Thursday, April 29, 2010


Okay... I think that I've now finally read just about all of the comics that Neil Gaiman has done.  I'm still missing Miracleman, and maybe one or two one-offs, but after finishing Black Orchid I've now encountered most of his major works.

Black Orchid is special for many reasons, but possibly the greatest is that it is a Gaiman/McKean collaboration.  McKean had an enormous influence on Sandman, because his covers were the only constant influence on that series' artwork; however, he never actually did the art for the content of any issues.  He did bring a great creativity to Violent Cases.  Black Orchid sees a different style from him, one that looks much closer to the collage style that he used for the Sandman covers, but still capable of showing characters and action.

I'm not exactly sure how McKean did his art for this, but I wonder if it might be a painters' version of rotoscoping.  Many of the panels, particularly of characters, are just a little too lifelike, a little too realistic; it seems like he may have painted over actual photos, or compositions of photos.  In any case, it's a really nice technique, slightly unsettling and weird, which fits nicely with the tone of the book.


I feel like I make this disclaimer every time I write about a graphic novel; maybe I should just add it to the template for my site.  Once again: while I've recently been reading a fair number of graphic novels, I'm really not a "comics guy:" I didn't grow up reading comics, and while I have absorbed some knowledge about comics through the popular culture, I don't have any direct experiences with the major stories, characters, artists, arcs, rivalries, and revivals that populate the genre.

From what little I understand, Black Orchid was an existing character within the DC universe; possibly from the silver age, but don't quote me on that.  That's all I know about her.  As such, I really can't appreciate what Gaiman did to re-interpret her character.

The character that we see, though, is fascinating.  Black Orchid seems to BE a plant; she is intelligent, but doesn't have an individual ego in the way that people do.  She has some common memories that she shares with other manifestations of herself; these memories are fuzzy and indistinct, though, and much of the story consists of her trying to reach for answers.

She is also a highly unique breed: a super-hero pacifist.  The book's introduction makes an interesting observation: the last two decades have brought us a renaissance of great comics that take a literary approach to meaningful themes, and works like Watchmen, Sandman, From Hell and The Dark Knight have shaken up the comic world.  Yet, while their storytelling has evolved, these works still share the old hackneyed morals that comics have always had: the stories inevitably climax with violent men doing violent things to other violent men.

Black Orchid is something else.  She never throws a punch, or taunts anyone, or sets a revenge plot in motion, even though she has more reason than anyone else to want revenge.  She's kind to her enemies.  She turns the other cheek.  It's a strange and wonderful thing to read.

This can be kind of a hard story to read sometimes.  There's a lot of pain, and a profound sense of sadness and loss.  Yet, it has a genuinely happy and uplifting ending. 

It is pretty fun to see Black Orchid interact with other characters from the DC universe.  At one point she visits Arkham Asylum, where we briefly see The Riddler (who I'm vaguely familiar with) and... maybe Poison Ivy?  She crosses paths a few times with Batman, who is great here: a quiet, menacing figure who shows her sympathy and helps her on her way.  Lex Luthor is one of the major villains of the piece, and we get to see how he operates when Superman is nowhere in sight.  He's just a villainous CEO, running several initiatives and directing subordinates in their tasks.  The book reaches an apotheosis when Black Orchid meets the Swamp Thing, yet another character who I don't really know but may want to encounter, in his Alan Moore incarnation.


Black Orchid is a good, quirky, quietly thoughtful story.  It's cool to see Gaiman working within the framework of established characters, and yet utterly subvert the narrative framework of the graphic novel.  It doesn't compare to Sandman, but it's still well worth reading.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


When it comes to art, certain great works just can't seem to be repeated.  "The Princess Bride" is one of my favorite movies, and the favorite of many people, but nobody seems able to make another movie quite like it.  Tolkien is endlessly imitated, but nobody has tried to make another Ulysses.  After I discovered Massive Attack, I happily explored the works of Portishead; after I discovered Sigur Ros, I tried in vain to find other bands which could evoke that same mental place within me.

Neal Stephenson belongs to the class of greatly-admired, rarely-imitated writers.  Most people know him because of his association with the cyberpunk genre, specifically his seminal Snow Crash.  Stephenson fans know, however, how strange that association is.  Stephenson has really only written 1.5 cyberpunk books out of his 10-ish-title career, and his defining characteristic isn't a genre, but rather a style: brainy, exuberant, curious, digressive, and incredibly amused.

I can't say that I've found an author who satisfies my need for more Stephenson, but I have found a book that answers the demand for more Snow Crash.  Charles Stross's "Halting State" has redeemed Amazon's recommendations engine by giving me a perfect book.  Not perfect for everyone, but perfect for ME, and that's really impressive.

Halting State is cyberpunk, and one of the awesome and frightening things about reading cyberpunk today is realizing that (1) the technology in these books hasn't changed all that much in the last 20 years, and (2) the future keeps on getting shorter.  Stross's "glasses" are more or less the same as William Gibson's "mirrorshades," but we live in a world where augmented reality IS a reality, and the sort of stuff Stross is describing needs only miniaturization.  Stross sets his book just about five years in the future, and while the future there looks very advanced, you can also see clearly how we get there from here.  There's none of that hand-waving that you used to see in cyberpunk.  So what happens when we finally are all living in the future?

There are a lot of vectors that I want to talk about with this book.  First, let's discuss the technology.  There's nothing technically plot-related here, but part of the fun of the book is learning about the world they (we) are living (will live) in, so we'll call these


Back to the glasses.  Because I've been on a Vinge kick lately, my first association with the glasses wasn't with mirrorshades, but with Vinge's "consensus reality."  The ideas are basically the same: you experience the world through a combination of things that are "really" there, based on your ocular sight; and, overlaid on top of those things, you can have arbitrary other things as well.  So, for example, instead of consulting a map for directions, you can just set your destination in your glasses, and have an arrow that consistently points in the direction you need to go.  In more advanced cases, you can actually replace physical objects with some other form; so, you could walk through a city but see it as it was in 1906, or play a game where everyone looks like an orc.  The glasses are yet another example of pervasive computing - with a worldwide network to draw on, our everyday moments can be augmented with arbitrary information; in a sense these are hallucinations, but we share these hallucinations with everyone else, and so can treat them as real.  It reminds me a lot of the philosopher Berkeley's arguments for the existence of God, in which he makes the fascinating argument that there is no such thing as matter or the physical world; all we have are thoughts and experiences.  If you consider it that way, then as long as you are receiving sensations that match those of the physical world, then that is just as "real" as the real world, even if it is originating in a computer.

One of the things I geeked out on the most had to do with public-key encryption (PKE).  (Sorry!)  As you probably know, all of our commerce and all of our most sensitive communication is protected by PKE.  PKE runs over a fundamentally insecure network - anything we send can be viewed by pretty much everyone - but it works because only the recipient of our messages can understand what they contain.  Stross extrapolates from a very real concern in the crypto community about the security of PKE, namely quantum computing.  Nobody is sure yet if it will "work," but the idea is that quantum computers can solve certain types of problems almost instantaneously.  Currently, PKE can be broken, but it's absurdly hard to do so; depending on the key length, a network of today's fasted computers may requite a decade to do so.  Quantum computers might be able to collapse those calculations and crack the key instantly.

So, IF that happens, what's next?  It takes a while for this to become clear, but in Stross's future, the world's governments revert to the only truly unbreakable code that we've ever found: one-time pads.  One-time pads were put to great use during World War II and in the very early years of interconnected computers.  The benefit is that they are unbreakable.  There are two problems: first, the difficulty of distributing the codes to each recipient, and second, the risk that someone will capture the code book, thus gaining total control over all communication.  Back in the 1950's, IBM would hire armed guards who transported locked chests between primitive data centers, loading magnetic tapes with the next month's worth of codes.  The future is back to that again.  Or, rather, over the long term they will replace the insecure IP infrastructure that underlies the Internet, but in the short term, they are reinforcing security along the trunk lines that carry the backbone of Internet communication by requiring the most trusted nodes to authenticate using one-time pads.

What I'm REALLY getting at here is that this is cool, and exciting, and plausible.  It's the best kind of sci-fi, the best kind of cyberpunk, the kind that parses and makes sense and also makes you think, "Why didn't I think of that?"  Gibson didn't have this.  Stephenson had it.  Stross has it in spades.

One of the primary ideas in this book is what he calls ZONE, which is a next-generation MMO platform.  He never stops to spell out every little detail, but someone with enough knowledge of today's networked games can easily reconstruct it.  So: think of World of Warcraft.  It's a HUGE game, incredibly popular, with an enormous number of players; furthermore, there's an exponentially greater number of things other than players, including all the maps, the cities, the non-player-characters, the monsters, the treasure, equipment, gold, weather, music, and so on.  Blizzard makes a ton of money on WoW, but they also spend an insane amount on hosting the servers for all that stuff.  The more popular the game becomes, the more money they need to spend to keep everything running smoothly.  When it doesn't run smoothly, it's because they don't have enough servers or the servers aren't responsive enough, and people get upset and stop playing.  So, there's a huge tension for anyone who's trying to get into this space: you need to balance the need to buy sufficient hardware against the risk of spending too much on hardware and going broke.

To a software engineer, the solution to this problem is obvious: distribute it.  Any time you have a single server, there's a single point of failure and inevitable scaling problems.  Instead of having N servers that can support X gamers, turn each gamer's box into a server; then, you automatically have X servers for X gamers.  Your hardware automatically scales up as your usage scales up, and, best of all, you don't need to pay a dime for it.

This is easier said than done, of course.  Stross impresses me by identifying the problems and describing how they can be resolved.  No single node holds any piece of data; instead, multiple copies are stored on multiple nodes, and are automatically and transparently replicated as nodes drop off and join the network.  A voting system is used to determine the authority of any given node data.  Data is stored in slices, so no node contains too much related data.  Ultimate ownership is protected by a key owned by the owning player or corporation; that key, natch, is backed up by the one-time pads on the core global infrastructure.

Heh.  I get paid to think about this kind of stuff, and I get to read about it for free.  There's a huge amount of geek pleasure in that.


Outside of tech, Stross also makes several predictions about the political and economic future.  He's an English writer, and it's refreshing to read a book that rather pointedly doesn't have much to say about America.  In this future, America isn't really even in contention to be a superpower; at one point a character explains that America was the first country to go post-industrial, and as a result its infrastructure is out of date.  Look at our broadband speeds compared to Japan's, Europe's, and Korea's, and tell me he's wrong.  He also argues that, with a paltry 350 million (the future!) people, America just doesn't have the bandwidth to be a superpower.  That's a less compelling argument to me - look at how long Portugal managed to be a world power, for example - but it makes sense that as the rest of the world gets access to everything that America has, our competitive advantage will slip.

In this future, there are three nations/blocs vying for supremacy: China, India, and an expanded EU.  England has finally joined the EU, and Russia soon will.  Interestingly, in Stross's view, it's the newer, poorer Eastern European countries who have the greatest promise, not the established, wealthier ones.  Again, this comes back to infrastructure: Russia still need to be built out, and it can be built out much more cheaply than it would cost to rebuild England.

Almost the entire book takes place in Scotland.  In a weird bit of maneuvering, Scotland has gained independence from England, yet joined it as a sister state within the EU.  This isn't exactly a focus of the book, but there's lots of fascinating little stuff that Stross casually references about how the countries relate (for example, England's foreign intelligence replaces Scotland's, but the two countries maintain independent domestic intelligence bureaus).  Of course, as a political geek, this is ALSO fascinating to me.

On to the characters:

I really dug them.  There are three main characters, and the POV regularly rotates between them.  I'll get to them in a bit.  The supporting characters are a bit more two-dimensional, but not annoyingly so.  While I suppose you could classify this book as a thriller, it has a strong mystery component, and many of the characters are suspects.  It gets a little hard at times to keep some of them straight... some are well drawn, but other times it's hard to remember how Michael is different from Howard.


Very few male writers seem able to write female characters well, and this tendency appears distressingly strong among sci-fi authors.  Stross does better than most; his Elaine isn't quite believable, but is very likeable.  He keeps on describing her as a "librarian," and I never could quite visualize exactly what he was supposed to be like.  She's a fun mixture of seemingly incongruous interests - she is a financial auditor, but she is passionate about live-action role-playing, including an espionage game; she also is a highly skilled sword fighter.  Not quite Hiro Protagonist, but it's hard to avoid making that association.  Elaine is bright, and also probably the most normal of the three main characters.

Sue... Sue probably had my favorite personality of the three characters, but she seemed to have distressingly little to do.  Almost all of the book's action revolves around Jack and Elaine.  Sue shows up after things happen and plays an expository role, drawing out explanations of what went down and how it affects the plot.  She's a great personality - she's a lesbian Scottish beat cop, who talks and thinks with a thick Scottish burr, and who has mostly needed to worry about dealing with drunks before getting swept up into the events of this book.  She doesn't seem to be quite as bright as the others, but has a great way of reading other people.  I would have liked this book even more if Sue had a bigger part in it.

And Jack... well, Jack's the star.  I started out feeling kind of sorry for him, and ended up really admiring and empathizing with him.  Jack is a coder, and once again, Stross shows that he knows what he's writing about.  Jack doesn't just use the right lingo when describing software; he thinks in the same WAY as many coders, and exhibits the same styles of work, prejudices, and so on.  Late in the book, I started getting a lot of those "Whoa" moments when I realized that Jack was doing something exactly the same way that I would.  Even our neuroses are the same - he has a different origin for his hang-up, but we've ended up in weirdly similar mental boxes.  Of course, this is a novel, so Jack gets to be very heroic and touching.  He's easy to root for, especially if you're a nerd.


Okay, the last major thing to cover would be the writing.  The most distinguishing characteristic of this book is that it's told in the second person.  Each chapter has a particular POV, and using "you" to describe the activities and thoughts of a character.  As in, "You're running late this morning.  The kids kept you up last night, and it was all you could do to make it out the door in time.  Mr. Smith barks, 'Get in here!'  Looks like this will be a rough day."

From an artistic and plot standpoint, this is a defensible decision.  The book is largely about online gaming, and when it isn't about gaming, it's about mediated experiences.  I've long believed that the single most defining characteristic of video games, as opposed to other art forms like books, movies, and the theater, are that they use a second-person perspective.  YOU are the character, you control the path and the outcome; even when a game runs on rails, as in, say, "Digital: A Love Story," its power comes from the idea that this isn't about someone else, it's about you.

So, cool: second person writing, yay.  The only problem is, I found the perspective really, really annoying.  It is increasingly in vogue these days in short fiction - a lot of McSweeney's publications have used it in short pieces - but this is the first time I've encountered it in a full novel, and it didn't wear very well for me.  It feels kind of precious, and ultimately it doesn't really give you any more than a more traditional third-person attached narrator would.  Unlike a video game, we can't really project ourselves onto these characters, and we don't have any control over the outcome of the book, so the metaphor breaks down.  It ends up being a gimmick, and while 10 pages of gimmickry would be interesting, 350 pages gets to be a bit tedious.

Perspective aside, though, the writing is quite good.  It isn't Stephenson's style, which I view as a detriment and many people will view as an asset.  The text is relatively focused; even seeming digressions, such as those about griefing or Chinese gamer clans, are kept relatively brief and have some association with the main plot.  He does take time for character development, but generally in the service of furthering the story.

Some of the writing, and particularly some of the dialog, is just flat-out funny.  Here are a few of my favorite lines:

* "... they're not using the game as a ludic universe to chat in, they're using it as a transport layer!  They're tunnelling TCP/IP over AD&D!"
* "... you had to stick Python on your phone before you even opened it's address book because not being able to brainwash it left you feeling handicapped, like you were a passenger instead of a pilot. In another age you would have been a railway mechanic or a grease monkey crawling over the spark plugs of a DC-3. This is what you are, and the sad fact is, they can put the code monkey in a suit, but they can't take the code out of the monkey."

Halting State was an excellent book.  Again, I'm probably more disposed to enjoy it than almost anyone else due to my interests and background, but I can still recommend it to just about everyone.  In the worst case, you'll get an interesting and compelling vision of what the world might look like five years from now, wrapped inside a gripping thriller story.  In the best case, you'll enjoy that rarest of pleasures, a novel about software written by someone who actually knows what he's talking about.  After such a long wait, it feels wonderful to finally have a book that I can shelve alongside Snow Crash.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Creeper Reaper

I really wish I had made "Digital: A Love Story."  Not just because it's a great game - there are a lot of great games out there.  What bugs me about this is that it's a great game that I totally COULD have made on my own.  It doesn't have advanced 3D models, or professional voice acting, or the other features that every game from the past fifteen years boasts.  It's a time warp, in all senses: the game is set in 1988, and other than some great modern music, it doesn't include anything that you wouldn't have seen back then.

That means that this is, almost entirely, a text adventure game.  However, it's very different from the stock text adventure game, especially in terms of interface.  Playing this game was eye-opening to me.  People are still writing text adventures today (though they are now called "Interactive Fiction"), but the interface really hasn't changed at all from the Colossal Cave Adventure.  Stories are still told in the second person, with you typing commands into a box to discover what's in your world and to interact with it correctly in order to solve puzzles.

In Digital, the computer is the interface; rather, the interface is a computer.  When you start the program, it boots up into an old DOS-style 80-character menu mode.  It's a bit more advanced than what you had in 1988, but that's because you had a PC and not an Amiga.  There is a very primitive desktop with a couple of icons, one labeled "Messages" and the other labeled "Dialer."

This game made me feel nostalgic for a time that I never knew.  Almost all of the game takes place on BBS's.  These electronic bulletin boards were ancestors of today's web sites, places where people joined together in community to post messages, share files, and... well, really, that was about it.  In the game, your computer has an 800 baud modem, so you start up the dialer, type in the number you wish to connect to, then hear that great old modem screech as it connects.  You aren't connecting to the Internet, though, but rather to a computer that, most likely, is in somebody's bedroom. 

Like I said, this is a time that I never really knew.  I loved my computer, but my first modem (a blazing 33.6 kbps model) arrived close to a decade after the time of this game, and was used to connect with the Internet.  The Internet technically exists in this game, but it's just one of many networks.  Like I said, most of your time is spent on BBS's, with an occasional hop over to FIDOnetARPANET, the forerunner to the Internet, is the exclusive domain of the military and academics, and doesn't have much to offer you.

Gameplay is really retro and shockingly fun.  Almost all of your interactions consists of connecting to various sites, reading and replying to messages, sending PMs, and occasionally downloading files.  One interesting thing is that you never actually see anything that "you" write - you'll hit "Reply", and later read a reply to your reply without seeing your own words.  It's an interesting technique, but ultimately essential for this game - it maintains the impression that this is YOU in the game, not some other avatar that you happen to be controlling.

Gameplay is retro in style as well as in content.  I found myself eventually grabbing a sheet of paper and taking notes - things like phone numbers, access codes, passwords, and the like.  I can't remember the last time I did that for a game.  Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that modern games include auto-mapping, auto-journalling and other things like that, but this was a fun blast from the past, and going through those physical motions re-awoke within me memories of those classic gaming experiences: drawing out a map of the submarine in a text adventure, or working through a numeric puzzle in a Sierra game.

Heh - I will offer one slight piece of advice.  Early on in the game, you're given the opportunity to download a program called NOTEPAD.EXE.  When I was playing the game, I was enough into the experience that I didn't download it; I was worried that it might contain a virus.  Only towards the very end of the game did I finally go back and grab it.  It turns out to not have a virus, and to be very useful, since it will keep track of the details that you (or rather, I) would instead write down.  So, go ahead and grab it.  Remember, 1988 wasn't a totally safe time, but people were far more trusting back then, and in general didn't have nearly as much to worry about.

One possible criticism of the game is that it's... I don't want to necessarily say linear, but there's really just one way that the story can ultimately go.  You advance the plot by replying to critical messages, and you can't change the nature of those replies.  That said, this didn't bother me at all while I was playing it; it only has one story to tell, but it's a great story.  My only regret is that it has limited replay value; then again, since it's free, who really cares?  If you'd like to check it out, you can download the game.  Happy dialing!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


In general, I love my system of acquiring new books (trawling the San Jose Library web site, requesting a half-dozen or so at once, then picking them up and reading them at my leisure).  Every once in a long while, though, it bites me.  If I'd actually gone to the library and seen The Halloween Tree on the shelf, I would have realized that it's aimed more at "young adult" readers, and likely wouldn't have checked it out.  Since I had it and it's very short (a hair over 140 pages, with very simple language), I went ahead and read it.  It isn't bad, just not for me.

First, the bad: the writing was really irritating.  He employs an overly cutesy, superlative-driven style, where things are always described as being the most extreme ever.  Pipkin is the dearest boy who ever lived, the fastest boy who ever ran, had the sweetest smile and the rosiest cheeks, etc. ad nauseum.  And I do mean ad nauseum - he repeats and varies the same impression over and over again until it has lost whatever little originality it had.

Now, the good: the underlying story is kind of interesting, once you scrape away the treacle.  I had been hoping for something like "Something Wicked This Way Comes;" it doesn't reach that level, but it does share some of the same heart, a fascination with dark and evil, and the ordinary all-American ways in which is presented to us (carnivals, Halloween).  The bulk of the book is given to an exploration of archetypal Halloween costumes, and actually looking into the reasons behind them.  This entails, for example, tracing our popular conception of the Grim Reaper back to Samhain and the druidic cult.  Nothing here will shock you (Halloween costumes have to do with death, who knew?), but it is fairly gripping.

All of which leaves an uncomfortable question: who do you recommend this book for?  Probably not adults.  As for kids, it depends on how you feel about your children reading about how Christians burned witches.  And possibly learning some incredibly annoying rhymes.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Down Japan Way

I've gotten to be rather miserly with Murakami.  I've gotten to that point where I've read almost everything by him, so I try and stretch out what little remains so that I still have something else to look forward to.  After I'm fully caught up, I'll be in the same position with him that I'm in with Neal Stephenson, where I need to wait for years and years until they put out something new for me.  Murakami actually does have a new novel out, but I've learned that it won't be translated into English until September 2011 (argh!), so I have a long ways to wait.


"South of the Border, West of the Sun" appears to be second-tier Murakami.  I don't mean that in terms of its value, just its profile: you almost never see that title discussed, unless it's part of a pretty comprehensive list of Murakami works.  I haven't run across anyone who declares this book to be their favorite work from him.  I can sort of understand this situation, since the book doesn't have the kind of outrageous, attention-grabbing scenes that you find in masterpieces like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or Kafka on the Shore.  It does have a great heart, and the quietly powerful skill of Murakami.

It's hard to compare this novel to other novels that he's written, but it actually feels similar to a lot of his short fiction.  He's written plenty of books that don't involve green monsters or bakery assaults, books which are more tuned towards the quiet lives of people and their relationships, or lack of relationships.  SotBWotS fits within this category.  There are a few haunting touches that lead to a slightly destabilized world, but on the whole it's far more realistic than most of his novels.


Continuing with the short story analogy, this book feels kind of like the longer view of one of those tales.  The narrator describes his life, from childhood through his late 30's, and all the important events that occurred and people he met.  Many of those individual relationships could have driven a short piece of fiction on their own, but here you don't encounter anything in isolation.  You can see how a childhood friendship and a teenaged infatuation later impacted an adult love.  Perhaps most impressively, you can see the everpresent Murakami rootlessness, but it only lasts for the man's 20's.  Later he meets new people, falls in love, starts a family, and actually cares about what he does for a living.  Overall there's a far stronger impression of dynamism here, as opposed to static views of immutable situations.

Geez, I think I just made three programming references in that last sentence.  Apologies.

Oh, and there's sex.  Lots and lots of sex.  For what it's worth, it's much more conventional than most Murakami sex scenes.

The "supernatural" elements in this book are so few that I can easily enumerate them all here.  First, Hajime meets a man who gives him an envelope stuffed full of cash.  A decade later, that envelope disappears.  Second, Shimamoto has a habit of disappearing for long stretches of time, most dramatically when she leaves an isolated cabin without a vehicle.  And... I think that's about it.  I did enjoy these flourishes, though here they are definitely an accent and not the main purpose.


All together, SotBWotS is a great read for people who enjoy Murakami's writing style.  I wouldn't recommend it to people encountering Murakami for the first time, or to those who are mainly attracted by his plots, since this doesn't have much in common with them.  Still, it's clearly the same person writing it, and that person is one of the best authors around.  Speaking for myself, I'll take everything I can get.

Monday, April 19, 2010


So: the second book I borrowed was "A Deepness in the Sky," also by Vinge.  After a detour through some non-science-fiction fare, I plunged into it.

The book ended up being quite different from Marooned in Realtime.  I should have expected this: after all, his short stories were quite distinct from one another, so why should his novels be the same?  Not only were the technology and the stories unique, but the overall feel is quite different as well.  Marooned in Realtime is relatively narrowly focused, with a single protagonist and a central mystery to solve.  A Deepness in the Sky is a grand epic, with a huge cast of characters.  Although most of the action takes place in and around a single planet, it's set against a rich tapestry of starfaring, and you get a strong feel for the entire universe while reading it.  It's also a darker book, with outright villainy dominating most of its timeline; the efforts of the good guys always seem doomed to failure.  (In contrast, MiR is dominated by mainly good people, with a hidden and secretive bad guy lurking somewhere.)

ADitS is set in a different timeline, and it's one of the rare Vinge stories that doesn't deal with the Singularity at all.  Or, you could say that it deals with it by omission, with a focus on social sciences.  In this universe, mankind is thwarted from ever achieving the Singularity due to the unstable nature of civilization.  Humanity has gained interstellar travel and spread to a wide range of planets, each of which have their own independent governments, but a cycle of rise and decline is endlessly repeated.  Populations grow and technology expands, a grand civilization is established, but then some disaster inevitably strikes - perhaps overpopulation triggers a plague, or a tyrannical government takes over and drives the planet back to the Dark Ages, or religious wars divide the populace and leads them to annihilate one another.  It's a fairly pessimistic view, though not universally dour: fallen civilizations can recover as long as enough people are left alive and the planet remains habitable.  It may take ten thousand years or more, but eventually high civilization will return.

In this scenario, any planet is ultimately doomed.  You can avoid that fate, however, by not being tied to a particular planet.  This is how the whole enterprise got started, when the first men escaped the trap of Old Earth and established the first colonies before it failed.  We learn that Old Earth itself has gone through three cycles of fall and rebirth; this book is set a LONG way in our future.  Anyways, one particular loose grouping of people has abandoned the dream of establishing a permanent civilization, and become a tribe of constantly traveling and constantly trading merchants, the Qeng Ho.  They have some of the accouterments of a nation, such as a language and dynasties, but have no desire to gain territory or subjugate other people.  Instead, they travel between systems in search of advanced civilizations, and when they find them they trade.  Over time, they are collecting all of the best technology and designs in the universe, and in the process helping to spread civilization itself.

Again, all that is backdrop.  The actual story itself is more claustrophobic.


Not to mention arachnophobic.  The Qeng Ho find a rare prize, an intelligent non-human race.  A fleet of ships mount an expedition, hoping to find a lucrative trading opportunity.  They arrive at the same time as a rising power, the Emergents, whose murky goals alarm the Qeng Ho.  The two work together in an uneasy truce for a while, before the Emergents betray them, killing many of the traders and enslaving the rest.

It takes a while to discover just what form their slavery takes.  I had guessed fairly early on that what they called "Focus" was roughly equivalent to a ghost dub in the "Ghost in the Shell" world, where a human psyche is implanted in an automaton.  This isn't quite right: Focus is more like a direct enslavement of the mind.  Your brain stays in your body, but your master's volition is substituted for your own.  You retain your previous memories and capabilities, but lose all emotional attachments except those related to your mission.  Each person is Focused on a particular task, which might be piloting a ship, managing weapons systems, solving mathematical problems, translating alien speech, serving hors d'oeuvre, pretty much anything.  The Qeng Ho have focused on automation, programming software to take care of routine tasks; the Emergents have some automation, but their edge is that they can run human intelligence like a software program, giving vague instructions in natural language and having their wishes carried out.

Focus is a really creepy thing.  You get to see a lot of the Focused people and get to know them well over the long length of the novel.  You also see Focus change people who are infected; they retain some of their personality, which makes their alienation even more painful to watch.

One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the way it keeps the Emergents' evil front and center throughout the novel.  I'm used to books where the heroes are the focus; while the heroes and the villains inevitably clash, and may do so frequently, the heroes are still largely in control of their actions, able to make plans and carry them out.  However, this is a book set in a police state, one that makes Stalin's USSR or Kim Jong Il's North Korea look like the Wild West in comparison.  On top of the oppressive pyramid sits Thomas Nau, a fully realized bad guy who manages to be charming while also being manipulative and thoroughly cold-blooded.  The Emergent power structure demands absolute obedience, and has the tools to enforce it.  Nau controls an army of slaves who will unquestioningly carry out his bidding.  He also has video and audio surveillance that lets him (and his lieutenants) watch everyone, everywhere, all the time.  Later in the novel, he gains access to a new level of surveillance that allows him to even read body temperatures and minute facial expressions, letting him recognize when people are lying or unusually agitated.  All of this data, in turn, is fed to the ranks of Focused analysts, who sift through the constant stream of input, discerning any sign that someone might be questioning his authority or preparing to move against him.

How do you organize a resistance to that?  You can't.  An early attempt at rebellion is squashed.  From then on, everyone is Winston Smith.  People can silently rage within their own minds, but not take any action against the government, cannot speak, cannot find anyone else who does.  In fact, it's worse than Big Brother, because this one can actually read your mind, and doesn't need to find any journals or secret recordings.

All of this, however, is just the Human tip of the iceberg.  A parallel story is taking place down on the surface among the Spiders.  They're undergoing a rapid burst of technological development, essentially equivalent to going from the 1920's to the 1990's in the span of about 30 years.  The book opens on a rough equivalent of our World Wars, with trench warfare and government research for more advanced weaponry.  It closes with a Cold War showdown complete with a functioning Star Wars missile defense system.  In between, a single Spider, Sherkaner Underhill, combines Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, only more prolific; he's a brilliant engineer who single-handedly (er, single-leggedly) changes the world, then founds a university full of students each doing the same.

The length of the novel is put to good use.  We get to really know Underhill, and his wife, and their friends, and their children.  We see Underhill as a young lad bubbling over with enthusiasm and ideas, and watch him as he grows older and gradually more frail; he never loses that spark which makes him so endearing.  We also get a feel for the geo-political shifts on Arachna, as old allies gradually become new enemies.  And, of course, we know more than the Spiders, so even as we get to learn and like them more, our unease grows: we know that there is an avaricious race hidden just out of their sight, waiting to pounce and enslave them once they reach a sufficiently advanced technology.

I think that ADitS is one of the rare sci-fi books that can make a compelling case for being literature as well.  We start getting chapters told from the Spiders' POV fairly early on.  Much later, we realize that what we've been reading is taken from the Focused translators' own observation of the Spiders.  This, in turn, leads to some other interesting insights.  The Spiders are a fully alien race, so of course they have their own names, own language, own idioms.  The translators have been working to make it comprehensible to humans, and are divided between a literalist faction, who want to present the words in as close to their original form as possible, and an impressionist faction, who are willing to bend the actual words in order to better convey the underlying meaning.  In a sense, the Focused are creating the spiders as much as they are describing them.  The Focused are authors.  This kind of textual play is subtle, but a lot of fun, and helps make the book much more than "just" a rousing sci-fi story.

Towards the very end of the book, there's an extended discussion about the effects of Focus, and whether it is ever acceptable.  During this section, I came to feel like Vinge was projecting some of himself into the debate.  Focus is a horrifying thing, but at the same time, it allows one to accomplish so much.  All you need to do is sublimate yourself into your work: the ego drops away, and all your effort pours into the task at hand, free from distractions or competing priorities.  What he's describing is a state like what I feel when I'm programming or writing.  There's something terrifying about the level of Focus in this book, but also something alluring, and I think Vinge feels the same kind of temptation that I do.


I think A Deepness in the Sky may be the best Vinge novel that I've read yet.  It has all the intelligence and creativity of his other books, but adds a truly epic scope and tragic core that elevates it above the rest.  It's not for everyone, but is a phenomenal novel that will reward on all fronts.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


"A Contract with God" occupies a rarefied position in the world of comics.  It's probably not the first graphic novel, but was the first to gain widespread recognition.  It also comes out of a fascinating real-world story.  The book was written by Will Eisner, who helped invent comics in the 1930's, and returned to reinvent them in the 1970's with this book.  Who says that there are no second acts in life?


The stories in this book are powerful.  They're amusing, but the humor is more incidental, not the focus.  They deal with some of the most important issues in life: religious faith, the unfairness of the world, loneliness, poverty, crushed aspirations, love, coming of age.  Eisner's treatments of these topics is refreshingly unidealistic.  For example, this is far from the only comic to write about love, but here, in the context of first- and second-generation immigrants in Depression-era Manhattan, "love" means finding a wealthy husband or wife who will help lift you out of poverty.  If they're faithful to you and provide for your kids, well, that's a bonus, but it isn't essential.


The art is really good.  It doesn't feel revolutionary or especially creative, but has fresh, clean lines that are attractive.  The design is good as well.  Eisner takes advantage of the graphic novel format and often fills an entire page with a single panel.  I can imagine how liberating this would feel: he could take however many pages he needed to tell each story, not needing to adapt the story to fit a proscribed length.

Apparently Eisner wrote several other graphic novels after A Contract with God, and after reading this I'll be very interested in checking them out.  This was a great little piece of storytelling in the Studs Terkel vein, an honest look at the way of life among ordinary people.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I am a phone repairer. I can listen to any phone conversations I wish, but do not do so out of my sense of professional responsibility.

Psychonauts is an awesome game.  Or, to be more specific, it is an awesome game in the middle of two decent games.  It's always good, but when it peaks towards the middle, it is great.

I managed to pick up this game for the princely sum of $2 during a special sale on Steam.  It's TOTALLY worth that, and much more.  Still, if it hadn't been for the sale, I likely wouldn't have picked it up.  The game has a great reputation, but it belongs to the platformer genre, which I'm not particularly fond of.  I expected that I would need to endure a decent amount of platforming in order to experience the good stuff.  This turned out to be pretty accurate.

First, the universally positive:  The art direction throughout the whole game is wonderful.  It's semi-realistic cartoony, very colorful and detailed, with a cheerful disregard for actual proportions or body types.  The character designs are endearing, and grow even more so as you get to know the characters better.  The voice acting is also quite good.

The early part of the game has a fairly interesting concept, but the story itself is just OK.  There's no real sense of urgency during the obligatory training sections of the game that teach you your platforming moves.  When the plot proper kicks off, it feels like a fairly conventional story that happens to be tied to a more interesting background.

Ah, but in the middle portion of the game - wow!  All attempts at realism are shrugged off, rationality goes out the window, and you're left with a sublimely creative experience.  For many levels you get to experience varied gameplay, radically different visual design, and some of the funniest gaming that I've ever encountered.  It's bliss.  It's darn near perfection.

And then... I won't say that they ruin it, but they shift gears pretty abruptly towards the end.  The game gets insanely hard, in the worst kind of platforming way: not "This is a challenging puzzle", but "If you fail to make these twenty jumps in exactly the right way, you will fail and need to start the whole level over again."  Fortunately, the plot continues to be awesome, but even with that I was sorely tempted to quit even when I was on the cusp of victory.


It's a bit of an oversimplification, but I tend to enjoy art that deals with the mind more than normal.  Anything that deals with dreams, fantasy, madness, muses, or the creative process automatically gets some more leeway from me, and often ends up on my favorites list.  So, it shouldn't be too surprising that a game about psychic special agents, with a climax in an insane asylum, would attract me so much.

The whole kid angle was a bit of a bummer at first.  The game is largely set in a summer camp, and the majority of the characters seem to be between four and ten years old.  The early part of the game feels overly cutesy, and for a while I was wondering whether I was really the target audience or not.  There are some bright spots, particularly Dogan, an adorably clumsy little guy who can make peoples' heads explode.  For the most part, though, the camp feels like something to endure.

The game gets really good when you reach the insane asylum.  Well, actually just before that: my attitude towards Psychonauts really shifted once I entered Lungfishopolis.  This awesome level depicts you as a Godzilla-type monster rampaging your way through an innocent city of terrorized little lungfish (after you have just completed an intense boss battle against a much larger lungfish).  The level is great, with an exuberant sensibility, high humor both in its references and its overall composition, a nicely balanced difficulty, and... well, it just feels great.

Probably the high point of the entire game for me was The Milkman Conspiracy.  Again, this may partly be because of my own personal prejudices - anything about conspiracies automatically attracts me.  But still, everything about this level just clicked.  The wonderful Rube Goldberg construction of the neighborhood.  The puzzle-focused gameplay (there was little combat or gimmicky platforming in this level).  And, above all, the astonishingly perfect secret agents.  I cracked up over and over again as I played through the level and its various disguises.

The levels inside the asylum are great as well; I appreciate their variety as well as their content.  I did the artist level first, and loved its gorgeous art design; again, the humor was strong, particularly in the luchador fights.  The Napoleon level was another great one.  Here, it was the gameplay itself that I liked the most, specifically the puzzles.  I'm a sucker for board games, and don't get to play them much any more, so I had a lot of positive associations with the meta-game that is taking place here.  The theater one wasn't QUITE as much fun, but it was still good... the variety of plays within the game was fun, plus I got a kick out of the extended confrontation with the critic at the end.  It's hard to hear something like that without thinking about the game's own reception; when the critic is spewing his criticisms, you mentally think about a reviewer from IGN or 1UP applying them to Psychonauts, and smile.

And then, all too soon, comes the Meat Circus.  Ugh.  You have the combination of a highly annoying voice, plus a timed level (which hasn't been a factor in almost any other section of the game), plus a pure platforming grind with no puzzle-solving elements at all.  I spent about an hour in the big top trying to save a stupid bunny, then got fed up and quit.  I returned several days later, and managed to clear the big top on my first try, but thanks to luck more than anything else.  After you clear the big top, you have some more platforming and boss fights to get through.  The boss fights are pretty good, as they are through the rest of the game... it's never a case of just whomping on the bad guy, each battle requires careful observation and developing a unique strategy that will defeat them. 

The actual end of the game is nice... maybe just a tad more abrupt than I would have preferred, but it still provides a decent resolution to everything.  It mostly manages to wash out the bad taste in my mouth left over from the Meat Circus.

Oh, yeah, and back to the kids: turns out that this isn't a children's game after all.  I kind of suspect that this might be part of the reason why the game wasn't more successful than it was.  The first half-hour or more of the game doesn't really give any indication of the psychological (ha!) territory that it will be traveling through.  I suspect that a lot of adults who start playing the game will get bored and stop before they get to the good stuff.  And any children who get to the end... well, depending on their age, nightmares aren't out of the question.  The late part of the game is surprisingly bloody and disturbing.  Which I love, of course... it's tough for a piece of art to pull off that transition from bright into dark territory successfully, and Psychonauts manages to drag it out for a long while.


The best parts of Psychonauts are among the best gaming experiences I've had in years.  The worst parts are dull or frustrating.  The heights of the good more than make up for the bad, though.  Turn to Psychonauts if you're looking for a demented modern adventure platforming game.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Dark Doors

I seem to have this weird thing going where I read all of Nabokov's novels except the one he's most famous for, "Lolita."  My latest step on this odyssey is Laughter in the Dark.  It's a novel with the feel of a short story: pointed, clever, and focused on an intimate group of characters in an extremely charged series of events.

I haven't figured out yet what a "typical" Nabokov story is - and, after reading Pale Fire, I kind of doubt that there is such a thing - but this book does show the mark of the master.  It's incredibly clever and extremely well-written; it isn't showy or loquacious, but he has a knack for picking the perfect words to create the best effect.  I can see once again why teachers of fiction tend to love Nabokov... he's a great, interesting, genuinely creative writer.


Again, I haven't read Lolita, but the plot of this book seems to vaguely line up with what I know of his masterwork.  The core of the story is the relationship between an older man and a much younger, almost girl-like woman; the man is aroused by her in all senses of the word, and embarks on a course of action that leads to disaster.

The biggest difference is probably that of the man; from what I understand, Humbert Humbert is not a very good man.  Albinus isn't a great person, either, but he's endearingly pathetic in a Charles Bovary kind of way.  He's timid, he stammers, he finds it difficult to act on his desires.  The book is largely about him being manipulated and strung along.

Overall, the story is very discomforting, leavened by a little humor.  It deals with some taboo subjects in a raw way.  Adultery is a staple of a lot of fiction, I guess, but this book feels unusual in the unsparing and unsentimental way that it looks at the parties involved.  The wife is a good woman, kind and loyal, but not a saint; Navokov can be quite mean (amusingly so) when he derides her gullibility and intelligence.  That weird streak of meanness runs through the book, and I imagine it will turn off a lot of people, but it's also kind of gripping because of how rare it is.


I can't begin to attach a genre to this book, even though it has a superficially conventional story.  Realistic domestic comedy crime literature, perhaps?  It's a fascinating read.

Monday, April 05, 2010


In case you couldn't tell, I'm a fiction kind of guy.  My reading is dominated by novels.  Most of the non-fiction books I read are professional software books, read for business reasons at least as much as for pleasure.  Of course, I don't have anything against non-fiction, but I tend to be drawn more towards the imaginative stories and inventive worlds of novels.

A manager recently lent me "Where Men Win Glory."  I'm 99% sure that I never would have picked this up otherwise.  It's the story of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who volunteered for the US Army after the September 11th attacks, and was later killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.  I felt like I already knew the story, and knew that it was a depressing one, so what was the point?

I'm really glad that I did read it, though.  It's a surprisingly gripping, fascinating story.  Even though you know how it ends, there are a lot of surprises in there, most of which have to do with Tillman himself.  He seems like a fascinating character, very admirable, and full of contradictions.

The book is narrated down parallel tracks, with the author interleaving the story of Tillman - his youth, sports career, friendships, marriage, etc. - with the story of the Taliban and their allies.  I've previously encountered much of the information presented here, but he lays it out in a very clear, compelling, and incredibly distressing way.  You learn how the government of Jimmy Carter - which I have usually viewed as the most moral of all our modern presidencies - clandestinely lured the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan, then Carter and Reagan used the CIA and its Pakistani allies to deliver training, small arms, and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile launchers to the Islamic Mujahadeen.  It's distressing to think that the cave systems that have sheltered Al Qaeda from the US were originally built with American support.

I hadn't previously been too aware of the time period between the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the consolidation of the Taliban.  This period is lucidly described, and the Taliban actually comes off as a little sympathetic, at least in comparison to their enemies.  The Taliban follows a ruthless moral code, but the rival warlords seemed to have no morals at all, and couldn't provide even basic stability for their citizens.  We also learn how specific fighters, such as Haqqani, were lieutenants in the CIA's anti-Soviet campaign, and later became heads of the major networks responsible for killing Americans today.  In all, this thread of the book helps de-mystify the history of the Afghanistan war and show why it's as difficult as it is.

The book isn't a screed, but it does have a point of view.  The author straight-forwardly describes how Bush and Cheney manipulated the media and the American people into war with Iraq, without devoting much space to defending their actions.  This helps make the book compelling: there are good guys, and bad guys, and guys who fail to stand up for what they should.

In the second half of the book, the Tillman/Taliban thread is joined by a third one, this time depicting the military as an institution, and specifically how bad decisions at the top can lead to disaster on the ground, and how it tends to cover up embarrassing incidents.  One of the most shocking sections in the book describes the Jessica Lynch encounter, which Tillman was peripherally involved in.  Like almost all Americans, I know the name of Jessica Lynch, and the broad outlines of her story (she was captured by the Iraqis, and we were initially told that she had acted like a female Rambo, but we later learned that it wasn't as heroic); however, I don't think I've ever heard all the details about what exactly went down.  It's practically a horror story, and Lynch's tragedy was dwarfed by the far worse events of that fight, all of which were caused by bungling.

Even now, it's kind of hard for me to believe just how bad things got.  It wasn't just a single mistake: instead, a series of a half-dozen or so failures all chained together to cause a disaster.  That's what bothers me the most: if anyone along the line had made a better decision, the outcome would have been much better.  The problems started when a lightly-armored supply convoy took a wrong turn in a road in the early days of the Iraq invasion.  Hours later they were still going.  Instead of skirting a major enemy city, they drove right into it.  They didn't realize their error, and crossed the bridge into the city, past the astonished Iraqi army.  Only later did they realize their error, and turn around the convoy.  By now they were in Ambush Alley, a highly vulnerable location; the soldiers had not been equipped or prepared for heavy combat, and in the resulting mess Lynch and several other soldiers were captured, while others (including the officer who made the wrong turns) escaped.

Lynch's story actually ends well, if a bit farcially.  She was badly injured in the attack and taken to an Iraqi hospital.  The nurses there donated liters of their own blood in order to save her.  They nursed her back to health, then loaded her in an ambulance to drive her to an American base.  When American soldiers started shooting at the ambulance, though, they turned around and took her back to the hospital.  Later on, Special Forces mounted a rescue, which was delayed for 24 hours so a camera crew could be put in place.  They encountered no serious resistance from the hospital, and Lynch was back in US hands.

However, things didn't go so well for the rest of the fighters.  After the broken supply convoy escaped, the Marines showed up.  They were astonished to find that they weren't the first forces on the scene.  They learned about what happened, and determined that in addition to their objective of taking two critical bridges, they would also look for survivors.  The orders from headquarters came to split their forces.  If there's one lesson that I've learned from "Where Men Win Glory," it's that you should be really, really careful about splitting forces.  In this case, the first group of Marines proceeded to enter the city, then decided to skirt Ambush Ally by driving around it to the east.  Unfortunately, they drove over a thin layer of soil that covered a swamp of sewage.  They broke through the crust, and spent most of the remaining battle stuck in the muck.  Worse, the command vehicle was trapped under a set of power lines, and so its radio was unable to communicate.

There were two other sections of Marines.  One consisted of heavily-armored Abrams tanks, which were designed to take enemy fire and lead the way in an assault.  Another consisted of lightly-armed and more maneuverable transports which would bring up the rear.  Because of the attack on the supply convoy, the first section was ordered to search the city for survivors.  The second was ordered to proceed to the main objective of capturing the second bridge.  The leader on the ground was shocked that his lightly-armed and vulnerable forces were being forced to enter the most intense part of fighting without support, but was told to carry out the plan.  Of course, they did come under attack, and eventually hunkered down north of the bridge.

This book has done a lot to help me understand what's meant by "Cloud of War."  It's easy for me, sitting in my living room seven years later, to marvel at the disaster that was taking place, but I have access to all the information about what everyone was doing.  Of course, every individual there could only see what was in front of their own eyes, and could only hear what was being broadcast on their radio (assuming that others weren't jamming it with their own broadcasts).  Due to a series of tragic miscommunications, bad assumptions, poor judgments, and failure to follow standard operating procedures, the Air Force came to believe that those besieged Marines were the enemy.  The American soldiers react in disbelief and fury once A-10 Warthogs start strafing their positions and firing missiles.  They eventually break for it, fleeing south back towards Ambush Alley, pursued by the air forces, which destroy several of their trucks along the way.

Finally, at the end, everything is cleared up.  The Abrams tanks return from their rescue mission, and quickly turn the tide of battle back to the Americans.  At the end of the day, 18 Americans have been killed.  Many of those deaths are from friendly fire.

As horrifying as this is, it's just the first phase.  He spends pages describing how the official reports were massaged, statements crafted, and internal investigations derailed to keep anyone from looking bad.  Which is understandable - it's awfully embarrassing when something like that happens, and is not the kind of message you want to send during wartime.  (It was also really dispiriting to read that, prior to the convoy entering the city, the Iraqi army and the Fedayeen had been nervous about the forthcoming invasion, worried about the overwhelming superiority of the Americans.  When their first encounter with the Americans showed them to be confused, poorly equipped, and cowardly, turning tail and running once they came under fire, it emboldened them.  "This is all that they are?"  It breaks my heart to think that, if not for some mistakes early on, "Shock and Awe" might have actually worked, or at least worked better, and the city could have fallen without such heavy losses.)  Still, stuff like that gets me really worked up.  We live in a democracy, the citizens are ultimately responsible for all decisions, and if we don't have access to accurate information we can't make informed decisions.  This tendency to cover things up, whitewash problems, and apply spin doctoring to every incident, would all play a major role in Tillman's death a year later.

The author isn't content to merely weep and say "This was a tragedy."  One of the things that I respect most is his determination to describe exactly what went wrong, and who was responsible.  On one page he shows Pat Tillman's chain of command, a vertical list of about 20 names that starts with George Bush and ends with the private who Tillman was supervising.  On the Lynch incident, he shows how big policy decisions being primarily driven by Rumsfeld - specifically his emphasis on speed over all other factors, and his need to protect political capital instead of just making the best decisions for the combat situation - filtered down into bad priorities for the war's commanders, which ultimately led to suicidal orders given to individual soldiers.  Similarly, when it comes to the Tillman incident, he goes so far as to name the specific private who most likely fired the gun that killed Pat - even though he was only one person out of perhaps ten who were firing at him.  He mentions which people seem to have been unfairly disciplined as scapegoats for the tragedy, and which people have gotten off scot-free, and which managed to cover it up and were promoted as a result.

In case you can't tell yet, this can be an incredibly depressing book.  I think it's also a really important one, too.  Like I said, there's a lot in this book that I wasn't aware of before, even though I tend to follow the news more than most people.  It can be hard for us to face our mistakes, both as individuals and as a nation, and stories like this might help us to decide what we can do differently in the future.

And, the book isn't entirely depressing.  Most of the uplifting stuff is about Pat.  We see all his warts, all his own bad decisions, but are left with an overall impression of this driven, curious, extremely honorable man.  I now realize that losing Pat was an even greater loss than I had thought before, but take a small amount of comfort in realizing that he left behind a great example for others to follow, as well as a warning about our institutions.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Moist von Lipwig

In general, I've enjoyed becoming a finance geek.  As with most topics I get interested in, it's fun to chase down interesting nuggets, organize them in my brain, and think about how they relate to one another.  There is one downside to this area of geekiness, though.  When it comes to science fiction, or anime, or video games, or modern novels, there's a nearly limitless supply of high quality out there; I never need to worry about reading all the books.  In contrast, when it comes to finance, there's really just a finite amount of useful information.  Once I've grasped that, there's very little reason for me to continue geeking out.

Note that I said "useful."  Obviously, there are entire newspapers, magazines, and 24-hour television channels devoted to financial topics, and they require a steady stream of new analyses, theories, opinions, and forecasts.  For the most part, these aren't just useless, but are actually dangerous.  If you buy every hot stock that's pumped on Mad Money, you'll get poorer a lot more quickly than if you stuck to boring mutual funds.

I remain convinced that most people can learn all that they need to, or should, know about personal finance and investing by reading just one or two books.  They'll need to read more closely than, say, a novel; I guess that "study" might be a closer word.  Still, there just isn't all that much out there that you need to learn, and the less you try to stuff in your head, the less likely you are to be distracted by the lure of get-richer-quicker messaging out there.

For a few years now, my recommended "If you just read one money book..." has been "Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People" by Jane Bryant Quinn.  It's a relatively slender book for the field, at just a few hundred pages, and it covers all of the most important topics that will define the financial lives of 90% of us.  For me, it reaffirmed what I'd learned elsewhere, and gave some really practical ideas of how to implement certain goals.

I was impressed enough by that book that I followed up with JBQ's latest, "Making the Most of Your Money Now."  This is a revised edition of an earlier book of hers that I haven't read, and the cover copy talks about how it has been rewritten to take into account the financial and housing crises.  That's technically true, but one of the best things about this book is actually in how it downplays those events.  The overall message is, "Yes, these things are bad, and show why you should be diversified and consider your time horizon; but don't panic and stick your head in the sand, because if you avoid stocks you'll be hurting your long-term success."  In other words, it strives for timelessness, which is what one wants in a book like this.

This is a positively massive tome, weighing in at over 1000 pages.  I found it a surprisingly quick read, but then again, I am a nerd.  The book is very well organized; the first few chapters focus on personal finance fundamentals (defining goals, writing a spending plan, etc.); the next few talk about essentials (selecting and buying insurance, choosing a bank, where to save short-term money); the bulk of the book is devoted to specific finance topics (saving for college, purchasing a house, choosing mutual funds, bonds, etc.); and the last section is given over to retirement (both planning and spending) and selecting a financial adviser.  I read practically every word of it all, even the things that don't really apply to me like annuities; the only bits I skipped were the sections on credit-card debt and college savings, both of which are fortunately long behind me.

Throughout the book, the question in the back of my head was, "Will the extra pages in here result in a better book than S&SFSFBP?"  The answer is a qualified "Yes."  If you have the patience to read through it, you'll get more information and, broadly, a better grounding in the topic at hand.  I don't think that this book would cause you to pick radically different strategies than the shorter one, but it may give you a fuller appreciation for why you're doing what you're doing.  In some specific cases, this book does improve upon the former, either by providing more up-to-date information on specific topics, or offering some niche strategies that will be of use to a limited number of people (for example, she describes what you need to do to pass an IRA along tax-free to your heirs, if you're in a position to do that). 

On a practical note, the most significant updated advice may be regarding target-date retirement funds.  The shorter book was written just a few years after those started becoming popular, and at that time, Vanguard's funds were rather poorly designed, with too little of their portfolio in stocks; because of this, Jane suggested looking at similar offerings from T Rowe Price, which were more costly but had a better balance.  In the years since then, Vanguard has fixed their funds, and her treatment of them is much more positive here.  (Like most finance writers, Jane seems reluctant to just come out and say "You should buy Vanguard funds," but that does seem to be what she means most of the time.)  I personally think that most people's retirement planning could begin and end by putting the maximum into a 401(k) invested in a Target Date retirement fund.  Jane only needs to provide a couple of pages to the topic, since it's so simple, but as usual simpler is better. 

Stuff like this slightly diminishes from the timelessness of the book, while adding to its usefulness.  It's really helpful to get concrete advice on what particular investments are good to make; the risk is that, when people pick this book up five years from now, the rules and the products will have changed, and it will feel dated as a result.  Then again, because of Jane's long-term focus, this may not be as big of a risk as it seems.  Yes, Vanguard has the lowest rates on index funds today; but it has had the lowest rate on index funds for decades, and since their company defines itself on low cost, there's a good chance that this will continue to be true for the future.

There are several parts in the book where Jane takes advantage of the extra length to write about stuff that she would ordinarily skip over.  My favorite was her section on stocks; she starts off the chapter basically saying, "Here's what you need to know about stocks.  For almost everyone, you should pick an index-based mutual funds.  However, if you choose to ignore my advice and purchase individual stocks, here's how you would do that."  Then she spends the rest of the chapter talking about working with brokers, buying on margin, puts and calls, dividends, interest rates, and other stuff.  It's the kind of pure information that warms a geek's heart, even while I know that I shouldn't be paying too much attention to it.  I was pleased to note how much of this was familiar from my high-school Advanced Economics class, where I made a virtual killing by investing in Bangor HE.  Anyways... like I said, the stuff in this chapter shouldn't be important to most investors, but it is great information if, like me, you're interested in knowing how things work.  It's a great education, and helps you understand better what's going on in the news, and also gives you a better idea of exactly what is happening in that diversified mutual fund of yours; it isn't just a black box that provides a long-term annual return of 8%, it is the result of thousands of individual stocks doing their weird individual stock things.

The single most useful part of this book for me was her chapter on bonds.  Most of the book felt like a really good and useful review, but the bond stuff was a good education in and of itself.  I've been generally aware of the "what" and the "why" of bonds before - they're debt, loans that you make to governments and corporations; and you should have some because they behave differently from stocks and help reduce your overall portfolio risk.  However, I've always been a little fuzzy on the "how," and Jane gives a wonderful explanation.  She talks through how you go about buying an individual Treasury bond online, describes how it will pay you, and how to compare the yields of tax-advantaged federal bonds to taxable corporate bonds and tax-free municipal bonds.  She then describes how bond mutual funds work, which, surprisingly is kind of the opposite of how individual bonds work.  She talks about the rating agencies, time horizons, all sorts of really useful stuff.  As a result, this book has actually had an impact on my attitude towards bonds.  First of all, I should confess that I don't have any direct exposure to bonds at all.  This is a personal decision, largely based on my young age and high tolerance for risk.  Currently, all of my private investments and 401(k) investments are in mutual stock funds.  (I do have bond exposure through the Target Date fund of my IRA and Roth.)  That said, I've known for a while that I'll want to ramp up my bonds at some point.  Previously, I had assumed that I would do the same thing for bonds as I do for stocks: buy a Vanguard index fund, either for the Total Bond Market or their California Tax-Advantaged fund.  I now know that this is a decent strategy, but not necessarily the best; often, it can make more sense to buy a bond directly.  As a result, when the time comes to increase my bond holdings, I will be checking out munis, treasuries, and bond funds, deciding what makes the most sense for my tax bracket and time horizon.  Jane calls out a lot of stuff to be aware of, like callable bonds, that I otherwise might not have been aware of.

My one complaint about the book: there are a few things in here that are just incorrect.  I'm not sure if they were missed by proofreaders or what, but some specific figures are wrong.  For example, in the section on Roth accounts Jane says that the maximum amount a single person can earn and be eligible to contribute to a Roth is $150,000.  (I wish!)  This is pretty clearly a typo, as later in the paragraph she lists a lower income as the point where the phase-out for singles ends.  In another part, she presents a table that predicts how long a nest egg will last in retirement, given an initial withdrawal percentage and a predicted rate of return.  In the text she gives an example and says that it would last for 20 years, while the table shows it lasting 29 years.  Needless to say, that does not build confidence, as you don't know whether it's the table or the text that is wrong.  However, to a large extent stuff like this doesn't really matter.  Jane is focusing on strategies and principles; when it comes time to retire, you aren't going to make that decision based on a table in this book, you're going to follow her advice and speak with a (fee only!) financial planner.  So while these errors are discouraging, they're not awful.

I think that most people should be able to pick-and-choose their way through the book.  Almost nobody will need to read all 1000 pages.  This would be a great book to keep on your bookshelf.  When you first get it, you might carefully read the first few chapters, skip ahead to a few other chapters that sound relevant to your current stage of life (buying a home, estate planning, whatever), and skimming the section on retirement planning.  Then, when other stuff comes up in the future, you can dust it off and see what Aunt Jane recommends.

As for the other question, of which book is better, I need to wuss out and say "It depends."  I'll probably continue to recommend S&SFSFBP to most people; its bulk is less intimidating, and it still covers all the important topics.  MTMOYMN is probably more useful for wealthier people who are interested in maximizing their investments and/or avoiding taxes; it's also great for nerds like me who are interested in learning more about the mechanics that underlie the general principles.  At the end of the day, both books should do an equally job of teaching the four or five things that you'll keep in mind to establish a solid financial footing.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Falling Out

I think we can safely grant Bethesda the title "Creator of Largest Worlds."  Between the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout, they have practically defined the wide-open, go-anywhere, sandbox style of gameplay, which also includes a stupid quantity of sidequests, extreme levels of customization, and the kind of insane detail that lets you, say, steal individual pieces of silverware from every house on the entire planet.  It all leads to a sort of sensory overload, but that's where I thrive: as I keep saying, the thing I enjoy the most is living in a fully-constructed world, and Fallout is more fully constructed than just about anything.

I have an emotional attachment to the Fallout franchise that is surprisingly strong when you consider how little of it I've played.  Oddly enough, I first came to it not through the video-game angle, but from the role-playing angle.  During development, it was hailed at the first game that licensed Steve Jackson Games' GURPS system.  I've been a huge fan of Steve Jackson Games since the very early 1990's, and was excited at the thought that their pen-and-paper games would finally make the transition to computer games.

Shortly before the game was released, there was some sort of legal dispute, whose exact nature never became public.  The fallout (ha!) of that controversy was that they abandoned the GURPS system and developed their own, which they called SPECIAL.  SPECIAL wasn't exactly the same as GURPS... there are some similarities, but every role-playing system shares some of the same DNA; how many systems do you know that don't include a Strength statistic?  Anyways, GURPS is most famous for being a truly generic and universal system; you can use one set of game rules, and apply it to cowboy westerns, space combat, cyberpunk, steampunk, feudal Japan, any setting you can consider.  What I like most about GURPS, though, is its character creation system.  You get a certain number of points, and can spend it to take certain characteristics; maybe you spend a certain number of points and gain night vision, or uncanny reflexes, or a photographic memory.  What's really cool (and more unusual) is that some of the characteristics are actually negatives, and rather than spending points on them, you earn points by taking them.  So, you might give your character a stutter, arachnaphobia, and epilepsy; all of these can then be rolled over into more positive advantages for you.  The end result is really interesting, varied characters with lots of personality.  Best of all, there's no such thing as an "ultimate" character, or a perfect build; you gamble on the sorts of situations you'll be in, try to balance out your strengths and weaknesses (both within the individual and, perhaps, within the party), and hope for the best.

SPECIAL lost the cool negative abilities, but otherwise still feels GURPS-ish.  The core GURPS stats are replaced by the SPECIAL stats - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck.  They also have a set of secondary skills that you can build out.  Because of Fallout's setting, they don't need the universal support of skills, so they are limited to the things that will come in useful in the wasteland: big guns, lockpicking, explosives, and more.

Then as now, I read about many more games than I actually played; it was almost a decade before I finally got around to playing Fallout.  My favorite thing about it was the setting.  Almost all RPGs I play are fantasy, but this was a full-blown science-fiction one.  In the mythology of Fallout, World War III has finally occurred, the United States (and probably the whole planet) has been nuked, the mass of human and animal life has been killed or mutated.  The only survivors are those who were lucky enough to be in underground fallout shelters.  Now, many years later, the worst of the damage is past, and the survivors and their descendants are starting to creep back to the surface.  What they find is an incredibly dangerous world, filled with radiation, lacking fresh water, assaulted by giant mutated animals, and largely lawless or under the control of organized gangs of criminals.   You could be forgiven for mistaking it for the world of Mad Max.  The coolest thing about it is the technology level, and that seems like something tailor-made for GURPS: it's a planet with the artifacts of an advanced technological society (about 100 years above our own), but that has lost the capacity of producing anything from the industrial age.  It has become a consumer society, not a producing one, burning through the plastic remnants of its former self.

I played through the original Fallout and generally loved it.  It had a cool party system, a nicely bleak plot, plenty of side quests.  My biggest complaint was the combat: there was too much of it and it was too slow.  The original Fallout and its sequel followed the example of X-COM, with turn-based fighting and action points.  More often than not, one final enemy would try to run away, and I would spend several turns just patiently trying to chase it down one square at a time.

I started Fallout 2 soon afterwards - I think I may have picked them both up in a dual pack or something - but didn't get terribly far until I was distracted by something else.

Finally, Fallout 3!  It was a real back-from-the-dead story, as Bethesda bought the rights from the defunct developer.  I can't think of another case where one company has continued the franchise of another company, so that was pretty remarkable on its own.  It also got great reviews and made several "best game of the year" lists, so it has been in my sights for a while.  I acquired it as a very thoughtful Christmas gift, and slipped into a fun RPG obsession.

These kinds of games are a blast, and also pretty dangerous.  I tend to want to beat every single side-quest that I can find, talk to every person in the world, and generally extract every bit of gaming goodness that I can.  That's really deadly in this case.  I got the "Game of the Year" edition, with all the expansions, and all told finished about 100 quests.  That's the game's official count.  It doesn't take into account the many little quests you go on of the "talk to this person" or "find this item" form, which don't get their own quest entry.  It also doesn't account for the fact that, often, a single journal quest may contain three or more separate quests tracked under the same title; for example, Moira's quests have you do totally different things, but you don't complete the quest until you finish them all.  All that to say, there's a lot to do in this game.  And, amazingly, I don't think I did it all.  Late in the game you can take an ability that lets you see all the locations in the world, including those that you haven't visited; I was amazed to see that I hadn't even set foot within a third of them by the time I beat the game.  Some of these locations probably didn't have any quests associated with them, just encounters; others sounded like full settlements, which probably contained multiple quest-givers.

The other dangerously OCD aspect of this particular game is its economy.  Appropriately enough for a post-apocalyptic game, the world has largely reverted to a barter system; you don't collect credits or nuyen, but largely gain wealth by taking stuff that you find lying around, and then exchanging it for other stuff.  The closest thing to currency in this world is bottlecaps, which are a lightweight way of transporting wealth.  However, you'll never get nearly enough bottlecaps from quests and exploration; you need to trade for them.

Early on, I would take everything that wasn't nailed down.  I'd walk into a blasted supermarket and then emerge carrying breakfast cereal, empty soda bottles, batteries, toy cars, paint guns, anything I could lay hands on.  Pretty quickly, I learned that I needed to pay attention to the value-to-weight ratio; a fusion battery was worth 50 caps, but it weighted 15 pounds; wonderglue was just worth 10 caps, but it weighed a single pound, and so by dropping the 15 pounds from a fusion battery, I could potentially carry 150 caps' worth of glue.

Throughout the game, I gradually got stronger and able to carry more stuff.  The quality of gear I came across improved, my wealth improved, and my standards for carrying things rose.  I began turning my nose up at the 1/5 items that I had previously treated as gold, holding out for 1/10 items or higher.  Once you get used to the looting and selling cycle, it becomes really pernicious.  I would travel to a place in 1 minute, spend 2 minutes clearing it of enemies, and then spend 5 minutes picking up everything of value, getting overloaded, opening my inventory, finding the least-valuable-by-weight things that I carried, dropping those, picking up some more stuff, getting overloaded again, repeating the cycle until I thought I had the best stuff, repairing and consolidating the weapons and armor that I planned to sell, picking up more stuff with the freed weight, then fast-travelling back to Megaton, walking to a merchant, selling as much as I could until they ran out of caps, then walking around to another merchant, selling out from them, fast-travelling to another city, selling off more stuff, until I was finally clear again.  Then I'd go back to that location and do the actual quest associated with it. 

In retrospect, this wasn't much fun, but I couldn't really help it.  Early on in the game, you're desperately poor, and need to extract as much wealth as you can in order to survive.  When you've run out of ammunition or out of stimpacks, you're living on borrowed time.  Money continues to be useful through much of the game; some ammunition (particularly .308 caliber bullets, if you're a sniper like me) can't easily be found in the world and must be purchased; other times you can use it to advance plots; you can use it to buy schematics for customized weapons, to decorate your home, and so on.  Once you get into the habit of obsessively picking over loot, it's really hard to stop.  I got to this point when I finished the original storyline (after playing through all the expansions expect for the one that happens after the original main quest), when I realized that I was carrying about 60000 caps, and had gear worth almost that much stashed on my person or in my house, and that there was no way I'd be able to use it all.  As a result, I think I enjoyed the final expansion quest far more than I otherwise would have: I could just play the game, and not constantly calculate how much money I was leaving on the floor.  In retrospect, I could have abandoned this behavior much earlier, but it's hard to tell when you have enough money, and in any case, it had become a Pavlovian action for me.

In general, though, the economy in the game is actually pretty good.  Things are a bit too scarce early on, but that actually contributes to the overall feel of the game: scarcity is both a major part of the game's flavor and a crucial plot point.  For most of the game there's useful stuff that you can or need to buy from merchants.  You sometimes need to pick between picking something useful now or saving up for something better later; in my book, this is practically the definition of a well-designed economic system.  Reselling works pretty well, far better than in Dragon Age, though there's no equivalent system of "trading up"... a 10MM pistol is better than a .35 pistol, but there aren't different ranks of 10MM pistols; you'll use the best-quality one that you find for as long as you're using 10MM pistols, and then sell it when you switch over to, say, assault rifles.  When you do, you'll get a decent price for it, one that you can further affect through your Bargaining stat, if that's important to you.  Personally, I totally ignored Barter until I had maxed out on most other stats, and by then I had more money than I could spend anyways.

Combat in this game is much better than in the earlier Fallouts.  It's generally Oblivion-y, happening in realtime in the main game engine.  However, a feature of this game allows you to enter VATS, in an homage to the original game.  You can spend a limited number of action points targeting specific parts of an enemy's body; the engine shows your odds of making the shot, and the predicted damage.  I spent most of the game within VATS whenever I could; once your points are expired, you need to fight in real-time, which was fine but not as good as VATS.

Like in Oblivion, weapons and armor decline in quality as they are used in combat.  Unlike Oblivion, you don't repair your gear with hammers or a replacement all-purpose item.  Instead, you use parts from one item to repair a similar item.  So, for example, if you have two suits of leather armor, and both are in poor condition, you can take pieces from the first piece, attach them to the second, and end up with a suit in decent condition.  Repairs depend on your repair skill, and your ability to find replacement parts.  You can also pay certain characters money to repair your gear, which does not require using a replacement part.  I almost never did this early in the game; caps were precious, and I could make do with the things I had if I limited myself to common items.  (For example, I loved the Sniper Rifle, but spent much of the early-midgame using the Hunting Rifle instead, because they were so much more plentiful and easier to replace.)  Late in the game, I spent much more money on repairs, largely because it's difficult or impossible to get replacement parts for some of my favorite gear.  One of my favorite weapons is the Backwater Rifle, which appears in the Point Lookout add-on.  It does good damage, snipes well, and has a pretty high critical rate, but you can't find any after you return from Point Lookout, so if you want to keep using it you'll need to pay.

Leveling up works pretty well.  You can distribute some points among your skills as you like.  It's kind of the inverse of Oblivion: instead of leveling up by increasing your skills through practice, you level up by gaining XP (usually by killing enemies or completing quests), then increase your skills as you want; it's totally feasible to, for example, do all your fighting for a level using a hunting rifle, and then upon leveling up to assign all your points to energy weapons.  This seems like a good system, since it allows you to take your character in new directions.

The most fun part of leveling up, though, is assigning your talents.  These are combinations of flavor pieces, skill boosts, and unusual abilities.  Some are pretty straight-forward, like one that gives you a 15 point boost in Big Guns.  Others are more interesting, like "Child at Heart," which gives you access to unique dialog options when speaking with children.  I'll admit that I turned to gamefaqs when deciding which talents to take; it's really frustrating to build up a character and then realize that he/she is broken.  (I don't min/max, but too many RPGs have broken leveling systems.  If the consensus is "take what you want," I'll go for flavor, but if some perks are useless and others essential, I'll want to know now.)

My character was named Cirion, natch.  One nifty thing about this game is that it lets you pick your character's race, in addition to the standard customization stuff like stats.  This actually has a significant impact on the story - no race is better than another, of course, but your father, an important character, will be the same race as you.  I decided to play as an African-American.  For combat, I specialized in Small Guns, which includes my beloved sniper rifles.  I played as a variation on the stealthy character type that I'd used in Oblivion: I focus on stealth, lockpicking, and persuasion; science is also important for me here. 

The morality system in Fallout is OK, but frankly nowhere near as well evolved as in Dragon Age.  It presents an extremely Manichean view of morality: everything is good or evil, right or wrong.  Your actions affect your "karma", which you cannot directly view (i.e., you can't view your karma number), but which does affect your reputation.  If you're kind to strangers, rescue slaves, and punish criminals, then you will earn a positive title (like "Vault Saint"), and people you run into will talk about how awesome you are.  If you kill innocents, steal from peoples' homes, and kick puppies, then you'll earn a negative title ("Vault Devil"), and... well, I don't know exactly what happens, but I assume that people act really scared of you.

Anyways: my big gripe is that there's no nuance.  I realized really quickly that I couldn't play a "virtuous thief" type character like the one I'd loved in DA: stealing is always bad here.  I could have continued down that vein, and maybe my positive good deeds would have balanced out my larcenous ways and resulted in an overall neutral rating.  But... that just didn't seem like much fun.  The game actively praises and scolds you, and for whatever reason it bugs me when a game is constantly telling me "YOU ARE A BAD PERSON!", even if I am doing bad stuff.


Fairly early on in the game, I picked up some armor from Reilly's Rangers.  That remained my armor for the rest of the game.  I didn't learn Power Armor until close to the end of the game; once I did, the weight was so high that I didn't really want to switch over, plus Reilly's armor has really nice stat bonuses for a stealthy guy like me.

I moved through a series of handguns: I used various pistols in the beginning, focused on the hunting rifle once I began encountering Super Mutants and had a steady supply, then switched to the Backwater Rifle later on.  I loved, loved, loved Lincoln's Repeater, and regret having sold it to Abraham Washington.  The Sniper Rifle was fun, but took way too many action points; it should have been designed with a much longer range than it had.  I didn't do much with weapon creation, but did build and play around with the Railway Rifle and the Dart Gun, both of which were great; the Dart Gun was particularly entertaining, as it was silenced, so I could attack someone and poison them while remaining undetected; they would turn cautious but not hostile.  Often my follower would finish them off, other times I would pump them a few more times and let the cumulative poison take them down.  This got less fun after I finally picked up The Grim Reaper's Sprint perk, which refills your action points when you kill someone within VATS; once that was in place, along with my perks for improved headshots, extra VATS points, and greater 2-handed VATS accuracy, I could polish off almost any enemy within a single VATS sequence, then use GRS to repeat on the rest.

Other apparel: I picked up the Shady Hat early on; it had no armor, but some nice benefits (I think extra personality?), so I kept it; throughout the game, my goal was to avoid damage, not to absorb it.  Along the same lines, the most useful item I ever got was the Ghoul's Mask, which let me avoid fighting an entire class of enemies.  This proved so enjoyable that I took a perk I had initially skipped over, Animal Friend, which let me avoid fighting more (but not enough!) species.  My only complaint with the Ghoul Mask was that it's darn ugly; since I so often finished killing enemies with critical headshots within VATS, I got tired of looking at that ugly mug in extreme close-up before a slow-motion bullet would travel out of my rifle of the day, float through the air, and then slay my enemy in a comically over-the-top gorefest.

As with other modern RPGs, Fallout 3 falls behind its predecessors when it comes to your party.  You can only have a single follower at a time*, so you never get any entertaining cross-party talk like there was in Dragon Age or the earlier Bioware games.  I got Charon maybe a quarter or a third of the way through my game, and was really happy with him; if I were to play this again, I'd have gotten him even earlier.  By the endgame he had grown somewhat superfluous, but he proved my salvation during the really difficult middle portion when you're often facing a large group of angry Super Mutants.  He doesn't really interact with any of your quests or other conversations, which is annoying; in particular, there are some huge missed opportunities for talkback during the luxury apartments quest.  But he was a capable fighter, and, even more importantly, capable of sneaking.  The AI seems decent  - not great, but better than in Oblivion.  One thing that did annoy me was that he doesn't apply stimpacks in the middle of fights; this generally isn't an issue, but there were a few times that I needed to reload because of this.  Also, he seems to level with you, which is great; he's always less powerful than you, but remains more or less useful.  I kept him well-supplied with a variety of weapons and ammunition, just avoiding grenades (visions of Jayne) and my precious .308 caliber bullets.  Later in the game I got the ultimate power armor, which I didn't particularly care for but which Charon seemed to appreciate.

Speaking of leveling: I was delighted that Bethesda fixed their awful leveling fiasco from Oblivion.  That game was notorious for becoming less fun the more you progressed; smart players tried to beat the game without advancing past the second level.  There seems to be some leveling at play here - by the end of the game I was seeing many more Deathclaws and many fewer Molerats - but it's nowhere near as aggravating as in Oblivion.  It helps that you spend points after leveling, not before; the thing I hated about Oblivion was how enemies would get tougher after I had improved my lockpicking and persuasion skills.  Here, even if you did manage to level primarily by picking locks and hacking into terminals, you could still dump a chunk of your points into your weapon skill and keep pace.  More importantly, though, the difficulty curve seems to keep pace much better.  It remains challenging throughout, but not incredibly annoying as in Oblivion, where a random-encounter bandit would be wearing Daedric armor and kick the tar out of you more effectively than most bosses.

So, the story: I suppose you can really divide it into two parts, the main plot and everything else.  As with other Bethesda games, the main plot is dwarfed by everything else you can do in the game; I'm sure I spent less than 5% of the game time following the primary quest.

The side quests are primarily focused on establishing the mood and setting, and they do a darn fine job at it.  As I mentioned before, the overwhelming theme behind the game is that of scarcity; playing Fallout really helps you appreciate how good we have it in real life.  The side quests tend to be fairly fun.  They're rarely funny, but do often have a sardonic tone to them.  There's a decent amount of variety; the game as a whole is just a bit more combat-heavy than I would like, and this is often true of the quests as well, but you do sometimes get a quest that doesn't require any killing, or one where an alternate approach lets you avoid it.  I like the flavor of the quests, too... there's one where an old woman asks you to find a Stradivarius, which eventually leads you to explore the remains of a decrepit Vault, where you piece together the story of deliberately created insanity that the vault's administrators unleashed upon the musicians within.  There's another one where an incredibly perky woman asks you to collect Nuka-Cola Quantum bottles for her.  All well and good, but her boyfriend, who is trying to seduce her, wants to be your middleman.  Oh, and one of my favorites was a battle between the forces of the Ant-Agonizer and the, er, robot guy whose name currently escapes me.  That was a really fun one, mostly because of the endgame where you could out-talk instead of out-fight them.  And don't forget the big quest, probably one of the first that most people will encounter, where you get to choose whether or not to detonate a nuclear bomb and blow Megaton off the map.  It was stunning to think that this large, rich town where I spent much of the game would be totally missing from an evil characters' game.

Actually, I'm pretty amazed by how much there is to miss.  There's an entire perk called "Puppies!" that I never took, because I never found the character Dogmeat.  He's important enough to get his own perk, and yet totally optional to the game itself, and so incidental that our paths never crossed.  That's another great bit of flavor from this game: the sense of scope and scale itself is amazing.  It's a disintegrating world, and little pockets of people everywhere are trying to follow their best lights and carve out little nests for humanity, and yet they're all separate and independent, broken fragments of shattered civilization.

The main quest is about starting to piece those fragments back together.  I put off the main quest until I'd completed all the side quests I'd stumbled across and all the expansion packs (except for Mothership Zeta, which I did between the first and second parts of the main quest).  The main storyline concerns Project Purity, which was your father's lifelong dream: creating a source of pure, radiation-free water.  Water is critically important in the Wasteland, and is the single thing that most makes outsiders envy the vault-dwellers.  Water is a source of misery and tension, so the hope is that by restoring abundant and clean water, society can rise out of barbarism.


Of course, the dreams of scientists don't always mesh with the ambition of the powerful.  There are a couple of factions at play in Project Purity.  One particularly interesting one is the Brotherhood of Steel; apparently they were significant actors in the original Fallout games, though I must admit that I don't really remember them very clearly.  The main Brotherhood was formed from remnants of the US military, and is focused on retrieving all pre-disaster technology that it can find.  This mission is more important to them than anything so mundane as, say, protecting the innocent; as they state, "We can make more people, but we can't make more laser cannons."  In Fallout 3, you encounter a splinter branch of the Brotherhood which has actually started to focus on defending the Wastelanders and fighting the Super Mutants.  This has caused considerable dissension within their ranks, and a large contingent of California-aligned knights have formed their own subgroup, the Outcasts, which claims to be the true Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood supports Project Purity, but they have their own style, which makes the scientists nervous.  They eventually agree to join forces, and together take the battle against the Enclave, which is descended from the US political elite in the same way that the Brotherhood is descended from the US military.  The Enclave is better-equipped (bearing plasma weapons instead of lasers) and has a strong presence; the Wasteland is filled with peaceful flying drones that broadcast the rambling pronouncements of President Eden.  Both the Enclave and the Brotherhood want to control Project Purity; the Brotherhood claims to be doing it out of generosity; the Enclave, you eventually learn, sees Project Purity as a chance for racial purity, a chance to eliminate all the biologically mutated humanoids who fill the Wasteland.  Even though you've spent most of the game killing these things, you can stand virtuous and reject the Enclave's commands, giving the world the gift of the water of life.

I kind of wish that they'd done a bit more with the Enclave.  You can catch some scenes of internal dissension, as there's a power struggle between Eden and his top military commander.  Anyways, they were nicely sinister, but it seems like there was some unexplored potential there.

Just about the coolest part of the main quest is Liberty Prime.  It's basically Optimus Prime, but even taller, and prone to shouting about "COMMUNISM IS WEAKNESS!  DEMOCRACY IS STRENGTH!  MUST ANNIHILATE THE CHINESE THREAT!"  When he's a-walkin, the buildings are a-rockin'.

The game "ends" once Project Purity comes online.  I'd actually heard (with a vague level of detail) about this when the game first came out: some people were a bit surprised and upset that, in an open-ended sandbox game like this, it would just END when you finish the main story.  From games like Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, etc., we've gotten used to that peaceful post-triumph phase where you can just sort of explore, wrap up some loose ends, and bask in the glory of having saved the world.  Making the game actually stop is a bit more dramatic, but also kind of disconcerting if you weren't expecting it.

Fortunately, since I had the GOTY version, the game didn't really end.  After the heartwarming closing video, I woke up in the emergency room.  The second part of the main quest features the demise of Liberty Prime, which was very sad.  After that you chase down the remnants of the Enclave and fight to take them down.  The action here was fun - there are some great level designs and good puzzles - but it's a bit disappointing to be missing a personable villain like President Eden or Colonel Auburn (sp).  They're just The Enclave, and a bit boring for that.

That said, the final final part of the quest is pretty fun, with lots of nice explosions.  When it was over I was like, "Wait, is that it?"  I talked to some people in-game, then hopped online to check it out.  Yup: that was it.  Kind of the inverse of a game that ends when you don't expect it to. 


Phew!  As you can probably guess, there's still a lot more that I COULD do in Fallout.  With all the unexplored territory out there, I'm sure there are many more optional sidequests waiting for me.  Still, this seems like a great place to say that I'm finished: I've completed the main quest and all the expansions, and even managed to hit Level 30 about halfway through Broken Steel.  The Wasteland still needs heroes, and a new generation will be there to serve them.  I wrote a book that should help show them the way...