meta-meta territory at the end, well, arguably it would be dishonest not to.

The book has a somewhat odd structure, especially if you’re used to some modern novels where the climax hits approximately two pages from the end.  Scalzi wraps up the plot and then adds a three-part coda that makes up about 1/4 of the book– wrapping up loose ends.  This isn’t bad, it’s just unusual.  In effect he thought of three more ways to play with the idea, and I think it does deepen the book and add human interest.

I picked up the habit of referring to sf, from a period when many people insisted it could as well be “speculative fiction” or “science fantasy” as “science fiction”.  Redshirts is kind of a poster child for that policy, as it sure isn’t about science.  It does what most sf does: take an idea and run it through its paces.

The early form of the idea explored here is what if fictional characters were real people who could reflect on their situation and attempt to change it?  Now, it’s fun to play with this concept, but perhaps Scalzi realized that it was not exactly connected to the real world, as the coda more or less restates it as Authors really give their characters shit, don’t they?  What’s up with that?  Which can be an actual real-world issue for writers, and to a lesser extent for readers.  E.g. Is it cheap or bad to kill off your minor characters?

Obviously, yes, if you do it routinely.  On the other hand, it’s boring if you never put your characters in trouble, and it’s unrealistic to never deal with the pain and death of real life.  And on the third hand, unrealism isn’t a crime, it’s a challenge.

I mentioned that meta-narrative can make the emotional temperature drop– if the pretense that the author isn’t there is dropped, it’s no longer a story about how a character overcomes a problem, it’s an internal monolog within the author.  Scalzi avoids that, but partly becuase he never allows the emotional temperature to rise very much, either.  We believe in Dahl’s predicament while the book is open; when it’s closed we kind of forget about him.  He wants to escape The Narrative, but there’s nothing else he wants, or gets.  I wonder if Scalzi realized this, since the coda works hard to insert some extra human feeling.

(One minor point that bothered me was that the characters refer explicitly to Star Trek.  It’s a dumb old convention, presumably enforced by evil corporate lawyers, that obvious satires are hidden using transparent fake names, but then why also refer to the actual model openly?)

(Another minor point, but a cool one: Scalzi has figured out some techno-gobblegook that actually makes Back to the Future’s model of time travel almost make sense.  I.e. if you travel in time, an instability is created because your atoms are there already, and after a convenient interval only the ones that ‘belong there’ will remain.)  (Well, it does violate the actual physics, which tells us that atoms really are interchangeable.  Still, valiant effort.)

Edit: it occurred to me that another unusual thing about Scalzi’s plot is that he really has no villains. (There are some people who act badly, but they’re very minor.) This is hard to do, so kudos to him for trying it.

Scanning slides

Scanning Dad’s slides. (Note: This was to provide illustrations for a Mefi question. I’m trying to scan my Dad’s slide collection, which I thought was 12,000 slides but he had another pile on the other side of the garage. Consensus seems to be that the scanner I got was too cheap. Dammit.)

fiftiesL 083

firenzeR 047

pistakee 100

firenzeL 022

fiftiesR 073

japan 107


I stayed up way too late last night finishing Dishonored. Or should I say Deushonored Ex? No, because that’s not the name of the game, but my point is that it’s very reminiscent of Deus Ex (and indeed it shared a designer).

One similarity is that the basic plot point is that you’re a security specialist who spectacularly fails at his job.

You are the bodyguard for these two characters.  You fail.
You are the bodyguard for these two characters. You fail.

You play Corvo, Lord Protector to the above Empress for less than five minutes.  (By the way, kudos to the designers for the Empress’s stylish pants.  Gowns with big bustles would be more Victorian, but good conworlding should avoid slavish imitation.)  Adam Jensen’s boss was awfully forgiving of his big screwup, but the new Lord Regent is not; you’re not only fired, but framed for the murder.  Perhaps you could say you’re dishonored?  Nah, framed is better.

Anyway, it turns out you have allies, the Loyalists, who hang out in a pub and send you on missions.  Like, oh, say, Deus Ex, you can execute these either by stealth, sneaking up behind people and choking them into unconciousness, or you can just shoot and/or stab them.  Oh, and like some other games, Deus Ex for example, you get some magical powers to help you stun and/or kill dudes.

What would stealth games be without this mechanic of poor peripheral vision and quick, safe comas?  It’s a pity you can’t do this in real life.

Anyway, if you go for stealth at all you’ll be spending a lot of time creating artistic piles of bodies, like this:

What Arkham City needed: Body stashing
What Arkham City needed: Body stashing

As with, say, Deus Ex, there’s basically only one way to put people into comas– sneak up from behind.  (Well, as in, say, Deus Ex, there’s also a sleep gun with limited rounds.)  However, there’s a lot more options for getting around, and that makes it a better experience overall.  The skills are disappointingly skewed toward combat, but I relied heavily on  Dark Vision, Blink,and Possession.  The first of these is basically Detective Vision, but the other two are novel and fun.  Blink gives you a short teleport, which opens up all sorts of ways to traverse the maps, including vertically.  It’s kind of like a non-athletic parkour.

Possession is the most fun: at level one you can temporarily take control of a rat or fish, which can be used to get past enemies or take unusual routes; at level two you can possess humans.  This is very useful for getting past electrical barriers, for getting a victim into a quiet location to choke him, or even for evading combat.  If anything it’s overpowered… in the later missions I was just a possessin’ fool.

There’s a Stop Time function that seems like it could be a good time, but I ended up barely using it.  It’s most useful if you’re facing a bunch of alarmed enemies, but if you are, your stealth has already gone awry and it’s frankly easier to reload a quicksave.

I’m a bit spoiled by Arkham Asylum/City, where messing up stealth can almost always be taken care of by disappearing into the heights.  In Deus Ex I got pretty tired of the cycle of quicksave, inch forward and alarm every enemy in town, reload.  Dishonored is a little better thanks to Blink and Possession, which can be used to get out of trouble.

I didn’t do much combat, because it turns out that Dishonored has an annoying morality system.  Nonlethal takedowns are Good; killing people is Bad.  If you’re Bad, you not only get a darker ending (the plague never ends), but more enemies, plus some characters will give you a severe talking-to.  I’m not much of a carnage guy, but still I find this sanctimonious nonsense.  You even get Bad points for killing the zombie-like plague victims, and for killing the guy who actually murdered the Empress.  Game designers, if you disapprove of a certain set of player actions, maybe don’t write a game about them.  It’s just not that hard to do: just don’t give ’em a gun and sword.

No matter how careful you are, Corvo will screw up again, because a) he’s never read this post on the game designer’s almost inevitable plot mechanism, and b) he’s gauche enough to drink when he’s being toasted.

What comes after steampunk?  Steambyzantium?  Incapunk?
What comes after steampunk? Steambyzantium? Incapunk?

The game has a nice style of its own… well, not far from the Wonder City parts of Arkham City, but I’d much rather see more games that are vaguely Victorian instead of mediocrely medieval.  Plus, as mentioned, the world here is just different enough to be interesting.  There’s a lot of lore scattered about, and it’s a plus that it’s all in digestible-sized pieces.  (It’s nice that the Elder Scrolls games have entire short stories in them, but I’m not always in the mood to read them.)

Even though each level is fairly constrained, they do a good job suggesting a much larger city.  There are some nice cityscapes, all prettily 3-D-modelled.  (Steam is actually behind on this– Steam games have very clever level design, but don’t have the enormous vistas of Dishonored or Skyrim or GTA or Saints Row.)

I’d say the level design is pretty good, in that I was only completely baffled twice, and I baffle easily.  (My only cavil is on the very last map, where you’re on a lighthouse, and every video game instinct ever says that you should go up to the very tippy-top.  I did, and there was nothing there… my target was a few floors below.  Oh well.  I think the top is used in the Bad ending.)

The setting, Dunwall, is a mixture of steampunk, fascism, and zombie apocalypse.  The city is in the throes of a rat-borne plague, you see, which is said to have killed off a third of the population already.  I read an interview that mentions that this was actually a serendipitous idea to explain the sparsely populated streets– plus, they came up with interesting things to do with the omnipresent rats.

The fascism bit bugs me a little, just because I don’t really like the fantasy trope that a government can turn Eeevil, or be redeemed, based on the personality at the top.  Yes, I know, Hitler, but the whole problem with Germany was that it had very shallow experience with democracy.  What does it say about Corvo and his Empress that they were an assassination away from being a police state in a death spiral?  All the instruments of repression– the rapacious aristocrats, the oppressive response to the plague, the tallboys and electrical barriers, the Orwellian loudspeakers, the torture chamber– had to have been developed and deployed under the Empress’s rule.

As for replayability, I dunno.  I might do another playthrough now that I know how it all goes, though all the plot elements (cutscenes, conversations, lore books) are a bit tedious to go through twice.  It looks like I got through it in 23 hours, which is nothing for a Bethesda game (I’ve got 111 hours in Skyrim and I never even finished), and pretty light for a $60 game… but that’s OK as I got it for half off.

Anyway, even if I’m not quite as rapturous about it as some of my friends, it’s a good game, especially if you like stealth.