Sunday, February 22, 2015

Okay, Maybe A LITTLE Sun

Each day, I suck a little less at Sunless Sea.

I'm now into my third week of regular play, and have gotten a great handle on survival. I know which beasties to chase down, and when to flick off my lights and flee in the opposite direction. I know what goods to keep in my limited hold space, and what to sell at Wolfstack. I know where the different officers' plot lines will go, and can prioritize based on my needs.

As a matter of fact, my last game did not end in the watery death of my captain! Granted, I didn't technically win, either, since it doesn't officially count as a victory condition, but it still felt like a victory. I got a very striking, and pretty amusing, ending for my captain, heading off into the distance for parts unknown.

One thing I've been wrestling with is whether to use the wiki, and to what extent. The information is organized pretty well on there, and it's generally easy to avoid spoilers if you're just looking up a few particular things. This can include technical information, like the buying and selling prices of various goods throughout the Unterzee, which can be helpful in planning voyages; but it also provides insight into the mechanical outcomes of several crucial choices that can be made throughout the game, many of which can only occur once.

Early on, I didn't use the wiki at all. After I had gotten the basics of the game down, I would use it to verify some vague impressions I had ("fuel is cheaper in Mount Palmerston than London, right?). Lately, I've been using it more liberally, specifically in researching how to unlock different Legacies. I have mixed feelings about that. It does take away from the thrill of discovery; but at the same time, there's no way I would have ever figured out some of these things on my own. (Not that they're actually impossible, just that you only get a single shot per game at most things, and I don't think I'd have the patience to try every permutation, especially after I find a solution that appears to work well.)

So, that will probably come down to each individual player. If you enjoy puzzling things out for yourself, and expect to keep playing Sunless Sea for a while - and particularly if you are fine with the thought of not min-maxing your characters - then you may want to eschew the wiki or restrain yourself to the most basic information.

One thing you don't need to worry about, though, is plot spoilers. While the wiki gives a lot of mechanical information, it does a great job at avoiding story details about the consequences of your actions. I'm finding myself more and more drawn to this aspect on replays: there are certain things in the game, like being a cannibal, that appear to only provide benefits to your character, but I still try and avoid because I don't like what it says about me as a person.

So, yeah. I'm still having a ton of fun with the game. Haven't properly won yet, and I don't think I'll officially win my current game, but I'm getting some nice persistent benefits at present and think I'll have a great shot at victory with my upcoming captain. In no particular order, here's some more random advice from me after two weeks at zee.

Don't worry about upgrades

When you first start the game, you'll be able to visit the shops at Wolfstack and see tons of upgrade options: lamps, engines, ships, ranging from hundreds of echoes to tens of thousands. Like me, you may assume that you'll be participating in a standard RPG gear cycle: finish quests, kill monsters, get rewards, buy slightly better gear, finish harder quests, kill tougher monsters, get larger rewards, buy even better gear, etc. As I've come to learn, though, that really isn't necessary, or even desirable, so succeed at Sunless Sea.

At a macro level, the game is built around tradeoffs: you can almost never improve one thing without making another thing worse. When it comes to gear, this is most obvious for upgrades like lanterns: more expensive ones give you higher Mirrors, letting you shoot enemies more quickly; but they also lower your Veils, making it easier for enemies to see you. But similar tradeoffs apply to everything. I was really excited when I first bought a new engine, raising my Engine Power from 800 to 1500. But in practice it doesn't make you go that much faster; and, worse, it burns fuel more quickly than the less-powerful engine. Similarly, buying larger ships can give you much more hold space to ferry goods, a stronger hull to withstand damage, and more equipment slots to place upgrades. But larger ships also weigh more, which means you'll move more slowly, and require larger crews, which in turn require more supplies to feed, which will end up filling many of those new hold slots.

All that to say: you're generally fine sticking with your starting tramp steamer for most or the entire game. If you need to buy a bigger ship, you can, but don't assume it will magically improve every aspect of your game.

As to equipment: the most important thing to upgrade is your deck gun, which should be fairly cheap (200 or 500 echoes), and is a rare upgrade without any negative side-effects. (Note: be aware that some guns require the Forward slot instead of the Deck slot, and won't fit on your tramp steamer.) This gun will let you take out many of the low-level enemies in a single shot before taking any damage. I also like to get the Whithern Optical, a cheap 100 echo lamp with a good trade-in value that provides a tiny bonus to Mirrors. And for the auxiliary slot, I'm fond of WE ARE CLAY, an upgrade you can purchase in Polythreme that provides a boost to engine power and Iron and lowers crew capacity. That last part might sound like a negative, but it's actually a good thing: it means that you can travel with as few as 4 crew and still move at full speed, and a full crew complement will consume very few supplies.

I'm still not completely sure on engines; I think the Serpentine is probably the best, but I have yet to successfully finish the story that grants it, so I've been sticking with the Boadicea.  It's the most expensive upgrade I get, and only has a modest increase in speed, but increase seems to be enough to let me outrun certain enemies so it's worth it for me. I keep vacillating on this, though... it burns so much more fuel, it seems like I might be better off just keeping the starter engine instead.

Think about your choices

Failbetter likes to do something tricky in this game. Occasionally you'll be faced with a choice that might have, say, three options. Two of those will be standard choices, the third will require a stat check or special resource. As RPG players, we're pretty conditioned to assume that the third option will always be the best: after all, we went to the work to pump that stat or unlock that item, now we get to reap the rewards!

Well... that's not always the best outcome. In fact, it's not at all unusual for it to lead to the worst possible result from the choice. To be fair, though, whenever that happens to me, I feel chagrined by the outcome but also like I deserve it. The text leading up to it, or the larger context of the story, provides good indications of the likely results; I've just been fooled by my own autonomic decision-making tendencies burned into me by playing other RPGs.

And, on a related note, don't be too concerned with failure. A single poor choice will almost never end your game; if it does, Failbetter telegraphs it very clearly. Many times, failing a stat test will provide minimal or no negative repercussions. Take risks, and you may end up better than you expect.

Consider your Legacy

Legacies are crucial to my enjoyment of the game: they keep me from ragequitting after I die and help future voyages end more successfully than earlier ones.

The baseline legacies are the Ironclad Will and the Scion. Both of these require upgrading your lodgings; you don't need to rush to do that, but once you have the immediate needs of your ship taken care of, you might want to prioritize that.

As you play the game, you'll occasionally run across Captivating Treasures, often from completing certain quests. These can be sold for money, but I prefer turning them into Heirlooms in my Lodgings. Combined with the Ironclad Will, these will all be passed forward to my next character. Then, when my next character starts, I start by selling one of my Heirlooms. This will raise about 1000 echoes. I immediately purchase a new Ironclad Will for another 100 echoes, and still have enough left over for my essential ship upgrades like a better deck gun. So far I haven't had to touch any of my remaining heirlooms. As long as I get a couple each game, they gradually accumulate, creating a really nice buffer of wealth for my future characters to tap as needed.

Once you have your Scion, you'll be able to choose between two legacies. I've been picking the Shipmate one, which keeps half of your Hearts and lets you keep an officer; if you've upgraded an officer, you'll get the benefits of their increased stats without needing the time and cost to re-upgrade them. (Note, though, that in some cases you may be missing out on some interim rewards along their questline, so consider in advance whether this is something you want.) For the second, I've lately been picking the Rival one, which lets you keep a single weapon. As I've discovered, for both this and Shipmate, you can select from any that you have acquired over the course of the game, and not only the ones on the ship with you at the end. In my case, I had acquired a unique and expensive weapon at the end of an officer's plotline. I can't even equip this weapon since it's a Forward one, but it can be traded in for a lot of money and influence, so it's worth holding on to.

The other compelling legacies are Pupil and Salvager, each of which carry forward 50% of your wealth (so, if you select both, you'll keep 100% of the money your previous captain had at death). They also maintain your Veils and Mirrors, two of the most useful stats. Those would be solid choices, but if you are able to plan the end of your game in advance (a suicide run, an expected victory), it isn't really necessary: you can liquidate all of your holdings, buy Captivating Treasures from Khan's Shadow, install them as Heirlooms in your lodgings, then go to your death with empty pockets but a full estate.

And, finally, there are the special unlockable legacies, each of which will give you +25 to a given stat (meaning you start out at 50 rather than 25). Unlike the Scion legacies, these are cumulative, so you can ultimately get new characters with across-the-board starting stats of 50 (or even higher with Scion legacies). As I alluded to before, these have very particular requirements which are hard to discover in-game. But, they are very worth seeking out.

(It may be worth mentioning that the +25 stat bonus you get from choosing a background isn't applied if you already have over 50 in a stat, as I noticed to my chagrin in my most recent game. On the bright side, though, that does mean you'll be encouraged to spread around your stat points somewhat, rather than feeling like you always need to pump one or two particular stats.)

Keep playing!

I may not have "won" yet, but I'm getting better and stronger every day. This really is a gripping, enveloping world on so many levels: the moody atmosphere, the tight gameplay, the strong feeling of stakes and consequences from permadeath. Before too much longer, I expect that I will have crossed over the boundary and joined the ranks of the truly successful zee-captains.

(Final postscript: holy cow, this Dino Comics is absolutely perfect.)

Monday, February 16, 2015


I meant to write this up last year, but completely forgot!

I picked up The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition a while ago. I knew it would contain spoilers for the game, so I kept it safely locked away until after I finished my Aztar game, then thoroughly read through it. It's pretty cool! I tend not to be much of an art book guy, but I'm willing to indulge for some of my favorite stories, and it's particularly intriguing to see all the hints and references to other ideas that were considered at various points during development which didn't make it into the final game.

There's a small amount of overlap with the content in The World of Thedas, like drawings that show typical outfits in various Thedosian nations (Ferelden furs, Orlesian masks, Tevinter black). The overlap is pretty minor, though, and the vast majority of stuff in here is new.  


One particular thing I noticed was the War Table. There's some great concept art in there which shows some ideas which were fully developed from early on, like the enormous slab of wood which forms the War Table. But, there also are a lot of sketches that show various iterations of the War Table and imply that, at one point, it was possible to "evolve" the table. There's a concept for a table filled with tons of little drawers and cabinets, for the micro-managing Josephine; a sinister table with hidden compartments and poisons, for the underhanded Leliana; and a martial table supported by trophies, reflecting Cullen's preference for straightforward applications of force. The accompanying text briefly describes how at one point they thought that the table would reflect the approach you most often took on your missions. That's especially interesting to me, since it implies a different design for the War Table that probably did not include limited application of advisors over periods of time. In the current (shipping) game design, you always want to have all of your three advisors deployed, and thus will consistently be using a mixture of approaches. It seems like in earlier concepts, you might be able to, say, always follow Leliana's suggestions.

The book also brought my attention to some things that I had overlooked during my game. One big example here was the puzzle tiles in the Temple of Mythal. The book makes clear how the artists and designers went to great lengths to figure out how such a system would actually work, and came up with a mechanical design that would let them "light up" in reaction to pressure. I'd totally missed that, though, and just mentally filed it under the "magic!" category. In my second game as Visaas I paid a bit more attention, and had some more appreciation for all the work they put into this.

A lot of the book is devoted to character concepts, from rough pencil sketches to more fully-developed realizations. For example, there's a great spread on some concepts they tried with Morrigan, including some really interesting takes that featured her with more of a hunter look. It's a really cool take on an existing character, and reinforces the idea that she's been on the run for years. They ended up with a simpler update to her Origins design, which is fine, but it's great to see that this wasn't a matter of laziness, but rather the result of some concerted thought and effort.


I'm glad that I splurged on the collector's edition. It isn't an essential book, even for hard-core fans, since the lore is pretty light. However, it is an absolutely gorgeous book stuffed with fantastic artwork, running the gamut from loosely sketched storyboards to beautifully realized landscapes. It provides a surprisingly deep amount of insight into the work that goes into making a video game like this, showing how ideas are sparked and evolve and solidified, as well as some of the possibilities that were considered and eventually discarded over the long course of making the game.

I tossed together snaps of a few representative pages in an album here if you'd like to check it out, though I should warn you that my crummy camera doesn't begin to do justice to how vibrant the pages look. The collector's edition is sold out, but I believe that the hardcover edition is the same book, minus the slipcase and signed prints, and at a fraction of the price I paid. If you're looking for some more Dragon Age goodness to tide you over until some Inquisition DLC arrives, this might fit the bill.

Shadows Are Falling

We're now in the last day for kickstarting Shadowrun: Hong Kong!

I continue to be impressed at how mature and thoughtful HBS has been in conducting this campaign. They've obviously been around the block before, and having experienced the entire cycle of crowdfunding has taught them what to do and what to avoid. This has helped prevent them from overextending themselves, and increases my confidence that they will deliver an even more successful project than before.

The clearest example of this is their handling of stretch goals. Practically every successful video game project that I've backed has added stretch goals which make the game cooler by adding more features. That's great, but also inevitably means that they blow out their initial release date: more features means more time. In this case, Harebrained Schemes identified early on what stretch goals they wanted to support, and identified how they would staff up to add them while still sticking to their schedule.

The campaign has been a success, and they blew past all of their defined stretch goals. Lots of speculation arose over what would come next: adding support for the astral plane? Implementing a compelling stealth system? Letting players modify their body shapes?

Nope: rather than follow the traditional $50k bumps in tiered stretch goals, which tends to keep up momentum, they added a new $1 million goal above their previous-highest $700k goal, a 40% increase without any intervening rewards. What was that goal? Not a feature or an enhancement, but an expansion: a new mini-campaign to be delivered and set after the end of Hong Kong.

That is a brilliant idea. It neatly solves the schedule problem that every other game kickstarter runs into: it creates an entire separate schedule, not tied to the already-committed dates, for a later improvement. They don't need to scramble to hire new staff: this gives their existing staff their next project to work on after Hong Kong. And it avoids the feature creep that causes things to spiral out of control.

That $1 million goal was pretty aggressive, but realistic. Based on the trends at the time, it seemed likely that they would hit it during the final hours, especially with the last-minute bump that kickstarters often get. They ended up exceeding expectations, landing the goal this weekend with several days left to go.

Backers immediately exploded with yet more speculation. What would come next? Maybe they could add something more for $1.1 million? Some other incentive to ensure that people continued flocking to the project and pushing it higher yet...

HBS did what I don't think I've seen any other creators do: they said "no". They were delighted to have hit their funding, and are refraining from piling on more tasks for themselves. In a very candid and thoughtful update, they demonstrate their familiarity with Murphy's law. More funding will be used, but it will be used to help cover the cost overruns and unexpected disasters and last-minute tweaks necessary to get out a successful game. They had their vision, and are sticking to it, even when strangers on the internet are throwing dollars at them.

So, why should people continue to back the project if it's reached all of its goals and doesn't have any higher goals to achieve? Well, for their own benefit. People who back at the $15 level are essentially pre-ordering the game at a discount, and getting some exclusive digital exclusives. Those who back at higher levels are getting rewards that won't be available anywhere in a few days. And everyone is getting the benefits that earlier backers have already unlocked, like more miniature figures and an expanded game and a free (for backers) expansion.

I thought that was a very noble and reasonable attitude for HBS to take, but was a bit concerned that they might kill their own momentum by essentially telling people "Thanks, but we're good." I needn't have worried. The last-minute push continues apace, already creeping up to that $1.1 million mark and poised to go well beyond.

I'm excited to see where this all ends up, and even more excited to see the final game when it arrives in August. I probably have more confidence in this game than any other I've backed on Kickstarter before. If you'd like to get in on the action, you still have some time; otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for a fun new adventure coming later this year!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Darker Sea

Sunless Sea has emerged from Early Access, and I've been having an absolute blast playing it. Specifically, a cannonball blast to my face, knocking me overboard and drowning beneath the waves as tentacles drag me screaming into the slimy depths. Still, a blast nonetheless!

I haven't touched the game since the earliest part of the Early Access phase; I was impressed by what I saw, but also frustrated by some of the mechanics, and decided that I would take off my developer hat and wear my player hat and wait for it to emerge as a more fully-formed source of fun. It was a longer wait than I expected; the game's release was pushed back several months, as part of the normal vagaries of game development. Fortunately, as an independent studio Failbetter had some leeway in this regards, and they did a fantastic job at communicating with their backers throughout, explaining in what specific ways the delay would result in a better game. From what I can tell, the biggest overall change was to combat, which was completely redesigned from the ground up, changing it from a disconnected vaguely turn-based experience into a dynamic and integrated real-time system. That's meant that I had to unlearn much of the little I already knew, but after getting over the hump I'm really enjoying the new feel of the game, which has a lot more tension and strategy and less repetition.

I'll probably do a proper summary after I one day beat the game, but I figured I'd start off by sharing some of my own personal tips after a weekend of play, featuring five captains blown to smithereens.


The game emphasizes this over and over from the start. At first I thought that it was just a bit of gentle encouragement - "Don't worry if things go wrong! Keep playing!" - but it's actually a fundamental piece of the game. Basically, instead of being too focused on an individual captain's success, you should be looking towards your overall lineage. Future captains can inherit some of each former captain's gains, and accumulate to it, before passing the result on to the next generation.

There's a rhythm to this that you'll fall into after a while. At the start of each game, you have access to some nice and easy ways to gain money, dispose of Terror, etc. As the game progresses, those easy sources begin to dry up, which in turn will push you to venture further from home and into more dangerous waters. Eventually, the captain will die. The next captain will hold on to some piece of their legacy, but will also re-gain access to all of those early easy gains. And, as you play the game more, you'll learn more of those sources. So your subsequent games will start you off on a higher level, in addition to re-acquiring all the stuff your earlier captain did.

Basically: Have fun, don't worry about dying, and stay on Invictus. I may eventually switch to merciful mode once I'm ready to make a strong play for the endgame, but I suspect it's actually much more difficult to win a first game by reloading saves than it will be to eventually win a tenth game with permadeath.


This is somewhat in keeping with the former point. Your first captain will die, and probably quickly. You'll see some options for what to pass on to your next captain: basically, half of one of your main stats and one other bonus (a chart, an officer, a gun, or half of your current money). On your second captain, then, be thinking about what you'd like to pass on to your third captain, and try to focus on that.

In my case, I initially chose to pass on my Chart and half my Pages. In theory, this seems like a sound idea: it takes a while to find where things are, and knowing this will let you more efficiently run early quests. But, as I learned, keeping the Chart also means that you won't gain any Fragments for discovering places you already know, which removes the best source of Secrets in the game. So, I decided, instead I would focus on passing forward my Hearts and an Officer. Now, I focus on bumping up my Hearts as high as possible, since that's the stat I know I'll be passing forwards.

Fight and Flee

I still definitely have a ways to go in this regard, but I can tell you a few things that definitely DON'T work. Don't try to flee bats or crabs if you have the starter engine. It was embarrassing to lose multiple captains in sight of London due to dumb animals. I was already damaged and didn't want to engage them, but they're fast enough to catch up to you. I should have turned to face them and taken two hits while getting off the two shots needed to kill them; instead I took five hits while running and sank. Never again!

On the other hand, if you'd like to avoid a fight, it's usually fairly straightforward: before they spot you, turn off your light, and try to stay out of range of their lamp. It actually isn't that hard. The downside, of course, is that your Terror can rapidly climb while you're creeping along in the dark. As I've come to discover, though, Terror is much less of a threat now than it was in the Early Access days. It seems to tick up more slowly in general, and there are more good options available for dealing with it. Even while using my go-dark strategy while avoiding combat, I have never once returned to London with terror over 50 in all of my many doomed games.

Don't trade

Sunless Sea really isn't a trading game, and if you try to play it like one, you won't have fun. Almost every cargo run will result in a loss; the most profitable options, like ferrying wine to Godfall, will only return around 9 echoes per hold slot, and only are available for a limited time. Trade is a decent way to squeeze a few extra echoes out of an already-planned trip, but shouldn't be your primary goal.

What to do instead? Personally I'm mostly driven by my Admiralty commissions, each of which pays a nice 150 Echoes. Pursuing other quests can ultimately be very profitable, although it usually takes several stages; these might be originated by people in London, although the best quests tend to be the ones that start on the islands. And pursuing your officers' questlines can lead to great items or character upgrades. Basically, do whatever the game is offering that looks most fun, and you'll probably find yourself making some decent money from it.

Travel in Circuits

At least in the early game, where I have been playing, one of the best sources of income is acquiring Port Reports. So, whenever you are going on a journey to a destination, try to make your route a circle or a square, rather than a line out and back.

As a concrete example: support you need to go to Mount Palmerston in the northeast of London. If you travel straight there and back, you will probably get about 180 Echoes (150 for the Strategic Information, 30 for the Port Report). You'll also have burnt a lot of fuel and supplies, though, leaving you with minimal profit. Instead, consider traveling north along the coast to Venderbight, Wither, then east to Codex and Mount Palmerston, then south to Gaider's Mourn before returning to London. This will give you a total of five Port Reports, each worth between 5-50 Echoes (with 20-30 being most common). Additionally, in one of the best additions since Early Access, each report (regardless of distance) will grant 1 free Fuel, worth another 10 Echoes. And the first time you turn in any Report for a given Port, you will get 1 Admiralty's Favor, which is worth about 25 Echoes in fuel or repairs. Altogether, then, you may end up with about 330 Echoes' worth of rewards in that circuit.

Of course, this does require traveling longer, but not by too much. Traveling to Mount Palmerston and back would take 22x distance; assuming your circuit is roughly a square, traveling that would take 4x. So, your longer route takes about 40% longer, but earns 80% more profit. Furthermore, you'll be playing the "Something awaits you in port" stories along the way, which in turn will provide additional profits and the start of still more questlines.

That's it for now!

It's definitely been a process of ups and downs for me - I was elated to recently unlock a Scion legacy, which practically doubles the resources I can pass on to the next generation, only to have it snatched away from me after a single unwise decision brought a curse down upon me. Still, like all of the best roguelikes, every time I have a setback I learn something concrete that I can apply to my future voyages. The picture grows clearer, I grow wiser, and I learn how to fail better with each successive game.

Monday, February 09, 2015


So! Longer ago than I care to admit, I finished reading The Peripheral, a great new William Gibson novel. Here's what I think about it!

I often think of Kilgore Trout when reading science fiction. One of the maxims Trout lives by is that, among all the types of novelists, science fiction writers have the least need to actually be skilled at writing. The primary virtue of a sci-fi writer is their ideas, and a writer like Trout who comes up with great ideas can still be a "good" sci-fi author, even if their prose isn't up to snuff.

Fortunately, Gibson is quite a bit better at writing than Trout, but I think the fundamental maxim still holds: the most appealing aspect of Gibson's writing has always been the cool, surprising, innovative new things he comes up with. Stylistically, he has shifted a bit over the years. Neuromancer and the rest of the Sprawl novels were very noir-ish. The Blue Ant cycle was written in a more realistic vein, in keeping with the more modern setting of the novels, and allowed a richer glimpse into the interior lives of its characters. The Peripheral is kicking off yet another cycle, with yet another style to go along with it. I'm not yet sure exactly how to characterize it; it's closer to the stripped-down kinetic voice of Neuromancer than the curious, chilly voice of Pattern Recognition, but it's more an evolution of the two forms than a simple return to the first.

Like a lot of sci-fi, many of the characters are mostly there to fulfill a plot purpose. It took me a really long time to get into the book, and I think a large part of that was an almost overwhelming number of secondary characters, who had their own unique names and roles but not much else. Fortunately, the primary protagonists have a lot more going on; I particularly liked Flynne.

The plot is, of course, the main star of the show. When I attended Gibson's bookreading, he mentioned that due to a fear of spoilers, he felt like he could only read from the first couple of chapters. I had assumed that he was referring to some early plot twist, but that isn't really the case. Rather, it's more about recognizing the structure of the book and what exactly is going on. This is one of my favorite modes in speculative fiction, when authors drop you into the middle of a fully-established universe with zero context and expect you to catch up; part of what I love about Anathem and A Song of Ice and Fire is the thrill of discovery as you piece together the big picture without ever getting it delivered to your via exposition. That's kind of what's going on here, and if you're thinking of checking out the book, do yourself a favor and cease reading this post now.


So: The thing that's really cool about The Peripheral is that it has two story lines that take place in two different times, and, in all likelihood, two parallel universes. I'm not 100% clear on the details, but here's the story I tell myself to make it all make sense:

There are two storylines. Flynne's is set in our future; I imagine it being around the year 2050, although no date is ever given. Wilf's is set in Flynne's future; I imagine this being around 2100, as Wilf was not alive during Flynne's lifetime but other, older characters were.

The big conceit of the novel is that a form of time travel is possible. It isn't possible to physically transport your corporeal body back to a previous time, as in movies like The Terminator or Back to the Future. But, it is possible to send energy, particularly in the form of information, back to a previous moment in time. By manifesting as, say, a voice on a telephone wire, or bytes in an email, it is possible to make contact with people in the past and begin to influence the world.

Wither causality? It's always fun to see sci-fi authors take on problems of paradox, and Gibson has a good solution here. In the "real" world, people from the future did not contact people in the past. Therefore, as soon as contact is made, that past is no longer in the same timestream as the present. It essentially spins out into a parallel universe. All of history up to the moment of contact remains the same, but as time continues, histories will increasingly diverge, and it may eventually reach a "present" very different from the one that contacted it.

(I should note here that even the characters in the novel are a bit fuzzy on exactly how this works. There are some references which makes it sound like there are "some servers somewhere," perhaps in China, that basically hold complete copies of the universe, and that they are interacting with these servers rather than the "real" world. It put me in mind of the briefcase in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which contains a synthesized copy of the entire universe. It's a fun, fascinating, recursive idea: one could imagine that, with a sufficiently powerful computer, one could simulate not only the stars in the galaxy but even the neurons in a brain, creating a virtual universe in which people could think and feel. That said, the idea of Flynne being "just" part of a computer seems weird to me, so I like to think that she's in a universe that's "real", and the servers perhaps just help establish the connection rather than hosting it.)

One of the rules laid out in the book is that, after contact is established, the timelines of the universes are bound together. So for every minute that passes in the present, another minute passes in the "past". This keeps you from getting any "Chronicles of Narnia"-style mismatches in time.

That time thing gets really important once the other cool part of the book kicks in. Physical matter cannot be transported. Information can, in both directions: people from the future can listen on endpoints to which people in the past communicate, and over time can even send instructions on how people in the past can build new things that help them more easily share knowledge. This eventually culminates in a sort of heightened "virtual reality" environment: person A from universe 1 straps into a device that captures their thoughts, sends it through the interface into a mechanical/electronic body B in universe 2 which expresses those thoughts in actions, collects sensory input (sound, taste, smell, sight, touch), and passes it back up the interface to universe 1. So, without actually bridging the matter barrier, you can still be virtually physically present in another time in another universe. Really cool!

It also got me thinking more about Anathem. As more and more years pass since reading the book, I'm finding it has an increasing hold on my thinking about reality, and fiction, and causality, and multiple universes. Whenever I see multiple universes like Flynne's and Wilf's, I immediately start attempting to construct a directed acyclic graph between them, and determine how information can flow, and try to determine their relative level of "realness", and whether that realness has any bearing on the worth of individual entities living in each given universe. It's also a real head trip since for much of The Peripheral the characters assume that they're just playing video games. After all, I play a lot of video games. What if my decisions about Morrigan and Leliana and Calpernia were actually affecting another reality somewhere? And, to turn it around, who's to say that we aren't characters in some other universe's video game? What if crises like the Flash Crash and the invasion of the Ukraine and a surge of Somali pirates were the result of some remote gods trying to rack up high scores?


The plot itself is a bit convoluted, engaged in stuff like mistaken identity and hidden motives. Flynne is one of several people hired by rich bored people in the future to play "video games", which actually consist of moving around actual physical objects in the "future". She witnesses a murder; at the time she just thinks it was a messed-up part of the game, but she and her family and friends come under threat as the parties to that murder seek to eliminate them. Even though they're in an alternate past, they could impact the alternate future if they make contact with the authorities and pass along what they know.

Gibson has been on a roll lately with well-developed, intelligent, resourceful female characters, and Flynne holds up great alongside Cayce. Wilf didn't affect me as strongly, but he was still a good and unique character; he's a protagonist, but also a coward and an alcoholic, and in a way the most surprising thing about him was how he never really became a hero, leaving much of the heavy lifting to Flynne, Burton, and Conner. Oh: and Lowbeer, who was probably my #2 favorite character; Gibson has a really nice acknowledgment in his afterword about the help he sought and received while writing her character, and I think it's great that he took the effort to write someone who wasn't in his wheelhouse.

The parallel universe thing was my favorite aspect of the novel, but it's also a very well thought-out traditional dystopic novel. Not in the traditional 70's version of "There was a nuclear war!" or "I dunno, pollution!" He draws a very clear and very explicit line from 2014 through to the future, including the rampant greed, lack of political will, and managed chaos that follows. One aspect which is fairly unique to me, but also seems more realistic than the more traditionally anarchic future (think Mad Max et al) is the idea that, in the end, it's the poor who will suffer the most. There's a massive crash in the planet's environment, population, economy, etc.; but at the end, the wealthiest people are left holding an even larger share than ever before of the rapidly shrinking supply of planetary goods. It's a dark future, a believable future, and one that you desperately want Flynne to avert.


Yup. Good book! It sounds like this will probably be the start of another cycle for Gibson, and I'm already looking forward to the next one. It has a lot of the energy and flat-out awesomeness of Neuromancer, while tempered with the thoughtfulness of his more recent books, and seems like a great sign of more things to come.