Friday, May 17, 2019

Runagate Rampart

I really dig China Mieville, but he's one of those authors I need to space out. His books feel overwhelming, filled with morally and physically grotesque creatures and painful struggles. I adore them because they're so vast, deep, and weird, but they also are kind of exhausting.



Iron Council is the third and (currently) final book in his Bas-Lag series. Where Perdido Street Station took place entirely within New Crobuzon and The Scar took place entirely away from it (albeit under the city-state's shadow), Iron Council splits its time, with several major plots underway inside the city but much of the action spent on the western part of the continent. It spends more time with many of the beings and characters we've heard about before: the bug-woman Khepri, the muscular and tall Cactae, the amphibian Vodyanoi, the powerful Mayor Stem-Fulcher. We hear brief references to or see fleeting glimpses of rarer people, such as the birdlike Garuda or the ominous Grindylow. One of the things I most like about this series, though, is how dynamic is continues to be: Mieville can seem almost bored with prior worldbuilding he has done and keeps pushing in newer and stranger elements. So we now meet the creepy Handlingers, witness the craft of creating golems, and learn the pantheon of Tesh.

MINI SPOILERS

I keep wanting to describe Bas-Lag as either fantasy or steampunk, but when you try to pin it down, it really is more modern than anything else. Other than cars, they seem capable of virtually all technology we have today. This is especially true in Iron Council, which focuses so much on an already-mature railroad industry, including its accompanying financial systems of capital markets and shareholders. They also have computing devices, autonomous robots, a commercial air-travel market, recorded audio, all sorts of twentieth-century tech. And that's all in addition to multiple traditions of magic, devils, possession, sentient alien races, and other hallmarks of fantasy. In the most abstract sense, Bas-Lag is not entirely dissimilar to the world of Shadowrun, especially when it's used to critique alienation and modern systems like capitalism.

The modern feeling extends to the characters as well. Early on we meet a troupe of experimental theater provocateurs, who to me encapsulate the thrust of the book. It's political and untraditional, thoughtful, but ultimately seems powerless. It gets a conversation going, throws powerful punches at foes, suggests a way forward, but does not produce any lasting change in the status quo.

The central character of the book is Judah Low, and I really like how the structure of the book only gradually reveals him. It would have been very simple and sensible to present the parts in chronological order, starting with Judah's youth, but I'm glad that Mieville delayed this introduction. By the time we finally meet Judah, he's been built up so much by his comrades' devotion, but there's a core of mystery about him. Then we meet him again and inherit that sense of his stature, which infuses his personal evolution with more drama.

Given the out-of-sequence narration, it's especially cool that so much of the book remains surprising. I'm thinking particularly of the reveal about just what the Iron Council is: we've been reading the name for hundreds of pages, and see it coming together for a hundred more, but I still felt a nice little shock once I finally connected the dots and realized what it was, where it came from, what it was doing.

MEGA SPOILERS

As I've noted previously, reading Mieville always reminds me of Fallen London, as I belatedly recognize some of its influences. Reading the middle section of Iron Council made me smile a lot as I thought about Sunless Skies. I love the design and concept of Sunless Skies, but the central element of the game has always seemed so strange to me: why the heck are we on trains? There aren't any rails in the skies, so there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for us to be on locomotives as opposed to, say, ships or balloons or cars. Well, the one good reason is aesthetics, and it's a great reason. Anyways, I feel like reading Iron Council has given me some appreciation for how (albeit whimsically) this could work.

That visual image in the book is so stunning and wonderful and fanciful. The idea of a train becoming mobile, carrying its own track with it, traveling across the land, freed from the cords tethering it to the city. I love it.

I was semi-spoiled on this book in a very vague but decisive way. When reading reviews for The Scar, I came across one that said something like "The Scar is the only book of the three to have a mostly-happy ending", so I was prepared and steeled for bummer ending. Because of this, I didn't get my hopes up too high for the rising of the Collective or the return of the Council to New Crobuzon. It did end up a little more uplifting than I had anticipated, particularly with the end of the Council itself, a neat little trick that saves them from ignominious defeat while also denying them victory.

This did get me thinking, though, about how attenuated left-wingers' imaginative ambitions are. Mieville is famously leftist, and has some great portrayal here of working-class movements, but he denies them a chance to triumph. I've read a fair number of books over the last couple of years from left-leaning authors that portray heroic socialist or anarchist experiments, and I can't think of a single one that ends with a satisfying success for that movement. In LeGuin's The Dispossessed, the Anarrans' great social experiment is wracked by poverty, famine and starvation. Jack London's The Iron Heel is the most "rah-rah Socialism" book that I've ever read, and the protagonists of that book lose resoundingly, with every major character killed or driven into hiding and the Iron Heel ruling triumphantly for centuries. It seems like right-leaning authors are more comfortable showing their viewpoint ascendant: "And so he became king, and ruled well and wisely for the rest of his years." Why is it that left-leaning stories need to be satisfied with merely moral victories? (I'm definitely guilty of this as well! My own Shadowrun campaign ends with the anarcho-socialist People's University either forcibly suppressed and dissolved, or else co-opted by corporate interests.) It's definitely possible I'm just reading the wrong books, but it feels like there's... I dunno, some sort of defeatism or something that limits the possible outcomes.

I'm also ambivalent about the resolution of the Tesh plot... or, really, the plot itself. I think mostly this is due to my own confusion and curiosity more than any inherent issues. It feels so weirdly disconnected from the (to me) far more compelling storylines about the Collective and the Council and their struggles with the Militia. The Teshian plot has technically been a part of the book for a while, but seems to come from out of nowhere, and is simultaneously unthinkably vast and ephemeral, without the weight that accompanies other threats.

I've been thinking back over the Spiral Jacobs scenes, trying to suss out just who he is and what he's done. One possibility is that he just made it all up: forged a heliotype putting him in frame with Jack, came up with some convincing patter, and just ran with it. But I think it's more compelling to think that he actually is that old and has been around for that long. There are a couple of interesting possibilities that could flow from there. One: He is a very deep-cover very long-term sleeper agent, representing Tesh's interests in the city for decades, may have supported Jack in that capacity long ago, and has only recently started carrying out new policy in response to the war. Two: Maybe he was who he said he was, and is now something different. Particularly given his variable personality, I wonder if, say, a Teshian thaumaturge took over his mind at some point, perhaps leaving him on autopilot by default (wandering around, drawing spirals), and other times assuming direct control and actively subverting New Crobuzon. I don't know if there's any way in the text to figure out exactly what his deal was, but I think his character ends up seeming very different depending on your interpretation: tragic or villainous or mysterious.

END SPOILERS

I've long thought that the Bas-Lag books are, like, an ultradark version of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. It scans as fantasy, but is much more of a lens through which to view the modern world. The difference being that Mieville's books offer a uniquely dark and warped lens, but hey, that's part of what makes them so compelling! I don't know if he'll return to this particular setting in the future, but I'm looking forward to checking out his other books in the future; I think the most purely enjoyable book I've read from him so far is The City & The City, so he's definitely shown his chops working in different worlds.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Nothing But The Truth

And, we're done! Brother Cadwaller has completed his investigations into The Truth behind the stars, completing my fourth and final ambition in Sunless Skies. This seems like a good stopping point for the game, at least unless and until a major expansion drops.


All told, this has been one of the most gripping games I've played in at least a year. As of now I've logged just north of 140 hours in the game; I'm sure at least some of that is idle time spent on the title screen, but for most of it I've been happily chugging through space and time. Sunless Skies has a perfect balance between core and fluff, with a really satisfying set of central mechanics (trade, combat, discoveries, resources, terror) and special-feeling one-time achievements (officer storylines, ambition plots, a few multi-station arcs). There's a lot to dig in to, plenty to master, and your increasingly strong grasp of the core allows you to eventually fly through the fluff at high velocity.


I did an initial "review" over two months ago (!) when first finishing the game. I think that pretty much all stands. A few additions and amendations to my prior statements:
  • I like the music more and more the more I listen to it, which is a big testament to its staying power.
  • Cargo rules everything around me: get the fitted cupboards, sovereign sovereign slots, y'all. The game gets so much easier and faster once you boost your carrying capacity. By the end of the game I was always carrying around at least 1 unit of every cargo item, which helps so much since you don't need to backtrack to stock up on each step of a quest, just roll forward with the materials you already have on hand.

 And, how about that story Ambition, huh?

MINI SPOILERS

There's a lot of great lore here. Like the Martyr-King's Cup Ambition, it's mostly interested in the Stars/Judgments, the most powerful beings in the universe. Where the M-KC was primarily about a particular Judgment and the aftermath they created, The Truth is about the stars more broadly. You gain unusual insight into these beings higher on the Chain, what they do and how they behave. Almost as an afterthought, you also get some hugely fascinating insight into the fates of particular stars: what happened to the former sun of The Reach, say.


There is an almost incomprehensible gap between the concerns of lowly mortals and those of the stars. I was really impressed at how this vast story is made personal: while the overall arc will be the same for all characters, your specific connection to it varies based on your character's background. In my case, Brother Cadwaller was a former parish priest in Fallen London, and is led into the mystery of the stars through the Staunch Verger, a woman who helped care for his congregation. I'm pretty sure that different backgrounds each have their own appropriate connection: perhaps a former pupil or teacher if you are an academic, a comrade if you are a revolutionary, an officer if you were a zee-captain. The role this character plays can be the same in all cases, but having that bespoke aspect makes it feel really special.  Anyways, this is a really neat solution to a consistent challenge in RPGs, how to tell a big epic story that still feels personal and relevant.


END SPOILERS

I'm now comfortable saying that Sunless Skies is a better game than Sunless Sea. It does lose a few compelling aspects of the prior title - the stately sensation of progress, the feeling of vastness. But it more than makes up for it by being more fun. There's more to do, less frustration, a wonderful sense of forward progress that still feels earned but not needlessly difficult. Life is maybe a little less dangerous and cheap in the skies than on the zee, but I ended up feeling more invested in my captains' progress, and feel more than ever like this is a world where I would be happy to hang my skyfarer's cap.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Starstruck

Failbetter Games has released Wayfarer, the first major content update (not expansion) to Sunless Skies. I've been mildly obsessed with that game this year, and this was a great excuse to dive back in again after a break. I was originally planning to do a single post with my thoughts on both the update and my final ambition, The Truth, but that ambition is proving to take a while (which is good! it's a nice and meaty story), so I thought I'd drop in a quick post on the updates.


The most obvious change has been the complete redesign of Albion. At launch, this was by far the largest of the four regions of the game, and it had a very different feel: vast, open, quiet. There were very few obstacles so most voyages were fairly straightforward, straight-line journeys from A to B. Perhaps because it was so spread out, I also very rarely encountered enemies, and so as a whole Albion felt like the safest region in the game, even if technically the Reach enemies are weaker.


I was a little skeptical of the overhaul; based on the description, it sounded similar to their previous redesign of The Reach, and I thought Albion would end up feeling too similar to the other regions in the game and lose its uniqueness. After spending some time in it, though, I'm finding that I like it more than before. There are more obstacles, but navigation feels fundamentally different than in the other places: it isn't a maze like the Reach or littered with islands like Eleutheria. Instead, there are swooping curves that delineate inner regions but don't impede progress inside. So you still get these big pockets of wide-open space inside, but you need to more carefully plan your route in advance, because those walls can extend for quite a ways. (The one part I heartily dislike is the new area around the Royal Society, which is extremely obnoxious to reach, almost as bad as Hybras in The Reach.) Overall, voyages are a bit shorter and significantly more interesting than they used to be.


Maybe even more important than the mechanics of navigation, though, the overall look of Albion has drastically changed. I didn't have any issues with its original presentation, but the update looks gorgeous with a really stunning bronze palette. I think it's also the most alive-looking region now, with tons of subtle or obvious animations scattered around. London itself now feels incredibly alive, with lots of background engines chugging away on a lower plane.



The other major change was the tweaking of the Terror settings, basically making Terror rise faster and becoming a little harder to reduce. I'm really liking this change so far, since Terror is actually something I now need to think about. Before now, the only time I ever worried about Terror was when I was trying to deliberately raise it high enough to craft the Wrath of Heaven - which proved very hard! Otherwise, just sailing around and playing the freebie storylets was always sufficient to keep me well in the safety zone without ever needing to do anything in particular. With the update, I'm starting to care about terror and incorporating that into my planning: keeping an eye on the meter and periodically swinging by Achlys or the Mausoleum or Magdalene's as needed. One caveat: I'm still on my first Legacy so I have a ton of resources available to burn, I am curious if the changes would feel too punishing for a new Captain, but hopefully the first-time station-discovery dispensations would help with that.

Let's see, what else... the interactable Wonders and Horrors are cool, I've only visited a few yet but so far they've been interesting, had good lore, possibly some choices, and rewards that feel worthwhile but not unbalanced.



I kind of like the idea of giving shore leave to officers, but I doubt I'll ever do it. Why on earth would I get rid of the one and only Quartermaster I have? Even temporarily? Even for First Officers or Engineers, the ability to swap in +10 for a stat and +2 for an affiliation on demand is way more valuable than any item or Sovereign generation.

I think that's it. So far I haven't run into any of the new God stories or dealt with after-battle consequences. If those things do happen in the future, I'll include 'em in my upcoming report on The Truth!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Homage to Catalonia

For various reasons, I've been thinking a lot over the last couple of years about Homage to Catalonia. It was the first book I read that presented anarchism as anything other than bloodthirsty nihilism, and made democratic socialism appear heroic and admirable. Since the 2016 election, modern groups like Antifa and the DSA have jolted those old memories back to the forefront of my mind, and I've gone on a bit of a retro kick: seeking out the amazing poster art from the Spanish Civil War, reading about the old revolutionary slogans and songs. I've finally belatedly returned to the book, for the first time in over twenty years, partly out of curiosity to see how true my memories are.

 
The answer is they are somewhat faithful, but not completely trustworthy. I remembered the book as primarily being about the struggle between anarchism, socialism, and Stalinist Communism; that does form the backdrop for many of the events, but for the most part there are only brief references throughout the narrative portion of the book. Orwell makes a point of how irrelevant the political disputes seemed to his experiences at the front, which make up most of the pages of the book. The final chapters in the book give a more focused treatment of the parties and their alliances and betrayals, but never really dives into the ideologies of each faction.

Looking back, I think that reading this book probably prompted me to go off and do additional research on the war and its combatants from other sources; this was in the dark ages before Google or Wikipedia, so I would have combed the card catalog to find another book or two in my high school library. If memory serves, this may have led into my senior-year self-study program on revolutions, which led to some cool research and papers on the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and (I think) the Spanish Civil War.

On a personal level, I used to be a rather bloodthirsty young jingo, cheering on America's first invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Around this time I was converting into a pacifist, recoiling at our bombings of Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina; if I didn't already identify as a pacifist, this book probably nudged me further in that direction, as it gives a decidedly unglamorous look at war. Orwell writes more about trying to keep warm at night, foraging for firewood, battling public lice, or eating moldy bread than he does about actual combat. Most of his existence at the front is marked by boredom, toil, and frustration than by fear. When combat does occur, it is exciting but not heroic. He misses his shot, or his gun jams, or some other problem occurs. In later actions he probably kills people, or at least wounds them, but can't be sure: there's a rolled grenade in the dark and a bang and a cry of agony.

Overall, Orwell's attitude towards war seems to occupy a middle ground between Hemingway's grim-but-necessary view and Vonnegut or Heller's war-is-a-meaningless-absurdity takes. Orwell hates war and finds it ridiculous, but he nevertheless feels compelled to fight. He writes "When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist — after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct." It's tempting to view Orwell as an idealist, with his commitment to worldwide revolution and his personal sacrifices, but he's really endlessly making the best of the bad choices before him. I'm somewhat reminded of Bonhoeffer's tormented decision to commit the sin of murder, not believing that it could be justified or excused, but because his conscience demanded it.

You can see Orwell's thoughts on the importance of freedom versus authoritarianism crystallizing during his experiences and being formalized in this book, and they will be presented memorably in their final form in 1984. Homage to Catalonia is a bridge book between his earlier socialist books like Down and Out in Paris and London and his anti-Soviet Animal Farm and 1984. I think it's important to see him as a democratic socialist and not as a liberal: he's on the side of the (self-organized) workers, not the (authoritarian and democratic) police. As he writes, "I have no particular love for the idealized 'worker' as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on." It seems like Orwell's experience of Communist propaganda that distorted and lied about things he directly experienced was what pushed him over the edge into direct opposition to that party.

As a young man, and a libertarian, I embraced the 1984 version of Orwell. I believed that the worst things a government can do is suppress free speech and disseminate falsehood; the solution was to prevent censorship and get the government out of media. As an older lefty, I now see censorship as just a single aspect in a complex problem. The real problem is people not knowing the truth, whether they're consuming the propaganda of Alex Jones lying about Sandy Hook victims, or embracing the delusions of QAnon, and more speech has certainly not dissuaded the masses from massive delusions. I increasingly want to shut down propaganda, or make it harder to find, and get infuriated when corporations like YouTube and Facebook start algorithmically driving victims towards radical falsehoods.

Several years ago I started watching Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and YouTube's algorithm kept encouraging me to watch hateful misogynistic videos; the algorithm had been hijacked by alt-right provocateurs, but as YouTube is directly profiting off of video views it has an obligation to stop that manipulation. Years later, YouTube continues to funnel young men down a right-wing rabbit hole that leads from debate videos to white-supremacist propaganda. It's a different problem than what Orwell was writing about, as the world and media are more fragmented today, but individuals can do more damage: a single man with a machine gun can wound 800 people in Las Vegas, a single Twitter feed can destroy a reputation or incite a massacre. Orwell's views evolved over time based on what he saw in the world, from Burmese imperialism to London poverty to Soviet show trials, and I'm curious what he would make of the 21st century. Ultimately he always comes down on the side of the people, not as abstract units of political power but as breathing, passionate people who enjoy good food and tobacco and comradeship and sunsets. Honestly, I imagine that he'd feel more comfortable battling the techno-capitalist powers of 2019 than he was fighting intra-left disputes in 1938.

One particularly amusing, albeit potentially "problematic", aspect of this book is Orwell's constant stereotyping of Spaniards. He dryly notes how his life was saved many times thanks to the poor marksmanship of his enemies and his fellow-militiamen. He creates a national character and consistently applies it to all Spanish people in the book: they are unfailingly friendly, lazy, good cooks and enthusiastic eaters. This is a recurring tic of Orwell, who similarly presented the French in Down & Out as smelly and unsanitary, and the Germans as efficient, and the Italians as emotionally demonstrative. All of these stereotypes ultimately reinforce Orwell's own Englishness: despite his professed commitment to global solidarity, he fundamentally is, well, kind of a hobbit: fussy, proper, aghast at poor manners and hygiene, suspicious of other cultures but ultimately buoyed by inner determination and practicality.

The book as a whole kind of reminds me of Nick's disclaimer in The Great Gatsby that he is one of the few honest people he knows. Orwell is trying to be truthful, and openly admits his biases and limitations. He tries to be dispassionate in how he writes about his personal experiences and carefully separates this from the chapters that were built on his research and conversation with friends. All of this gives him a lot of credibility when he then looks at the official reporting and propaganda to come out of the war. We believe him, as he's shared ample criticisms of the POUM and isn't aggrandizing his own stature. I'm left with more admiration for him than ever before: at his courage and sacrifices, and at retaining an open heart and clear eyes, able to grow and change based on the evidence of what he saw.

There were lots of great quotes in this book, but here are a couple that I bothered to jot down. Page numbers from the 1955 Beacon Paperback.

"It was like an allegorical picture of war, the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all." - p. 192

"It seems to always be the case when I get mixed up in war or politics - I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over. Afterwards I can see the significance of events, but while they are happening I merely want to be out of them - an ignoble trait, perhaps." - p. 212

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mr. Thrones

And so it begins! That one TV show based on a fantasy series that I really liked has just started its eighth and final season, firmly leaving the books in its dust. My enthusiasm for Game Of Thrones has waned somewhat during its run, and I'm not quite as plugged into the fan community these days, but it remains one of my favorite shows and I'm eagerly looking forward to the remaining episodes.

One small little fan thing I did participate in was the /r/gameofthrones pool. The question this asks is "Who do you want to win the Iron Throne?" Notably, it did not ask who you think will win. There are a lot of names I like on there, but only one honest answer for me: Lyanna Mormont. As incredibly unlikely as it would be, it would be awesome to end the series with her in charge.



The question of who will win is a lot harder, and honestly I don't have great confidence in any particular theory. So here is my personal ranking of what I view as the most-likely to least-likely outcome of the show.

MINI SPOILERS
  1. Nobody. I'm more confident that the books will end this way, and there's a decent chance the series will as well. This might include the Throne itself being burnt by dragonfire, or blown up with wildfire, or everyone in the series dying or fleeing to Essos.
  2. Night King. Even if some of our heroes survive, I think there's a fair chance he will win. I don't know if the throne means anything in particular to the White Walkers, but it could be a trophy for them.
  3. Daenerys Targaryen. She's the only person on this list who actually wants the throne at this point besides Cersei. She isn't especially cutthroat, but her ambition and resources and nascent alliances could put her on top.
  4. Jon Snow. He seems a very likely compromise candidate in the same way Robert Baratheon was, with a claim to the throne and strong ties to important factions.
  5. Cersei Lannister.
  6. Tyrion Lannister. I have a hard time seeing him openly sit on the Throne, but (if you subscribe to certain book theories) he may have a strong claim, and he seems like he would be a good ruler. He's much more likely to be Hand again, though.
  7. Sansa Stark. This name and all the remaining ones are significantly less likely.
  8. Bran Stark. Only if everyone above him on this list dies. OR if he wargs into someone above him!
  9. Gendry. Arguably the heir to Robert!
  10. Jaime Lannister.
  11. Arya Stark. She's capable, but I don't see her wanting it. She would make an intriguing Master of Whispers, though.
  12. Lyanna Mormont.
  13. Sam Tarly.
  14. Missandei. She's #2 in my "want to win", but has no faction.
  15. Euron Greyjoy. Realistically he should be much higher since he has ambition, resources, and ruthlessness; but narratively he's a late player and I don't see the TV series building to this.
  16. Theon Greyjoy. Kind of the opposite as Euron: There would be huge narrative satisfaction in his redemption arc ending on the throne, but he definitely doesn't want it.

A few other names that aren't on the list and may be worth considering:
  1. Young Griff. OK, almost definitely not, but it is interesting that they bothered to introduce the Golden Company in the TV show, so there's at least a small chance we're getting a late delivery of that plot.
  2. Jaqn H'ghar. Possibly in the guise of one of the other characters; if so, probably in service to a third character.
END SPOILERS

Pretty crazy to think of all this speculation building up and then ending in just a few months. I'll be gone on vacation when the series finale drops and am already wondering how I can remain unspoiled until I safely return.