Monday, January 02, 2017

Book: Midsummer Night's Dreamquest

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, TOR Books, 2016

Provenance: Kij Johnson was a colleague at Wizards of the Coast and one of the ringleaders of a writer's group I belonged to (The Thousand Monkeys) more than a decade ago. I saw mention of the novella on the book of Face and the Lovely Bride ordered it from Amazon as a Christmas present. I am glad I got it in hard copy so I may press it upon friends to read it as well.

I have spoken of Lovecraft before. I love his cosmic vision, enjoy his prose, tolerate his poetry, and detest his racism. But I have also said that it is the nature of creation to have other creators arrive and develop, add, and subtract. That is what Kij Johnson has done here, to amazing effect.

Vellit Boe is a professor at the Ulthar Women's College in the Dreamlands. One of her students, Clarie Jurat, the daughter of a major supporter, has run off with a man from the Waking World, a dreamer, Vellit Boe must find Clarie and convince her to return before her father finds out. That sets Vellit off on a mission that leads from the stairs to the Waking World to the court of King Randolph Carter to the ghoul warrens below, as the situation becomes more dire with every step.

And it works. Vellit Boe's dreamlands is a "real" world with its shapechanging sky, few stars, monstrous inhabitants, capricious gods and questionable geography. It is a dreamworld with a grounded sense, a trust in its own mutability.  It has its own rules - they are just unlike ours, and change at a whim.

It is a world with its own gender issues - this is the Dreamlands shown from a female perspective. It does not negate what has gone before, but recognizes that it is a male viewpoint with male heroes and male interactions. The women were always there, it says, but confined to the scenery, to the background, to the support team. Kij brings these women forward, aware of the hurdles before them  - Dorothy Sayers' Harriet Vane would be comfortable in Johnson's Ulthar. Exceptional women are still considered unusual. The timeline is also advanced, to say that the Dreamlands exists in a hundred years back - the Women's College is a new thing, and there are steam engines and mechanical farm equipment in this version.

Yet while even subverting it, Johnson remains true to the work. There are the zoogs and the gugs, and the world pivots on the caprices of the gods sleeping in distant Kadash. The seriousness of the situation, and the doom that hangs upon Vellit Boe, deepens the further she goes on the hunt. It lacks the nihilism of Lovecraft, but does not shy from the hard choices.

And the tale is a perfect novella. Love or loathe Lovecraft's style, it often involves ornate flourishes and arcane terminology. Vellit Boe's language is tight and precise and the book is just as long as it needs to be. It could have been a short story, but a little cramped, ticking off locations, more paean than prose. And it could have been a thumping large fantasy epic, or even a trilogy, where you are ten chapters in even before Claria disappears. But  it is not, and its economy serves it well.

This is a contender for the Hugos and Nebuli this year, barring any further weirdness from the Sad Bunnies and their ilk for whom good fiction is unrecognizable and anathema. Read it now and avoid the rush.

More later,

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Resolutions

I'm not much of a public resolutions sort of guy. They always give way to later regrets, if failed, or smugness if succeeded. But here are few things I want to do going forward. The general approach to this year is ... More.

Read More, I have by my bedside the bookshelf of abandoned books - text which I have picked up from one reason or another, then cast aside or quietly dropped but don't want to totally remove from consideration. For some of these I can remember the exact spot where I decided I stopped engaging with them. Some I know I will not return to. Some I look at wistfully (like The Mediterrenean and the Mediterrenean World in the Age of King Phillip II, for example, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and wonder if I shall ever return. Competing with that is a sudden desire to read The New Yorker. So I will put time aside for reading.

Game More. I game a lot. I have two fairly regular groups with much overlap in membership - a Saturday night group for Call of Cthulhu and a Monday group that is currently D&D/Ravenloft. And we do gaming days at the house (most recently ... yesterday, with the highlights being Sherrif of Notingham and Escape). And I uncoil with the occasional computer game (though Civ 6 has disappointed). and have a number of apps I like (most of them ports of tabletop games like Carcasonne and Ascention). But I want to some Bethorm or Shadows of the Demon Lord or even some old school EPT. I prefer real-life gaming over online, if only because it fits my need to socialize, limited though that may be.

Write More.  With the new job (and the attendant long commute), I haven't been writing as much, including on this blog. And I have backed out of a couple projects where I am just uncomfortable with making the deadlines. That is unusual for me. I will be writing, but it may more be the case where I am writing for something that interests me as opposed to something I have already committed to. Which means it may not be stuff that you see. We'll see how that works out.

Eat More. No, that doesn't sound right. Rather, eat well. In 2016 I lost 20 pounds and my wedding ring (no, we're still married - the ring slipped off my finger last week and is currently in parts unknown, probably in a swamp alongside the Anduin River). But life is too short to eat bad food. So, reducing the snackage while finding good places to try out (and the neighborhood I work in is sprawling with places), plus cooking more. I intend to cook three things from any cookbook I buy or receive as a gift. I already have started in on Alton Brown's Everyday Cook with his quinoa-accented oatmeal (I found it... crunchy).

That's a pretty large (and relatively vague) list - no number of books to complete, no amount of weight to drop. We'll see how is all works out. Tune next year to see what happens.

More later.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Divergent Universes Tend to Converge



"The Road Not Taken"  by Robert Frost
The poem on the right is one of America's best-known poems by one of our best-known poets. Most people think of it as speaking to the importance of of how standing out from the crowd and marching to a different drummer is of supreme importance (...the one less traveled by..) while the poet himself (and a lot of critics) point out that it is about regret and might-have-beens. (the sigh in the last stanza is not contented but regretful).

For my part, I am going to use it to speak to multiple universes. And the fate of multiple universes to eventually become singular.

The idea of divergent universes is an oft-used conceit in fiction - that every decision spurs off a completely separate universe, identical except for the fact that this one decision has been made. Sometimes the separate universe is radically different, sometimes it is similar except for one crucial detail, depending on the nature of the story being told. The hows and whys of that is a matter of temporal topology and not quite what we're talking about here. What I am considering is the sheer aggregate of decision points that get made on a daily basis.

While the poem's speaker is at a conscious decision point, making a single choice, we are making decisions continually on the fly, at a flurrying clip. Wake up or sleep in? Which shirt to wear? Make breakfast or skip? Two or three sausages for breakfast? So before I even leave the house I have cast off a multitude of multiverses, almost but not quite identical. And that is just for me. The cats could be setting up their own universes as the same time.

The vast majority of these choices make no difference whatsoever. Maybe some of them have long-term effects (I skip breakfast, get hit by a car because I am four minutes early to a traffic light, Faster-than-light travel is thereby delayed by ten years), but there is no real way of telling at the time of the decision whether this is a minor decision, or one that I will look at years hence and say, "If only I had taken the other road." (which is what the poem is saying).

So universes are sharding off continually, but these small existential universes quickly collapse back into the main probabilities. In Frost's terms, all the paths eventually converge in that yellow wood, so it does not matter The timeline splits but then comes back together. So instead of divergent timelines, we get a cloud of possibilities that tend to coalesce back into a smooth temporal narrative.

And the larger the scope of time becomes, the more of these potential universes become the same universe. And, if the universe is fated to an ultimate contraction or a cosmic entropy, all the universes will come together into the same ending. The path only matters to the individuals on that path.

Tied into that is that we seem to remember things differently. This has been called the Mandela Effect, and posits that, instead of people just remembering things wrong (which, to be honest, is more likely but less fun), we have alternate pasts which are converging into a coherent universe, and our memories are the sole evidence (such as it is) of the previous existence

All of this provides an explanation of why 2016 has been such a rough year. We are seeing a winnowing of possible futures, a collapse of realities moving forward. Whether this is a natural effect (like a tide, or the breath of a universe itself) or a purposeful intent (like an elder god) is immaterial - realities are folding in on themselves as we move to a unified universe.

So. A large number of famous people pass on. Weird political results overturn the expected. And yes, even things like a folk singer winning the Nobel for Literature or the Cubs winning a World Series. All of this represents a shift in realities as ours merge with others to produce a final state, and eventually the heat death of the universe.

So we bid 2016 goodbye and hope that 2017 bodes better (even though calenders, like constellations, are mortal attempts to place order onto the universe), and that we reach a stopping point of this multiversal consolidation. Else we will pitch headlong into a future where the past has changed, where everyone knows that Atlantis sunk beneath the waves and the re-election of Jerry Ford.. It probably won't happen that way, but if it does, try to remember you read it hear first (because in such a future, this entry will have changed as well).

More later,

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Game: Uncivilized

Civilization VI, Firaxis Games

Civilization VI cover art.jpgI tend not to write bad reviews. There is so much good stuff out there I'd rather point you in that direction than whinge and moan about something that is grinding my gears. Even if I am in a situation where I confronted with imperfect productions (which is common in theater, books, and games), I tend to lay out the flaws but praise the good points (In theater terms, that's where I praise the set design).

And I am a big fan of the Civ series, from the very beginning. The overall arc from the single covered wagon to the stars is evocative, and creates the framework for the social narrative of the world. I've played each one, rolling through all the nations, and most of the spinoffs, like Alpha Centauri and Colonization.

All that said, the latest Civilization (the 6th, officially) leaves me with a big heaping pile of "Meh". I still play it, and recognize its strong points, but it is just not working for me.

The big challenge is the slowness of the game. Part of that, I thought initially, was that I had an older machine, but I put the game on my work machine (which exists to DESIGN state-of-the-art games). and found the performance just as as kludgy, even with the settings geared to be higher performance. Further, the game is continually accessing the disk, resulting a heat problem on the machine as the game progresses. For a game with a very long timeframe, this is a problem. You're spending a great deal of the game (particularly in the "middle bit" where you've expanded as far as you can easily and are just running an empire) waiting for the AI to move.

And this would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that the AI is pretty miserable. Units are not upgraded, design-making is limited, and attacks are not co-ordinated. Watching two AI empires beating each other up is pretty much watching a slap-fight. Not a lot of activity there.

Also contributing to the slowness is a new feature that I otherwise kind of like - districts. Now instead of building a temple, then a cathedral, and slowly increasing your city center, you now choose a hex to be your "holy site" where the temple and cathedral may be built. Before you can start building religious buildings you need to have already building the requisite district (similarly libraries need a campus and factories need an industrial district). So it takes longer for to get a temple up and operating, and you are limited to how many districts you can build based on size of the city, so that if you build that holy site you may have to wait a while before you start a campus.

And all this poses another challenge - location is of key importance for the new Civ. Since you have to commit a particular location for a district, you want to optimize it (campuses get a bonus if next to a mountain). That makes city planning a lot more involved, and you can plow under a district for another, but that is horribly expensive in time and money (oh, and you can't just "BUY" a district in the same fashion as buying a building in the game.

So where you place your districts have a definite effect on the productivity of your city, and it is a fiddly bit that demands attention. Actually, the game is FILLED with fiddly bits. Each minor nation contributes different effects to your empire. Your government is a hand of cards that you swap in and out, giving you different benefits. Religions have always been a collection of special abilities that you put together, and they are so here again. And the various units have their own promotional trees depending on general type.

The result is that you have a lot of small bits to handle that combine to create your civilization. Any one won't be the ultimate success of your empire, but there are enough to keep you focused on individual cities as opposed to sprawling nations. As a result, you get to a mid-sized empire and hunker down in the midgame, attacking only if attacked, which leads to many turns of watching the AI bumble around. Worse, there is not a lot of encouragement to go out and explore the world, particularly since the areas you discover disappear under a fog of war once your unit moves away from them.

One place where this multitude of fiddly bits does not occur is the tech tree, which should be where choices are important. But they have added Eureka moments which shorten up the time required to get a new tech. What this does, however, is to highlight you tech growth into channels where you have gotten a research time break and therefor don't need to spend as much time (because while you're getting that you might fill out the bonus requirement for another Eureaka).

One of the end results is that you have to commit to a particular victory condition and push hard, much moreso than in previous editions. Unless you create a strong knowledge/industrial operation, backed up by social policies which give you space benefits and space centers in multiple cities, don't even try for the rocket ship. And because everything takes so long, you have to choose early and then not change. 

Finally, let me unleash my inner grognard. Civ II had one of the best reasons to build wonders of the world - On completion, you get a little movie about that wonder. These are relatively simple little films using mostly public domain material, but were perfect cookies as a reward. They have never caught up with that in later editions. Civ VI shows the wonder being built in the game-world (yes, they require their own tile) but that's not nearly as cool as it once was (Oh, and since the wonders are limited where they can be built, there are fewer wonders showing up, particularly in your opposition, so getting cheesed out of a wonder at the last moment is a minor thing).

Also in the "soft" frustrations of the game is the quotes, which are generally weaker than in Civ 5, even if they are voiced by Sean Bean. Some of them are not real quotes, or rather the result of people doing a google search (there is a George Carlin quote for archery that I have yet to be able to find). I do miss the live advisors I had back in Civ II, who squabbled and argued with each other. The enemy leaders are cartoonish, on Pixar level, but I had to ditch the animations for performance. The units are nice (and here we are praising the set design), but I had to dial back on the graphics just to get it to run at a half-decent speed.

End result? Meh. It is true to its original in its narration, and I will still dink around with it, but only on Sunday afternoons when I have a lot of time on my hand, and a book handy while I wait for the computer to cycle through its moves. I don't think I'm going to run through all the various leaders any time soon, and will check in as they patch and fix those pieces they feel important. And we'll see where Civ VII leads.

More later,

Thursday, December 22, 2016

And to All A Good Night

Grubbstreet wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy Holiday Season.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luc Olivier Merson (1879), MFA, Boston.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Play: Love in the Time of Evacuation

Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, Directed by May Adrales, Seattle Rep, through 1 January.

Saigon fell in 1975, four months before my 18th birthday. Like many of my generational cadre, I had a vested interest in the progress of the war, the draft, particular draft numbers, and its aftermath. More at an arms length I was aware of the fate of the Vietnamese refugees that fled that country in the wake of the Communist takeover. News was filled with the initial refugees, and the later Vietnamese Boat People, involving temporary quarters in US Military camps and a diaspora across the United States.

This is a story of evacuees, the first to escape South Vietnam in the wake of the communist takeover. It is also a comedy. And a musical. And has at one point a dance-off.

The play opens with the "Playwright" (Moses Villerama, who expertly handles all the minor male roles in the play) who asks for the audience to silence phones and unwrap hard candy, and makes clear that the play is not about his parents and how they met in a refugee in Arkansas (which of course means that this is exactly what the play is about). Introduces the cast and introduces a conceit - All the Vietnamese characters will be speaking in English, while the American characters will be talking in what English sounds like to outsiders (A jumble of perky, upbeat, gibberish - "Cheeseburger Cheerleader Freckles!).

And it works, in must the same way that the iambic pentameter worked in King Charles III. It brings us closer to the main characters and stresses the otherness of the Americans (A colleague once described that the rest of the world thinks of Americans as "blondes" - nice, pleasant, but totally cluelessness and dangerous even when they are trying to do the right thing).

The story itself is of two people you assume will never get together. Tong (Jeena Yi) is thirty, sarcastic, and exhausted from dating weepy men (Moses Villarama again). Quang (James Ryen) is a chopper pilot for the VNAF who is married and has two kids he never sees. As South Vietnam is collapsing Tong gets the magic ticket out for herself and a plus-one - wants to take her brother (Will Dao) but instead takes her acerbic mom (Amy Kim Waschke). Quang flies his buddy Khue (Will Dao again) and a helicopter of evacuees out to a US ship, and finds he cannot go back for his family. He finds he can't return, and he is now a refugee himself.

Quang and Tong meet in Arkansas. The two have a stormy relationship. Tong is romanced by a well-meaning, literally blonde American soldier (Moses Villerama, again). Quang gets an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle and with his sidekick Khue heads for California, intent on getting back to the war and rescuing his family.

The play itself unspools in timejumps over the summer of '75. Saigon Arkansas, and on the road with Quang and Khue. The stage dressing itself helps with title cards telling where we are now. Quang and Kue play out Easy Rider, right down to hippies, rednecks, and fringe tassels on Kue's jacket. Tong is trying to figure out how to acclimate with a very recalcitrant Mom whose sharp-tongued attacks on her surroundings ground a lot of the comedy in sense of family.

The actors are fantastic, and James Ryen makes Quang likeable and is, quite frankly, a hottie. Amy Kim Waschke spits out lines like they were fried American vegetables, and Moses Villarama is the utility player, flipping between characters like they were in his rolodex. The play itself gives the feeling of the people and the time, addressing the American "blonde-ness" in both how the war was fought and how it was fought against. It personalizes it and makes it more readable in human terms, and ends on a very touching note.

There are quibbles. Hip-hop wasn't QUITE a thing when the events went down, and there are modern anachronisms ("I got 99 problems, but the war ain't one"), but hey, we got Hamilton rapping up a storm these days, so that's the magic of theater (thought I was time-checking the music chosen at the breaks as well). The backlit stage was OK, but the chalkwork "pictures from home" that surfaces during monologs and solo songs didn't seem to fit well. These are minor things.

This is a good play in what is shaping up as yet another very good season for the Rep. Go check it out on Christmas Break.

More later,


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Political Desk: Zombies and Vampires

A while back, in a discussion of horror movies, the Lovely Bride's sister asked about the difference between zombies and vampires. And I said "Zombies are about the fear of the mob. Vampire are about fear of the elites."

I rarely say things like that which feel profound. Now, over a year and a half later, this comment still sticks in my mind, and has application in the Recent Situation.

[And as an initial digression/disclaimer - Yes, I recognize that both terms are pejorative, and in declaring your particular viewpoint as one or the other may well offend. OK. A lot of what we've been going through for the past year has been fired by fear, whether fear of mobs (zombies) or fear of the elites (vampires). Yet I will press on.]

Let's start with making the zombie/mob and vampire/elite connections. It is pretty clear about it when you're thinking about it. While early film zombies come out of a slavery tradition (there is usually some witch doctor turning people into zombies), in 1968 "Night of the Living Dead" pretty much crystalized the form (they were actually called "ghouls" in the film).

The modern rules about zombies, however, comes out of that film. No one is afraid of a single zombie - they attack in hordes. They are brainless, or at least uncaring. Driven by primal hunger. Sometimes they are fast, but mostly they are slow, but unavoidable. Relentless. They are everywhere. It doesn't matter if you take one down - they are amazingly egalitarian. They are replaceable, in that another will take their place should they fall. You can't negotiate with a zombie. They are the mob, the mindless masses, the unthinking hunk that once were human. There's no "lead zombie" but if there is someone trying to control them, they do so at the risk of the zombies turning on them.

The vampires, on the other hand, are elites, and go all the way back to Stoker and the Romantics, when just about everyone worth talking about was in the upper classes. Dracula himself was a count, a local ruler. Vampires live better than anyone else, but prey on the life force of everyone else. They take what they want out of a sense of privilege. They have cultured tastes and upper-class professions, when they have professions at all. Often independently wealthy. They dress well. Individual vampires keep coming back, regardless of how you think of you've disposed of them. They are hierarchical, with one vampire in charge, with a bunch of minions and brides and subjects reporting back. Yep, they are the 1%.

Now, without being TOO judgmental, this compares with a lot of politics recently. The history of government in general and democracy in particular can be traced to the balance between the powerful (by various definitions) and the masses (by various definitions). The writers of the Constitution were keenly aware of this, such that we are mostly a representational democracy, in that we chose individuals who are then supposed to vote on our behalf. Senators were originally appointed positions by the states, since letting actually people vote directly gave them too much power.

And indeed, that's been the argument through the years - balancing the many and the few, the lower and the upper, the zombies and the vampires. Heck, even the Roman Republic was a balance between the ruling oligarchs and the mobs. The rulers could make the law, but when they got out hand, the mob was a force in its own right. Greek city-states? Direct democracy, right down to the point where you could get ostracized from the city by your fellows. Unless there was a crisis, when they needed a strong leader, a single tyrant, a vampire, in charge.

And so, here we are. Over on the Dem side, we definitely had a populist movement in the Sanders candidacy, with huge hordes of passionate supporters showing up. But we don't talk about Mr. Sanders' charisma so much as his addressing root issues and identifying what these masses really wanted. His opponent, Ms. Clinton, was regularly pilloried for her support from corporate supporters. Plus, Rhodes scholar. Plus smarter than you. Yep, Vampire. So on the Dem side of the fence, the vampires won, such that even when the leader of the "zombies" endorsed the vampire, a lot of zombies refused to budge.

Over on the Republican side, the vampires seem to have wiped each other out in Camarilla Drama, leaving the field open to Mr. Trump, who appealed to a restive population with his exaltation to return to the past. And, despite having won the nomination for his party, despite having won the presidency itself, I have yet to read anyone on any side of the issue who has come forward to say "Yep, he's did a great job identifying the rules of the game and how he could win using those rules. Good show!" All the analysis has been on the restive masses who helped him succeed, with a dose of how bad things will be when the zombie hordes turn on their self-declared master.

Where does this go from here? I have no clue. Everyone keeps expecting Mr. Trump to reveal himself to be a Vampire all along (and yeah, the gold leaf on everything is a clue), and the Zombies to turn on him, but I am not quite seeing it yet. A different set of ancient vamps are flooding the upper levels of government, while the zombies are still getting their directives about who to be angry at today. So we seem to be in undiscovered country, waiting for the ghouls, or the liches, or the werewolves to show up.

More later,