August 2018

I just finished The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. It’s absolutely delightful, and I recommend it to those in the Venn intersection of People who used to love C.S. Lewis and People who no longer love C.S. Lewis.


Previously: WTF happened to Susan

There’s a weird phenomenon where people discover  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as children, absolutely love them, discover that both were Christians— and discard  just Lewis.

Miller is writing for these people, and does a great job explaining what she loved about Lewis, why she felt betrayed by his ‘evangelism’, what else is wrong with Lewis, and why after all she finds a lot to value in his books.

Before getting to that, though, I want to emphasize: whatever you don’t like in Lewis, whatever is problematic, is just as much there in Tolkien. I don’t really get why Tolkien gets a free pass. I mean, God is right there (see the Silmarillion); Gandalf is a frigging angel; Frodo suffers because saints suffer. The men of the east and south are irredeemably bad (no one even preaches Eru to them), the ideal state is agricultural feudalism, and the Scouring of the Shire is a top-down aristocratic coup to restore things as they were for the last thousand years.

Miller covers Tolkien as well, and by her account, Tolkien was really far more bigoted. Lewis was Anglican but accepted all Christian churches; Tolkien only really approved of his own Catholicism. Lewis liked Celtic mythology; Tolkien found it “rambling and incoherent.” Both were casually sexist, but Lewis provided interesting female protagonists; both Bilbo and Frodo’s adventuring groups were all-male clubs.

True, Tolkien kept his theism on a very low boil in LOTR and The Hobbit, while Narnia is full of Christian elements. Far more than Miller, I’d suggest that not being able to read and enjoy it, despite that, is bigotry. If you said you couldn’t read The Arabian Nights or Salman Rushdie or Orhan Pamuk because the writers were Muslims, that would be bigotry; likewise if you couldn’t read Journey to the West because it’s at root a Buddhist story.

This doesn’t mean you have to accept or like those elements, or that those feeling of betrayal aren’t real. Before getting to why Lewis is fun anyway, though, it’s worth looking more at what he was trying to do, and whether it succeeded.

For one thing, if he was attempting to evangelize kids, the evidence seems to be that he failed. The Christian imagery, obvious as it is to adults, just doesn’t register with most kids. Lewis was actually instrumental to my Christian period, but not because of Narnia; the culprit was his explicit apologetic works.

Miller makes a good point: there really are children’s books that preach to kids, and they’re pretty much unreadable. If Lewis was really preachy, no one would feel betrayed by him because no one would read him.

More than he was an evangelist, Lewis was that rare thing, a very readable and sensible moralist. More than half the time Aslan is there to model being a good person rather than to expound Christian doctrine. The situations where he guides or intervenes are usually universal moral situations: being the only one in your group to know some truth (Lucy in LWW); getting someone else in trouble for your own gain (Aravis), the dangers of gossip and group membership (Lucy and the magician’s book), cheating vs. following rules (Digory and the apples).

To an extent, Lewis succeeds so well in making Aslan interesting that he fails in the larger goal of making Jesus interesting. He’s very good at appealing to the imagination; but then the fall to actual pews and hymns feels all the more excruciating. The problem of Christianity isn’t the doctrines; it’s Christians. There are some very lovely Christians, but good lord, how the bad and boring ones have the loudest voices.

Also, as a conworlder, I wish I’d ever had an idea as good as Aslan. But then, he was far less successful in the Space Trilogy.

The one place where Lewis’s method falls apart, for me, is The Last Battle. Creation myths are kind of fun, so I don’t mind The Magician’s Nephew. But as Miller says, Lewis’s assertion that the “new Narnia”, the one in paradise, would have better stories than the old, falls flat. To be blunt, how do you have stories without conflict, without sin? And if the stories are so great, why isn’t there a Book 8?  (I have the same problem with the Singularity, by the way.)

There’s other stuff to worry about— Lewis was by no means progressive even for his time. He was anti-Nazi, as Tolkien was, but disliked most anything modern, including the progressives of his time. (Admittedly many of them were hard to like; when he got to know them, they were busy excusing Stalin.) He was pretty xenophobic and even more sexist. (It’s curious that though he does have male villains, by far the liveliest and most memorable of his villains— Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Miss Hardcastle— are women.)

Now, if you can’t read a book with such things, I won’t argue. Miller explains pretty well, I think, why she can enjoy the books anyway, for the good parts, while acknowledging the problems.

And there really are a lot of good parts in Narnia: the exuberant appeals to the senses; the little factoids (why you want to use a knife rather than a sword to peel apples); children having really interesting adventures far away from parents; the sly asides (e.g. the titles on Tumnus’s bookshelf); the eclectic interest in everything fantastical, from pagan mythology to George MacDonald; characters like Reepicheep and Puddleglum.

By the way, if you like Lewis and/or Anthony Bourdain, you must read this fantastic mashup: No Reservations, Narnia, by Rachel Manija Brown.

Anyway, Miller’s book is really good, and she seems Lewisian in the best sense: like someone you could spend a delightful time with in a pub or on a long walk. One of the things Lewis emphasized (more in his other writings than in Narnia) was the joys of friendship: finding someone who is thrilled by the same things you are— whether or not they take the same lessons from them. Her book is like having that kind of chat, centering on Lewis but moving on to England, Ireland, Tolkien, World War I, the Middle Ages, various mythologies, and other fantasy/sf writers, as needed.

(Plus, as a skeptic, she’s free of the fustiness that believers too often adopt when writing about Lewis. From Lewis and other Inklings, I once suffered from a bit of Britophilia… but I was cured by reading one of Lewis’s super-admirers. Admire an author, but don’t try to be him.)








I wanted to talk about my latest syntax toys, so I decided to post all three of them: ggg, gtg, mg.

To fully understand them, you’ll have to wait for my upcoming syntax book. But in brief: they are all apps for generating sentences.

  • ggg rearranges strings. You can use this for the toy grammars that syntacticians and computer programmers always start their books with, but it can handle everything in Syntactic Structures. I’ve loaded it with some interesting sample grammars.
  • mg is the equivalent for the Minimalist Program. It’s actually way more fun than reading Chomsky, in much the same way it’s much more fun to try painting a watch than to watch paint drying. I’ll explain the basics in another post.
  • gtg rearranges trees. The idea is that the program knows about syntactic structure, so you can have rules that talk about or rearrange an NP, no matter what’s in it.  You can do this in ggg only by writing rules that apply to elements before they’re expanded into subtrees.

I’m going to talk some more about gtg, since I’ve been working avidly on it for the last few weeks.

I showed some of these to a non-linguist friend, and I think he was polite but didn’t get it. That’s fine; like I say, it requires a book to explain. But from his questions, like “Could you write poetry with it?”, it was clear that he expected it to be something rather different– a wide-ranging text generator.

That is, he was more or less measuring intelligence by the size of its vocabulary.  gtg only knows about a dozen nouns and a dozen verbs (and some other stuff). It would be possible to add a hundreds more, but that’s not the point.  The point is to model basic English syntax.  That’s hard enough!

It’s not an ultra-hard problem by any means, or I couldn’t have done it in a few weeks. On the other hand, I had Chomsky’s and other linguists’ rules to start with!

The thing is, English speakers all know these rules… unconsciously. Which means you’re not impressed when you see someone produce a simple but correct sentence. Well, let’s see how aware you are of the rules.  Here are some variants of sentences:

  • The fish were caught by her
  • She has eaten fish
  • She must like fish
  • She’s eating fish

That’s passive, perfect, modal, and progressive. All four can occur in one sentence. Without trying out alternatives in your head, what order do they appear in?

Here’s another: some sentences require an added do, some don’t:

  • We don’t keep kosher.
  • Did you take out the trash?
  • What does the fox say?
  • We aren’t going to St. Ives.
  • Can’t you keep a secret?

Again, without trying it out in your head, just from general knowledge: can you state when this added do appears?

Or, can you say precisely you use he and when you use him?  If you are a conlanger or you know an inflected language, you probably immediately think “He is nominative.”  Well, what about in Sarah wants him to move out? Him is the subject of ‘move out’, isn’t it?  (It’s not the object of want. What does Sarah want? “Him”? No, she wants “for him to move out”.)

The rules aren’t terribly difficult… indeed, if you look in the boxes on the gtg page, they’re all right there! But they’re difficult enough to make a fairly involved computing problem.

Now, syntacticians devising rules like to use formal notation… but they almost always supplement it with English descriptions. Programming forces you to be much more explicit.

Now, when I began the program, I started out with rules that looked something like this:


If you look at mg, the rules are still like that… and since I wrote that a few months ago, I don’t even remember how they work. But besides being unreadable, such rules are very ad hoc, and hide a bunch of details in the program code.

What I ended up doing instead was writing myself a tiny programming language.  This forced me to come up with the smallest steps possible, and to encode as little grammatical information as possible within the program itself.

Here’s an example: the rules for making a sentence negative.

* negative
maybe if Aux lex not insert Neg
maybe if no Aux find T lex not insert Neg

The first line is a comment. The rest are commands.

  • Maybe says that a rule is optional– the program will execute it only sometimes.
  • If looks for something of a particular category, in this case an auxiliary verb. If it’s not found, we skip to the next rule. If it is, we remember the current location.
  • Lex not means to look up the word not in the lexicon and keep it on the clipboard.
  • Insert says to insert what’s on the clipboard into the sentence at the current location.

Note that this mini-language only has two ‘variables’, what I’ve called the clipboard and the current location. I haven’t found a rule yet that requires more than that.

The help file for gtg explains all the commands and annotates each of the grammatical rules I used.

This is not how syntacticians write their rules; but one conclusion I’ve come to after reading a bunch of syntax books is that all the formalisms are far less important than their inventors think. Chomsky started people thinking that there was One True Theory of Syntax, but there isn’t. It’s less like solving the Dirac equation and more like proving the Pythagorean theorem: there are many ways to do it, and the fact that they look and feel different doesn’t mean that most of them are wrong. Writing rules in this simple language worked out for me and it’s no worse than, say, the extremely unintuitive rules of Minimalism.

Can you use these toys for writing grammars for your language or conlang?  Well, best to wait for the book to come out, but in general, sure, you can try.

I have to warn you, though: it’s not quite as straightforward as using the SCA, and plenty of people have trouble with that.  You have to think like a programmer: be able to break a problem into tiny pieces, and work out all the complications.

On the other hand, tools like gtg can help keep you honest: if the rules don’t work, the program produces crappy sentences, so you know something’s wrong. Plus it keeps you thinking about a wide variety of sentences. (Good syntacticians can quickly run through a bunch of transformations in their heads, applying them to some problem. When you’re new to the concept, you can think only about simple sentences and miss 90% of the complications.)

Also, I hope to keep improving the program, so it may be easier later on.

I picked this up a year ago, but bounced off it; I’ve been playing it again after the new update. Overall reaction: it has a great premise, and it’s not bad, but it has a lot of design issues.


Mmm, donuts

First, the concept: you’re set loose in an unimaginably large galaxy.  Articles usually say it has 18 quintillion planets, but they’re translating programmer-speak; what’s clear is that there are 18 quintillion possible planets.  That’s the number of seeds that can be given to the planet generator.  It’s not clear how many planets are actually instantiated, but presumably it’s a shit-ton.

In practice: you start out alone somewhere, and you can explore all you want. Each world will in general look like a 1970s sf paperback cover, or progressive rock album cover, but it will be different from all the others, and populated by its own animals, plants, and minerals. There are also varied dangers– some worlds are toxic, and some have frequent dangerous storms.

This is a brilliant idea, and in general NMS captures what you would want it to: fantastic landscapes in lurid colors, weird creatures, a range of dangers.  Flying over a planet is fun, and flying into space is pretty neat.

You can name planets, plants, and animals. I advise you to buy a scanner upgrade, which will make this process rather lucrative.

It’s a survival game, which means there’s a load of resources and crafting. For the first hour you’ll be very conscious of oxygen (to keep you alive), carbon (to recharge your mining laser), and sodium (to keep you safe from toxic environments).  Once you repair your ship there’s a similar list of things you need to keep it going.

The designers apparently went to the same Designer School as (say) Deus Ex and Mass Effect 1, where they were taught that players love inventory management. So a major theme of the game is getting more damn inventory slots. You actually have three types of inventory, and the process is different for each:

  • Your suit. You can buy new slots at space stations, or get them for free by searching for drop pods on planets.  (Free-ish: you’ll need resources, which will hopefully be at hand, at the cost of some grinding. One suit required a resource I didn’t have, but I knew there was some on another planet.  I went there, got it, and flew back– only I had lost the location of the drop pod.  Fortunately you can just go find another one.)
  • Your multi-tool (used for mining, fighting, and digging). You buy new ones at a space station. (This is a bit hidden: there is a multi-tool merchant, but they don’t sell the tools directly. Rather, behind them on the wall is a display which you can interact with to be presented with precisely one tool you can buy.)
  • Your spaceship. You can find broken ones and repair them, but this requires loads of resources you probably don’t have. Or, you check out ships as they enter a base or space station; eventually you’ll find one with more slots than yours, and which you can afford. Remember to transfer any goods you had stored in the ship before trading.

Shamus Young, for one, complains a lot about this arrangement. He’s not wrong, but I do think he misses what they taught at Design School: you have to impose some limitations on the player in order to have a game. (If you have a fighting game, you can’t just have the player look at an enemy to kill them; it’d be no fun.)  It’s not fun to run into inventory limits, but by gum it is motivating. Every suit slot is good to acquire, and you really want to grind to make money so you can afford a spaceship with more slots.

You can also build bases. Look, here’s my super-high-tech wooden shack:


Nice balcony. In space, you don’t need support beams.

Bases are nice, but honestly this is one of many things Empyrion does far better. You can make quite a nice little base in Empyrion… or for that matter a huge sprawling base… without hours of questing or grinding. (Empyrion also has far fewer resources to worry about, and is far more generous about inventory. Offsetting that, it’s just one star system.)

NMS made a lot of people mad when it first came out, but I don’t care about that because I didn’t get it then.  I got it at half price– for that matter, it’s on sale right now.

It’s also made people mad because it just insists on making things cumbersome. Nothing is game-breaking, but the frustrations just keeps on coming:

  • The galaxy map is really hard to use. You have to use the mouse to move around, and it moves in a very weird unintuitive way.
  • You learn alien languages a word at a time. Neat concept, but it’s so damn slow that, at 30 hours in, I can’t understand any message at all.
  • You fly using the mouse, but it’s nothing so simple as “fly where you point”. There’s a circle on the screen, and if you move the mouse outside it you go that way. Only your ship overshoots so you have to correct in the other direction.
  • Every sales interaction starts with some flavortext you have to click through. It’s interesting the first two times… only. After that it’s annoying if all you want to do is see the price of a starship.
  • There are robot sentinels on every planet that attack if you mine too much. If you leave the planet, they send ships after you. You can shoot these down… only more will immediately show up. You can outrun them, but it takes forever. Tonight I wasted half an hour on this rigmarole, in a system where there was no space station to escape to. I had to reload from an earlier save.
  • Moving around a system takes way more time than it should. You have two levels of super-drive, but it can still take 2 minutes to get to a distant planet. I mean, fine, it’s space and space is big, but it’s not even as interesting as walking from Point A to B in Skyrim.
  • Some planets have toxic storms that last several minutes, and give you only a few minutes between repetitions. You can take refuge within your ship (and take the time to log discoveries or something), but it’s just not a fun idea at that frequency.
  • The designers are terribly fond of using keys to move up and down in menus, or switch between modes. It’s like they never heard of tabs or scroll bars.
  • Just about every interaction is on a timer, including opening boxes or accessing portable machines. There’s cases where a delay is appropriate (e.g. mining) or can take the place of an ‘are you sure’ message (accepting a quest). But much of the time it’s just dumb. Heuristic: if there’s no harm in doing something, do it immediately.

All of this is liveable, but it can make it feel like the NMS designers were themselves bug-eyed aliens who do not know how to make things easy for hu-mans.

Rather strangely, when you start a game you don’t get to choose your appearance. You start out as a man in a spacesuit. When you get to a space station, you can change your appearance then. At least it’s free and doesn’t require weird resources. (I’m kind of pissed that you can’t choose a female human. Yes, you’re in a spacesuit with an opaque helmet and a woman could be inside, but the body shape looks male.)

I’m only partway through the quests, so I can’t say too much about them yet. I’ve read about how the Atlas quest ends, and it sounds mega-stupid, but I’ll give them some slack there… it’s hard to give any sort of satisfying ‘ending’ to an exploration game.

(Conan Exiles flunks this problem pretty badly. The main quest there is to find all the artefacts which will unlock the bracelet that keeps you in the Exiled Lands. You do this, unlock your bracelet, and… you walk into the distance in a very brief cutscene. Your character is deleted and you start over.  You don’t even get to leave with Conan. It’s, like, they had the youngest and dullest intern work it up the day before they shipped. Weirdly, your buildings are not deleted, and your next character can go and loot them.)

On galaxybuilding, NMS is decidedly weird. It’s an exploration game, where supposedly each planet is unmapped before you get to it, and you can name everything you’ve discovered. Only… there are alien bases and artefacts all over, there are space pirates and space stations and occasional planetary bases; there’s a galactic currency and market; there are guilds of explorers and traders; there is an army of sentinels cruising each planet. For that matter, all the planets and animals and planets had provisional names. Yet there is not a single city or densely settled world. Nor do you ever see another explorer doing what you’re doing– walking around gathering resources.

It makes no sense; it’s neither a fully settled galaxy, nor an unknown one to explore for the first time. I see why they did it this way: you want to be able to “go into town to sell your goods.” And a planet is more interesting if it has something on it to go see. Still, it would’ve been nice if they had some coherent story about all this.

On a deeper level, though the randomly generated worlds are marvelously diverse and quite pretty, they’re also kind of monotonous. Each has only one biome type, and if it has a dozen creature types that’s a lot. The planets are huge, but each part of it is the same as the last.

(In fact, I’m pretty sure that only the part you’re currently on “really exists”, and the region your base is on.  Based on my experience trying to find the drop pod I’d found before, I suspect that if you leave a region, you can’t really get back to it. And e.g. if an alien gives you a quest, they may be in a different place when you come back to them. I haven’t checked if they still look the same…)

Also weird: they’ve basically invented their own chemistry for the resources. E.g. you mine rocks into “ferrite dust”. The name is obviously based on iron, so why don’t they call it “iron”? Or at least “iron oxide”? Then they have things like “ionized cobalt”, “chromatic metal”, “condensed carbon”. You can take “tritium”, which in real life is a form of hydrogen, and refine it into platinum. Again, it’s no dealbreaker, but it’s kind of lazy.

Also also weird: there’s no attempt to model stellar systems at all. There’s no orbits– the planets just hang motionless in space. There’s no gas giants. And space is filled with rocks.

All in all: NMS provides an experience which few games are able to provide: an entire galaxy of weird planets to explore. And a loop of quests, resource extraction, and upgrades that makes exploration worthwhile.

It does seem like there’s a greater game that it aspires to but doesn’t reach. Empyrion has most of what I would have wanted: much richer base building; multiple biomes per planet; robust multiplayer. It’d also be nice if you could throw in the rich interstellar civilizations of Mass Effect…