Monday, June 18, 2018

Yearning, Burning

This is a beautiful time of year. We're close to the summer solstice, so days are long, with bountiful sunshine filling the hours. And so, of course, I'm spending those long summer days hunched over a laptop, prying into forbidden secrets and raising an army of minions to subvert the natural order and plunge the world into its doom.

The game is Cultist Simulator. It was created by Alexis Kennedy, a founder of Failbetter Games and the creative force behind Fallen London (my longest running online gaming experience) and Sunless Sea (a wonderfully atmospheric and odd roguelike which I embraced). That's quite a pedigree, but I was a bit skeptical of Cultist Simulator when it was first announced. I don't really like playing as "bad people" in games, and while I was confident it would be well-designed, the subject matter didn't seem like it would speak to me. I passed on the Kickstarter and have mostly ignored its development, including a long and very transparent Early Access phase.

The response to the game has been positive, though, including in the Failbetter communities in which I participate, and so I took advantage of a launch-week promotion and picked it up. It proved to be shockingly addictive, and I've found the gameplay and lore occupying much of my waking life, even when I'm not actually playing.

The addictiveness is real. The overall experience of playing Cultist Simulator feels uncannily like playing a good game of Civilization: "just one more turn" has become "just one more minute", and it gets really hard to pull yourself away from it. In Civ, you might be about to log off for the night, and then realize that you're just two turns away from completing a Wonder that you've been working on for a while. So you stick around to finish that as a good stopping point. Except then France declares war on you the next turn. So now you need to marshal your army and order everyone to the front.

Likewise, in Cultist Simulator, you might be wrapping up an Expedition to unearth ancient monoliths and planning to log off once you uncover its arcane treasures. But then Inspector Wakefield shows up and starts prying. You're debriefing a patron on your latest eldritch studies, which will surely catch his attention; but as soon as that's done, you'll need to put a Heart Disciple to work to prepare for the Notoriety that will be produced by your expedition team.  So you do that, but then your research bears fruit and you uncover a new level of Edge that will allow you to perform a powerful Summon. And you need to do that summon now, before your Fleeting Memory fades. And now your Expedition is done, and you've uncovered a new Tool that will allow you to elevate a Disciple further, but only after you have finished the coverup...

And before you know it, your evening has vanished, as schemes and plans whirl and evolve in your head.



Before addressing gameplay, let's get the negatives out of the way first:

The text is really tiny and hard to read. Between this game and Sunless Sea, I'm kind of astonished that people put such effort into creating rich, word-dense narrative games, and seem to pay so little attention to making those words physically easy to read. And I'm lucky enough to have decent corrected vision; I'd hate to be someone with legitimately poor eyesight.



The mechanics feel needlessly obtuse. This is clearly by design and so I can excuse it, but that doesn't keep it from being extremely frustrating for the first hour or so of play. I do think it's much more in keeping with the theme than Sunless Sea; that game also had a steep learning curve, but since Cultist Simulator is all about flailing around and experimenting and unearthing secrets, the opaque gameplay definitely matches the narrative.

And, I think that's it for negatives! Do keep your expectations in check: the game is about 100MB large, with minimal art and no video or animation or 3D models. It's very much one of those games that plays out inside your head as opposed to in front of your eyes.

MINI SPOILERS

When I first read about this game, it sounded like it was influenced by Aleister Crowley, or maybe HP Lovecraft. Once I got into it, though, it reminded me a lot more of From Hell, Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel about William Gull. I got this most strongly in my interactions with the Mansus. I had stumbled into it in my first game, not knowing what I was doing, and couldn't remember how I had made it happen or how to go back. I went through a second game never reaching it, desperately trying one act after the other, muttering to myself "I must go back to that place! I have to know!" There is this desire for knowledge, for revelation, that pushes you forward, and can prompt you to do things you ordinarily would not consider.

I eventually won a victory with a Grail cult pursuing the Sensation goal. It's kind of squicky... I had intended to try for Heart or Knock or something, but got impatient while waiting for other lores to turn up in the very early game, and reasoned that I was probably going to lose soon anyways. As with Sunless Sea, though, the lessons you learn in your early failures significantly improve your survivability later.

There were some VERY close calls, though. There were three or so times where I would definitely have lost by going insane or succumbing to despair if I hadn't lucked out with a visit to the Mansus at the last second. (Sometimes literally: less than one second remaining before failure.) As I got further along, I grew more paranoid, and would more aggressively treat my Fascination or Dread as they appeared. Dreaming on these is a good strategy, but I also really like using them as Trappings for cult business or otherwise tossing them into slots where they can be consumed.

Lo-fi games like this are so fascinating because you get caught up in the mechanics of play, and then are abruptly reminded of what concepts and flavor those mechanics map back to. I started laughing as I was approaching the endgame as I realized just what I was doing: after a long period of being cautious, avoiding detection, minimizing potential harm, I was now shoving one prisoner after another into the Spider's Gate, hoping that their blood would reveal the Grail Influence I craved. Then, once I grew impatient at how long it was taking me to find hirelings to imprison, I started locking low-level pawns into my closet. "These anonymous fools will serve me in death as they never could in life!", I might have said.


And... it worked! The steady stream of prisoners kept my appetite fed and kept the Mansus open. I'd been distracting Ezeem in my parlor, nattering at him about inanities, and then sat bolt upright as an Imperative of Appetite came to me. We raced to the basement, recited the Devouring Mysteries, and boom: game over!


In keeping with the Civ parallel, the ending might feel a little deflating after such a long and challenging game, but I didn't begrudge it at all. The entire game has been text, so it's very appropriate to get more text here, and I definitely won't demand a rousing animatic from a tiny developer.

There are quite a few things I'll do differently if I play again:
  • Not sell the mirror.
  • Focus earlier on higher-level Expeditions. I'd assumed that the more obscure ones were more difficult, but as far as I can see, they are not.
  • Start doing Expeditions as soon as I can field Disciples. The Tools you get from here are incredibly helpful and accelerate all sorts of things.
  • Start summoning earlier. I'd been scared off by the warning of creatures escaping. They only can escape while being summoned, and the damage they cause is minor. Especially when using the Rite of the Map's Edge, they're more or less free and can help with all sorts of stuff.
  • Sell off most Spintria. I'd been stockpiling it throughout the game in the expectation that it would be needed in the endgame, but it's almost useless; I think I used it twice. It sells for a lot, and I now think that focusing on commissions is probably the best way to make money, if you can handle the Mystique. Anyways, I ended up with over 100 Funds just from cashing in most Spintria, and it's very nice to not live hand-to-mouth.
  • Aggressively recruit people with Talk. Again, I'd been worried about attracting attention, but it's totally fine, especially if you don't have Notoriety. In an earlier game, I'd done almost all my recruiting via Peculiar Rumours, but that's much worse, as you always get Notoriety.
  • Be more careful about subverting low-level lore and/or stockpiling Tier 6 Lore. I spent days stuck outside the Stag Door because I had subverted my Moth lore and couldn't answer the riddle, finally getting it only after I had retrieved a much higher-level Lore and breaking it down.
I think I might try for a Moth cult next time, as the ability to destroy evidence seems very useful. Heart would be thematically nice as well, though maybe not especially useful if I'm drowning in Mystique. I'm starting to think that it could be good to alternate between periods of high Mystique (recruiting members, fulfilling Commissions) and periods of low Notoriety (just Expeditions). Expeditions take long enough that most of your Mystique might burn off by the time one is done, and you should be able to time your Heart member to start dragging in Notoriety at the time you complete the mission.

I'm unsure about the best background. My victory came with the Bright Young Thing, who I had initially viewed as a throwaway run: you can't access any of the special jobs, and your initial inheritance is only a temporary boost. But, the BYT does get access to more Health, and I now think that might be a solid choice: you can earn a lot more Reason and Passion by studying books, and even though I started out without much of either I ended up with more of that than I could use. Health is a lot harder to come by. That said, the Doctor was one of my favorite runs, as you never need to worry about taking a break from Institute work to pursue your other goals. My one run as a Detective was also intriguing. You can earn a LOT from the top-level Investigating job, and will get plenty of Reason to always get the best income. It also has a much longer cooldown than clerical work, giving you more flexibility to alternate it with other tasks. But the mechanics of this would probably get annoying in the endgame, as you would end up with tons of useless Evidence. (This is an area that honestly feels a little buggy, and I wouldn't be surprised if the late stage of the Investigating job is patched in an update.) All that being said: like I said above, in the future I might just neglect the mundane job and instead focus on commissions.

END SPOILERS

Anyways! I'm definitely taking a break for now. Addictive games like this can be a lot of fun, but I also need to treat them with caution. It sounds like there are at least some expansions planned, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes next. There are already some elements like the headquarters and spintria that seem ripe for new functionality, and I'm sure there are more which I haven't even imagined yet.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Blue Brass Adze

If you needed any proof that we are living in an age of glory, I point your attention to the fact that "cyberpunk bartending" is now a genre of video game. I haven't yet played the title that kicked it off, VA-11 Hall-A, but just wrapped up an initial playthrough of a recent entry, The Red Strings Club. I liked it a lot: I went in cold, not knowing much other than the fact that it was a cyberpunk bartending game and that several of my online pals had enjoyed it, so if you'd like to be similarly surprised, you might want to stop reading now.


MINI SPOILERS

I'll start off by doing the annoying thing of comparing this game to other games. The setting and concerns of TRSC reminded me a lot of Read Only Memories, another recent pixel-y retro-style adventure game. Both titles are very interested in transhumanism, focusing on the augmentation aspects of cyberpunk: not so much about hacking into banks to steal money, but altering our own bodies and minds to guide our own evolution and transform ourselves into new beings. TRSC puts a lot of emphasis on the moral questions raised by this. Its protagonists include both heavily-augmented and unaugmented people, and you talk, argue, and reflect on myriad concerns.

On the whole, I liked this game more than ROM, though I can't totally put my finger on why. The interface is a bit less cutesy, the pixels slightly higher-resolution, the characters felt a bit more well-rounded, the philosophical queries a little more open-ended and urgent. Both games have great casts with diverse representation; for better or worse, the people in TRSC seem less centered in their identities, and by the time you learn their category you've already gotten to know them as a person, rather than the other way around.

Oddly enough, the game I found myself thinking of most often is another one that's now about thirty years old: Manhunter, an obscure adventure game from Sierra. The games themselves aren't all that similar in story and genre, but TRSC reminded me of this odd era in adventure games where interfaces and gameplay would vary wildly throughout the course of a single game. You're introduced pretty early on to the mechanics in TRSC - mix some drinks for your patrons, then use the moods they inflict to question them closely and glean information. But almost immediately we shift into another game, using a lathe to craft neural implants; then there's a sorta turn-based side-scrolling hostage-freeing mini-game; and a delightful sequence of social engineering. You are just starting to get good at one type of gameplay when another one comes along. I like that! I like it a lot! It keeps the game feeling fresh and engaging, instead of grinding things out. But I can see this annoying people; there's probably a reason why modern games tend to stick to a single interface.


The core bartending gameplay is... fine. The concept is nicely whimsical. The actual physics felt a bit off to me, though that might have to do with my mouse or something. Everything else felt better to me. The dialogues are interesting (and, in a note I didn't realize until near the very end, each character's dominant color subtly appears at the bottom of their speech bubble). The lathe felt a bit more natural than the mixing, though I was a bit confused at first about how I was supposed to use it.

But the way the bartending interacts with the dialogue? That is excellent. I rarely experimented with alternate moods in the same conversation, but from the little I saw it made a huge difference. It also seems logical; plenty of times I failed to get the information I was after, but I always realized in retrospect "Oh, I should have switched up drinks before asking this follow-up." There's great strategy here, but the strategy is based in intuition, not in empiricism like most games are.

The people you chat with are an interesting and extremely varied lot. A few of them felt very thinly sketched or confusing; I'm thinking in particular of the supernatural skull guy. It would make for an effective introduction as part of a long-running series, but felt underdeveloped for a game of this length. That's an exception, though. In general, each patron of the bar is engaging and surprisingly three-dimensional. Everybody felt distinct from one another, and I was able to easily track and differentiate them even with longish breaks between play sessions. That's due to their voices, but also some surprisingly effective pixel animations: the way people stride into the bar and perch on the stool speaks volumes about their personalities.

The conversations seem to also be the main source of choice, consequences and reactivity in the game. I think I spotted a few converging branches - every once in a while someone will say something like "Oh, you haven't figured out X yet? Let me fill you in" - but it seems to be a very impressive latticework of informational exchange. Facts you glean in earlier conversations will color later ones, choices you make in other gameplay sections will come back to affect the dialogue (and vice versa), with everything feeling natural and realistic. Pleasingly, you can't really "fail" any part of the game - if you mess up a drink or the lathe you can just toss it out and start over - so the only negative consequences you will suffer are due to your conscious decisions, not mouse jiggling.

MEGA SPOILERS

It feels like there's a ton of reactivity in this game. As someone who has faked a similar system, I'm curious just how reactive it actually is, especially whether the ending can vary. I feel like I got part of the way to a good ending, with Brandeis resisting the CEO, but it ended in an incredibly sad (but beautiful and heartfelt) scene. It seems like an earlier choice of mine could have steered events in a happier direction, and I'm very curious whether that's actually true; as soon as I publish this post I'll do another playthrough or hop online to check.

I'm in awe of the game's storytelling, and especially its fantastic move from the general to the specific. Abstractly saying "We shouldn't brainwash people to stop murder" is easy. Watching a partner get killed is hard. That moment of being confronted with the living example of your bloodless proclamation explodes your brain. This reminded me a little of the cruel ending to Before The Storm, except this time I felt like I was the one responsible. This sudden torque forces you to re-examine not only your in-game decisions, but your real-world values as well.

END SPOILERS

I continue to be amazed at the incredibly heartfelt, creative experiences small teams can create. And also at the surprisingly varied topics that cyberpunk can explore! Even though it seems like a niche genre, it opens up a huge area to explore that speaks to our current world and the world we may soon choose to inhabit.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Solitary

I enjoy writing up these reviews, or posts, or whatever I should call it when I write some stream-of-consciousness text about a book I just finished. I have a hard time with short stories, though. I enjoy reading these collections, but generally walk away just thinking "Those were good!" and/or "Each story was different from the other!", without much else to say that would motivate me to write something up. That's kind of how I feel about Men Without Women, the most recent tome from Haruki Murakami that I've read. But since I frequently claim him as one of my favorite authors, I feel like I should put something up here for completeness sake.


MINI SPOILERS

This is definitely one of the more accurate titles I've seen to a short story collection. The final story is called "Men Without Women," but every single story in here features a male protagonist who is losing, has lost, and/or is mourning a particular woman. As is so common in Murakami, the men are almost always passive, and it is the woman who initiates the act of loss, generally by dying or sleeping with another man. Apart from that, they're fairly varied. Some are more reflective, others more focused; some are narrated directly, others by distant characters recounting their own stories.

Reading them all back to back like this does make it kind of hard to ignore some of Murakami's ticks. A lot of those are pleasant eccentricities that I've come to love: his fondness for cats, for disappearances, for moons, for ears. But it also emphasizes his history of presenting women as inhuman characters. They're not bad: he loves and admires women, granting them talents and powers beyond the reach of his apathetic male heroes. But he introduces them and treats them like creatures, strange animals or divine messengers, who may understand the souls of mankind but are unknowable in return. There's an odd and, frankly, unsettling way his male characters think about women, more as a scientific problem to be solved or a source of inspiration than as another soul, a sentient human with whom to commune.

What's especially odd about this is that I feel like Murakami has gotten a lot better on this front lately. In particular, Aomame from 1Q84 is one of my all-time favorite Murakami characters and seemed to completely break the mold from his earlier work, as an awesome point-of-view character with a rich interior life, her own ambitions and shortcomings. The women here feel like a massive step back, to the point where I wondered if this was a belated release of earlier work of his. Judging from the copyright page, it isn't, and all these stories came out in the last several years.

So, anyways. That kind of kept me from being able to fully enjoy most of these stories, which probably says more about me than about the book; I doubt it would have bothered me much when I first started getting into Murakami over a decade ago. There is one story here that I absolutely loved, called Kino. It really does seem like a greatest hits of Murakami-isms, down to the jazz records and unexplained snakes and relentless door-knocking (which simultaneously evokes and inverts a similar scene in 1Q84). It has the same, uh, (frantically tries to think of a synonym for "regressive") simplistic relational perspective that bugged me in the other stories, but in general it is so good and pushes so many of my buttons that I can embrace it.

Conceptually, Samsa In Love is especially fun, thanks to its delicious conceit: a cockroach wakes from troubled dreams to discover that it has been transformed into Gregor Samsa. I quite enjoyed this one, which is tarnished slightly by, you guessed it, treating its lone female character as just a foil for its hapless male protagonist, but the concept is strong enough to keep it worthwhile for me.

END SPOILERS

I guess that reading this has reminded me of something that I knew before: Murakami's short stories are probably my least favorite forms of his writing. They can still be really good, but, with a few memorable exceptions like The Little Green Monster, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and The Rise And Fall Of Sharpie Cakes, they don't strike me nearly as strongly as his novels and longer-form nonfiction. Even by those standards, Men Without Women is probably towards the bottom of the list for me. Worth reading, but probably more for completionists than for curious newcomers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Das Capitalist

I'm in kind of a weird position these days. I'm fortunate enough to have accumulated a bit of a nest egg and have enjoyed learning how to nurture it: practicing frugality, sound investment strategies, simple financial planning. Over the years I have started to dip into some slightly more esoteric topics like tax efficient fund placement and portfolio management. At the same time, I'm increasingly skeptical of our financial system, investment, and, honestly, American capitalism in general.

With this odd confluence of interests, I've found John Bogle a refreshing voice. He has an impeccable background to speak on financial issues: he founded Vanguard, created the world's first index mutual fund, and today is a sort of emeritus godfather to the company overseeing more than five trillion dollars of investors' money. But, as I learned while reading Enough., he is deeply distressed at the state of the financial world, and has been more forceful than almost anyone in calling for its reform. And not just forceful: articulate and detailed, using his insider's knowledge to point out where the bodies are buried.

I'd been meaning to follow up on Enough., and was drawn to the fiery title of one of his earlier books, The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. I'd picked it up imagining that it might question the roots of capitalism. It doesn't. Bogle is a true believer in free markets and takes the rightness of capitalism for granted. He is a prophet in his own country, speaking to those who share the same fundamental beliefs.



In retrospect this totally makes sense: of course the founder of an investment company would be fervently devoted to capitalism. The title is really about freeing a virtuous soul from the carapace encrusting it, not about redeeming a damned soul.

The book also ended up being more technical than I expected. That was a good thing in some ways: it includes some really clear explanations of concepts that I hadn't fully grasped before, like how to calculate a stock's fundamental expected return (combine its current dividend yield with earnings growth). But, since the book was written more than a decade ago, much of the technical detail is now irrelevant.

The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism was published after the dot-com bust but before the global financial crisis, and for better and worse he proved to be very prescient in many of the alarms he sounded. Several of his specific policy suggestions were eventually addressed by the Obama administration or by shifts in the market. Earnings guidance from management is not as big a factor in 2018 as it was in 2005. Accounting standards seem to have improved, with stronger divisions between traditional accounting and consulting. More corporate boards are independent and it has become rarer for CEOs to also serve as chairmen. But many of the issues Bogle flags have gotten even worse in the past decade. High on this list is short-term trading: we now have high-frequency trading, which is causing unprecedented levels of churn and bizarre volatility.

He ranges over three related topics in the course of the book: corporate America, investment America, and mutual fund America. Each of these has lost its way, each has behaved inappropriately, each is bilking investors out of their money, and each needs to be corrected. (Perhaps surprisingly, he endorses government intervention to put things back on track: he would prefer self-regulation, but reluctantly observes that the industry has demonstrated it cannot police itself.)

The details of each domain are different. Corporate America has been taken captive by managers who behave like owners: instead of acting as stewards for their public investors, they run the companies for their own private benefit, granting themselves obscene compensation and resisting efforts at oversight, using accounting chicanery to defraud pension funds and claim unrealistic but lucrative profits. Investment America charges outrageous fees for abysmal performance, skimming enormous sums from their clients, promoting schemes that maximize their company's take rather than their customers' returns. And mutual fund America is a passive giant, holding a dominant portion of the country's companies but unwilling to use its power to advocate for its investors' interests.

Stepping back from the details, though, I think the core problem Bogle is pointing out is people caring about the company they work for, as opposed to just their own self-interest. Companies that are still run by their original founders or family members tend to behave rather well: they care about what they've created and have an emotional incentive to see it remain strong. In the vast majority of cases, though, a CEO is paid with other peoples' money and is continuing someone else's legacy. In those circumstances, it's understandable that managers will mostly want to enrich themselves, and that's the seed of the problem Bogle identifies in all three of these sections.

But! It isn't at all unique for managers to look after their own interests. Stockholders, after all, are also motivated to enrich themselves. I mean, if I own stock in Caterpillar, I don't really care all that much about what Caterpillar does, I mostly care whether Caterpillar makes me money. Bogle thinks that its acceptable for stockholders to demand profit through the shares they hold, but it isn't acceptable for managers to demand profit through the position they hold. Again, this is something he takes for granted and that's axiomatic for a capitalist, but it struck me many times while reading this.

If greed is the root problem, then apathy is what's preventing a solution. There are too many stockholders, too much intermediation, too little connection between the decisions made in the boardroom and the attention of the real owners. I thought this was very ironic, since Bogle almost single-handledly transitioned the American stock market into the super-diversified form it's in today. When he first started, an individual investor might have bought a number of shares in Coca-Cola, and actually cared about the firm: followed its movements, voted for directors, written letters to shareholder meetings. Now, an investor will own an infinitesimal slice in every company in America. That's largely a good thing for the investor, as it means perfect diversification and broad exposure to the whole market, but it destroys the opportunity for engaged ownership and corporate citizenship that Bogle seems to crave.

I thought Bogle's attack on the mutual fund industry was particularly interesting. He's admittedly biased, but he makes an incontrovertible case that publicly-held mutual funds perform far worse than privately-held ones. But... doesn't that seem like it would apply to other companies as well? Why are we buying stocks at all? Why are we investing in public companies if they do so poorly? He doesn't examine this question - again, it's a core principle that he takes for granted - but two possibilities occur to me.

The first relates to Bogle's belief in professions versus business, an idea he touches on here and deals with at greater length in Enough. In Bogle's view, a profession isn't primarily about making money, it's a prestigious and important element in civil society. He considers professions like law, architecture, and medicine to fit this category. (Think, also, of the old cachet of owning a newspaper: until a few decades ago, it was seen as a mark of prestige and civic engagement, not as an opportunity for creating wealth.) Business is great for making widgets: if you're creating products to sell, or providing a luxury service, then it's right and natural for you to seek high returns and charge what the market will bear. But a profession should remain primarily focused on their calling: they need to make enough money to support themselves and keep their office strong, but profit should not be the primary goal. With this way of thinking, then, publicly traded companies can be a good investment, but not every type of company should be publicly traded. Companies that primarily provide professional services should remain closely held, so they can keep their mission central and not be swayed by the market's demands for higher returns.

The other possibility is that public corporations are just bad investments. The best businesses will be closely held, run by the original founders for their own benefit, or as part of a tight legacy like a family, mutual enthusiasts (e.g. REI), etc. As soon as a business opens up to all investors, the original passion and mission will inevitably fade, second-generation managers will focus on their own interests, and profitability will slide. To adapt a phrase, publicly traded corporations are the worst form of investment, other than all of the other forms we've tried: it's the one form that allows us to easily buy a slice of a company, even if the fact we're allowed to buy into it means it won't be compelling.

Another way to look at it: you would have the most opportunity for upside by personally starting a business, or by directly investing into a private business. But those actions are extremely risky and require a great deal of time and attention from you. We're sacrificing some profit from those and accepting a lower return in exchange for lower risk and more stability. A Fortune 500 company is less likely to fail than your new cafe.

Again, though, all of the above assumes that the primary goal of a business is to maximize profit for the owner. Bogle's main thesis is that "owners capitalism" has been supplanted by "managers capitalism". In the former, a business is run for the benefit of its owners. This doesn't mean accounting shenanigans or short-sighted cost-cutting: it means building a strong, trusted, stable, enduring business that will continue for a century or more, steadily growing and generating profits for its stockholders. In "Managers capitalism", the business is run for the benefit of the CEO and other top officers: they are theoretically stewards who are employees of the stockholders, but instead view the company as their own property to milk, engaging in short-term maneuvers that will boost their personal compensation during their years at the company instead of making decisions that will strengthen it for years to come.

What's missing in the above tension between the owners and the managers? The workers! There are zero words in the book about the value generated by workers and whether they deserve a share, let alone how large that share should be. Bogle is concerned about how profit is distributed, but (in my opinion) it's ultimately the workers who create that value. The owners front the capital that provides opportunity, the managers organize the resources and ensure quality, but it's the workers who actually, uh, work and create economic value.

(The only time Bogle references workers is when discussing pension funds, which, to be fair, he's very passionate about. He seems to care deeply about the social compact pensions represent and is distressed by the likelihood that they will fail to provide their promised benefits. But he's primarily focused on pensions and funds and not as compensation: he mostly treats them as an investment made for a particular purpose instead of as a rightful share of profits earned by workers.)

At the end of the day, Bogle is a true believer in capitalism, but does not believe that capitalism is the answer to every problem. Oddly enough, the more important an enterprise is, the less likely that it should be run as a business. Crucial processions should be run for the sake of their mission and not to maximize profit. Capitalism by itself is not virtuous, just (in his view) a proven effective means of generating wealth and distributing that wealth to a group of people. Managers capitalism is still capitalism: managers are acting rationally to maximize their income. In Bogle's view, though, managers capitalism is a bad, dangerous, and inferior form of capitalism that does not produce broad societal benefits.

Finally! I wanted to jot down a few passages that I thought were especially interesting or well-said. (Transcribed by hand, please excuse typos.)

Page 43:
The truth is that most business measurements are inherently short-term in nature. Far more durable qualities drive a corporation's success over the long term. While they cannot be measured, such traits as character, integrity, enthusiasm, conviction, and passion are every bit as important to a firm's success as precise measurements. Human beings are the prime instruments for implementing a corporation's strategy. Other things being equal (of course, they never are), if those who serve the corporation are inspired, motivated, cooperative, diligent, ethical, and creative, the stockholders will be well served.
I thought this was very well-said. He develops this point further in Enough.: pay attention to the things that count, not the things that can be counted. Also, note that he accurately identifies employees as the primary source of business success. It seems like they should have a seat at the table.


 Page 44:
The companies that will lead the way in their industries over the long term will be those that have made their earnings growth not the objective of their corporate strategy, but the consequence of their corporate performance.
Another keen observation that I first encountered in Enough. Do not focus on improving a business' metrics: focus on improving the business, and the metrics will follow. Metrics should measure success, not drive it.


Page 163:
Looked at from yet another perspective, the investor put up 100 percent of the capital and assumed 100 percent of the risk, but collected only 57 percent of the profit. The mutual fund management and distribution system put up zero percent of the capital and assumed zero percent of the risk, but collected 43 percent of the return. If this example does not represent the paradigm of the triumph of managers' capitalism over owners' capitalism in mutual fund America, it is hard to imagine what would. Almost half of the fund owners' money was siphoned away by those who quite literally had everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Definitely good for investors to consider. I have to say, though, that I've never been too happy with the (nearly universal) statement that owners assume all the risk. It's only their capital that's at risk. When a company goes under, the owners will lose their capital, but the people who work for that company will be far more devastated: losing their jobs, healthcare, social bonds, professional edge. That isn't especially relevant to the specific case of mutual fund advisors he's discussing here, but it's a formulation that I think bears closer consideration than it receives.


Page 176:
  This devolution is hardly limited to the mutual fund field. It is reflected all across our society, as one profession after another has taken on the defining attributes of a business... I've seen this field move from being primarily a profession of investment management to becoming largely a business of product marketing. The same transition - albeit in a very different way - has taken place in the medical profession, where the human concerns of the caregivers and the human needs of the patient have been overwhelmed by the financial interests of commerce, our giant medical care complex of hospitals, insurance companies, drug manufacturers and marketers, and health maintenance organizations...
  Consider too how the profession of public accounting became dominated by the business of consulting. Think about the increasing dominance of "state" (publishing) over "church" (editorial) in journalism, as well as about the rise of commercialism in law and architecture that has eroded traditional standards of conduct. In all, professional relationships with clients have been increasingly recast as business relationships with customers. In a world where every use of services is seen as a customer, every provider of services becomes a seller. When a provider becomes a hammer, the customer becomes a nail.
  Please don't think me naive. I'm fully aware that every profession has elements of a business. Indeed, if revenues fail to exceed expenses, no organization - even the most noble of faith-based institutions - will long exist. But as so many of our nation's proudest professions - including trusteeship, medicine, accounting, journalism, law, and architecture - gradually shift their traditional balance away from that of trusted profession and toward that of commercial enterprise, the human beings who rely on those services are the losers.
  ... Roger Lowenstein... bemoaning the loss of "Calvinist rectitude" that had its roots in "the very Old World notions of integrity, ethics, and unyielding loyalty to the customer." "America's professions," he wrote," have become crassly commercial... with accounting firms sponsoring golf tournaments." ... And so it is as well in the trusteeship of other people's money.
Terrific explanation of the role of professional services in the landscape of America. I tend to be skeptical when people write about how bad things are today, that stuff was so much better in the good old days. But I do think there has been a sea change in America starting with the greed-driven 1980s, and that force is behind the shifts that distress Bogle here. It feels like we might be on the cusp of a reexamination of the social compact, which might seem like it flies in the face of Bogle's Republican instincts but could restore the more mission-oriented society he longs for.


Page 220:
When ethical values go out the window and service to those whom we are duty-bound to serve is superseded by service to self, the whole idea of the capitalism that has been a moving force in the creation of our society's abundance in soured... Rather than prizing financial profit among else, we must work to become a society... once again celebrating achievement over money, character over charisma, substance over form, virtue over prestige.
A nice summation of Bogle's worldview. Capitalism has helped generate our abundance, but isn't inherently virtuous, and must be closely monitored and guided to achieve good ends.


Page 221:
  Numbers are only numbers, quantities on a scoreboard that are only one measure - and, truth be told, hardly the best measure - of an enterprise.
  Put the greater interest of of others and the dignity of our own characters first, and our own self-interest second; put enterprise and animal spirits first, and managing for the bottom line second; put the joy of creating and the will to conquer first, and the mindless conformity of greed last. 

Another good recap of the proper role of measurements. Focus on what counts, not on what can be counted.


Page 232:
Today's reliance on tax-advantaged savings, however valuable to our well-to-do citizens who can afford it, does little but further raise the ever-widening gap between our wealthiest families and our families most in need. This growing division of wealth is not only a destructive force leading toward the creation of a "two nation" society - rich versus poor - but represents an unwelcome departure from the basic principles of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

This was a bit of a tangent from the main thrust of the book, but I found it very interesting. It's super-weird that someone as wealthy and connected as Bogle would sound like Bernie Sanders (way back in 2005!). The point he's getting at here is that our tax code is stacked to favor the already-wealthy. He doesn't proscribe any specific policy recommendations on this particular topic, but judging from his comments elsewhere in the book, it sounds like he favors a strong Social Security system that would provide a secure retirement to all of our citizens.


Anyways! I feel like this write-up has been more scattered than usual, which doesn't reflect the book itself. It's very well-organized and cogent, steadfastly building the thesis and showing how it applies to all of these aspects of our business and financial systems. I don't think I'd necessarily recommend this book; the most interesting aspects of it are more fully developed and better presented in Enough. But I don't regret reading it: despite some of the specific topical references now being outdated, the core problems Bogle identifies sadly still remain, and it's refreshing to see such a detailed condemnation paired with practical suggestions for fixes. To be fair, it sometimes feels like Bogle is writing to an audience of about a dozen people: unless you're the SEC chairman, a senator on the Finance Committee, or the President, you probably won't be in a position to implement the policy changes he wants. But I think all of us who participate in this economy can benefit from a clearer understanding of the systemic problems it faces and the forces that will need to be reconciled, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Welcome to the Jungle

It's my favorite time of year: California election time! Jungle primaries turn otherwise rote partisan elections into compelling matchups, and our ballot initiative process is an often-frustrating but always-entertaining flavor of direct democracy.

I legitimately love Californian democracy. This election is vote-by-mail-only, which is incredibly convenient: the state mails us ballots and in-depth pamphlets giving lots of information on the candidates and propositions, and we can research, vote, and return at our leisure. But, for folks who for some reason can't easily vote by mail, we're running early in-person voting centers at a variety of times and locations, making it easier for people to vote early regardless of their work or family situation.

Here are a few excerpts from the 60-page voter pamphlet I received:





It's ridiculous, but awesome, and gives a political nerd like me a ton of material to chew over. Upholding my longstanding disregard for the sacred secrecy of the ballot box, here is how I'm voting this year.

Governor: John Chiang with a bullet. He is by far my preferred candidate. Realistically, this will end up being Newsom and someone else, and I hope I get a good choice come November.

Lieutenant Governor: Gayle McLaughlin. Several good choices here, but I've been very impressed by McLaughlin's progressive platform. The office holds relatively little power, which I think is an even better reason to support a bold choice here.

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla.

Controller: Betty Yee.

Treasurer: Fiona Ma.

Attorney General: Xavier Bercerra. I've been impressed at all his actions in the few months he's held office. This will be a crucial position for at least the next two years.

Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara.

Board of Equalization: I'm voting Cathleen Galgiani, but Mahlia Cohen would also be a fantastic choice.

Senator: Kevin de León. I'm sure we'll see this matchup again in the fall, and I reserve the right to switch to Dianne Feinstein if she can convince me that her newfound principles are sincere, but she'll have to overcome years of bad action on surveillance, war, and censorship. That said, she's been a consistent champion of gun control legislation and some other positions I agree with, so I'd like to be convinced.

US Representative: Jackie Speier.

Assembly: Kevin Mullin.

Superior Court: Gerald Buchwald.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmond

County Superintendent: Nancy Magee

Assessor / Clerk / Recorder: Mark Church. He seems to be doing a good job at getting me my voter information pamphlet, at least!

Controller: Juan Raigoza.

Coroner: Robert Foucrault.

District Attorney: Vote deliberately withheld. This race will probably get much more interesting in the next cycle thanks to the ACLU's terrific Meet Your DA campaign. For now, I'm sufficiently unhappy with the incumbent to withhold my vote.

Sheriff: Carlos Bolanos.

Treasurer: Sandie Arnott.

Prop 68 (Water bonds): Yes.

Prop 69 (Spend gas tax on roads): Nice.

Prop 70 (Make it harder to spend cap-and-trade money): Hard NO.

Prop 71 (Make sure all votes are counted before ballot measures go into effect): Yes.

Prop 72 (Encourage rainwater upgrades on private homes): Yes. The fact that this needs to be voted on is an argument against doing this sort of policy via initiatives in the first place, as this is fixing an oversight from a previous initiative. Let the legislature legislate, dangit!

Measure 3: Enthusiastic YES.

Measure N: Yes.

I selected many of the local-race picks based on endorsements by people and organizations I trust. State propositions, local measures, and marquee races are driven by my personal political beliefs.

That's it for this cycle! I'm really curious if the increased activism around politics at the national level translates into greater involvement in local and regional issues. If so, that will be a pretty great silver lining to the dark times in which we're living.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Family Matters

Finding a new series is always a fun feeling. I picked up The Family Trade on a recommendation from Nicola Griffith, though I've previously read and enjoyed other books from Charles Stross before. The Family Trade fills a different genre and has a distinct voice. It took me a little while to get acclimated, but once I hit my stride, I enjoyed it a lot.


MINI SPOILERS

The book was written and is set in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse and the 9/11 attacks, as the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror are ramping up. The protagonist, Miriam, is an efficiently-sketched and likeable character. A thirty-something divorcee, she was trained as a medical doctor but currently works as a journalist for a business magazine covering high-tech companies, particularly biomedical firms.

But, it turns out, she is also the heir to an extended family of travelers who can move between parallel universes. As the world of corporate shenanigans and drug trafficking heats up, she is thrown into an even more startling world of medieval culture, with knights riding horses, wearing shining armor, and wielding broadswords and M-16s.

The overall vibe of the book veers towards fantasy, but it isn't, really. There's a single fantastic thing: a select group of people have inherited a genetic trait that allows them to move between two worlds. Otherwise, there's no magic, prophecy, monsters, or other traditional fantasy ephemera. It might be more accurate to describe it as alternate history: the physical world is still the same, and civilizations started out at roughly the same places (with a European wave settling in North America), but has diverged significantly: a different religion (worshiping the "Sky Father"), and general social stagnation keeping the populace impoverished in a rigid feudal system.

END SPOILERS

This is the first book in a series, and honestly kind of feels like it ends in the middle of a story. Apparently there's a new omnibus edition that collects the first two books together; I suspect that will be a more satisfying way to approach this story. As a stand-alone novel, The Family Trade is a fun read but can feel rather loose. Multiple interesting characters are introduced, receive a good amount of setup, and then disappear before doing much.

I've always enjoyed Stross's ideas, and that continues to be true here. I sometimes have trouble with his writing. I never really got into the second-person narration he deployed in the Halting State books. Here, his dialogue is... very snappy and fun, but super quippy. Nobody talks like this. It feels like almost every sentence someone speaks could be used as the quotable tagline from a movie trailer. It's entertaining, but took some getting used to.

I'm definitely intrigued by the balls that have been set in motion, and am looking forward to continuing this story, sooner rather than later. These books look like fairly quick reads, so I doubt I'll review each individual entry. Barring any unusual development, I'll likely post one big retrospective once I get to the end. I suspect there will be some more developments along the way, it'll be interesting to see where the story ends up.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Righting

I'm continuing to make my way through Roberto Bolaño's body of work. I'm starting to regret not plowing through all of them at once. Typically, I want to hold off and savor the authors who I enjoy most, but Bolaño's stories tend to have little linkages that bind them together. Not as directly as, say, David Mitchell's, but caesuras in one novel might be filled in another. As I was reading Nazi Literature in the Americas, I often had the feeling that I was reading a reference to a character who I had previously encountered, but had no idea whether it was from the vast cast of The Savage Detectives, the oppressed seekers in 2666, earlier in the same book, or if I was just imagining it. 


All of his books that I've read so far have a few things in common. They're partially or wholly set in a literary milieu, populated by poets and novelists and publishers and critics. They disdain traditional narratives, largely omitting dialogue and using different forms to present their story. Nazi Literature is sort of an extreme example of both of those elements. Per the title, the whole book is about (fictional) writers of far-right-wing literature. Structurally, it's organized as a sequence of capsule biographies. Each writer gets a birth and death date and city, then several pages summarizing their life's accomplishments: who they influenced or were influenced by, what works were rejected or published, critical consensus around their output. We never really see people interacting or get much of a sense of individual personalities. The end result feels much more like a mosaic, impressive but very static.

It's really well-written, though! While the subject matter can be horrifying, there's a strong sardonic streak running throughout. I particularly enjoyed a few segments that, while ostensibly describing a fictional piece of literature, seemed to be anticipating potential criticism of the book itself.

"It is full of appendices, maps, incomprehensible indices of proper names, and solicits an interaction in which no sensible reader would persist... There is no main character. The less chaotic stretches read like collections of stories haphazardly tacked together... The texts are not so much scrambled puzzles as fragments of scrambled puzzles. Although presented and sold as a novel, The Fourth Reich in Denver is in fact a reader's guide to the preceding titles."

Or, later:

"It is not unusual for Sibelius to spend twenty pages simply introducing a character, specifying his physical and moral traits, his tastes in food and sports, his ambitions and frustrations, after which the character vanishes, never to be mentioned again in the course of the novel; while others, who are barely given names, reappear over and over, in widely separated locations, engaged in dissimilar if not incompatible or mutually exclusive activities. The workings of the bureaucratic machinery are described implacably."
Stylistically, the novel reminded me of "The Part About the Crimes" from 2666. There's a sort of similar piling-on effect: each individual entry is dry and colorless, but they are relentless, stacking one on top of another into a more horrific edifice. It gets to be a little numbing, but the numbing is deliberate, drawing attention to how the terror is becoming the new normal.

Despite the title, only a few characters in this novel are technically Nazis, but pretty much everyone is somewhere on the far-right spectrum. Given the predominantly Latin-American setting, it's fitting that Falangism is particularly represented. Most of the writers are not affiliated with any particular movement, but hold antisemitic views, support authoritarianism, and/or hold other rightist views. In the whole book there are perhaps one or two very brief biographies that aren't obviously political. I'm curious if a deeper reading would reveal their connection, or if this is deliberate, depicting them as so minor that it isn't worth exploring their beliefs.

Most of the subjects are presented matter-of-factly, without any obvious editorializing. The characters themselves are... oddly ordinary, I guess. There are a few monsters, but the majority of them come across as vaguely pathetic, misguided, or confused. This is probably realistic, and also seems like it may be an effective way of handling them. It's a little satirical, denying them the glory and infamy they crave, instead showing their smallness and limited impact.

MEGA SPOILERS

The one major exception is the last full chapter, Ramírez Hoffman aka Emilio Stevens. This is one of the sections that felt like it may overlap with another Bolaño book; in particular, the characters of María and Magdalena Venegas seemed familiar. Anyways, this chapter is different from the rest: it's the most vivid, the most horrifying, and has an active, present first-person narrator (named Bolaño). This chapter finally starts to get at raising some crucial questions, although it doesn't begin to answer them: are violent people attracted to fascism, or does fascist ideology produce violence? Does art born out of wickedness have value?

Even though this section feels different from the preceding ones, I think it benefits from coming at the tail end. It's a bright, bold splash of color that brings home the real-world consequences of ideology. We've seen how widespread this umbrella of ideas is, and this final entry is kind of a case study of how deep it can go.

Speaking of the real world... as far as I can tell, the characters in this book are all fictional, or at the least fictionalized versions of real-world people. But it's also very grounded, with plentiful references to real-world political leaders and movements. One striking exception is Pinochet, who seems conspicuously absent from the entire book until making a very late appearance deep in an appendix. I'm a little curious why he doesn't have a larger presence, when people like Peron, Allende and Castro get name-checked more frequently. Bolaño was Chilean, so maybe it seemed too close to home. Maybe he wanted to keep the focus more on pan-American extremism instead of seeming like he was settling scores. Or maybe the absence is itself significant: one of Bolaño's skills is to build a kind of mounting dread by talking around and eliding a central subject, and perhaps Pinochet plays that role here.

I'm still unsure exactly what the book is supposed to be. Some sort of near-future reader's-guide to a completed movement in American history? The timelines in the novel go through at least 2027, and every character has a death date listed, so it's presumably written some time after that. That sort of chronological distance may help explain the chilly and dispassionate treatment of the subject, not unlike how we now write about, say, Galileo's trial. We recognize it as being outrageous and wrong, but it's also settled. We feel only scorn for the antagonists, not anger.

END SPOILERS

Obviously, a book with the title "Nazi Literature in the Americas" isn't going to be a cheerful book, but this ended up being a surprisingly good read. It's a very muted satire, dealing with bad ideas in a deliberate way, revealing them as mean and contemptible, while simultaneously poking fun at the literary system and the whole edifice that produces books such as this.

This is probably the most formally constrained book of Bolaño's that I've read yet. I was reminded often of Borges's work, especially Pierre Menard... Bolaño is definitely not a magical realist and his books have a very different feel to them than the surreal Borges, but I think both of them were great explorers of the untapped potential of non-narrative forms of writing. On a more prosaic level, this kind of reminded me of the short stories I used to write when I was a kid, which were just a sequence of "This person did that and then went there and met them." I was writing out of a paucity of ability and imagination, but Bolaño chooses this mode deliberately, claiming a distant point of perspective from which he can review and dismiss his subjects.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rapids

I'm not sure exactly how I got into this habit, but for the last couple of years I've read a Nicola Griffith novel each time I fly to and from Chicago. Other than the Aud Torvingen series, I'm not reading them in any particular order, and so am finishing with her second published novel, Slow River. It's good!


I'm increasingly impressed at Nicola's versatility. She's adept at writing noir mysteries, imaginative science fiction, mystic historical fiction. Slow River is set in a near-future very-mildly-dystopic world; the setting seems almost cyberpunk, with subdermal identity chips and a few riveting hacking scenes, but the overall vibe feels quite distinct from most cyberpunk.

MINI SPOILERS

It's less obviously sci-fi than Ammonite, but there might be even more science in this book. Specifically, there's a really cool and deep look into environmental science, microorganisms, public works and infrastructure. I don't know enough about life sciences to know if all of this is established science or if some of it is speculative, but it all sounds plausible and intriguing.

I increasingly enjoy reading about people who are good at what they do and take pride in their work, and Lore is a great example. She knows a great deal about the underlying theory and the practical operations of the treatment plant she works at, and feels compelled to help it perform well. There are multiple tensions opposing this drive of hers. First, she's keenly aware of the source: her knowledge and her determination come from her family, from which she is estranged, and even when she benefits from that association she's simultaneously brought down by the reminder of her past. She's also constrained by her secret identity: she can't seem to be too good, or know too much, lest she ruin her disguise and expose herself to dire consequences.

But she overcomes these hesitations and does what needs to be done. I really liked how the public good and a general sense of responsibility are powerful incentives in this novel. Lore doesn't say "It's not my job" or "What's in it for me?" She knows the consequences of getting things wrong, the mild-to-major harm that will be visited upon untold numbers of people should these systems fail, and that drives her to sacrifice her self-interest and support the greater good.

MEGA SPOILERS

Of course, Lore hasn't always been so altruistic. She hasn't been exactly selfish, but she has been focused on herself. Among other ways, this is shown through her sex scenes: there are a surprising number of encounters she has throughout the novel, starting from a very young age and continuing through a series of disconcerting liaisons while working with Spanner. I thought it was interesting that, of all of Lore's short-term and long-term romantic partners, Magyar is the only one who doesn't get a sex scene. There is still a nice focus on physicality in their relationship: when they tap each other while wearing biohazard suits, it feels more erotic than the graphic parties that occurred a few pages before. The bond Lore forms with Magyar is powerful, built on respect and trust long before they thought of one another as partners, and it's kind of cool to see that Lore decides she will spend the rest of her life with Magyar before sleeping with her.

The Magyar relationship is kind of the opposite of the one Lore has with her mother, which began with love, then moved to trust, and devolved into suspicion and adversity. While Griffith's novels are all very different, I've noticed that the mother characters share a lot of similarities. They tend to be powerful, manipulative, emotionally distant, and clever. Their protagonist daughters inherit their wealth and education, and share some of the high-society connections while being estranged. I don't want to overstate this - Aud's mother is much more sympathetic than Lore's - it's just an interesting theme.

The revelation of Katerine and Oster was seeded very well and cleverly revealed, with all the important information present long before Lore receives the answer. I'd had a suspicion that something else was going on - Oster's behavior didn't really fit the scenario - but for some reason Katerine hadn't been on my radar for that incident, and I was impressed by the conclusion. The Greta revelation didn't make as much sense to me. All the pieces to that puzzle had also been set out in advance, but it wasn't and isn't obvious to me how they fit together, how Lore goes from the old black-ops team to Greta's role in it to blackmail to the kidnapping. It's possible I just missed something in the sequence, though... I was wrapping up the novel near the end of a very long delayed flight.

I'm still undecided on how I feel about the structure of the novel. Within each chapter, it shifts between present-tense and past-tense narration, and between first-person and third-person narrators. These are used to denote different time periods: one starting from Lore's childhood, one starting immediately after her escape from the kidnappers, and one when she starts her job at the plant. It always felt jarring to me, and I'm not convinced that the novel is much better from having the timelines overlap this way than it would be told chronologically. We already know the outcomes of the first two timelines, so it doesn't really build any suspense. It definitely isn't bad, it just seemed distracting to me.

END SPOILERS

All in all, Slow River was a great read. Lore is yet another terrific Griffith protagonist: resourceful, thoughtful, resolute, driven by a winning mix of compassion and self-determination.  While it's technically another science fiction novel, I think it stands on its own, with a very different setting and feel from Ammonite. In some ways it anticipated the crime noir of Aud Torvingen, but with a very different protagonist and a unique set of concerns.

Ordinarily, I would feel bummed to have exhausted the output of a newfound author, but! Fortunately, Nicola is just about to release So Lucky, which will be out in less than a month, yay! That should help tide me over until the sequel to Hild arrives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Open and Shut

This probably isn't actually a thing, but I've started thinking of the subgenre of science fiction that I've been focusing on lately as "humanist sci-fi". These novels focus on creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. They eschew violence, definitely as a solution and often even as a part of the setting. Like sci-fi as a whole the science can be hard or soft, the protagonists may be heroes or antiheroes, and and they may or may not include alien species, but they seem allied by a common thread of dignity and curiosity that I find increasingly appealing.


My latest author and book in this vein is A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. The story started off a little slowly, but there's fantastic world-building and great exploration of really cool ideas. Once the main conflict kicks in, it becomes very engaging, and I tore through the back half of the book with a quickness.

MINI SPOILERS

There are a lot of neat things going on here. One of the most obvious is Sharer culture, which is built around reciprocity and cooperation. In an appealing variation on Orwell's language theory, Sharer society is fundamentally egalitarian, and their language makes it difficult for them to even understand concepts like domination or unilateral action. In the Sharer tongue, verbs bidirectionally link subjects with objects. If your hand strikes a wall, the wall strikes your hand. If you shun someone, then that person shuns you. If you teach someone, you learn from them.

This leads to a very appealing culture, based around sharing and mutual respect. It isn't a monolithic one: Sharers can and do disagree with one another, and they develop very different personalities, defined in part by the "selfnames" they claim: The Intemperate One, The Stubborn, The Traitor. They generally strive for consensus, but do not compel it. They place a high value on learning, seeking to correct misunderstandings and spread knowledge amongst one another.

The more immediately obvious defining feature of Sharers, though, might be that they're all women. I don't remember if the novel ever addresses whether they evolved this way or if the males died out, but they've developed the ability to reproduce by directly shaping embryos in the womb. (As a side note, they also have an interesting belief in reincarnation: the councils will decide when to create more children, and they believe that the souls of dead Sharers will inhabit those new bodies, thus keeping the overall Sharer population fairly consistent and maintaining a limited demand on Shora's resources.) Of course, this reminded me of Ammonite, although it's cool to see how differently those societies turn out. Jeep tended towards pacifism, while Shora is wholly pacifist; Jeep is mostly driven by a gift economy with limited bartering, while Shora doesn't really have an economy but has adopted barter for trade with other worlds; Jeep is a heterogeneus civilization with various competing tribes while Shora is more homogenous. And there are similarities: both planets, despite being considered "primitive", have highly advanced life science;  both are largely monogamous; both have some sort of meditative trance that can have a transformative effect on those who undergo it.

Some of this probably has to due with the authors' different interests. Joan is a professor of biology, and, while biology isn't the main point of this novel, it's a very cool and important element. Some of this drives the plot, as when Valedonians are baffled by Shora's flora and the Sharers' relation to it. There are occasional semi-deep-dives as well, when Sharers detail how a particular organism works, or the important role a seeming pest has to play in the larger ecosystem they rely upon. As with some of my favorite science fiction, A Door Into Ocean shows an alternate route to reach a familiar place: they have a planetary communication system, recorded knowledge of all their science and history, lifesaving treatments for seemingly fatal injuries. And yet, these are all developed from organic, living sources. Or... "developed" is probably not the right word. Sharers have integrated themselves into Shora, and learned how to thrive within it, rather than bending it to their will.

We learn a lot of the basics about Shora and Sharers through the eyes of Spinel, a young Valedonian male who is apprenticed on the planet. Honestly, I found Spinel a little hard to take, which may have been deliberate. It was difficult for me to place him: at first I imagined him being about eight to ten years old, as he's constantly throwing temper tantrums and storming off in a huff. But then there's the sex stuff later on, which made me think he was a particularly immature young adult. And then near the end Merwen reflects on how much taller he's grown, so I'm left kind of imagining him as an early-to-mid teen. Anyways. I never liked him all that much, but he becomes much more tolerable as the book continues, especially after he returns to Valedon and starts bearing witness.

The really cool thing about Spinel is his stone-knowledge. For most of the novel, it's been kind of inescapable that Sharers are "good" and Valedonians are "bad": that's an oversimplification, but the Sharer way of life seems far superior. But I really appreciated that Slonczewski doesn't make the Sharers perfect, and one of the great examples of this is their fearful, almost hateful relationship with stone. Very late in the novel, we start to see how this is based on ignorance, not entirely unlike the ignorance-based hatred that many outsiders bear towards Sharers. Once Spinel begins learn-sharing with them, they can begin to see that stone is nothing to fear: diamonds are carbon, and carbon is the basis of life. Stone can "grow", it's just done under different conditions, like high pressure and heat. As they begin to understand it, their fear starts to drop away, and you can imagine their stone-sickness dropping in potency.

MEGA SPOILERS

Besides Spinel, the other Valedonian we hear a lot from is Realgar, especially in the last third or so of the novel. He... seems a little like the husband in a Lifetime Movie Of The Week. He's very awful and easy to cheer against. While it was discomforting, I did kind of appreciate that we got to see his point of view, so we could see his rationalizations and motivations. Spinel's ignorance is a useful device to explain Sharers, but Realgar's hostility is arguably even more useful, as it provides a sharp contrast and draws out the way Sharers will behave even under distress.

Realgar's occupation and campaign of domination start exploring major themes of nonviolent resistance and anticolonialism. The asymmetry of the struggle is highlighted, not only in means (Sharers have no weapons) but also in aims (Valedon seeks to conquer and profit, Shora seeks to embrace and learn). The price Shora plays is real and huge, particularly near the end as waves upon waves of peaceful martyrs are brutally slaughtered. The Sharers' response seems to be successful, but not at all easy or simple, requiring a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice. It's fragile, too: a single act of violence immediately undoes all the good work done before and comes close to dooming their entire species.

Reading this book, I was curious how readers in the mid-80s would have read this scenario and applied it. My immediate thought was of colonialism, especially in Indochina: the asymmetry of goals and mutual incomprehension reminded me a lot of the Vietnam war. But it might be more accurate to think of the civil rights movement in the United States or Gandhi's movement for Indian independence, particularly in terms of the methods used for resistance and revolution.

Now, in the 2010s, I find myself thinking of global adventurism, capitalism, and terrorism. How should wealthy and powerful nations behave in their relations with poorer and weaker ones? How will those other nations respond? Asymmetry is inevitable, and while I passionately wish that all parties would follow principles of peace and understanding, it isn't at all surprising that many will choose to follow the example of Nisi rather than Usha.

I suspect that some readers were annoyed by the ending, but I loved it: the last-minute conversations, reversal of plans, and open-ended personal relation between Spinel and Lystra. That felt very real to me, and also like an echo of the culture we've spent a novel exploring. Sharers aren't defined by their dogma: they're curious, taking in new information, adapting, finding the best decisions based on their values and present circumstances. They tend to operate by consensus but, well, Lystra has always been headstrong and independent, and it's very much in keeping with her to act. At a macro level I'm left with the feeling that things will be okay, and I like the bit of messiness that's left for the individuals we've grown attached to.

END SPOILERS

It looks like this is the first book in a series, and I imagine I'll pick up the remainder at some point. This novel covers some really cool, fertile ground, and scratches the itch I'm increasingly feeling for warm, thoughtful, progressive science fiction.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Scarred for Life

I know that China Miéville has been around for a while, but he feels like a new author to me since I've only recently started reading him and he has such a unique vision. He's very much in the camp of people who I need to pace. Not so much because I enjoy his stuff and want to make it last (although that is true), but because it can be extremely dark and disorienting, and I'm reluctant to let it affect my mood too much.


The Scar is less extreme in this regard than Perdido Street Station. It's still a dangerous world with bizarre creatures, but it doesn't have the same omnipresent sense of decay that the prior book did. It's at least ostensibly more upbeat, with a twisted kind of adventure driving the action and regular changes of scenery. Over time, some scenes of macabre horror creep in, but here they feel more like visitors to the story, rather than a revelation of the truth underlying existence.

MINI SPOILERS

Reading this book, I did start to feel like Failbetter Games maybe should owe some sort of royalties to Mr. Miéville. Not that they're ripping him off, but there are a lot of parallels. I'd earlier noted the connections between Fallen London and Perdido Street Station, and their respective sequels seem to share a similar amount. The description of Armada was awe-inspiring, and also very reminiscent of the Khan's Shadow port. The Sorghum and the other rigs reminded me of Station III, the Iron & Misery Funging Station, and similar industrial ventures. The trip to Salkikraltor involves procedures like those I undertook when visiting the Fathomking's Hold, and so on. And this is all on top of the similar sense of constantly suppressed dread, that some sinister creatures are lurking in the depths, ready to destroy the fragile contrivance temporarily suspending you above the waves.

All of which is to say, I'm now wondering whether the third novel in this series will involve spaceflight!

On the whole, I think I liked The Scar more than Perdido Street Station, mainly on the strength of its characters. Bellis is fantastic. She anchors the story; she isn't the only POV character, but drives by far the majority of the story. She's pretty thoroughly unsympathetic: she doesn't have much empathy, cares more about her own well-being than the misery of slaves living below her, is content to remain isolated in her small room rather than speak with other people, has a very transactional view of relationships. Yet, this limited personal character makes it all the more impactful when, late in the novel, she starts feeling remorse and regret for her actions: it makes the moral crisis more urgent and gives a larger sense of scale.

The supporting characters are almost all more likeable. Tanner Sack doesn't get all that much "screen time", but is the compassionate heart of the novel. I liked his back-and-forth evolution where he grows in a certain direction, encounters hardship, becomes fearful or avoidant, but then resumes towards his goal with a greater sense of purpose. Uther Doul is an intriguing enigma, mostly exposed through  exposition but with occasional glimpses at what might be the real man within. Even rarely-seen characters like Hedrigall and Bastard John become a part of Armada's framework: they may be gruff and antisocial, but they're also true believers in the freedom of the city and the chaotic system that uplifts it.

MEGA SPOILERS

The very end of the novel becomes a bit of a shaggy dog story: they never do lay eyes on the Scar, we never learn what the Lovers intended to do with its power of potentiality. I was still satisfied with it, though. As I see it, this is the one universe that can make sense: in all the other ones where they entered the Scar, Bellis and her letter could never have returned. This way, at least we get a second-hand glimpse of what it offers.

The political dimension to the book was fascinating. I really dug the eventual inversion of the putative threat the Grindylow pose to New Crobuzon. I doubt that it was specifically intended as an allegory, but it's all too familiar to those who have seen America go forth and destroy in order to develop infrastructure and expand markets. Likewise, the maintenance of the Malarial Queendom as a sort of rump state protected by an external force felt oddly realistic.

Magic in this novel generally felt more vibrant and useful than in Perdido Street Station, where it was generally unreliable and costly. That said, we don't see much of it. I do really like the sense that magic (or thaumaturgy or whatever) is another branch of natural philosophy, something that people are studying and grasping in the same way that they are grasping principles of steam power and oil drilling.

END SPOILERS

This was a huge book, and I feel like I should say more about it, but I think that'll do me for now. This series continues to be a weird, dark, compelling place to visit, and each time I finish one of these books I'm grateful again to not live there.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

So Long

Life is Strange has had a significant impact on me. Not just as a piece of art that I admire, not just as a story that I think about a lot, but as something that has caused me to reflect on my own life and start making changes to become the person I want to be. So, I've felt a mix of anticipation and sorrow at the approach of Farewell, the final installment that closes out the extended first season and the story of Max and Chloe.

MINI SPOILERS (for Farewell, Mega for Life Is Strange)


As the series moves further along, we go further back in time. Before the Storm showed Chloe's transformation from moody teen into confident rebel, and Farewell shows her happier childhood. I was expecting this episode to be very nostalgic, and it definitely is: seeing these two people again, the seeds of what they will become, spending more time in a house that has come to mean so much. What I wasn't expecting, though, was for the episode to be internally nostalgic as well. Most of the episode is focused on Max and Chloe exploring their own childhood, looking back at a still-earlier period when they were younger but already had a strong bond. We are delighted to watch their own delight, looking at them as they look at themselves, in sort of Matryoshka arrangement.


Whenever making prequels, there's a huge risk of leaning too heavily on foreknowledge, winking to an audience that attaches more significance to something than the characters do. Whether it's Palpatine telling Anakin that he'll watch his career with great interest, or Gandalf advising Legolas to visit a young ranger, these can feel like cheap ways to capitalize on existing sentiment in order to pull up a new work. Farewell has ample opportunity for this sort of thing, especially given its construction, but avoids the problem, feeling very genuine and rooted. I tensed a little when Max picks up William's camera, knowing how important it will be in the future; but it's actually integrated into the story, becoming a significant element of the playthrough. And seeing the key photo of Max and Chloe in the kitchen is obviously moving, but Max breezes right past without calling special attention to it. These things can just be, and we can appreciate their presence.

I'd been looking forward to spending more time with the young Chloe, before her life turned so hard. I expected her to be different, a bit lighter and more innocent. That's true, but I was surprised to see that Max is different as well: perhaps not as dramatically changed as Chloe, but she's notably more confident and brave than the version of Max we see in the original Life is Strange. When her quest takes her into the dark, spider-filled attic, she's excited to go in there, even all by herself, where the later Max would almost certainly have been more hesitant.


Seeing that reinforced to me how the their separation was also traumatic for Max. Not to the same extent as Chloe, but being relatively less painful does not mean it wasn't the worst thing to have happened in Max's life. Max also lost her own best friend, and lived through years of guilt, and withdrew into a shell of tentative isolation. Seeing this earlier version of Max, I can see how easily she could have ended up as alternate-timeline Max from Episode 3: a fun, outgoing, social young woman. We're all a product of our genes, our environment, and our actions. I think we tend to think of people (and ourselves) as immutable expressions of a single personality, but that personality came from somewhere, and needn't be set in stone.


I mentioned way back in my initial post on the first game that Max's story had rekindled some ancient feelings of guilt, and I felt those even harder during this episode. Like Max, I moved away to another state while I was growing up, and I keenly recalled the anxiety of informing a very good friend of my impending departure. I think it was unusual for me to feel that sort of responsibility at that age, to recognize an obligation I had to deliver external news that was difficult for both of us. I think I did a slightly better job, at least at first, at keeping in touch and maintaining the relationship; but I'm also recognizing how difficult that must have been on the other side, to partially lose someone during formative years. Though I suppose all years are formative, but teenage years seem more formative than most.

MEGA SPOILERS

There aren't a whole lot of choices in Farewell - you're mostly just along for the ride - but the most emotionally difficult one for me came near the end, when you and Chloe are discussing the move. I chose the dialogue option like "I'll write and call you all the time", which felt both necessary and devastating. As a player, I know that Max won't live up to this, that she's going to abandon Chloe, and I feel awful that I'm giving her false hope. But it's still what I want to be true, and these seem to be the words that Chloe needs to hear in the moment.

It gets even harder after that. I don't think I'd fully registered the fact that this episode takes place later on the very same day as the time-travel encounter in Episode 3, which means that it's also the day that William dies. It's so sad to listen to Max's heartfelt voice message to Chloe on the tape recorder. Max is so emphatic, so determined, so loving. Chloe needs this so badly, clutching to it desperately. And it all goes away. Chloe will be left with nothing but her own pain.


The moral of the story, of course, is Bae > Bay. After Chloe has been abandoned so badly and lived through a life of broken promises, I'd do anything to make amends. And not just out of sympathy for her: you can see throughout this episode that their affection goes both ways, that Max needs Chloe just as much as Chloe needs Max. Whether Chloe stretches out on the couch or Max takes her hands, you see all sorts of ways that they connect, support one another, make each other better. The overriding legacy of Before the Storm continues to be further affirmation of my initial decision at the end of Life is Strange.

END SPOILERS

There aren't many photos in this post because I didn't take any screenshots while playing. I picked up a Steam Link a while ago specifically to be able to play these games in my living room. It's... kind of bad? I bought it on sale for $5 so I shouldn't complain, but it won't even turn on most of the time and requires constant fiddling to fix. But when it runs it's pretty nice, and lounging on the couch is a really nice way to play such a low-key game like this. The one downside is that I lose access to my treasured F12 key for taking screenshots, so I only grabbed a handful of shots while in Collector Mode while writing this post, and they aren't really personal.

That's fine, though. Farewell is by far the most linear episode in the series, with no major branching choices and few roleplaying options. I became rather attached to my personalized Chloe in Before the Storm, but I think that every players' Max will be fairly similar to one another.

The game is pretty short. I was a completionist, looking at everything, and spent time relaxing during the moments of calm, and I think it took me just over two hours to finish. The gameplay is simple, with few real choices and straightforward mechanics; there's a single straight-up puzzle to solve, which is fun and well-done.

All that said, I absolutely and unreservedly recommend paying for the Deluxe upgrade to buy this episode. It's such a beautiful, well-crafted, graceful bookend to the series.

I'm not sure yet which bookend it is, though. I increasingly think that I'll recommend new players start with Before the Storm prior to Life is Strange, but I'm not sure yet whether to recommend Farewell prior to BtS or after Episode 5. It works so well in both ways: as a greeting and an introduction to these people we'll come to love, or as a goodbye and a reminder of what they have meant to us. Regardless, it's an addition to the series that has already come to feel essential to me.