Bester: Virtual Unrealities

Alfred Bester is my favorite classical sf writer– see my review of The Demolished Man here. Mostly this is because he’s a great storyteller and an energetic worldbuilder… his novels are some of the few which don’t contain monocultures, which show off the same sort of diversity and weirdness we find in the real world. This book collects some of his best short fiction.

It’s also because, to be frank, a lot of classical sf was distorted and deadened by a reactionary streak… mostly due, it appears, to John Campbell, editor of Astounding. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction, describes how Bester ran into this. After a break from sf, Bester returned in 1950, sold one story to Campbell, and no more. Campbell, as Silverberg says, was then “obsessed with Dianetics”, the precursor to Scientology, and Bester hated this. But really, once you’re aware of it, it’s hard not to see that reactionary streak. Mostly it’s expressed as a belief that an educated technocratic class, or maybe supersmart mutants, should control the world: Heinlein’s superscientists, Asimov’s Foundation and robots, Poul Anderson’s time police, Van Vogt’s Weapons Shops and Slans. Bester is one of the few to resist the idea. The Stars My Destination is explicitly populist, while Demolished Man is simply too chaotic a world for anyone to control.

However, this collection highlights another side to Bester– a darker side. Many of the stories are more horror than sf, and end unhappily. Two are about the end of the world; quite a few are about some superhuman ability that causes more trouble than it’s worth.

Bester decorated his works with the usual high-tech spaceships and such, but it’s clear that technology as such doesn’t interest him. The science he’s most interested in is psychology. (Which fits in with the novels: Stars is about teleportation, Demolished Man about telepathy. And both are particularly interested in how society should handle disturbed individuals.)

A glance over some of the stories:

  • “Disappearing Act”: a pretty sharp satire of 1950s conformity and the Cold War. The particular sf idea is cute but not deep, but it allows Bester to show how a society can lose the very things it claims it values.
  • “5,271,009”: An extremely surreal story, told with Bester’s characteristic stylistic gusto. In brief: Bester warns about indulging one’s childish fantasies– such as being a superhero or the last man at the apocalypse. The moral gets a little more bite if you imagine it aimed at his fellow sf writers.
  • “Fondly Fahrenheit”: the story of a murderous android. This one has been widely anthologized, but it’s rather typical of the short stories, which often take their idea inexorably to a horrible conclusion.
  • “Time is the Traitor”: here the idea is that one man, named Strapp, is a Decider. Things in his multistellar world are too complex for individuals or even AIs to figure out; but a man with abnormal intuition can decide things anyway. A neat idea presented with satirical verve (the rituals of Decision, and the nature of Strapp’s entourage, are lovingly described). As usual, things end badly.
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”: also widely anthologized. Bester uses time travel in several stories– mostly as a way to parody human foolishness and the cussedness of the universe.
  • “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to”: one of the end-of-the-world stories. Probably more interesting for its slice-of-post-apocalyptic-life portion than for its final revelations.
  • “The Flowered Thundermug”: I always like a heist story, and this one features two very accomplished heisters. The satirical world– it’s another post-apocalypse– doesn’t really connect.
  • “Galatea Galante”: About the creation of an artificial, perfect woman. Bester realizes and underlines how creepy the idea is, but still can’t really get past a very 1950s-male idea of femininity.
  • “The Devil Without Glasses”: another very surreal story– the basic idea is that two opposing forces from dreams are affecting reality, one pushing for human liberation, one opposing it. This might have made an interesting novel, but in short story form all Bester can do is turn it into another pessimistic fable.

I’m probably not selling the book well. I enjoyed it a lot while reading it. Bester can write, and he can be scintillating without losing the thread of the story. And if you like dark fables, he’s got plenty of them, and they’re a bracing corrective to the techno-optimism of some of his peers.

Still, the novels are masterful; the stories are merely fun. If there’s a common flaw, it may be that Bester gets too caught up in the surface details: the dialogs, the little swerves of plot. So some (not all) of the stories feel like they go on longer than they have to, or take a little too long to make their point.

Another biographical detail: Bester took another long break from sf in the late 1950s– instead writing for a travel magazine, Holiday. It must have paid better than sf, since he stuck with it for years. Also, before he got into sf he wrote for comic books… I’d love to see an anthology of his comics work!

Middle East Construction Kit

It’s here!! Here’s my descriptive page; here’s the Amazon page for the softcover. The Kindle will be out soon— sometimes this is quick and straightforward, sometimes it’s a mess. There will also be a hardcover option.

Edit: Kindle version is here. Hardcover too– see the description page.

The cover is a little different— I corrected the centering and changed the font for “Middle East” to Sanvito— but I’m too lazy to fix the pic. I can’t add much to the description on, so I’ll just talk about process for a bit.

I got the proof copy last week, and made a bunch of corrections, reaching the point any author will recognize: thinking that this bunch of corrections is the last. But I’m also at the point where I’ve almost memorized the text, meaning that errors are likely to escape my eye. (My wife found a bunch of typos my eyes just blooped over for months.)

The back cover of the proof had a horrible typo: the snatch of Hebrew I used as an illustration was backwards. It turns out that Photoshop Elements cannot handle Hebrew (or Arabic). I had to use a bitmap instead. I hope the Kindle doesn’t have this problem…

This book took about three years. This is longer than the India and China books. You can mostly blame Covid for that— the library was closed, for one thing. Anyway, I think it turned out pretty well! (The book, not the pandemic.) There’s a lot of fascination in these sandy empires, and it was fun to get to know Semitic and Sumerian.

What’s next? An alert reader gave me a great idea: a book devoted to creating religions. I’m also still tempted to do a follow-up to this book, starting in the 600s or so, and covering Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. But for the immediate future, I want to concentrate on my Almea+400 project.

Why do food replicators suck?

If you like mega-nerdy discussions about impossible things, this Tumblr and Metafilter discussion delivers. I found myself convinced by entirely opposite conclusions several times. The basic question: is Star Trek replicator food as good as real food?

The originator of the discussion, Beatrice-Otter, thinks it obviously is:

In Star Trek, replicator technology is part of the same tech tree as transporters. Replicated food would be identical to the food it was based on, down to the subatomic level.

The discussion makes many good points.

  • Working from a fixed recipe makes every instance of a dish taste the same. That could get boring fast.
  • If you’re a foodie, the number of options for a dish just explodes. Precise ingredients, multitudes of obscure varieties for each one, their terroir, different cooking methods, seasonal changes, the taste imparted by the pan you use. Maybe even which microorganisms live in the local tap water…
  • Maybe the replicator is good with pizza, but does it do Ethiopian food well? To say nothing of all the hundreds of planets and dozens of species the Federation has run into. You can have a database that’s huge, yet really only works for a subset of people, probably the developers.
  • Everyone has their own individual associations and preferences. You could store the ratatouille recipe that brings Anton Ego back to his childhood— but visiting Anton Ego’s childhood isn’t the same for you and for him.
  • The ship’s replicators are military grade and just don’t have the options the crew had back home.
  • Humans are humans, and will find a way to complain even in a post-capitalist utopia.
  • Our senses are affected by ambience. Anton Ego’s ratatouille might be spectacular in a restaurant in Paris, bland and disappointing in a cold starship galley.
  • In ST canon, replicators can’t produce live animals. What about that Klingon dish that includes live ingredients? But you don’t have to invent other species to get this problem: I once saw a video about a Mexican street dish that included live insects. For that matter, yogurt is supposed to have live bacteria cultures…

Someone pointed out that once replication tech exists, people would deliberately mess with it— e.g. make a steak where some of the proteins are replaced by raspberry syrup. Or you deliberately play with glitches that would be impossible in any other cooking method. (E.g. imagine layering hot and cold levels within a pastry— each 0.01 inch wide.) Or a similar layering effect with chocolate and fruit.

To me, the killer consideration is data space. How much physical space does a recipe take up? We’re used to thinking of data as weightless: an e-book takes up way, way less space than a book. Thus we can easily imagine a replicator filled to bursting with variations on the pizza recipe.

But an e-book is negligible because printed letters are enormously huge at the molecular level. It really doesn’t take much to fool the eye. The stomach is another matter. You have to replicate the food way below the cellular level. E.g. you’re making a steak: you have to make all the proteins correctly down to the molecular level— if you make the proteins wrong, the food isn’t even nutritious!

A pound of steak contains on the order of 1025 atoms. We need to store the location and velocity of each one.

  • Yes, Heisenberg would have something to say about that; take it up with Star Trek.
  • Velocity? If you think “but the atoms aren’t moving much,” I remind you that electrons moving is what we normally call “temperature”.
  • Just in case you have some bright idea about storing info about multiple atoms in one atom using floating point numbers… atoms are quantized. E.g. the state of any electron can be given by two integers (spin and energy level). And these are not numeric registers: if you set an electron to a high energy state, it won’t stay that way, it’ll send off the energy as a photon.)

Anyway: to store the state of each atom, we have nothing smaller than an atom. The recording of the state of 1025 atoms will itself be 1025 atoms— a pound of computronium. Maybe more, since any data format has some overhead; plus of course you need the mechanisms to actually read the data. Now, do you still think that the replicator can store thousands of recipes, and thousands of variants for each one? The ship will end up being made of recipe blocks.

Fine, you say: we’ll compress the data. And I’ll say: there is no lossless compression. Every method you use will have some effect— and could change the taste. Make enough compromises and yeah, replicator food sucks.

Now, I’m happy to grant that compression can be done. But a lot of thinking about this will be due to analogies that don’t apply here— namely, our experience compressing visual and auditory data. It’s pretty easy to fool the eye and the ear with low-res data. How much of that applies to taste and smell is another matter. (A lot of biological processes, including these, depend on recognizing large molecules; you can’t depend on macro-level fakery. That’s one reason making fake meat is so hard.) And again, satisfying the digestive system is even harder.

Edit: Compression can be lossless if the data is strongly patterned. E.g. an entry in the Library of Babel that consists entirely of the letter “e” can be precisely described in a few words (I just did it). But complex biological material (a.k.a. “food”) isn’t strongly patterned in that way.

Suppose you can compress the recipe a thousandfold: you can store the recipe for a pound of beef in 1022 atoms. Great! Now you can store a thousand variants of the recipe in a pound of computronium, a thousand recipes still weigh half a ton. How many replicators did you want in your starship, by the way…?

OK, we compress it a millionfold! Just 1018 atoms per recipe. That’s just a pound of computronium for a thousand dishes with a thousand variants each. Good enough for government work! Only… come on. You can’t just say you’ll keep 1 bit in 1,000,000 and claim that the loss is undetectable. Some people will insist on this, but I call this an instance of engineer’s disease: a certain type of nerd thinks that their tech solution cannot fail, an optimism belied by fifty years of engineering experience.

(Also, please don’t quibble over the portion size. You could store 1 cm3 of beef instead and save a couple of orders of magnitude. Only, one, building food out of 1 cm3 cubes will definitely be noticeable. And two, I could easily increase thousand recipes by several orders of magnitude too— that was just a simplification for ease of calculation. The Joy of Cooking contains 4500 recipes, and it’s hardly the last word on food. And Star Trek ships include people not only from every human culture, but from other biospheres and other species.)

All this shed some light, I think, on why Star Trek transporters can’t be used to store multiple backups per person, create endless clones, etc. A person takes 1027 atoms to store— the same weight as a person. (You want that data compressed? And then you’re gonna cheerfully step into that machine?) This would explain why (as one Metafilter user points out) during one ST transporter malfunction, storing all the person-data completely overwhelmed the ship’s computers. Transportation cannot be a matter of reading the data, storing it in some mega-compressed form, beaming it somewhere, and 3D-printing it. The best way of storing those 1027 atoms is to use those very atoms. They’re transformed into plasma beams or whatever tech-gobbledygook you want, but they continue to be 1027 atoms, and they’re physically moved to the destination.

Oh, one more thought experiment for you. You go into the transporter carrying a portable food replicator— whose core is a pound of computronium. As we’ve established, every atom in a recipe is important: this data has been compressed as far as it can be. Does the replicator still work after you’ve been transported? Does it work well? Analogies based on JPGs won’t help you here!

Finally: this is all speculative and no answer, including mine, is the last word. But there is a conworlding lesson here, and that’s that though you can rescue a magical sf idea with more magic, you shouldn’t. A certain type of nerd just wants those replicating machines to work perfectly and keeps adding more impossibilities to keep the idea pure. But to get an interesting sf idea, you want limitations and tradeoffs and possible flaws.

New computer who dis?

If you sent me mail before August, and you didn’t get a reply and you still want one, please e-mail me. Especially if you’re a (potential) reader of the Middle East Construction Kit.

I got a new Mac at that time, and for some reason it imported all my mail except for things in my inbox before that date. And unfortunately I have a bad habit of leaving things in my inbox for years.

No problem, I thought: they’re still all there on the old computer. Only I checked today and they’re not. (I guess they should be on the backup drive, but I don’t know where Mail stores its data or if it’s at all readable.)

Not gonna lie, an occasional mail reset due to getting a new computer is kind of nice. But there’s at least some mail in there I wish I hadn’t lost…

If you are a MECK reader and haven’t sent me comments yet, please get in touch, as I’m getting the physical proof copy made and I have only a few weeks to make final changes.

Hebrew vs. Aramaic

I wrote this for my book, but at the last moment I decided to replace it with a different text more typical of Biblical Hebrew. This is pretty technical, so feel free to skip it till Middle East Construction Kit comes out and you can read the Hebrew mini-grammar there. Many thanks to Carlo Yehuda Meloni who provided the texts and transliterations.

Let’s take the opportunity to compare Hebrew and Aramaic. We’ll look at Daniel 7:2-4, which is written in Aramaic. The English translation is the JPS’s.

First, here’s the Hebrew. This is actually a +19C back-translation into Hebrew by Samuel Leib Gordon. As such it’s a far later Hebrew than BH, and highly influenced by Aramaic. The main difference is a very frequent use of the active participle rather than the PC or SC. (Prefixing vs suffixing conjugations.)

עוֹנֶה דָּנִיֵּאל וְאוֹמֵר: רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי בַּחֲזוֹנִי עִם לַיְלָה, וְהִנֵּה אַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם מְגִיחוֹת לַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל.

ʿōneh Dāniyyēl wə-ʾōmer, rōʾeh hāyītī ba-ħăzōnī ʿim laylāh, wə-hinneh ʾarbaʿ rūħōṯ ha-ššāmayīm məgīħōṯ la-yyām ha-ggāḏōl.

answering-sm Daniel and-speaking-sm / seeing-sm be.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold four.f wind-pl.cons the-heaven-du stirring-pl.f to-sea the-great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חַיּוֹת גְּדוֹלוֹת עוֹלוֹת מִן הַיָּם, שׁוֹנוֹת זוֹ מִזּוֹ.

Wə-ʾarbaʿ ħayyōṯ gəḏōlōṯ ʿōlōṯ min ha-yyām, šōnōṯ zō mizzō.

and-four.f beast-pl great-pl.f coming-pl.f from the-sea / differing-pl.f this.sf from-this.sf

Here zoṯ ‘this.sf’ is replaced by zō, as in Mišnaic Hebrew.

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

הָרִאשׁוֹנָה כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְנָפַיִם שֶׁל נֶשֶׁר לָהּ, רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי עַד אֲשֶׁר נִמְרְטוּ כְנָפֶיהָ וְנִשְּׂאָה מִן הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל רַגְלַיִם כְּאָדָם הוּקָמָה, וּלְבַב אָדָם נִתַּן לָהּ.

Hā-riʾšōnāh kə-ʾaryēh ū-ḵənāpayīm šel nešer lāh, rōʾeh hā-yīṯī ʿaḏ ʾăšer nimrəṭū kənāpēyṯāh wə-nissʾāh min hā-ʾāreṣ, wə-ʿal raglayīm kəʾāḏām hūqāmāh, ū-ləḇaḇ ʾāḏām nittaw lāh.

the-first-sf as-lion / and-wing-du which eagle to-3sf / seeing-sm be.SC-1s until sub scour.nip̄ʿal.SC-3pm wing-du.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nip̄ʿal.SC from the-earth / and-on foot.du as-man stand.hop̄ʿal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

You’d expect the construct state for ‘wings of eagles’, but Aramaic preferred the construction X di Y, and Gordon translates this literally as X šel Y.

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.

Daniel was written as late as the 2C, so the transliteration I’ve been using, suitable for the Iron Age, is anachronistic. Carlo Yehuda Meloni provides the following phonemic transcription:

ʕonɛ daniyyel wəʔomer: roʔɛ hɔyiθi baħazoni ʕim laylɔ, wəhinne ʔarbaʕ ruħoθ haʃʃɔmayim məɣiħoθ layyɔm haggɔðol. wəʔarbaʕ ħayyoθ gəðoloθ ʕoloθ min hayyɔm, ʃonoθ zo mizzo. hɔriʃonɔ kəʔarye uxnɔfayim ʃɛl nɛʃɛr lɔh, roʔɛ hɔyiθi ʕað ʔaʃɛr nimrətˤu xənɔfɛhɔ wəniśśəʔɔ min hɔʔɔrɛsˤ, wəʕal raɣlayim kəʔɔðɔm huqɔmɔ, ulvav ʔɔðɔm nittan lɔh.

Here’s the Aramaic Biblical text.

עָנֵה דָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר, חָזֵה הֲוֵית בְּחֶזְוִי עִם-לֵילְיָא; וַאֲרוּ, אַרְבַּע רוּחֵי שְׁמַיָּא, מְגִיחָן, לְיַמָּא רַבָּא.

ʕɔne ðɔniyyel wəʔɔmar, ħɔze haweθ bəħɛzwi ʕim leləyɔ; waʔaru, ʔarbaʕ ruħe ʃəmayyɔ, məɣiħɔn ləyammɔ rabbɔ.

speak.act.part-sm Daniel and-speak.act.part-sm / look.act.part-sm see.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold / four.sf wind-pl.cons heaven stir.act.part-sf to-sea great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חֵיוָן רַבְרְבָן, סָלְקָן מִן-יַמָּא, שָׁנְיָן, דָּא מִן-דָּא.

wəʔarbaʕ ħewɔn ravrəvɔn sɔləqɔn min yammɔ, ʃɔnəyɔn dɔ min dɔ.

and-four beast-pl great-pl.f come.act.part-pl.f from sea / differ.act.part-pl.f this.sf from this.sf

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

קַדְמָיְתָא כְאַרְיֵה, וְגַפִּין דִּי-נְשַׁר לַהּ; חָזֵה הֲוֵית עַד דִּי-מְּרִיטוּ גפיה (גַפַּהּ) וּנְטִילַת מִן-אַרְעָא, וְעַל-רַגְלַיִן כֶּאֱנָשׁ הֳקִימַת, וּלְבַב אֱנָשׁ, יְהִיב לַהּ.

qaðmɔyəθɔ xəʔarye, wəɣappin di nəʃar lah; ħɔze haweθ ʕað di-mməritˤu ɣappah untˤilaθ min ʔarʕɔ, wəʕal raɣlayin kɛʔɛnɔʃ hoqimaθ, ulvav ʔɛnɔʃ yəhiv lah.

first-sf as-lion / and-wing-pl of eagle to-3sf watch.act.part-sm watch.SC-1s until till pluck.nifal.SC-3pm / wing-pl.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nifal.PC from earth / and-on feet.du as-man stand.hofal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.


Since I’m still awake, I’ll write another review, this one of something I liked: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

If you know nothing about it, it’s a fable, something of an urban fantasy. The title character lives in another world, which he calls the House– because it’s all one house or mansion. It extends for thousands of rooms in all directions, and despite years of exploration Piranesi has never found an end to it. The lower floors are filled with oceans; the upper floors with clouds. He lives off fish, shellfish, and seaweed he finds in the ocean, and he keeps an obsessive journal– the novel purports to be its 10th volume.

For company there are a few skeletons, and a mysterious man he calls the Other– the only living human he knows. The Other shows up twice a week for meetings. The Other is pursuing what he calls Great and Secret Knowledge which he thinks is hidden in the House; he does not search for it himself, but encourages Piranesi to explore. (He provides him with notebooks and pens.)

The first part of the book explores the House, the strange narrator, and his strange friend. Piranesi, oddly enough, is completely happy with his life. He has excellent recall of everything he’s seen in the House, and he’s satisfied with his daily routines and occasional longer journeys. Every room is full of statues, and he knows them all. He talks to the birds which fly through the halls, and leaves offerings to the skeletons. He regards the Other as a friend, though he is skeptical about the Great and Secret Knowledge.

This idyll is threatened by new knowledge– starting with a visit from another living person, who Piranesi calls the Prophet. The Prophet tells him things that put in question what he knows about the House, and the Other, and himself. He begins to explore these clues…

I won’t say here what he finds, except for what the book jacket reveals– that there is another world besides the House. And magic is involved.

The obvious comparison is to Borges’s Library of Babel– though the House is more a catalogue of the visual than the literary arts, and was more densely populated. It’s also reminiscent of Schuiten & Peeters’ brilliant and gorgeous French graphic novel La Tour (The Tower), which also depicts a near-infinite architectural monstrosity with few human residents and a mysterious origin.

Reviews usually mention C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, probably because it contains a few explicit references to it, and because the House also recalls the huge palace of Charn. But the comparison is not very illuminating. Piranesi’s House is not Charn: it’s not lifeless, it’s not the sinister end of an evil civilization, and there are no traces of Aslan or the Witch here. There is some human evil, but the House itself is– at least as Piranesi experiences it– a peaceful and even joyful place.

What it’s not much like is Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked that one, but it takes a long time to get going, while Piranesi is just 245 pages. One thing they do share is that in both novels, Clarke commits to the bit, as comedians say. Strange is written in the form and diction of long 19th century novels, while Piranesi showcases the oddness of its main character, who learns all sorts of things during his adventures but never becomes what we’d call normal.

I liked the book a lot, and finished it in one long binge. Most everything gets explained eventually, at least one of the bad guys is dealt with satisfactorily, and Piranesi manages to adapt to his new knowledge without entirely losing the calm he found in the House.

It doesn’t explore its magic very thoroughly. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it’s good to set expectations: if you like your sf ideas teased out in all their complications, this isn’t that.

I do think that– as with The Tower— the first half of the book works the best, when we are most exposed to the awesome and strange world of the House and don’t understand it yet. Schuiten & Peeters couldn’t really make the mystery pay off. I think Clarke does better at that, but some of the magic does leak out. One disappointment, perhaps (in white to avoid spoilers)… the Great and Secret Knowledge turns out to be a dud. Which is realistic, but it might have been more interesting if the Other’s project was more of an actual threat.

Sable: ugh

Negative reviews are kind of annoying; but I’m a bad mood and might as well express it, and maybe draw some game design lessons.

I’ve been looking forward to Sable for years. I tried it tonight and bounced off it so hard I got a refund.

From pictures, it looked like it took a lot of inspiration from Moebius. In-game, it’s not quite as impressive: it’s all flat colors and the overall effect is to turn a complicated 3-D scene into simple flatness. And the cutscenes for some reason are low-FPS. For what it’s worth, Moebius usually modeled his shapes with meticulous linework and subtle coloring. But eh, not a big problem.

The big problem is the terrible UI. This is foreshadowed by the moment you get control. You’re in some sort of temple, facing a big sculpture of a face. You can walk around, climb the face, stand on top of it looking outside through a hole in the roof you can’t get out of. Turns out you’re supposed to ignore all that and walk out the other way. Lesson 1: when you highlight something with details and lighting, players will think it’s important and spend time on it. Don’t waste those cues on nothing.

I walked out and ran into a child who offered something I was told I wanted, in return for some beetles. Fine, it’s My First Fetch Quest. You can talk to other people and they’ll give you a vague hint where the beetles are (“go east”). Fine, only…

  • There’s no indication of where east is. It turns out you need a compass, which you get later on.
  • I went east and saw no beetles. The compass highlights points of interest, but there was nothing to indicate where the beetles are. It’s a big world, you can lose insects in a lot of places.
  • Everyone you talk to will give you that same option to talk about the beetles, which you can’t skip.
  • Since I’m in a bad mood, I might as well complain that no one explains why I want the thing the child is offering. Is it a side quest, or something I need to advance the story? No idea.

Lesson 2: Playing hunt-the-pixel was tedious even back in the ’90s. Don’t be mysterious about what you want from the player.

Next, I talked to someone who was supposed to have a glider for me. Cool, supposedly this is the key to the whole game. It’s not ready yet for some reason… fine, it’s a multi-stage quest. But the first step is, he wants you to ride a beater glider to test it out (i.e. preview the skills). The conversation implies that it’s right next to him.

The glider isn’t there. All that’s around him are a few boxes. You can wander around camp or the surrounding desert… there’s nothing that looks like a glider. You can talk to people… no hints. You can bring up the compass… nothing points to a glider. You can talk to Glider Guy again, and he explains where the beetles are, then tells you he won’t talk to you till you’ve flown the glider which he won’t tell you where it is. There is no option to skip the beater glider and get the real one instead.

I looked around for awhile and gave up. If it’s a bug, it’s pretty bad that it makes the tutorial fail. If you’re supposed to wander around the big area available to you until you find it… come on. Lesson 3: don’t hate the player that much. When you’re obviously gating further progress to a task, don’t fucking hide the thing in some non-obvious location.

I did read a few reviews, and obviously some people are progressing easily enough. That’s nice. But to me, the time I spent with the game told me one of two things.

  • Maybe the developers really do hate the player– it’s supposed to be a frustrating grind. In which case, I’m glad I found out within the refund period.
  • Maybe the developers didn’t test their game. Like most developers, their idea of testing was “I ran it once and it didn’t crash.” They know where the damn glider is, so they don’t see a problem. Did they try watching someone else play their game? Even for an indie studio, that level of non-testing is not acceptable.

I’m mildly curious, but very mildly, where these things were. But that’s lesson 4: put the frustrating bits later in the game. Once I’m committed to a game, I’m willing to put up with grind. (It’s astonishing how much time I’ll put into grinding in Minecraft.) But the first hour or two of a game is key to making me feel committed. At that point, you’re still selling the game. Make it interesting and don’t make it impossible.

One more thought: a game can decide that a particular quest item shouldn’t just be highlighted on the map, but there are alternatives besides “randomly hide the thing in a large area and don’t show any clues at all.” E.g. the minimap in Borderlands will highlight you the area where you should hunt. Dishonored had the Heart which gives you the distance to the sought item; by heading to where it beats faster you get the direction. Minecraft has you locate strongholds by throwing an item which will point in the right direction.

The Psychology of Time Travel

I found this book, by Kate Mascarenhas, more or less by chance. It was on the next shelf from where Arkady Martine’s next book should have been, and it was about time travel– I’m a sucker for anything about time travel. And in fact it’s really good! Once I was into it I had to keep going till I was done. And now I’m out of books.

The basic setup: four women– Margaret, Barbara, Grace, and Lucille– invent time travel, in 1967. One of them, Barbara, is overstressed and has a sort of breakdown in front of the media, and she’s kicked out of the group. The rest form an organization to manage time travel, the Conclave.

In July 2017 Barbara receives a cryptic note which turns out to be the report of a death six months in the future, and discusses it with her granddaughter Ruby. In January 2018, a girl named Odette finds a corpse in a locked boiler room… locked from the inside.

So, it’s a mystery, and an sf story, and true to its title it really is about the psychology of time travel: how it might mess with your head. What happens if you know the day you die? Or the day your loved one dies? More strangely yet… how do you grieve, or do you grieve, if after they die you can, whenever you want, take a trip into the past to see them again?

Fitting the subject, the structure of the book is all over the chronological map. Most of it centers on the murder and its aftermath in 2017-18, but chapters are set in the previous or following decades. There are quite a few characters, though the chief ones are named above.

Mascarenhas’s version of time travel is deterministic, and also future-oriented: time travel requires a receptive apparatus, so you can’t travel back before the device was invented. (You also can’t travel more than 300 years in the future. It’s hinted that the 24th century is pretty nasty, and perhaps all the machines are destroyed.)

Most of the focus is on the Conclave itself. Its structure is a baffling, because time travel sort of collapses its 300-year timespan. Any given agent may be given an assignment at a future or past time; people get intimately familiar with their past and future selves; you can even make a phone call to any Conclave employee at any time. There’s an extensive Conclave slang, which never changes since it’s shared over that entire time period. There are objects called “genies” which are acausal: a future you hands it to a younger you, so it exists uncreated in a years-long time loop.

A major subplot is a romance between Ruby and one of the pioneers, which has the brain-busting peculiarity that the lifespans of the two characters barely overlap. Romance is weird for time travelers: if they end up with a partner, they know who it is, often before they’ve met. Also, is it infidelity if, while you’re partnered, you also hook up with yourself?

The Conclave also turns out to be kind of a nasty thing. It’s located in London, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of British law, since the agents present at any one moment in time may be from anywhen, and it’s not clear what set of laws should apply. And it reflects the heavy hand of Margaret, at the top, and her determination that psychological problems like Barbara’s never recur. Naturally, worrying so hard about one problem leads into a set of opposite problems.

The book must have been hell to plot. It’s a lot of fun to explore all these concepts, and almost all of the characters are interesting to be with. (All the viewpoint characters are female; from an interview, it seems that the author tried male characters, and found that readers took the male characters as more important. So she just made everyone important be female.)

Mascarenhas works out lots of weird side-effects of time travel as the Conclave practices it, though I’m not sure they’re worked out enough. To try to explain without spoilers: information about future events is a phone call away. Sometimes the characters use this information; and to make the plot work, some of the characters (Barbara, Ruby, Odette) spend much of the book outside the Conclave and thus have to plod through normal time like regular humans. But some events proceed as if the Conclave weren’t using its own mechanisms. (Though, the timeline being unchangeable, perhaps the ultimate argument is “things happened that way because they did.”)

An example with spoilers: Odette joins the Conclave to dig up info. Because she had therapy, she is ineligible per Margaret’s rules, and she hides this for a time. When it’s revealed, she’s kicked out. There’s a testing process for entry, lovingly detailed; why isn’t part of it calling the future to see if she’s still employed in a month? There may be answers in this particular case– e.g. Odette is hired as a sort of internal detective, and perhaps policy is to not to mess with them. But the same issue comes up with larger plot points. E.g. after 2018 everyone knows that Margaret is a bit of a nutter. How could this be kept a secret before then, when travelers are constantly going back into her tenure? I don’t think these are flaws, it just worries me a bit.)

Buggy book

At the library I picked up a book on history which I hoped would be dull but informative– perfect for reading at the gym or just before bed. Almost the first thing in the book is a map of the ancient Middle East, which shows Sumer… as a city.

Oops! But maybe this was a singular error and the text would be OK. But no, it turns out to be full of little errors.

  • The author says that both Egypt and Mesopotamia tamed their rivers by means of elaborate waterworks. That’s more or less true of southern Mesopotamia; not so much Assyria or Egypt. Egypt barely needed waterworks: the entire Nile valley flooded every year, and the Egyptians just had to recover the locations of their fields after the flood.
  • He has Egypt founded by Menes, not Narmer. He describes the Nubians as being too weak to resist Egyptian domination, though in fact Nubia conquered Egypt at one point.
  • He describes the Amarna letters as showing the supremacy of Egypt over all other kingdoms, and to prove this quotes a letter from an Egyptian vassal. In fact the letters show that the major states were and presented themselves as fully equal to Egypt. A little clue that Egypt wasn’t top dog is that the letters are written in Akkadian!
  • He has the Sumerians as successors to the Akkadians, and declares that the Sumerians ruled from Ur. In fact the Sumerians came first, and were notoriously divided into fractious city-states. He talks about the Assyrians inheriting culture from the Babylonians– he doesn’t seem to realize that they spoke the same language.
  • He says that Babylon never recovered after the fall of Hammurabi– though in fact it was a major player for another thousand years, usually able to stand up to Assyria, and finally triumphant over it. He mentions the Kassite takeover of Babylon but doesn’t seem to know that the Kassites ruled peacefully for almost 500 years.
  • He summarizes Hinduism as the worship of Lakshmi and Vishnu, which not only erases Shiva but forgets that there was a whole different pantheon in Vedic times.
  • He says that India’s major external threat, until the Europeans arrives in the 16C, was the nomads of Central Asia. Which, um, forgets the Persians, the Greeks, and the Arabs.
  • He has the early Chinese surrounded by exotic peoples named Xirong, Beidi, and Nanman. This is a confused and truncated reflection of the Chinese giving a name to the barbarians in each direction: Róng to the west, Dí to the north, Mán to the south, and Yí to the east. The author’s versions redundantly add the Chinese direction name: Xī-Róng = ‘west Róng’. None of these names should be taken as ethnic groups or nations.
  • He uses temple names for (medieval) Chinese emperors, which leads to absurdity when he mentions a Khitan emperor crowning himself Taizu. First, temple names are posthumous; second, Tàizǔ is the traditional temple name given to the founder of a dynasty; it’s more of a title (‘great ancestor’) than a name.

Naturally, my upcoming book won’t have these errors. (Of course, in my less self-confident moments I worry that it will be riddled with other errors. But hopefully they’ll be more interesting and better-informed ones.)

I’m not going to name the book, because my intent is not to shame the author. I don’t expect to finish it, anyway, because he’s lost my trust. I expect he’s reading way out of his field, and he is trying to talk about all of history, which implies a pretty overwhelming research load. But still, didn’t he have any specialist friends who could give the manuscript a quick read?

Oh, one more complaint– he talks about a Middle Eastern “dark age” from 1200-1000. That’s not an error exactly, but it’s kind of an outdated way of thinking. In many regions historians focus on strong, high-profile states… largely because these are the places that left impressive ruins and lots of documents. It’s fair to say that these were nice times to be alive if you were in the elite and lived in the capital. It’s far less accurate to say that these were the best times for the rest of the population.

Take, say, the Old Kingdom of Egypt. We can trace the rising power of the leaders from predynastic times, culminating in the near-totalitarian power of the 4th dynasty (which built the Giza pyramids). Centuries later, the power of the kings declined; tombs of provincial leaders increased in size; there was a tendency toward regional art styles. Finally the central power collapsed.

Was this a “dark age”? For the royal family, sure! But arguably prosperity was spread far more equally at the end of the dynasty and beyond it, and the common people were perhaps better off when they weren’t being forced to build pyramids.

We get the “dark ages” concept from European history, and European historians’ eternal disappointment at the fall of Rome.

  • The prosperity of the Roman empire is frequently exaggerated, especially in the West. Urbanism didn’t have deep roots in Gaul or Spain, and largely collapsed when central authority did.
  • Rome was really pretty badly managed. There was never really a golden age of Roman republicanism, and the emperors operated at about the level of Third World warlords.
  • The collapse in power and technology we see in the western half of the empire should not be imputed to interregna elsewhere, e.g. China and India. A set of small kingdoms ruling where there was once an empire is not inherently bad.

The Collapsing Empire

This, by John Scalzi, was another of the books recommended by NPR, but it turns out to be very similar in theme to A Memory Called Empire. It’s also a space opera about (spoiler) a collapsing empire, and even explores the same idea of a sentient brainscan. What I learned: it’s best not to read two space operas in a row about collapsing empires.

It’s not bad, mind you. The basic setup: humanity lives in the Interdependency, a network of colonies dominated by guilds (basically megacorps with monopolies), linked by a para-space called the Flow that provides FTL travel. The problem is that the Flow is disappearing, which will be particularly bad because human society has been designed to be interdependent– so the colonies will probably die off on their own. Only one colony is an actual planet, called End.

There’s a number of viewpoint characters: Kiva, a roguish and foul-mouthed Owner’s Representative on a trading ship at End; Cardenia, the new and unprepared Emperox of the Interdependency; Marce, a scholar from End who has the best insight into how the Flow is failing.

Let’s start with the positive: the prelude, which sets the tone and the theme. It details an attempted mutiny on yet another spaceship. It’s fun and showcases what Scalzi seems to do best: tough asshole characters, tense but witty confrontations, quick reversals, and a good helping of comedy. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like the book. And the series; it’s a trilogy.

The overall situation is good too, though maybe it hits a little close to our little problem, the looming climate change apocalypse. The Interdependency feels like a bunch of overgrown Renaissance city-states, everyone trying to screw each other over without quite violating social norms. Throwing an existential threat at these people is an excellent way to see what they’re made of.

So, I like a lot of it but I also find it tiring. The comparison to Arkady Martine does not help it. I think the things that rub me the wrong way are these:

  • The characters are divided into good assholes and nasty assholes. (Not everyone, but close enough.) I actually like Kiva a lot– she’s lively and inventive. But, I dunno, there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t consist only of Han Solo and Boba Fett. It’s nice to have some actually likeable people in there somewhere.
  • The multiple viewpoint characters are a good fit for space opera, but I miss the focus provided by a single protagonist.
  • The Interdependency as Scalzi portrays it is hard to like– Martine is far better at explaining why an empire could be both dangerous and attractive. But the deeper problem is that the systemic problems are sidelined in favor of building up one particular clan as the archvillains. That is, Scalzi understands that the Interdependency is hopelessly corrupt, but still writes a story where shooting three people would pretty much fix everything.
  • Come on, Scalzi, you literally give your exposition of the Flow in the form of a lecture for schoolchildren?
  • The structure is weirdly digressive and repetitive. E.g. something like a third of the book is devoted on getting Marce from Point A to Point B. He’s threatened at home, then kidnaped, then they send assassins after him, then pirates. It’s competent thriller-plot, but did we need all four of these inconveniences, especially when the bad guy is the same one each time and we learn nothing new about him? The Chandler plot, careening from one danger to another, doesn’t work merely because it puts the hero in danger, but because it deepens the plot and provides surprises.
  • One more unfortunate comparison: Martine is far better at showing how it feels to be involved in apocalyptic events. It’s fun when a resourceful character like Kiva keeps sidestepping the enemy, but it’s more affecting when a character sometimes feels overwhelmed and panicky.

I’m afraid this sounds more negative than I meant it to. When something feels off about a book or game, I want to analyze that until I feel I understand it. But if I’d read this book first, or been in a slightly different mood, I’d probably have liked it more.

FWIW, re-reading my review of Scalzi’s Redshirts, I note that I had a very similar reaction: great idea, weird structure, and a certain difficulty in raising the emotional temperature.