Saturday, March 09, 2024


I was recently chatting with my brother (no, my other brother) about Thomas Pynchon. We both describe him as one of our favorite authors, despite not really having read a whole lot from him. The Crying of Lot 49 is an incredible book, one of the most gripping and mesmerizing and lingering novels I've read. Beyond that, though, Pynchon gets a lot more challenging, with books that are considerably longer while also being very complex and layered. I've enjoyed everything of his that I've read, but other than 49, it's always taken a real concerted effort and sometimes multiple attempts to finish something.


I just finished reading "Against the Day", which I think puts me past the halfway point of Pynchon books I've read. It's a beast of a book at over 1000 pages, but from page to page it's highly readable and fun. Pynchon has an amazing gift for language and voices, a sharp sense of humor, intricate drama and surprising allusions.


Overall, I think this book most closely reminds me of Gravity's Rainbow, both for its epic historical sweep and its deep interest in science. Where GR was set late in World War 2 and dealt with contemporary ideas of ballistic missiles and relativity, ATD spans the time from the late 1800s to the end of World War 1 and is interested in the scientific ideas of that era. The nature of light and the aether are especially important in the early part of the book, and characters both talk about these concepts and see them acted upon in their journeys. Explosives are similarly central to the narrative. One thing that I adore about Pynchon is how he ties everything in together around a central axis but then kind of moves up in a third dimension, circling around a consistent concept but exploring radically different aspects of it. For explosives, an early character named Webb Traverse is very knowledgeable about how to detonate explosives, and can apply that knowledge in his work in the Colorado mines; but over time we see those explosives being turned against the system of capitalist exploitation that drive those mines in the first place, and how they can be used to cripple the railroads and factories. The concrete, technical aspects of explosives segue into the philosophical theory of anarchism, in a way that feels natural and inextricable.

Pynchon really knows his stuff, and isn't afraid to dig deep into nerding out on science and math. Vectors are a really big part of the story. One of Webb's sons is Christopher, nicknamed Kit, who becomes an expert on vectorism, a practical application of math to predict real-world movements. In the tone of the novel, though Vectorism is most often described like a religion, with its adherents and priests and heretics. Kit moves in the circles of Vectorists, but later on gets mixed up with the Quaternions, a more European branch of mathematics that deals with four-dimensional rather than three-dimensional movement. Quaternions require imaginary numbers and radicals and other things that cannot exist in the real world, yet nevertheless may be useful to analyze real-world concepts. I took one of several detours to Wikipedia to confirm that, yep, quaternions is a real thing, though generally not with the mystical overtones they accrete in this book.

Electricity is a big deal as well, with Tesla playing a somewhat significant role in the first third or so of the novel. Here too, the science of electricity is explored, but so too is the whole social and financial territory in which it is being deployed. In the Chicago World's Fair, electricity is still something of a novelty, enabling late-night activities that previously would have needed to wait for the next day. We see how the landscapes of America and Europe are transformed as they are lit up by incandescent bulbs. Tesla seeks to make electrical power available for free for everyone over wireless transmission. He is subverted by his supposed investors, the real Morgan and the fictional Vibe, who bankroll his experiments while secretly sabotaging them, ushering in the transactional Edisonian world that will ensure regular payments to the wealthy of the world.

Like I mentioned before, light is a huge concept in the book, and especially refraction and reflection. An early section of the book is titled "Iceland Spar", and it's both a plot point and an analogy, a special type of rock that can doubly refract light, producing duplicated images. During a detour through a traveling troupe of magicians, we learn that this is how they accomplish many of their illusions: but when doubling a person, that person is actually doubled, producing a doppelganger that will continue to live even after the act is over. As with many other things in the book, I initially assumed this was a creative invention, before checking and realizing that, yep, Iceland Spar actually exists. (But it doesn't really create flesh-and-blood duplicates of people. Probably)

I'll try to not describe every single topic Pynchon dives into, but I will say that one of the coolest has to do with silver. In the first couple of chapters, we learn how fascinated Merle Rideout is with photography: a process by which silver and light interact to freeze an image onto paper. Much of the following action then takes place in the silver mines of Colorado, where men work hard and set off explosives and use pickaxes to extract silver ore from the earth. Those mining operations tie in with the politics and economics of the Free Silver movement and the recent bodyslam of Repeal; for this community, it's just Repeal, everyone knows what was repealed so they don't need to explain it. Doubling back to photography, it's also a matter of light. In film, the cels advance like clockwork, so you're really seeing a still image for a fraction of a second, then another still image for a fraction of a second, and so on. Merle muses that this seems awkward: we should be able to do something with light itself to directly transmit the movement of images. Much much later in the book, Merle invents an process by which a single photograph can be extrapolated into a film: if you consider the act of freezing movement onto a skein of silver as taking the derivative of an equation, it should be possibly to take the integral to restore the fourth dimension, letting the silver flow again.

I hadn't made this association before, but it occurred to me while reading this that there are more than a few similarities between Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. Their styles are very different - Pynchon tends to be more layered and baroque, uses more dialect and shifts between different styles in the course of a book, while Stephenson's prose is more consistent within a given book - but they share a palpable joy for knowledge and a propensity to detour through scientific explanations in the course of their swashbuckling books. The nature of their interests varies a bit; Pynchon seems more drawn towards mathematics and pure research, while Stephenson is more interested in applied science and engineering. Both of them can give an almost science-fiction vibe within their historical fiction novels, showing the latticework that supports their historical society and helping us understand the space the characters are moving through.

Both authors have also recently made me a lot more interested in Venice (as has playing Europa Universalis IV and reading A Splendid Exchange) - in the past I've just kind of dismissed it as a gimmicky canal city, but it has a really fascinating history, and I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of reading about it on Wikipedia.

This book also made me think of Sunless Skies, which is similarly set in the early 1900s and seems animated by the spirit of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. There's a sense of optimism in the possibility of science, the improvement of humanity, that new discoveries will lead to new benefits and a brighter future. However, the novel is always very aware that a dark future looms, as the narrative inexorably marches towards the mass slaughter of World War I. Even within the context of the book itself, characters receive ominous warnings from the future, as confused dead souls hurtle backwards in time to bear witness to the coming horror.

It's interesting; I think that when I was growing up, I was particularly bored at this period of history, after the Civil War and before World War II: too modern for cool medieval stuff, too early for cool machine guns and robots. But in recent years I've come to see that stretch from about 1850-1950 as the most impactful century in history, way more important than anything which has happened since. It spans the birth of capitalism, the victory of the scientific method, the migration from rural farms to urban industry, development of modern nation-states, so much of our world. It's incredibly ambitious for Pynchon to have tried to take on the sweep of these decades, and at a big scope too.

I want to talk about the Chums of Chance! They open up the book, and periodically drop in as the story goes on, although their appearances grow further and further apart as the timeline grows closer to the present. These sections remind me a lot of the kind of books I loved reading as a kid, about other kids going on adventures, learning things and solving mysteries. The writing in these sections also echoes the voice of those stories as I remember them: like, Pynchon won't write that a character "said" something, but that they "cried" or "exclaimed" or "pondered" or "ejaculated", like in old Hardy Boys books. And fun little call-outs are embedded into the prose as well, like "To learn more about what transpired next, dear reader, be sure to check out The Chums of Chance in the Land of the Ophidian Queen."

It took a while for me to get a bead on exactly how the Chums of Chance fit in with the rest of the (many, many, many!) storylines, and I'm still not totally sure if I have it right. When they first appear, they seem to strain but not break credulity: they travel the world in a hot-air balloon, going on adventures, are friendly with Harvard professors and travel with an incredibly intelligent dog. Later on, they cross firmly into the realm of the fantastical: they travel through the hollow Earth, battle evil gnomes, conduct aerial battles against hostile forces and so on. This is a marked contrast to the rest of the book, which, while hardly realistic, seems considerably more grounded (in all senses of the word.)

At some point, one of the other characters references a Chums of Chance novel. That made me think for a while that the Chums were a fictional story within this fictional story: further down the wick, if you will. But later in the novel the Chums directly encounter characters from other storylines, which leads me to believe that they're part of the same (fictional) reality, which in turn makes this entire work fantastic, even the passages that read as more realistic. (Though, as a final curveball, in one of the last Chums section we learn how they traveled to the Counter-Earth, a more ominous version of reality, which then leaves me wondering if we, the people reading "Against the Day", reside in the Counter-Earth, and the Chums of Chance and the rest of the novel inhabit the real Earth.)


While the Chums open up the novel, the single biggest storyline is probably that of Webb Traverse and his progeny. Webb is a true and dedicated believer in Anarchism; not at all out of a sense of nihilism, but rather the opposite, he sees the grinding gears of capitalism as an evil and destructive force, and anarchism as a human-centric, social way of relating. Webb is pretty fanatical on the topic, and ends up alienating all of his kids in various ways. His eldest son Frank has a lot of aptitude for mining and wants to become an engineer, which to Webb aligns him with the enemy. The shiftless Reef doesn't want to build community or put down roots. Lake loves boys, including the sons of the mine owners, which causes the furious Webb to erupt. And young Kit is very close to his dad, but as a brilliant budding mathematical mind, he receives a scholarship from the hated mine owner Scarsdale Vibe, causing Webb to feel disavowed.

The most tragic part of the whole book is Webb's betrayal, brutal torture and murder. This passage was really hard to read, and felt a lot like Blood Meridian. For the rest of the novel, Webb's family lives under the shadow of this great loss, variously feeling guilt, anger, resentment, and generally trying to avenge Webb when the opportunity arises. One big exception is Lake, who, shockingly, falls in love with Webb's murderer and marries him. This leads to a very... challenging storyline, with something that may or may not be sexual abuse. I'll have more to say about that later.

As with science, everything is connected in this book. Scarsdale ordered Webb killed for the immediate impact on his business interests, but there's a very explicit political dimension as well: Scarsdale as well as Webb sees this as a grander battle between capitalism and anarchism. Scarsdale is actually one of the most articulate characters in the book: often hatefully so, but he does come from a fully-realized point of view, and is eloquent at describing his vision for the future of the country, why he thinks it's good and all that he's willing to do to bring it into reality.

From what I remember of Pynchon's other work, these big shifts in tone from section to section are part of his style. There are some long stretches in this book that are really funny - Kit and Reef reuniting and razzing each other, pretty much everything that happens in Göttingen, most of the Chums of Chance, and so on. That's all a sharp contrast with the bleak despair of much of the Western action. Later in the novel Cyprian's escapades have all the pacing of a farce, but the actual content of his storyline is really disturbing and dire.

Speaking of which, Cyprian is probably the character who grew on me the most over the course of the book. He's really pathetic early on, a confirmed "sodomite" with a snarky attitude towards everything, and gets tangled up in an incredibly dark and abusive sexual torment. Complicating this is Cyprian's apparent predilection towards some degree of masochism, but he does not at all deserve the terrible things that happen to him. He is kind of "rescued" by Yashmeen, both physically and eventually psychologically as well. There are a ton of twists to his story, but it kind of reaches its full flowering in a polyamorous triad between Cyprian, Yashmeen and Reef. This seems to be such a close mirror to the earlier relationship between Deuce Kindred, Lake Traverse and Sloat Fresno that it must be intentional, down to the favored sexual positions of the women. The whole relationship feels different, though. Yashmeen is absolutely pivotal in orchestrating her companions, while Lake feels more like a victim in hers (I could never quite tell whether Lake actually enjoyed it or had some form of Stockholm Syndrone, but she's definitely responding to her situation rather than initiating it). There's genuine growing mutual love and affection between Cyprian, Reef and Yashmeen, growing out of sexual desire but flowering into affection and tenderness, and eventually a family welcoming a child. It's genuinely sad when Cyprian leaves the other two, and interesting as well. For most of the novel it's seemed like his "deal" was being homosexual, but his last few chapters dwell more on his ambivalence about his gender, as he wants to embrace the more traditionally feminine virtues. It's very odd but fitting that he winds up in a nunnery.


I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this book - we haven't even really gotten into the time-traveling strangers or the Xanadu-esque Shambhala or the hard-boiled tarot detective or Bosnia or the Tunguska Event. A lot of the book feels jumbled-up, and while reading this story a big part of my mind has been devoted to trying to sort it. Some parts feel like true history and science, some parts feel like weird boundary-pushing science, and some parts feel like pure mysticism. It's often unclear just what part a given phenomenon belongs to; some events that read like bizarre alien encounters are actual documented history, after all.

I've just finished the novel and it's still fresh, but I've got that mulling-over feeling, which to me is one of the hallmarks of a good Pynchon story. There are dots to connect, between events in the story and between the story and real life. There are opportunities to go deeper, and to go broader. There are gut-punching emotional moments to sit with, and rousing developments to cheer, and silly songs to laugh at. Reading this was definitely an investment in time and effort, and feels well worth it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Vote This Way

As is tradition, here are the items on the ballot and how I will be voting for them!


President of the United States: Joseph R. Biden Jr.

County Committee: James Hsu Coleman, Jess Hudson, Sandra Lang, David Burruto

United States Senator Take 1: Katie Porter

United States Senator Take 2: Katie Porter

U. S. Representative: Kevin Mullin

State Senator: Josh Becker

State Assembly: Diane Papan

Judge of Superior Court: Sarah Burdick

County Board of Supervisors: Jackie Speier

Proposition 1: Yes

Senator is probably the most challenging item for me. My heart is truly torn between Barbara Lee, who has been a hero of mine for decades, and Katie Porter, one of my favorite current members of Congress. I had been assuming that one of them would make it to the November election, but it currently looks like Steve Garvey may make the cut (as Schiff follows Newsom's lead in elevating a Republican). Porter seems to have the better chance of advancing, so I Choose Her. I love the idea of doubling the Elizabeth Warren Caucus in the Senate.

I'm also a little torn on Proposition 1. Long-time readers will remember that, when in doubt, I have two rules of thumb when it comes to propositions. Vote "Yes" on taxes and "No" on bonds; and vote "Yes" on legislature-initiated propositions and "No" on voter-initiated propositions. Well, this one is a legislature-initiated bond. As with every bond we ever vote on, it's for a good cause: this time, treating mental illness. And as with all of these bonds, it will be funded by paying wealthy people tax-free interest for decades to come, taxing the working poor and transferring wealth up the chain. Literally everybody I can find has endorsed it, so I'll hold my nose and vote "Yes" while I continue to sputter about the irresponsibility of relying on bonds to fund continuing programs.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, All That Is Holy Is Profaned

I've enjoyed China Mieville's fiction for some time, and recently have started digging into his non-fiction work as well. He is a dedicated socialist, and his nonfiction seems particularly interested in the history of communism and how we might relate to it today. October was a fantastic novelistic (but completely historical) retelling of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. More recently I finished "A Spectre, Haunting", which is a critical analysis of The Communist Manifesto.


I kind of laughed at myself while reading this; in some ways it feels like penance for or a corrective to my recent reading of the very pro-free-trade books of William Bernstein that I was absorbing last year. There's a fun little bit of synchronicity in these books. Bernstein identifies 1820 as roughly the point where the modern economy of plentiful increase began, and The Communist Manifesto was written just a few decades after that, as people were grappling with the enormous shifts that had occurred within their lifetime. It seems like Marx and Bernstein are writing about the same things, but Bernstein takes the perspective of the capitalist bourgeoisie while Marx and Engels argue from the perspective of the proletariat.

I'm not sure if I've ever read The Communist Manifesto before. I own a pocket copy, which I bought back in the 1990s. I definitely wouldn't have identified as a leftist at that time; I was a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party. But I think I picked it up as a sort of vaguely defiant pro-free-speech act, exercising my right to consume information that might be considered dangerous and that I didn't agree with. A Spectre, Haunting includes as an appendix the complete text of the Communist Manifesto, and other than the beginning and the end it didn't seem familiar at all to me, so I suspect I just bought the book to have on my bookshelf and never actually read it.

There have been many translations of the Manifesto over the years, from its original German into almost every other language. The first English translation came in the 1850s, but this book uses a preferred translation from 1888, with some very minor noted tweaks. It also includes several introductions from Marx and Engels for subsequent editions; significantly, in these introductions they point out areas where the Manifesto had become outdated. Marxists often have a reputation of being dogmatic and inflexible, and I thought it was cool that the original authors were basically like, "Yeah, turns out we were wrong about this specific point, you can disregard it." But they make the astute point that the Manifesto itself has now entered history, and it would be wrong to modify it; in doing so, they avoid the revisionism that would later define Stalin and subsequent Soviet chicanery.

A Spectre, Haunting sort of circles around the Manifesto, looking at it from various perspectives and using it as a tool to look at history. Mieville writes about the specific history in which the Manifesto was written, both Marx and Engels' prior experiences and writings and the broader social and economic upheavals of the time. Interestingly, the Chartists prominently figure here - a year ago I didn't know who they were, now they're popping up in all of my books! Later chapters do section-by-section glosses of the Manifesto text, explaining references that might escape us today and analyzing what the authors are doing. Mieville also addresses the various criticisms made of the Manifesto over the years, covering both right-wing attacks on its fundamental arguments as well as left-wing concerns that it paid insufficient attention to other areas like gender, race or imperialism. The last main section of the book sort of muses on what the Manifesto means for leftists (and humans) today: which of its principles are worth holding on to, and how they might be applied to the historical context we find ourselves in in the 2020s.

My favorite part of this book was probably Mieville looking at the Manifesto as an author: analyzing what Marx is doing with language. He insists on treating the Manifesto as a manifesto: not as a scholarly treatise or a work of journalism. A manifesto seeks to stir action in its readers, and should be viewed and judged in that light. Mieville uses an analogy that I absolutely love: Imagine that, the eve before a battle, a commander is speaking to her officers. She rolls out a map and explains the features of the terrain: good sighting locations, chokepoints, marshes and fields. She points out where the enemy is located and how they will be approaching. She finishes with an exhortation: "We will fight them, and we will win!" Now, the commander is making a lot of different statements during that speech, and there are different levels of certainty and truth associated with them. She probably feels extremely confident that the terrain is as she describes. She believes that her intelligence regarding enemy movement is accurate, but she also knows that intelligence can be flawed, and the actual movement tomorrow may be different. And while she projects confidence in victory, she privately may have reservations. But, we really shouldn't judge her negatively for saying "We will win!" - her job is to inspire her troops, and if she is effective enough at sparking fervor among her followers, that might cause them to fight harder and, yes, win.

The point is, we can't really assess the effectiveness of a pre-battle speech in the same way we would assess the effectiveness of a weather forecast. They're different forms of communication, trying to do different things, and should be judged at how well they do what they're trying to do. Throughout the book, Mieville insists that in reading the Manifesto, we should remain focused on its Manifesto-ness: trying to create change in the world, not just reporting how things are or predicting how things will be.

Similarly, Mieville admires what Marx is doing with language on an artistic level. In an early preview of internecine leftist disagreements, he recounts how one scholar has sought to broaden the application of the concept of "Revolution" in the Manifesto: besides the clear political and economic revolution, we can also revolutionize how we think as individuals and how we can remain open to new thoughts and experiences. A dissenter grouses that "Revolution" clearly has one and only one meaning, that of a political rupture, the replacement of an old regime with a new one; if you expand the definition of Revolution to encompass everything, then it means nothing. Mieville notes that, for Marx, Revolution clearly did not just have one meaning: that, in fact, in all of writing, we're expressing multiplicities of meaning through our words. "Revolution" does explicitly reference political rupture, but there's a playfulness in how Marx uses it, so it also slyly alludes to, say, the revolution of one body around another, or the movement of a cycle. Again, I like how this sort of yanks analysis from the joyless single-mindedness of stereotypically dogmatic Marxists and brings these discussions back to the messy and complex historical situations in which they occurred.

As for the Manifesto itself: It's pretty interesting, rhetorically. Marx actually spends quite a lot of time praising the bourgeoisie and the role they had recently played in overthrowing the old medieval system of monarchs and nobles. There's quite a fusion of admiration and outrage towards this class. Marx's overall thrust seems to be, "we must destroy the bourgeoisie, but on the path towards that destruction, we may occasionally ally with them." As later introductions to the Manifesto would make clear, Marx and Engels rapidly lost that sense of potential collaboration: the nascent capital class was far more terrified of empowered workers than of old nobility, and didn't hesitate to make common cause with their former lords whenever the threat of revolution started to loom.

In writing about the Manifesto, Mieville covers a good number of what feel like inside-baseball disputes: even back in the 1840s, leftists were far more passionate about denouncing and arguing against one another than in taking on the organized power of the right. A good amount of energy in The Communist Manifesto is directed towards various factions that occupy a similar space to the Communists but have different strategies or goals, like the Utopians or the so-called True Socialists. Many of these groups disappeared entirely shortly after the Manifesto's original publication, and it's weird to think that they seemed worthy of such sustained ire when nobody even remembers them now.

The name "Communist" itself is fairly explained, at length in the Manifesto (building on Engels' earlier work) and in Mieville's glosses. To put it in the most succinct form, communists believe in the community of property; in other words, the abolition of private property. This does not necessarily mean the loss of personal property, but rather, wealth-generating sources (like agricultural lands, mines, factories, and so on) must be seen as commonly owned by the society as a whole, and their fruits must accrue to the whole society, rather than the narrow band of private owners.

At the time of the Manifesto's writing, it was important to differentiate them from "Socialists". Marx and Engels later came to accept the socialist label, but at the time, "socialism" was mostly used to indicate an interest in social reform: think the temperance movement. They wanted a new term to more clearly denote that they demanded the complete dismantling of the existing free-trade property-rights regime, which could be compatible with social reforms but could not in any way accept them as substitutions.

While Mieville aptly points out Marx's inside-baseball digressions, I couldn't help but think that some of Mieville's commentary falls into this category as well. As the book goes on, there's a lot of quoting of various leftist writers, leaders and activists, introducing me to feuds that I didn't know existed and still struggle to recognize the significance of.

I think that one of Mieville's biggest goals for A Spectre, Haunting is to argue that we should still pay attention to The Communist Manifesto even though a lot of it seems to be self-evidently wrong. Communism isn't inevitable. Workers' lives haven't continually gotten worse under capitalism. We don't seem to be heading towards a post-scarcity society. The capitalists have not been forced to ally with their workers. So, why read the Manifesto? It does seem to be important as a symbol, as a point in history, stating battle lines and trying to create class consciousness. Even though Marx's confident predictions mostly failed to materialize (with some notable exceptions, like progressive income taxes and universal education), it feels like he's correctly identified the prime cleavage in the world, between the owners and the workers, and that's still the main tension at work in the world today. He does so with a decently compelling framework, depicting this as a moment in history and explaining how these tensions have driven changes in the past. He also writes with passion and force, seeking to create and instill a sense of destined revolutionary purpose.

That gets at another kind of awkward thing about the Manifesto, both as it was written and, increasingly, as it recedes into the past. On the one hand, Marx famously asserts (or, to use Mieville's framing, exhorts) the inevitability of communist triumph. The ineluctable forces will inevitably lead to the downfall of the bourgeoisie and the eternal reign of the proletariat. If it's inevitable, though, then why should I as an individual do anything? Why expose myself to hardship, discomfort, ridicule, pain, death, when it's all going to happen anyways? And now, from 175 years in the future, we ask ourselves: if it isn't inevitable, is it even possible? Or is the struggle doomed? And if it's doomed, why should I do anything?

Mieville directly addresses this. As with a lot of the, erm, "complicated" parts of the Manifesto, it can be helpful to look at what Marx and Engels wrote in their later books. And we also shouldn't necessarily take them at their word: Marx might be saying that triumph is inevitable, but if he actually, truly believed that, then he wouldn't be writing so passionately to convince people to take a stand. Once again, how he writes carries meaning, and is something we should consider along with the literal content of his prose.

This argument, and others like it, made me think a lot of religion. Growing up in Protestant churches, I've spent a lot of my life reading the Bible and reading writings about the Bible, seeking to explain it, contextualize it, apply it, to reconcile apparent contradictions, to highlight easily-missed asides. And, well, that makes me think a lot of how people write about the Manifesto: having a text that's very important to your movement, but that has a lot in it that seems wrong or irrelevant, and trying to figure out how to relate to it and how your movement as a whole should address it.

I was glad to see that Mieville directly addresses this religious aspect occasionally ascribed to the Manifesto, and a little surprised that he eventually sort of embraces it: there is a religious tinge to what Marx is doing, even though a lot of people (and, heck, Marx himself) would deny it. Religion is ultimately about faith, and it does take a certain degree of faith to hold fast to the idea of proletarian victory in the face of endless setbacks.

The book ends with some urgent words for the present day. Without directly naming them, Mieville seems to endorse a DSA style of strategy, seeing politics and parties as only one potential avenue for struggle. History has shown that workers' movements will likely be betrayed at any opportunity, and it's foolish to pin all hopes on any political organization. The movement should build power wherever it's possible. Sometimes that will mean aligning with other factions to promote the interests of the capital class, but it must do so intentionally. For historical context, Mieville points to the various reforms in England in the late 1800s that shortened the working day and abolished child labor. From one perspective, these changes benefited the capital class by making work more tolerable and reducing the fires of revolution, thus allowing them to keep their comfortable position at the top of the pyramid. But Marx and Engels still supported those movements, as they directly benefited the working class, and, incidentally, provided them with more time and energy for education, organization and action. Likewise, movements like today's "Fight for $20" don't disrupt the existing power structures and arguably legitimize the continued exploitation of marginal workers; but they're still worth pushing for, as they improve lives, make people less desperate and sustenance-driven, and, incidentally, put more dollars into working pockets that could be used to build worker power.

He also writes about the importance of breaking away from the idea of the "party line" and purity tests. For most of the time since the Manifesto was written, there's been a kind of obsession with defining what the one correct position is to take on any specific issue, and browbeating any dissenters into either embracing that position or leaving the movement. Mieville promotes the idea of a "band" rather than a "line", a range of reasonable ideas that reasonable people might have, and embracing internal discussions and debate without turning every dispute into a do-or-die ultimatum. Reading this reminded me of an old church motto that I've always loved: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." Leftists must agree on certain core principles: the importance of peoples' needs over oligarchs' luxuries; the right of individuals to control their own destiny so long as they don't interfere with others' rights to do the same; the right of a society to govern itself; that all human being have equal worth. But some leftists might prioritize individual action over collective action, some might feel primarily motivated from spiritual feelings while others are committed atheists, some might seek political alliances while others eschew them. When we see these kind of intra-familial disagreements, we should approach them with an attitude of curiosity and humility, and engage in honest dialogue. Who knows, maybe we'll learn that our own prior beliefs were wrong; and if not, we can still remain in fellowship with our comrades so long as we agree on the big picture, while agreeing to disagree on this or that point.

Mieville sees the modern socialist movement as being too obsessed with optimism, and I realized that I'm personally guilty of that. When people tell me that they're worried a bad trend will continue or a good movement will end, I have a knee-jerk reaction to emphasize the positive and to state that we are in control of our collective destiny, and a better future is possible if enough people are willing to work for it. It is kind of cruel to berate people for not believing that things will turn out well: they have one level of mild trauma for thinking darkly of the future, likely caused by more trauma in the past where they personally saw bad outcomes, and then you're (I'm) suggesting that their reasoning is flawed and piling on more trauma. I do think it's important for us to have hope - again, why bother fighting this fight if we don't think there's a chance we can win? - but hope doesn't mean that everything will turn out the way we want in the time we'd like. We should be prepared for setbacks and backsliding, and more importantly, not dismiss those among us who warn of them.

The book ends with a kind of weird call to hate. He explains it pretty well; quoting Aristotle, he says that when you're angry at someone you wish revenge upon them, but when you hate someone you wish for them to not exist. Like many (most?) people, I think of hate as an unalloyed evil, something to be completely eliminated. Mieville argues that in order to complete the great project suggested by the Manifesto, we need to hate the evil institutions that we'll have to eliminate: the hierarchical class system, the exploitation of workers. We can't impassionately analyze and critique and offer compromises and reforms: we must see them as wrong and strive to eliminate them completely. In Marx's analysis, the bourgeoisie loathes the proletariat, but they don't completely hate them, because they need them: without the value extracted from the working class, the capitalist class would cease to exist. So they can deride their manners and fashions and poverty, but not seek to eliminate them. In the other direction, though, the proletariat can absolutely hate the capitalists: they're the ones doing the work, and could get along just fine without their profits being extracted. And so they're free to push for the complete elimination of the other class. They have nothing to lose but their chains.

That was sort of an odd note to end the book on, which I guess is in keeping with the book as a whole. It's varied and challenging, thoughtfully provocative and grounded, straddling history and the present. I left it with a much better understanding of what actually is and isn't in the Manifesto, a better appreciation for Marx's rhetoric, and a much better context into the endless internecine feuds within the Left. It feels weird to keep bouncing between pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist books, but I like to think that this helps keep my mind sharp and my politics actively engaged.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ring Around the Scarlet Rot

It's been a long time coming, but I've finally finished Elden Ring! I started playing back in the spring of 2023, and had gotten decently far into the game before pausing it to switch over to Baldur's Gate 3. After the holidays I picked it back up and have been enjoying getting back into it.


I wasn't sure if I would be able to get back into it, after a months-long absence. In the past when I've taken prolonged absences from, say, MMORPGs, I've hit such a powerful wall when coming back that I just give up: unable to remember my character's abilities or combat moves. And even games I loved like the original Divinity: Original Sin weren't able to recover after holidays, as the plethora of quests and mechanics of the midgame feel too overwhelming to reconstruct.


I was worried that Elden Ring would be even worse - unlike other RPGs, this is specifically an action-RPG, and requires a fair degree of reflexes and hand-eye coordination that I'd cultivated in my months of play. So I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't take a whole lot of time at all to get back into the swing of things. Part of that may be due to this being a controller-based game, which necessarily limits the number of mechanical options available, but also may tap into muscle memory better than a mouse and keyboard would. And unlike the sprawling western CRPGs I tend to play, I wasn't coming back to 30 unfinished side quests in varied states of progress scattered across multiple map zones.


Diving back into it, I realized that one of the many things I love about Elden Ring is the rhythm of play. My favorite sections might be the dungeons. You'll discover one while traveling the overworld, and either start it or mark on your map for later. You'll cautiously proceed into the dungeon, discovering what kind of creatures inhabit it and how best to fight them. You'll learn its route - some are linear, some have branches, some have pretty complex networks of passageways. You may find levers that open up shortcuts and allow you to bypass middle sections on subsequent delivings. Eventually you find a boss, fight them, maybe fight a few more times until you win, and are rewarded with some unique equipment and a large number of runes, usually enough to level up. I find that doing a full clear of a dungeon from start to finish usually takes me about 30 minutes, which is a perfect amount of time between getting home from work and starting dinner, or after a dog walk and before bed. It's just nice to finish something in a single sitting: still making progress towards your overall goals (higher levels, more power), but just checking something off as "done", without having a lot of things lingering.


That might be the key development of Elden Ring in particular, its marriage of the open world with dungeons. The open world is great for roaming around, seeing beautiful vistas, discovering things: it's (a few specific areas notwithstanding) a peaceful and relaxing vibe. The dungeons, in contrast, are meaningful, rewarding careful planning and careful play.


I also need to shout out the art direction once more. Seeing screenshots of this game (and other Dark Souls games) was a huge factor attracting me to it in the first place, and it's all the more amazing to be playing inside these enormous, awesome, weird, dark, compelling, beautiful spaces, alongside monstrous and delicately unnerving creatures. The art reminds me a lot of Brom - not the exact style, but the "dark fantasy" vibe is better realized here than in any other fantasy RPG I can remember playing.


While I loved the game, it did start to feel a little less fun (albeit more epic) as I headed into the endgame. The end is mostly a series of Legacy Dungeons - much larger than standard Dungeons, with multiple Sites of Grace (save points), they have more freedom of movement than regular dungeons but without the ease and openness of the open world. They aren't bad by any means, but I found myself missing that rhythm of doing dungeons, exploring and advancing the plot.


Let's talk about some mechanical stuff. I was pretty much a pure Sorcerer through the whole game. My staff progression was Astrologer Staff -> Meteorite Staff -> Academy Glintstone Staff -> Carian Regal Scepter. I updated the scepter to +10 by the end. As a backup melee weapon, I had a Short Sword for the first part of the game, then a Misericorde for the rest, which I also upgraded to the highest level.


Very late in the game, I started very situationally wielding a Horn Bow. This was specifically for toggling those fire/ice pillar things in certain dungeons. You usually need to time their blasts and carefully run between safe spots before getting close enough to bonk them. But you can totally just shoot an arrow at them from a distance and turn them off (or on) with no trouble at all. It might be possible to do this with spells, but I never found a good way to reliably free-aim them, and the bow works much better. I never bothered to invest the stats to wield the bow, but I'd pop on Radagon's Soreseal when I needed to equip it.

Speaking of stats: By the end of the game, I was INT 80, VIG 60, MIND 40. I think Endurance was around 33 before heading into the endgame, and around 38 by the end. DEX was 13, STR and FAI both below 10.


Earlier in the game, I focused on stat-boosting Talismans, especially Radagon and Marika's Scarseals / Soreseals. Once you get close to the caps, though, further boosts don't really help you. My end-game loadout was the Green Turtle Talisman (faster stamina recharge - I found that stamina was always a more limiting factor than FP), Bull Goat Talisman (to reach 101+ Poise), and the Graven-Mass Talisman (boosting sorcery power). For the last slot, I most often rocked the Pearldrake Talisman +2, which boosts non-physical damage negation; my armor was already pretty good at physical negation, so the talisman helped fill a gap. But I would totally swap it out for boss fights, like the Dragoncrest Shield for physical negation or the Haligdrake Talisman for holy negation.


For helms, for the first part of the game I used the best INT-boosting helm I could find, which for a long time meant the Twinsage. After I got above 70 INT, though, I swapped it out for the Pumpkin Helmet, which has much better damage reduction and poise, and also protects against headshots.


For the rest of the armor, in general I tried to wear the heaviest armor I could while still keeping a Medium roll. One exception was for gauntlets, I used the Briar ones, which inflict a small amount of damage on contact with an enemy. I wore these specifically for dealing with undead enemies: I hate hate hate the respawning mechanic, especially as a sorcery user where you have a very narrow window of time in which you can target the body before it regens. With the Briar armor, though, you can just roll through the skeleton and they'll die, which is great. Even 1 point of damage does the trick, so I just wear the gauntlets for that. For the rest of the armor, I used the Carian Knight set for much of the midgame, and Tree Sentinel for the endgame. (At a couple of points in the game where I had to wade into a disgustingly large pool of Scarlet Rot, I used the Mushroom Set for the highest Immunity.)


As a sorcerer, I mostly focused on high-damage attacks, so for Spirit Ashes I tried to get tanky summons that could distract enemies while I focused on attacking from range. Early on I used the Lone Wolf ashes, then the Jellyfish. Around the midpoint I got Greatshield Soldiers, which are amazing: even a single one would be good, as they can block a lot of damage, but you get five, which also acts as a wall to prevent your foe from moving. I used those for most fights, but when that didn't cut it I'd use my Mimic Tear, which duplicates myself but with more HP.


I didn't really use any Ashes of War in this playthrough.

I had a pretty completionist playthough of the game: I'm sure I didn't 100% it, but I did pretty much everything I could find in the game. I think there were two dungeons I nope'd out on, both of which had Chariots. I was fairly engaged in the wiki for my playthrough. I didn't follow a walkthrough for the game or anything like that, but if I got stuck on a puzzle or an encounter for long enough I didn't feel bad about looking up guidance online.


Without the wiki, I almost certainly wouldn't have discovered multiple huge optional areas in the game, like the Consecrated Snowfield and Miquella's Haligtree. I've thought a lot about how much of game design in 2024 rests on the knowledge that gamers can and will collaborate online to share and find information. Probably something like 0.5% of players would organically find their way to these areas in a blind playthrough, but since so much of the culture of gameplaying is social, many more will be able to experience them.


And, similarly, even the side-quests in this game almost require a wiki to complete them. Not even because they're especially obtuse, just because it's so easy to completely miss them: there's no giant pointing arrows or quest markers on your map, and you can easily blow past an NPC without even realizing they're there. I'm not complaining, exactly: the game is doing what it's trying to do, and as a result occupying a very unique spot in the field.


Speaking of side-quests: These ultimately unlock the main endings to the game. You can get the default ending by defeating the final boss, but options for alternate endings can be unlocked by completing certain side-quests.


I've beaten the game, and I still don't totally understand what the main plot is. I'll likely dip into a YouTube video or something now that I'm done; I've been trying to remain unspoiled while playing. In general, the story is pretty powerful due to how sparse and evocative it is. In most RPGs, you get lots of dialog and lore books that provide different perspectives on any given concept. In Elden Ring, you'll get a single brief sentence of lore, and need to extrapolate a much larger meaning from that. It's kind of deduction rather than induction, which sort of gives the feeling of a spiritual fumbling towards some greater truth, rather than an investigator chasing down the solution to a mystery.


But even though I'm likely wrong, here's my vague understanding of the plot:


This game takes place in a separate universe from ours, in a world called the Lands Between. In an earlier primordial time, life force ebbed and flowed: creatures were born, would grow and procreate and die, and the cycle would continue. The power of this cycle was incarnated in the Elden Ring. An early Elden Lord was Godfrey, who basically guided the life of the world.


Then there's the Erdtree. I'm not totally clear on the relationship of the Erdtree with the Elden Ring, but the Erdtree seems to be a sort of depository of life-force in the world. When people die, their souls are returned to the Erdtree, and then are reborn again. I think this is an in-game explanation for the game mechanics of respawning: when you die, and then respawn, you aren't rewinding time and doing things differently: you did die before, and then your soul was reborn in your body. Likewise, all the enemies respawn for the same reason: even if they died, death isn't eternal.


At some point in the past, the Shattering occurred. This caused the Elden Ring to split into multiple fragments. Each of these was fashioned into a Rune, and the owner of each Rune became a demi-god. These demigods wielded enormous power over other living creatures. However, because the Elden Ring was not intact, the cycle of life froze. The same beings would die and be reborn over and over again, instead of old things ending and new things starting.


Many of the major NPCs/bosses in the game seem to have storylines tied to the Shattering, which also causes strife and division among the extended family tied to the rulership of the world. Somewhere within there, General Radahn stopped the movement of stars in the sky, freezing some ancient power tied with the night sky. He led armies in rebellion against the lord. A woman, Malenia, created the Scarlet Rot in response, bringing Radahn's armies to ruin and his mind to madness. Various demigods sought to rule from the traditional capital of Leyndell, or rejected the old gods and followed the path of blasphemy, or retreated in sadness from the world and created bubbles of sanctuary sealed off from strife.


In theory, any person could gather all of the Great Runes and use them to reforge the Elden Ring, in the process becoming a new Elden Lord and overseeing a healthily functioning world. That's the path you're on for most of the game. As a Tarnished, you are one of the many many people seeking Great Runes.


Late in the game, you collect enough Runes where you could reforge the Ring. However, at this point you find that the way is blocked by the Erdtree. It seems that the Erdtree likes things the way that they are, with itself as kind of a chokepoint over the flow of life. This causes consternation and upheaval among the various great powers that are trying to mend the Ring, as they haven't contemplated what to do in the face of an intransigent Erdtree.


The game can go a few different ways from here. In my playthrough, my Finger Maiden, a woman named Melina, was willing to go against the letter of the law in order to uphold the spirit: the only way for life to resume is for the Erdtree, the repository of life, to die. She immolates herself as kindling to light the Erdtree on fire. After this, you fight the Beast Clergyman Guranq, later revealed to be the Black Blade Maliketh (sp), the keeper of Destined Death. Once he is defeated, Destined Death is loosed in the world, which allows the Erdtree to die, which in turn opens the way for the Elden Ring to be reforged.


The current ruler of the world is Queen Marika, though I'm not clear on whether she's actually an active ruling presence or not: you never fight her, and at the end she just appears as a hollow statue. You can mend the ring in a few different ways, which set the tenor for how the world will work going forward.


In my case, I summoned Ranni, who is an ancient being affiliated with the Dark Moon. I'm not totally clear on the chronology here, whether this predates the Erdtree or not. She accepts the power of the Elden Ring and brings the world back under the cool alignment of the moon, with you as her consort.


Favorite area: Liurnia of the Lakes


Favorite Boss (Story): Radahn


Favorite Boss (Mechanics): Mohg


Favorite NPC: Sellen. No, wait! Iron Fist Alexander!


Favorite Dungeon: Cave of the Forlorn

Favorite Legacy Dungeon: Stormveil


Favorite Merchant: War Counselor Iji. (Runner-up: Miriel Pastor of Vows)


Favorite Spell: I used Magic Glintblade by far the most, but Ranni's Dark Moon was the coolest

Favorite Crystal Tear: Opaline Hardtear

Favorite Consumable: I used Preserving Bolus the most, but they are not fun! Maybe Boiled Crab.


I feel like I ought to be writing a lot more about this game, given how much I've been playing it and how much I enjoy it... but I guess the downside of a fairly minimalist story is that I have a lot less than usual to say about it!



This is my first game in the Dark Souls vein, and while I've loved it, I'm not sure yet whether I'll try any other FromSoftware games. I do see the appeal after playing this: it is hard, but fair, and it feels immensely satisfying to overcome obstacles after repeated failure by examining your mistakes and then executing well. But I honestly don't know if I'd have the patience to go through something like that again, without the ease and visual distraction of the open world to break up more punishing sections. Still, I do feel a certain sense of achievement for Having Beaten A Souls-Like Game, and who knows, maybe I will go back for another in the future!

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Best DLC

Inspired by an off-handed text exchange with my brother, I got to thinking: what are my favorite DLCs? It seems like the sort of thing I'd make a list of, but it doesn't look like I have yet, so I thought I'd do it now!



Ground rules:

  1. "DLC" means any game that originally required the base game in order to play. I'm including Expansions in this list as well.
  2. The DLC has to unlock some meaningful content, such as additional story, levels, maps, mechanics, etc.
  3. While this is obviously very subjective, I'm trying to rank this in order of how much the DLC adds to my enjoyment of the base game. But if I didn't like the base game very much, there's only so much a DLC can do to improve it.
  4. Obviously, this only includes DLC that I've played and clearly remember. 
  5. This does include expansions that are now always sold with the base game (like Neverwinter Nights), so long as they were originally sold separately.

This list excludes:

  1. Free DLC, like Shadows of Hong Kong or Mass Effect 3: Enhanced Ending.
  2. Free updates, like "Game of the Year" / "Ultimate" editions, even if they add content.
  3. Episodic content.
  4. MMO expansions.
  5. DLC that just adds cosmetics.
  6. Boosts: free money, gear, etc.
  7. Mods, like "Fall from Heaven 2".
  8. Spin-offs or sequels.
  9. I've excluded most Paradox DLC, because honestly I have a hard time keeping track of what expansions add what content. They do make good DLC, though!

 Without further ado, here are my all-time favorite DLCs, ranked:

  1. Citadel
  2. Beyond the Sword 
  3. Mask of the Betrayer
  4. Trespasser
  5. Throne of Bhaal
  6. Fantastic Worlds
  7. Tales of the Sword Coast
  8. Awakening
  9. Mark of the Assassin
  10. Conflicts in Civilization
  11. Blood and Wine 
  12. Dawnguard
  13. Shivering Isles 
  14. Warlords
  15. In Nomine
  16. Burial at Sea
  17. Old World Blues
  18. Witch Hunt 
  19. Hordes of the Underdark
  20. The Descent
  21. Warden's Keep
  22. Forge of Virtue
  23. Tribunal
  24. Hearts of Stone
  25. Jaws of Hakkon 
  26. Omega
  27. Leliana's Song 
  28. Legacy
  29. Dragonborn 
  30. Shadows of Undrentide 
  31. The Silver Seed
  32. Stone Prisoner
  33. Golems of Amgarrak
  34. Bloodmoon
  35. Opposing Force
  36. Return to Ostagar
  37. Nights of the Nine
  I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting some (particularly non-RPG ones), I may add to this list if I remember more!