Cyberpunk Edgerunners

It’s weird for me to watch and review a TV show that’s on now, but it’s on Netflix, so here we are.

I had pretty mixed feelings about the game Cyberpunk 2077; the anime by contrast is pretty good. In fact I feel like this would have been a much better direction for the game itself.

Lucy and David not being hyper-violent, for the moment

I’m not going to be entirely rapturous, but mostly because I’m not 17 anymore. If you are 17 and read my blog for some reason, no disrepect, this series was made for you and you may find it absolutely cool. It’s basically a heavy metal ballad: live fast, aim high, fuck the bastards and die in glory.

If you’ve been living in a cave or something, here’s the basics: the series is 10 episodes of half an hour each, focusing on David Martinez, a smart but poor boy living in Night City in 2076, studying to be a corpo. Ep 1 gives you a heady brew of cyberpunk: it starts with a braindance of a guy going cyberpsycho, killing a bunch of cops; we meet David’s hard-working mother, see David’s morose everyday life; he also knows a ripperdoc for some reason; the rich kids at school are bullying him; then life gets even worse. Everything costs money in Night City and when you have none, no one cares. You may play the game and want to live in Night City. Watching the anime, not so much. Kids, only you can prevent libertarianism.

Things pick up in Ep 2 when he meets Lucy, a girl way cooler than him who is nonetheless wasting time stealing chips from corpos on the el. David has recently acquired his first chrome, which allows him (among other things) to move superhumanly fast; it turns out he also has an unusual ability to integrate cyberware with his wetware (his big floppy meat brain). Lucy introduces him to a rising gang of mercs, who don’t like him much at first.

Now, C77 has a sequence of Movin’ Up with Jackie, where you rise from total noob to minor gangster in a five-minute montage. And that’s pretty much what eps 1 to 6 amount to…. and it just underlines the huge wasted opportunity in C77. The game doesn’t really get going until you’re already well established, with your own apartment. It skips what Edgerunners revels in: how easy is to fall out of the grid in Night City, the hopelessness of having nothing and no prospects, the slow climb up the crime ladder because that’s the only exit; slowly acquiring and getting to know your new crew, a la Saints Row.

In short, I would have watched twice as much David & Lucy on the rise (the interval between Eps 6 and 7, basically), and I would have played the hell out of that as a video game. Instead C77 gives you fucking Keanu.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time– both versions. They’re very similar: cyberpunk dystopia, lots of violence, heists gone bad, a simmering feud with a vicious enemy, a crew of loveable fuckups. More on this later, but a lot of the comparisons go Bebop‘s way. The characters in Bebop are more likeable, the stories and themes show far more range, and there’s a lot more actual sf going on. I understand that Edgerunners is just focused on doing one thing, and it does that pretty well. But Bebop is the more ambitious show, and it did all this 24 years ago.

The one thing Edgerunners has going for it is the animation. It’s not perfect– yeah, Studio Trigger, I can tell when you’re saving money– but it’s better, very stylish, and often innovative. (E.g. David’s superspeed is represented by multiple still images… that can’t be what it would actually look like, but it’s a perfect use of the medium.) So, Studio Trigger, please just re-animate Cowboy Bebop, leaving the soundtrack as is, mmkay?

Both game and anime are all about the ultraviolence. I’m guessing that that’s how the RPG plays too. It still disappoints me a bit because I want the cyber stuff: hacking, detecting, stealth, inscrutable graphics representing the inside of the Net. Otherwise it’s just a gang story where the guns are just, you know, surgically installed in your arm.

Now, while you’re watching, almost everything is cool and exciting– you can just let it all wash over you. But very little of it makes much sense on analysis. The TV Tropes name for this is fridge logic: stuff that you accept until half an hour later when you go to the fridge for snacks. The characters intelligence and skill level varies widely, according to plot needs. Enemy capabilities very even more widely: same. Character chooses to lie or clam up or reveal secrets: same. You can never tell who’s going to have a badass movement and who’s going to fuck up. (Bebop has this problem too.)

Now, some of this is probably intentional: it’s a tragedy, after all: people have to make mistakes and miscommunicate; they’re all damaged people; it’s a biz that encourages a certain reckless bravado. On the other hand, I think it kind of ruins the last two episodes, admittedly a point where they have to cram in a huge amount of plot. Specifically (mouse over to read):

Lucy is cool and calculating except when she needs to get captured. David’s new suit can blast through an entire military battalion, but he’s overcome by one guy in a mecha suit. Rebecca can blow up everything until she can’t. Kiwi does a heel turn, then a reverse heel turn, then gets played as a sucker. Arasaka has spent a fortune on this new cyberskeleton instead of just building more Adam Smashers. There is never a shortage of ammo and implants, but you can easily run out of immunosuppressants.

I’m going to show another scene which is a bit of a spoiler but reveals a lot about the show’s attitudes, positive and negative:

This is David in ep 7, a big gang leader now in several senses, though still pretty morose. Note the nice digs: he’s made it as far as a gangster can go. He’s also augmented himself into a metal monster.

David is obviously a male power fantasy here, to the point of absurdity. And that’s OK, that’s the story they wanted to tell, and it’s told with a certain self-criticism, or typical Slavic pessimism: this is not a path that leads to a long happy life. It’s lampshaded early on: cyberpunk is about how you die.

Lucy is also part of the male fantasy. She is and remains cooler than David– on the whole Edgerunners is pretty good about making its female characters badasses– but she falls for him anyway. Also for some reason female hackers get naked while hacking. And while hanging out at home, apparently. (David does too. Saves on laundry bills, I guess.)

Now, I’m not criticizing Lucy, or the romance– quite the opposite, it’s the one element of sweetness in the story, and a very welcome one. But I do want to ask: why didn’t the writers consider telling Lucy’s story instead? It’s arguably way more interesting. They tell some of it: she started out poor as well, and got trained and nearly killed by Arasaka. Yet she became a very successful hacker, chill and smart and kind and never subject to cyberpsychosis, and she never felt the need for David’s gorilla-grade bulk. It’s the Ginger Rogers thing: she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

If you want to see that idea taken through its paces– try Arcane, the animated show based very loosely on League of Legends. I’m not sure I’ll do a full review, but it also covers a lot of this ground, though with more a steampunk than a cyberpunk vibe. But it makes the smart decision to focus on the female badasses rather than the male wannabes they inexplicably fall in love with.

Ukraine update

Russia’s war on Ukraine is back on the front pages, due to some stunning Ukrainian advances.

I’ve been checking for news about every day, mostly Phillips O’Brien and the Institute for the Study of War, which updates its map daily. These maps from the latter site summarize the overall war:

At left you can see all the territory occupied by Russia in its initial attack. They attacked just about everywhere, which is a poor strategy even with a good army, and it turned out they didn’t have one. They were completely unable to take Kyiv, and finally decided to withdraw from the north (the blue areas) and concentrate on the east and south.

The middle map shows the progress the Russians made in five months. They did move forward, by means of massive artillery bombardments and getting over 50,000 of their own men killed– a brutal style of warfare that worked well, if slowly, against smaller opponents like Chechnya. Note that the Russians took only two new major cities, Severodonetsk and Mariupol (the latter was already surrounded).

For most of August, Ukraine used its newly acquired HIMARS artillery to attack ammo dumps, fuel depots, command centers, and other materiel far behind enemy lines. That is, their aim was to destroy Russian war capabilities rather than take back territory. One result was far less Russian bombing of Ukrainian territory (and troops).

Finally, at the beginning of this month the Ukrainians started a counter-attack. They made it very clear that they were aiming for Kherson, in the south– heavily bombing routes into the region to isolate the Russians and obstruct reinforcements. Then they attacked… in the north, near Kharkiv. The blue on the last map shows the territory gained– apparently at fairly low cost. Today they retook Izyum, in the middle of the blue area– only a few miles from the occupied Luhansk oblast.

How did the Ukrainians do it? This interview with a Ukrainian analyst is quite informative. As he notes, the Russians have a 1300-km front to defend with no more than 250,000 soldiers. Ukraine has up to a million soldiers, though of course only a fraction will be used in such an advance. Apparently this part of the front had only one tier of defense, which made it extremely dangerous when the Ukrainians broke through.

The Russians are far from being defeated– but they are not in good shape. In the next few days or weeks we’ll find out what line they can actually defend. It’s almost certainly not going to be a line Putin likes.

Edit: O’Brien’s pithy remark is on point: “So the overall strategy was brilliant. Make Russia put forces where Ukraine can more easily damage them, while thinning out Russian forces where the Ukrainians wanted to move forward. They played Putin like a violin.”

Also, things are still moving: the ISW’s map now shows all of Kharkiv oblast liberated— the little red areas north and south of Kharkiv in the rightmost map above. In 10 days Ukraine has recaptured more territory than Russia grabbed in all of April to August, and at far less cost to itself.

There’s an old saw that “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” And if you were, say, a conworlder who wants to run a war in your world, this war has been a graduate class in logistics. For instance, the Ukrainian advance first targeted not Izyum but Kupyansk. Why? Because Kupyansk is the major rail junction in the area; without it, Russia could not supply its troops in Izyum. And in the south, the Ukrainians have been systematically destroying the bridges that lead to Kherson, meaning that they’re using one of the oldest strategies in the world: pinning an enemy against an uncrossable river.

Sandman TV

In a departure from my usual unhipness, I’ve been streaming TV shows like a normal human being. I picked up Netflix in order to watch Sandman. It’s only $15 a month!

Quick verdict: it’s great; I’m really hoping now for Season Two. It does justice to the comics. And best of all, my wife likes it, and she is not a big fantasy fan. We just finished the last, bonus episode last night.

To make something like this work, both the casting and the writing have to hit. They scored big with all the ones they really had to: Dream (Tom Sturridge), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), John Dee (David Thewlis), and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). I heard part of the audiobook adaptation and couldn’t buy Dream and Death there, so this is big.

Dream is the most challenging of these: he’s perfectly suited for the comics page, where we only have to see his gothic splendor. But most of the comics images (e.g. those starry non-eyes, or the over-flowing robes) would look campy on-screen. Plus– his whole thing is that he’s uptight and a bit of an asshole. Sturridge is just right for all this (once you get used to his prettiness). I was worried at first that he was under-emoting, but I think he does a lot very subtly.

Gaiman, and the directors, take the point of view that enormously powerful entities (Sandman, Lucifer, Corinthian) can be calm and elaborately polite. The shouting madman as villain is real, but always conceals an underlying fear, a fear that he will not be taken seriously. The truly powerful person can be quiet because they know their orders will be fulfilled. Sturridge is the positive side of this: a guy where you should worry if he furrows his brow. Holbrook is the evil version, underlining his menace with Southern charm.

Death is Gaiman’s most perfect, most iconic character, and Howell-Baptiste nails her. She is warm and caring and yet catpures that older-sister ability to make Dream think.

The set design is good. I like touches like Matthew flying into the ceiling of Dream’s throne room, the painting turning into a 3-D scene; then ending up in Earth’s sky. It’s a nice use of the new medium: comics can show us amazing spaces, but it’s not good at transitions.

The usual trolls have complained about changes in race and sex. As Gaiman has gleefully pointed out, these folks entirely missed the point of the comics, where it was shown many times that the Endless are shown as they appear to the being observing them, be it human, cat, or alien sentient flower. Even Abel and Cain note that they are not actually human. But the comics, progressive for their time, feel a bit dated in their whiteness, and I’m glad they’ve been updated. The only one that I feel doesn’t quite work is Lucifer. Gwendoline Christie gets the surface suavity and politeness, but not the menace. And there’s something oddly stiff about her bearing, as if she’s being held up by her gowns.

I looked at a few reviews and found them quite weird– I suspect the reviewers a) see too much TV, and b) lack an affinity for the material. I haven’t seen much TV in years, and that probably improves the experience for me. The show isn’t lost in a sea of other fantasy/sf adaptations for me; I’m not bored by the tropes or the actors. E.g. one reviewer thought some episodes were “padded”, which is a weird thing to say when they’re rushing through like 15 comics in 10 hours. Another said Kyo Ra wasn’t that great; I disagree, though my wife didn’t.

Some things hit harder in a live-action version. The horrific abuse of Jed, for instance. It’s almost all taken straight from the comics, but it’s a lot more visceral when you see an actual human being as evil as Barnaby.

I’m going to talk about specific scenes and changes now, so I suggest you put this aside if you’re afraid of spoilers.

A lot of reviews seem to think this was a very tight adaptation. Parts of it are (especially the “cereal convention” bits), but there are quite a few little changes. E.g.:

  • The nods to DC heroes are gone.
  • Poor Gregory!
  • Lyta is now just a friend of Rose’s, not a resident of the Dream Dome. She’s also a sweet helper rather than merely depressive.
  • Ethel doesn’t run away with Ruthven Sykes.
  • Matthew appears earlier, and his predecessor Jessamy appears in ep 1; it’s rather a shock that Alex kills her.
  • Alex was relatively trusted in the comics; here he is abused and disdained.
  • The Corinthian’s role is greatly beefed up. He instructs Burgess on how to keep Dream safe, and rescues Jed from his horrible foster parents. He interacts with Rose, giving her more options (why not take over the Dreaming?!).
  • Johanna Constantine gets a whole subplot to show off her powers; and another one to make her relationship to Rachel far more poignant. (Also, wow, she looks better in a trenchcoat than John ever did.)
  • John Dee is quite changed. Rather than simply being a power-mad psychotic, he has a whole theme: an abhorrence of lies, due to the constant lying of his mother. His driver is blessed instead of murdered.
  • Brute and Glob are gone, replaced by Gault, whose motivations are positive rather than negative.
  • Hell is no longer a triumvirate.
  • Death gives more of an explanation of why she is happy to do her job.
  • Both Rose and Hob get to show off some self-defense skills.
  • There is way less female nudity: in the comics, Calliope was kept naked, Rose is half-nude in her final confrontation with Dream, and Despair wears no clothes. Ironically the only nudity is male: Dream in ep 1, and Ken in his dreams.

Almost always these changes are for the better, and feel more in line with Gaiman’s work overall. In the first volume of the comics, he was still feeling out his way, and tried too hard to be gross or shocking. Most of the changes create more continuity (e.g. more use of the Corinthian and Matthew), or strengthen the characters, or humanize the villains, or underline Dream’s need to learn empathy.

The diner episode is more watchable than I feared, probably because it didn’t feel like gratuitous violence… Dee is not just exerting power, but exposing lies… which turns out to be a really bad idea. I couldn’t watch the murder-suicides though. On the other hand the second half of this episode seems rushed: it should should take longer for Dee to believe he’s triumphed and then suddenly realize he hasn’t.

A few things I wasn’t so sure about:

  • Burgess having to learn from the Corinthian who he’d captured. I’m also not so sure about Burgess dying due to violence rather than just bitter old age.
  • Chantal and Zelda seem way too Addams Family. But the original comic kind of misfires here too: the residents of the house are kind of pointlessly weird. (I loved Hal though.)
  • I didn’t like Choronzon’s challenge passing to Lucifer. The whole idea was that this petty demon was predictable; it makes less sense that Lucifer was stumped.
  • I missed Death’s casual remark that she could “patter Romany”. But I’m a language geek.
  • I kind of miss the gate guardians. But they probably had a limited CGI budget.
  • Ep 10 has too many endings. I’d have left out the whole Hell scene.

The bonus episodes are not my favorites, but I expect I’m in the minority here. “Cats” is a neat idea wrapped up in a shallow joke. Well animated though. “Calliope” is very 90s: damsel in distress, with her rapist condemned, but humanized more than his victim. They’ve updated it– Calliope is a tad feister, isn’t blonde, and doesn’t have to be naked. The story is strangely anti-writer; it may be Gaiman’s version of the sad boner professor.

Re-reading my own review of the comics, I note that my major complaint was the art. I think that holds up: a lot of the volumes would have worked much better if an artist like J.H. Williams (Sandman Overture) or John Cassaday (Planetary) had drawn them. Maybe the best thing about the TV series is that it corrects that problem– it’s always gorgeous.

Farewell to Shamus

I’ve mentioned Shamus Young a few times. A couple of months ago I was shocked to read that he had died, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50. I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t say much about him as a person, except that 50 is way too young! I knew him from his site, twentysidedtale, which is full of stuff related to programming and video games, and interesting enough to be permanently in my bookmarks bar. I thought the best tribute to him would be a little tour of things I liked.

If this is your first glimpse of his site, note that you may not escape for awhile. The dude wrote a lot. Grabbing links, I noticed how much I haven’t read. So check it out, this is by no means all the good stuff. There’s also podcasts and music and even a novel.pixelcity2_lighting7

Pixel City, Shamus’s procedurally generated city builder 

I first ran into his site with DM of the Rings, his retelling of Lord of the Rings as a D&D game… a game with flaky players, an incredibly pedantic DM, way too many orcs, and way too few opportunities to go into town to sell loot. It’s a brilliant idea and very funny, at least if you like both LOTR and D&D.

He then more or less extended the idea in Chainmail Bikini, with cartoon art this time (by Shawn Gaston). The idea was that this was the same DM and players from DM of the Rings, but a new campaign. Sadly, it petered out after about 50 strips, but it’s good D&D humor, and anyway Shamus will explain how it would have ended.

He also reviewed video games, in depth. In much depth. No, way more depth than that. This Mass Effect retrospective is in 50 installments. I kid, but if you like a game, it’s a pleasure to see it analyzed in detail, with attention to gameplay, art, and above all story. Shamus loved a good plot, and hated a bad plot, and would take all the time it needed to explain what went wrong. This element doesn’t bother me as much as it did Shamus, but it’s still interesting critical work; he’s pretty insightful about what does and doesn’t work and what a game can and can’t get away with. Other series of note: Arkham City; Saints Row 3, Jade Empire, Oblivion, Borderlands 2, Black Desert Online. And there’s more; I focused on games I’ve played, though I’ve also read through some of his entire series on games I never played, like Spider-Man.

He also made programming projects— they rarely turned into finished games (though Good Robot is an exception; you can buy it on Steam), but he knew what he was doing and his progress reports are fun. I liked his Pixel City project, his blocky world, and his terrain builder, among others.

I didn’t always agree with him on games, but his opinion was always interesting, and he was a kindred spirit, in terms of just putting out content on the web for years and years just because you want to. I’m sad that we won’t get his careful, acerbic dissection of future games.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

I love the big dumb fun of Borderlands, so I picked this up as soon as it was on Steam. My friend Ash (an indispensable part of the series) and I just finished our second playthrough. It’s very Borderlandsly.

My relatively normal Spore Warden. Ash likes to randomize his appearance

First, the rapturous parts. BL2 had a D&D parody– Bunkers & Badasses– as a DLC, which turned out to be a big hit. Tiny Tina, the explosive(s) expert, turns out to be a great dungeonmaster… sorry, bunkermaster, and it just works to add a light fantasy overcoating to the BL formula– a very light coating, you still mostly use guns. Wonderlands expands the idea into a full game.

There are lots of quality of life improvements. You can customize your character’s appearance and sex; you can multiclass. The basic mechanic of examining loot and deciding what’s junk is pretty streamlined by now. Though the Gearbox formula for deepening encounters is always “add more monsters”, it’s never as out-of-control as in BL2; things are rarely overwhelming even in boss fights. Three classes at least add companions, and these can revive you– a nice touch since it’s easy not to notice if your co-op partner is down. As in BL3, you can either divvy up loot or let each player have their own uncontested stuff. The game doesn’t wait too long to give you your full gun slots, and it’s generous with ammo.

The game is extremely pretty… also it highly taxes my machine. They’ve toned down the hard-edged cartoony BL look: it could be almost any fantasy game, and has some really beautiful environments. (As something of a joke, the game has you blow up the ocean, which allows half the game to be set in a very unusual post-undersea environment, full of weird coral blocks and sunken ships.)

You can read guides on how to develop your character… but really, just put your stats where you feel like. I liked the classes with companions, but do what you think is fun. (Oh, and don’t bother with sniper rifles: the levels are rarely large enough to make them worth it.)

BL’s humor is always hit or miss– if one joke doesn’t land, maybe the next one will. Some of the best bits are direct parodies of the D&D situation– the game even provides you with two advisors, fellow players who don’t actually appear in your game but provide commentary and annoy Tina with their complaints and bickering. There are callbacks to previous games– e.g. Brick appears as the “Fairy Punchfather”, and Claptrap is there at his most annoying level. Some nice bits, in flashbacks, show how Roland taught Tina the game. Other quests are parodies of various fantasies from the Smurfs to the Witcher to Don Quixote… these are kind of Mad Magazine level at best, and interminable at worst. (The joke of the Witcher parody is that the Witcher is an insufferable jerk; the joke gets old fast.)

I was surprised to read in a review that some people find Tina herself annoying. I like her a lot, especially with Ashly Burch’s performance… she’s intended to be an over-the-top hypermanic teenager, and it fits that she is really obsessed with Bunkers & Badasses, and capricious as a DM.

The main quest is, well, also hit or miss. The villain, the Dragon Lord, sometimes talks to you– mostly to complain about Tina. He’s better than the horrible Calypso twins from BL3, but the story arc makes little sense. Spoiler:

He’s Tina’s own former character, turned into a villain, and he resents it and wants to take over. “NPC realizes he’s an NPC and resents it” would be a good one-off joke, but the artificiality of the concept makes it a big miss.

Now for the biggest complaint. You defeat the Dragon Lord, you get a big bunch of loot, and… that’s it. There is no True Vault Hunter mode: you can’t replay the game with your equipment and high level; the loot-and-shoot loop just shuts down. This is baffling and kind of enraging: didn’t they realize that that continuing loop is what makes BL what it is? The whole idea is to use your new loot for enhanced pew-pew. If anything this made the second playthrough more annoying, as toward the end you start to realize that the looting, grabbing coins, and levelling up wasn’t going to pay off any more.

I’ve put 66 hours into the game; I’d happily double that if there was a Vault Hunter mode. I’d also feel a little better about the $51 price. And that’s with a discount, it’s normally $60. I don’t feel like a third playthrough from scratch would add much.

And the second-biggest complaint: the levels are beautiful, but also repetitive. Too many encounters are just “enter a generic area and pew-pew everyone in it.” Instead of Vault Hunter mode, there’s a “Chaos Chamber” which is… one randomized encounter after another. Not the same thing, Gearbox. (We didn’t do any of the DLC, partly because they are apparently just more quick dungeons.)

Not quite a complaint: some side quests are really really long. Like, you get the four doohickeys, and then you need to get the five foobars, and then you get a boss fight. And then maybe another boss fight. It’s fine, a little unpredictability is good, but if nothing else, sometimes we’re starting to wrap up the evening and want to just knock out a side quest, and it takes an hour instead.

(I should add, if you play it, do explore the side quests; all of them are worth playing at least once, and doing them puts you in a much better place for the final boss fights.)

Now, in a lot of co-op games how much fun you have depends a lot on your co-op partner. My longtime BL partner is Ash; we are exactly on the same page in terms of how many loot chests we open, how much time to take messing with inventory, what side quests to do, what jokes to make along the way, etc. In short, try to play with Ash and you’ll have a good time.

Re-learn Blender!

A few years ago I wrote a guide to learning Blender. But recently they greatly changed the whole UI, so I’ve redone it.

In general I don’t like UI revamps: they break the program and muscle memory for existing users, and this is a big one– things that you used to know are hidden in new places, and it was never very easy to find things in Blender’s overgrown garden anyway. But now that I’ve gone over everything, I actually like the new UI.

  • Now you select things by left-clicking, like every other program in the world, not by right-clicking.
  • Similarly, you can select points by click-and-drag, as in 2-D graphics programs, and click outside your object to deselect.
  • They’ve added a toolbar allowing easy mouse manipulation, as an alternative to the R/G/S keys.
  • They’ve added a widget that allows one-click access to top/front/side views. There are still keypad alternatives.
  • They’ve added a mode that makes UV mapping far easier. (They just open two views for you, which you could have done before, but getting into and out of UV editing is now just one keystroke.)

It’s still not an easy program to use, but all these things are in the right direction. (Some things, like getting the program to display your textures, are non-intuitive… but they kind of were before, and the new methods avoid a few side details I no longer have to explain, like cameras.)

Now, why would you want to use Blender? Well, it’s free, and very powerful, and if you want to make 3-D models for anything, it’s a great choice. I explained some other choices in the Planet Construction Kit, Hammer and Second Life, but those are way outdated.

I put modeling in the PCK for the same reason I have a chapter on drawing things: because visual creation is a huge part of conworlding, and helps bring a world alive. There’s a reason movies, TV shows, and video games engage people so deeply. (I still want to create an Almean walking simulator, not necessarily a game.)

I’d also add: if you avoid visual creation because you can’t draw, then maybe 3-D modeling is the answer. Like,. suppose you want a city scene within your world, or a view of the dwarven ruins, or even a picture of a single room or building. That’s a tall order for drawing, because it requires not just imagination but a mastery of perspective, and good intuition in choosing viewing angle, lighting, etc. Plus, any of those scenes will require drawing dozens of things that you probably don’t know how to draw well.

But with a 3-D modeling program, you can create a scene out of smaller elements, then choose the camera angle that shows it off best. It really is simpler to (say) create a colonnade in Blender than to draw one that looks convincing. And though texturing 3-D objects is difficult, you could always use Blender to do the perspective for you, then finish the drawing in a paint program.

The problem is that 3-D modeling programs have a pretty frightening learning curve. Which is why I made my tutorial! So go try it out. And tell me if you want more, or a guide to creating a game in Unity. (Or Blender, which I hear is now possible…)

Parade o’ books

Any of these books deserves a full review, with neat facts plucked from the pages to entice you– but at this point, that would require a lot of re-reading. So a quick survey will have to do.

Emily Willingham, Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020). Yep, a book about the penis in all its forms in the animal kingdom. Willingham has a serious point here: researchers and outsiders often import archaic attitudes into biology, getting the penis wrong and forgetting the vagina. But it’s also both educational and entertaining to simply look at the weird stuff animals get up to. A good place to start is trying to figure out what is a penis and what isn’t… there are some wacky edge cases, such as at least one invertebrate which inserts its eggs into the male with a copulatory organ. Or there’s the spiders which lose their penises when they copulate. It’s not that bad: they have two.

This is one of a number of books by women that offer a lighthearted critique of misguided male scientists, who are often eager to push an idea of aggressive promiscuous males and picky, passive females. Oh, there is so much more variation than that. Others in this genre include Olivia Judson’s Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, Meredith Small’s What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. Nature is weird, and does not inherently support alt-right prejudices.

Benjamin Brose, Xuanzang: China’s Legendary Pilgrim and Translator (2021). If you read my China Construction Kit, you’ll remember Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who took and arduous trip to India in the 600s to understand Buddhism better, coming back 16 years later with hundreds of precious manuscripts. This story is the key to the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. But the real story behind it is just as interesting, though perhaps it’s disappointing to learn that only the first couple weeks of the journey were perilous, as he set off alone. As soon as he reached the first stop, he met the local king, who received him graciously and sent him on to the next local ruler, and so on for years. Brose explains what Xuanzang wanted to know and how he affected Buddhism, and includes several narrative passages from the man himself.

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa times to the present (2003). I read this because I thought I could borrow some modern Japanese history for Almea, and I did. The book covers nearly 500 years, which allows quite a lot of detail but not exactly depth– e.g. WWII is covered in just one chapter. The chapters on the Meiji period are the most interesting. I was most interested to understand how Japan could modernize when China didn’t (until Deng).

The Meiji ‘restoration’ was more or less a top-down revolution: two of the most advanced daimyo (nobles) took over militarily. Or more broadly, the revolution empowered two classes that were near but, crucially, not at the top: the samurai, and the nouveau-riche rural elite, who had worked their way up from peasants to craftsmen to notables in the last century or so. (A peculiarity of Japan was that the prosperous bourgeois class in the 1800s was not in the big cities but in small rural towns.) And in Japan, that was enough to get things going; whereas in China merely getting rid of the Manchu did not give power to any more modern or modernizing class.

Another fascinating tidbit: Japan’s 1889 constitution, which lasted till the end of WWII, produced a lot more democracy than its writers expected or wanted. The winners of the revolution really only wanted to stay on as the new rulers. They made sure that the new Diet did not control the army, or even really the ministries. They also limited suffrage, in hopes that the members would be well-off and conservative. They only allowed the Diet at all because people were already writing constitutions and hoping for democracy, and they thought they’d better get their own version out fast. But the very existence of the Diet, and national propaganda for building the nation, encouraged national debate, expectations that the Diet would matter, and expectations that the Japanese people should all benefit from modernization. The constitution allowed the elite to govern without the Diet, but in practice (and until the 1930s) power was essentially shared between the army, the bureaucrats, and the parties.

Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How weapons shaped warfare (2021). If your conworld gets at all beyond the medieval period, you should read this or something like it. It’s about guns, including their big brothers artillery and cannons. I’m still in the middle of it, but one of the main takeaways is that like most technology, it’s a matter of small but constant improvements– and ongoing challenges. E.g. I knew that rifling was important: if you cut a spiral groove in the barrel of a gun and make bullets engage it, they get a spin that makes them far more accurate and deadly. This was known from the 15th century, so why didn’t it take over till the 1800s? Well, because firing a gun (especially with black powder) produces residues that clog the interior. You can’t fire too many shots before the balls don’t fit– unlike a musket which has more leeway. Good rifles had to wait till the ball was replaced with the bullet, and rifles had mechanisms to deform the bullet to force it into the rifling. Another example: breech loading is far more efficient than ramming shot in through the barrel. This too was known early on, but didn’t entirely take over till the late 1800s. Here too there were just many little technical problems to overcome: early breech loaders had a tendency to blow up, or leak hot gases.

Another takeaway: any old empire could afford muskets and cannons. But as the technology developed, only great powers could afford the newest guns– and they had to acquire them (and in enormous quantities) at any cost, because falling behind in the arms race was devastating. When explosive shells were developed that set wooden ships on fire– well, everyone had to shift to ironclads if they could. It’s no coincidence that nearly-free nobles were subjugated to kings, and smaller states became the prey of great powers. Even in the 1800s, the hot new tech might only last for a couple of decades.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

I often review books I don’t expect other people to read, but this one might take the cake: an anthology of French science fiction, dated 1971. The editor is Alain Dorémieux. I need to read more French, and it looked good at the library.

First, you might ask, what is ailleurs? Has anyone ever seen or held an ailleur? Is there a female form, the ailleuse? It can be translated “elsewhere”, and Larousse tells us that it comes from *alior, comparative of alius ‘other’. The –s was thrown on by analogy with other adverbs.

One book is hardly enough to judge all of French science fiction by; but fortunately I’ve read three. My general impression is that the idea, the sf germ that motivates the story, is often weak, but the storytelling and the writing are very good. In classic American sf– this is probably John Campbell’s fault– the Idea was everything, and the writing was workmanlike, the characters barely above the stereotype level. Of course, a few writers, like Alfred Bester and R.A. Lafferty, stood out for their writing style; and in the ’60s the dominance of the Idea waned. Many of the stories here (not all) excel in vividness and actually have characters.

There’s also maybe a certain proneness to structural or narrative problems– many of the authors seem like they’re feeling out how to tell the story, and have an absolute horror of rewriting. Curiously this was a problem also in one of the French sf novels I’ve read, Le Naguen. If you’re curious, the other one was La planète des singes (The Planet of the Apes).

(I’ve read quite a bit more of French sf comics, which are a different beast altogether, and generally are very well done.)

And now– why not?– a mini-review of each story.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

Yves Dermèze, “Demain, les chats”

An alien invasion where humans are treated exactly as humans treat pets. A simple horror idea but well imagined.

Nathalie Henneberg, “Le Retour des dieux”

It turns out the Sumerian gods are actually from Arcturus. Pretty well done, but too many errors about Babylonia for me, and this sort of sf/myth mashup gets on my nerves.

Jean-Pierre Andrevon, “Un petit saut dans le passé”

A man is the subject of a time travel experiment, and creates his first time paradox. It’s getting to be a pattern by now: the idea is not deep or new, but it’s very well written and told.

Claude F. Cheinisse, “Conflit de lois”

A direct tribute to Asimov: a robot is placed in a situation where it must permit harm to a human in order to save a life. Well executed, but kind of an idiot plot: even if you accept Asimov’s laws, this particular situation should have been anticipated.

Georges Gheorghiu, “Au fil d’Ariane”

Really a Borgesian fable, a reworking of the myth of Theseus with minimal sf trappings (a few references to computers). This sort of thing depends on the payoff at the end; I understand the twist ending but the final plot mechanics eluded me.

Philippe Curval, “L’Oeuf ovipare”

A bizarre little fable about an egg which cracks, revealing another egg– only, each time, the surroundings (including the narrator) get smaller. Entertainingly told (the bit where the now small narrator can’t get a store to accept his money is pretty funny), but I don’t think the author knew how to end it.

Christine Renard, “Transistoires”

In a world with access to parallel timelines, a woman buys a trip to see a more successful self. One of the best stories, not least because it uses the idea as an excuse to explore questions of ambition, regret, and free will.

Francis Bessière, “La Barbe du ministre”

Another time travel story. It has some interesting ideas about how, in effect, the timeline could protect itself against ‘too much’ modification. I think the author wasn’t sure how to tell the story: too many tonal shifts, no real characters.

Daniel Walther, “Assassinat de l’oiseau bleu”

A soldier, sole survivor of a massacre, is forced to relive the catastrophe until his superiors can see what happened. This one reminded me strongly of Alfred Bester, from the hallucinatory prose to the tragic ending to the anti-authoritarian sentiment.

Yves Olivier-Martin, “La Tourelle de Ngôl”

A space opera in 30 pages, featuring an eternal conflict between Arcturus and Ngôl, told in hallucinatory prose. Here (as in “la Barbe du ministre”) I think the author saw several ways to tell the story, and tried to used them all. At first it’s a quiet story about the discovery of interstellar agents in Paris; like Lovecraft, it takes forever to slowly reveal what we’ve already guessed the story is about. Briefly the narrator seems to take sides, find a love interest, get captured. Then the story leaps 3000 years ahead, narrating a strange voyage to Ngôl. Unfortunately none of this really works: the author just piles on strangeness without pursuing any plot threads, or making us care about either side.

Guy Scovel, “La Forêt de Perdagne”

This is mostly swords-n-sorcery, with an sf denouement. The main idea (a portal between worlds) seems too promising to waste on just one story, and indeed Scovel seems to have written several novels based on it.

Interesting linguistic bit: the main character is a noble, and when he comes to some two-horse town he uses tu for the locals, who use vous for him. He’s also pretty arrogant, but it’s a real weaponization of the T/V phenomenon.

Pierre Versins, “L’Homme”

A little fable which, contrary to the first story in the volume, pictures Humans as near gods, told in the form of an encounter between a people created by Humans, and another which believes that it created Humans. Maybe not so compelling in an epoch where Humans seem intent on being monumentally stupid.

Francis Carsac, “Dans les montagnes du Destin”

The longest story in the book, and one of the better ones. It’s essentially a space Western: lone superhero adventurer, mining town, corrupt director, local bully, downtrodden natives. It takes its time, with plenty of character interaction and intrigue before the final sf mystery is explored. For once the payoff is real, and actually explains everything that’s gone on. It also has a book-length sequel.

Castle

I haven’t done a Minecraft report in awhile. I’m still playing in this world, though I’m eagerly awaiting 1.19. I’m pretty happy with this castle:

You may notice some blocks that look like lodestones, on the facade of the castle. They’re not lodestones; they’re map art. That’s great for posters and such, but it’s also very nice for decorative blocks. I tried the same idea before, but this came out much better.

The castle on the right isn’t entirely original– it’s inspired by the astonishing BDoubleO. The palace on the left is my design, based on a Renaissance palazzo. I’m not that happy with it, but I do like the contrast. In between the two buildings is a drop into an enormous cave. Here’s another view:

I mostly made this in creative mode. It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in survival, but it’s not like I have any Minecraft friends to impress, and it’s far easier to build very large structures in creative. Not only do you avoid the grind, but you can redo things. E.g. I built the palazzo in sandstone and granite, and decided that it looked terrible. It still takes plenty of time to make something nice… e.g. the map art alone took about three evenings.

A Desolation Called Peace

So, Arkady Martine wrote a sequel to A Memory Called Empire. Might as well use the same graphic, though. I won’t avoid spoilers here for the first book, so go read it first.

We’re back in Teixcalaan, which is addressing the alien threat that arrived in the first book, just a few months later. The war is not going well: the aliens are hard to find, and have a way of showing up out of nowhere and causing destruction. A yaotlek or admiral, Nine Hibiscus, sends for someone in the Information Ministry to see if it’s possible to talk to the aliens. The message reaches Three Seagrass, who pounces on the idea and swoops by Lsel Station to pick up Mahit Dzmare. If you like the first book, it will be comfortable and fun to get back into this world and see how everyone is doing. 

Though it’s about first contact, it’s mostly a novel of intrigue. The plot takes place in several venues– Lsel Station; Nine Hibiscus’s flagship; a desert planet recently attacked by the aliens; the imperial capital– and each of them is provided with multiple actors who hate each other’s guts. And I have to admire how good Martine is at intrigue. It’s all too easy, in political stories, to make the antagonists idiots, or to make them just act out of pure malice. (Think about Darth Vader, who’s wicked stylish, but has absolutely no believable motivation.) That’s averted here: each character, for good or ill, has reasons for what they do and who they despise.

Amid all the drama, Mahit and Three Seagrass take up their romance, though only after having a huge fight. 

I liked the book, but not quite as much as the first one. That may just be author fatigue– it might have been better to wait a year or two. What I think doesn’t work quite as well:

  • Mahit, though smart and competent in the first contact situation, and enjoyable as a romance partner, seems to be a complete idiot this time in the intrigue department– including in her own home station. It wasn’t very clear why she came home after Book One, and all she does when she gets there is get into more trouble. For unknown reasons she never bothers to debrief her own government.
  • The intrigue is maybe too neatly plotted? One of the pleasures of Memory was its unpredictability– we were discovering this huge weird empire, we are as confused as Mahit, and whenever things threaten to become too stable the author throws in some violence. The alien situation should provide opportunities for similar surprises, but it never really does.
  • (To avoid spoilers, I’ve put these in white text.) The nature of the aliens is not at all mind-boggling– it has its own TV Tropes page, dammit.
  • The ending: again, Mahit, alone of all the characters, just doesn’t seem to make sense. I know she’s had a hard time, but it doesn’t seem fair to Three Seagrass, now does it?

But again, it’s fun to be in this universe again, and it does do what a sequel should do: present a new kind of problem rather than rehashing the last one.