Sunday, November 20, 2011


"The Counterlife" is an awesome name for a great book. It continues my erratic wandering through Philip Roth's canon. It hasn't exactly been reverse-chronological, though my overall direction has, of necessity, been backwards. I started with "American Pastoral" in college, which remains not only my favorite Roth book but probably one of my favorite books, period. Since then I've gone through "I Married a Communist", "The Plot Against America," and now, The Counterlife.

Oh, yeah, before I get into Counterlife, I should report briefly on the Roth book that I DIDN'T read. At one point I decided to start reading Roth in chronological order. Not exhaustively, but I wanted to pick, say, his Zuckerman books, and actually read them in the order they were published. I decided to start with his first famous book, "Portnoy's Complaint." Well. I lasted for all of, um, maybe twenty pages, before I gave up and returned the book to the library. I tend not to think of myself as much of a prude, but that book really managed to get under my skin. I think it has much more to do with Roth's brilliant/terrifyingly-gripping use of language, and the insistent voice that the first-person narrator uses, which makes it seem much filthier than it actually is. I mean, I read all of Murakami's books, which have WAY more disturbing sex scenes, but those are conveyed in such a detached, dreamlike fashion that it's easy for me to ignore them. It was impossible for me to ignore Portnoy, and I couldn't imagine putting up with that throughout the whole book, so I gave up. I dunno… I may try again at some point, when I'm more worldly-wise and cynical.

Anyways, the reason I think of this now is that The Counterlife is one of the Zuckerman novels, and it feels much more like a "real" Zuckerman novel to me than the others I've read have. Nathaniel Zuckerman is Roth's alter-ego, a Jewish-American novelist from New Jersey who narrates and appears in many of his books. American Pastoral was technically a Zuckerman novel, but Nathan was hardly in it; he appears in the early pages, describing his childhood with the Swede, and then simply narrates the remainder of the story, disappearing from the action entirely. The Counterlife, in comparison, is almost entirely about Zuckerman. Usually he's on the page, and when he isn't the characters are usually thinking about him. Roth has a great sense of humor about this situation, and he plays around a lot with the author-as-character idea, and much of the book is about writing fiction and fiction's relationship to real life. The in-book equivalent of Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" is Zuckerman's fictional novel "Carnovsky", which does a great job of evoking the same feel as the real book's title. As far as I can tell, Carnovsky's role in Zuckerman's universe is very similar to Portnoy's in ours: it's a shocking, filthy, widely respected book that catapulted its author into literary stardom, and secured him a position as a professional writer. Given this equivalent, it's also tempting and easy to imagine that the other effects of Carnovsky also occurred for Portnoy's Complaint. Zuckerman wrote Carnovsky roughly based on his own childhood; the family in that book is recognizable as his own real-life family, and many (but not all) incidents in that book "really happened." This causes a large rift between Nathan and the other Zuckermans: his parents feel betrayed, and die afterwards of illness without ever having been reconciled. Zuckerman's brother, Henry, also becomes estranged, and they go for many years without speaking to one another. Henry is upset at the way Nathan has betrayed their family's privacy, but he's almost equally as upset that Nathan didn't even faithfully betray it. Nathan uses his family as characters, twisting their actions, putting words in their mouths, in order to serve his literary purposes. This makes people assume that the fictional Carnovsky family's traits are shared by the "real" Zuckerman family, making them seem grotesque.

Anyways… that's almost just background for this book. The plot itself is pretty intriguing, but I should address that under the heading of


The plot of the story: Two grown brothers, who have spent years without speaking to one another, re-enter a fraught relationship. One of the brothers has developed a heart ailment; this is easily treatable by drugs, but a side-effect of the drug leaves him impotent and unable to please his lover. He becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing a slightly risky surgical procedure to fix his heart; everyone, including his lover, opposes this idea, but he decides to go through with it, and something drastic happens after the surgery.

That's the plot. What's cool, though, is that the details are changed and repeated throughout the story. At first, Henry is the brother with the heart problem, and he dies after the operation. Then, he survives the operation, but becomes extremely depressed, and leaves his wife and lover behind when he travels to Israel to join a militant Jewish settlement. In some of these stories, Nathan lives nearby in New York; in others, he lives in England with an English wife. Then, in the later stories, Nathan is the one suffering from impotence and contemplating surgery. Nathan dies, but leaves behind stories in which he survives, and which imagine his future life with his new wife.

It took a while for me to get what was happening. There are only… I think five named chapters in the whole book, and they often go for a long time between section breaks. Sometimes a section break continues the story, sometimes it switches to a parallel track, and sometimes it takes you into another universe. Anyways, I was a bit confused after the part that ended with Henry's funeral and Nathan's conversation with Carol, when the next part began with Henry having fled to Israel. I had initially thought that Roth was opening up the chronology of the story: where we, as readers, had assumed that the funeral took place very shortly after the surgery, we were now reading about a long coda within Henry's life, between his choice and his death. That would have been a cool approach, and I think it sort of works - it's harder to buy Nathan's changes in situation, but you can imagine the people at the funeral being upset about Henry's operation, not because (as we assume) he dies on the table, but because it snaps something in his mind that makes him go on a years-long jag that ends in his death.

Anyways… that's not what happens, which I eventually figured out. We keep getting multiple perspectives and multiple realities; in one really nice bit, there's a long and surprisingly intense account of Nathan's flight from Tel Aviv airport back to London, where a would-be hijacker tries to enlist him in his plot and they both are roughly interrogated; later, we learn that the flight back to London was uneventful, and Nathan had kept busy by writing the story we just read.

I love the title "The Counterlife," and I love how Roth uses that as his operating framework for the novel. A counterlife is still your life, but a fundamentally differently imagined one: a life where you married someone else, where you made a different crucial decision, where you switched roles with someone else. Each individual life is very richly explored and detailed, and whenever we switch to a new counterlife, we come into the new life with an accumulated understanding of the person and their situation which makes the story even richer.

The book gets extremely "meta" towards the end. After Nathan dies, Henry goes through his papers, where he discovers drafts of the book Nathan has been working on. That book is the one we've been reading: it starts with Basel, which is about Henry's affairs with Wendy (his dental assistant) and other women, and his relationship with Carol and his drive to have the surgery. Within "The Counterlife," Henry is incensed; Nathan has taken HIS problem of impotence and projected it onto Henry, reversing their positions. Henry's greatest complaint, though, is fundamental to Nathan's provision: he's an author. Henry's interior monologue seethes and rages at the way Nathan always had to be on top, and wasn't just content with being the best, but felt the need to control others, putting words into their mouths and thoughts in their head inside his books. It's a view of author-as-tyrannical-God that's pretty fascinating.

Once this perspective gets opened up, Roth continues running with this theme through the remainder of the book. In the next section, which picks up the previous storyline by having Nathan return from Israel and reunite with his (fourth) wife, Maria, we learn that Nathan has died, and Maria describes her own experience of going through Nathan's papers; it's yet another counterlife, Maria and Henry, who never "met" in any of these worlds but whose roles reflect one another. Maria also comments on the various stories that we've already read; intriguingly, she also reacts to a story that we haven't yet read, entitled "Christendom," describing which parts of this story were accurate, which were embellished, and how reading that story makes her feel about her relationship with Nathan. "Christendom" ends up being the final chapter in "The Counterlife," and it's a cool shift to now be reading a story after hearing an outsider's gloss, rather than matching a gloss against a story we've already read. "Christendom" ends up being the trickiest and most meta of the stories. In "The Counterlife," none of the stories are finally "real", but form a sort of Ouroboros, each springing from some other story, each writing another story. Characters throughout this book have worried about BEING characters within Nathan's stories, and it seems as though Maria may have suffered this fate. She ultimately rebels against it (and Roth has a nice hat-tip to the literary tradition of characters turning against authors - I thought of Muriel Spark here, though I'm sure there are other examples), leaving Nathan the final task of arguing with a woman who may be his creation, may be his salvation, may be more real than him.

A few other thoughts:

Wow, Roth (and I suppose Nathan) is a master of honoring individuals' perspectives. There aren't straw men anywhere in his book, which is filled with passionate debate between opinionated individuals. He lets a character go on for pages and pages, building a highly persuasive argument, to the point where you're convinced that this is what Roth intends us to believe; then he lets Nathan or someone else respond, just as eloquently and as long. The authorial weight ends up supporting Nathan's perspectives, but by the end of the book I felt like this was Nathan's authorial weight, not Roth's. The book seems to support the idea that Nathan is kind of a bully, who gets to give himself the final word, even if along the way he tries to craft his opponents as carefully and widely as possible.

To give one specific example: during Nathan's trip to Israel, Mordecai Lippman comes across as a villain, and one of the biggest examples of this is his sneering disdain for Western niceties such as treaties and human rights. To Lippman, all that matters is strength, force, the ability of one group to exert their desires over another group. To Nathan, this is anathema, and one of the most morally dangerous aspects of Henry's association with the group. Much later on, the last few pages of the book deal with the future of Nathan's and Maria's potential, presumed son. Nathan has an interior, and then an exterior, diatribe against the christening of his son; he's horrified at the thought of doing it, and calls out and then browbeats Maria into acknowledging that this superstitious, religious ritual has no place on their son. Then, in the next stage, Maria responds with her own nascent fear: that Nathan will insist on circumcision for their son. Now, from a purely humanistic, secular, disinterested standpoint, there is almost no difference between christening and circumcision. If anything, as Maria gently notes, circumcision is the worse of the two: it's a traumatic pain inflicted on a young child. Nathan isn't religious, so will he be satisfied to spare his child this ritual? The book's last page has Nathan's response: no, absolutely not; as much as he wants Maria back, he will insist on their child being circumcised. He can't even muster a very persuasive argument, arguing that the pain is itself important, a crucial waking-up of the child to the cruelties of the world and the necessity of retreating into your own people-group. Nathan the author is explicitly giving himself the last word in the novel; however, I think that Roth the author expects us to draw the parallel between Nathan and Lippman. Nathan, for all his sophistication, intelligence, and charm, is as much of a bully as Lippman is, and has no more moral justification for what he does. He wants his family's traditions to continue, and not those of his wife's family, because… well, because he's more powerful (richer, older, smarter), and can get away with it.

As with… well, pretty much all Roth books that I've read, Jewishness in general and the American-Jewish identity in particular are important themes to the book. I think it's more central here than anything else I've read; not necessarily throughout the whole book, but certainly the middle chapters in Israel are almost entirely preoccupied with these questions of race, culture, identity, and politics; and even the sections that aren't explicitly about Jewish identity are still mostly about Nathan, and as we learn throughout the book, Nathan has been certainly shaped by his experiences. Most of the book paints a positive picture of American assimilation and the opportunities for Jewish people in this country, which has largely escaped the deeply ingrained anti-semitism of Europe. As Nathan points out towards the end, though, he tends to be in a contrary position no matter where he goes: in Israel, surrounded by Jews, he defends the goyim and downplays the importance of Jewish identity; in England, surrounded by bigots, he passionately argues for a visible and strong Jewish identity. I'm not sure exactly what Roth's main point is, if he has one, but it's a very powerful one. Not for the first time, I find myself kind of wishing that I knew what it felt like to grow up Jewish in a majority-Christian culture; I'm guessing that someone with that background would have a more deeply emotional connection with the themes that Roth likes to use in his books.


I have absolutely no regrets about reading American Pastoral, and think it's still my favorite, but I do think that The Counterlife is at LEAST as tempting of a book to use in a college-level English Lit class. There are just so many directions you can go with it, it's such a great (and un-annoying) example of post-modernist literature, so many various themes (political, cultural, personal, relational, familial) that could be plumbed for paper topics… not to mention that it's a fairly easy read (not too light, but not needlessly ornate either), sectioned well to fit into a syllabus. It isn't something like Ulsysses, which I don't think I could have read outside of a class, but I think this good book could get even better with the guidance and discussion of a focused class.

Hmmm, that's a fun experiment… in the unbelievably tiny chance that I ever do teach a college English lit class, what would I want to teach in it? That might be a good topic for a future blog post!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mecklenburger with Extra Cheese

There are many things to fear in the world today. Nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue states. Encountering a serious medical illness without any insurance. The collapse of the global financial system. Personally, though, I'm terrified of what will happen to my life now that I've discovered that I can install games on my laptop and play it in bed.

Due to reasons too complex to get into at the moment, I've had to temporarily box up my PC, which used to be a combination dual-boot Linux/Windows box for Programming/Gaming respectively, but since moving over to a MacBook Pro for my development, it's pretty much just been a dedicated PC gaming system. I'm really bummed to have put it away, because I'd finally gotten started on the Mass Effect trilogy - yes, I decided to extend my incredibly fun play-through of Baldur's Gate into my first experience with Bioware's other phenomenal RPG series, and am vaguely hoping to finish the second game at the exact same time that the third entry arrives in 2012.

Be that as it may: I'm a geek, I need games. Fortunately, I have an old black MacBook that isn't getting used, so I decided to repurpose it as my stopgap gaming solution. I installed Steam on it, and started clicking around. I had vaguely thought that I might finally get around to checking out those fun Sam & Max games, but good lord, they're still expensive! Well, I guess not too expensive compared to shrink-wrapped AAA titles, but still, I'm pretty sure they cost as much as they did when I played the demo four years ago. I kept looking. The Steam offerings for Mac are much more limited than for PC, but a few titles are available cross-platform. I was briefly tempted by Civ V, which has seen a pretty nice price cut, but eventually decided that a price cut for a sub-par game still isn't that great a deal. I'll be sticking with my original plan for Civ V, and wait for the inevitable "Ultimate" version, which will include all the DLC stuff and hopefully fix all the things that apparently make it not fun. (And, if we're really lucky, maybe even have an ending of some sort!)

My browsing eventually led me to Europa Universalis III, which triggered some dim recognition. It's one of those things where I've heard about the series for a while, without ever being too clear about exactly what it is. I read a few brief summaries, saw some positive reviews, double-checked the cost, and bought it. I got the "Complete" version, which, amusingly enough, includes only two of the four expansions: it has Napoleon's Ambition and In Nomine, but not Heir to the Throne or Divine Wind. Which is totally fine by me - as a complete neophyte to the series, I was happy approaching a (slightly) smaller body of work.

EU3 belongs to a tradition of computer strategy games that... I guess I might call them something like "Historic simulation strategy games". The first game of this sort that I remember playing was Castles 2 for DOS. Interestingly enough, the original Castles does not belong to this sub-genre; it was more like Sim Castle combined with a primitive tower defense game and extremely enjoyable choose-your-own-adventure plotlines. Castles 2, though, was played in western Europe, specifically France and the northeastern portions of Spain. The map was divided into provinces, each of which was owned by a particular faction. Most of these factions were competing against one another for supremacy over France, but there was also a separate (non-playable) faction for the Church, who everyone had to be nice to. Anyways, in the game you would start off with a single province, and over time you would discover your neighbors; make friends with some and allies with others; attack and try to capture other provinces; build castles to defend your own against enemies; raise armies; and kiss up to the Pope so he will crown you the King. I think it also had some stuff with money and taxes and things.

Well, EU3 is basically that same style of gameplay, but much more refined, with much better graphics (though still chunky by today's standards), and applied to a broader span of history and geography. In between Castles 2 and EU3, I would place the "Total War" series of games as well; I haven't played those as much, but they seem to fit into the same general mold of historically-flavored games that let you lead a country's military and diplomacy in a quest for sovereignty.

Now, if you're like me, you're thinking, "Wait, so isn't this like Civilization?" I'd say that Civ is the most abstracted manifestation of this type. Civ games are incredibly broad and incredibly generic: you can play them on any map, not necessarily Earth; they contain the entire span of human existence, from the Stone Age through the nuclear age; and they cover an incredible range of inner gameplay components, not just armies and spies but also scientific research, spacecraft construction, etc. Historical simulation games trade in some of that generic quality in order to get more detail: instead of the world being a map of squares (or hexes), it's a, well, map, with different countries of different sizes, with realistic borders drawn between them. The games don't need to include spearmen or mechanized infantry; instead, they can accurately portray the progressive improvements offered by halberds, longbows, muskets, and rifles. A game like Civ will either omit religion altogether or treat it fairly generically; here, there's a specific game just around Catholicism, which includes influencing cardinals to gain control of the Curia, excommunicating rivals, calling crusades, and counter-reforming Protestantism. So, they're different beasts, and while in the past I've tended to prefer Civ's endless variability, in this game I found myself deeply enjoying the detailed world offered.

That said, EU3 has much more in common with Civ than other historical simulation games I've played. Specifically, it includes a technology investment and advancement path. Unlike Civ, you don't research specific discoveries like "The Wheel" and "Metallurgy". Instead, you divide your investment into multiple general areas: Trade, Government, Production, Naval, and Land. Unlike Civ, where at any given time you're researching one technology to the exclusion of everything else, in EU3 you are generally advancing at about the same pace around each of these lines; although you can certainly adjust your priorities to focus more on a subset of technologies, which means you'll advance in them relatively more quickly, but it's nearly impossible to actually cease research in one field. So usually, you'll be operating at a certain tech level, then will advance in a bunch of different fields around the same time, then operate at that new level for a while level.

The benefits of advancement are a mixture of specific additions, as in Civ, and incremental improvements. The specific additions might be unlocking a new form of government; gaining the ability to recruit a new type of regiment or build a new type of ship; being able to form monopolies in centers of trade; etc. These big additions are usually spaced several levels apart, so you'll need to research a technology multiple times before you start seeing significant differences. In the meantime, though, almost every level you advance gives you an incremental improvement, which seems minor at each level but becomes very significant cumulatively. For example, every level of Trade you learn boosts your trade efficiency/income; new levels of Naval will often increase your colonization range and boost your navies' morale, and so on. Sometimes, as with Government, you might need to take a level that doesn't provide any direct benefit, but is still a necessary step to reach the more important benefits at higher levels.

Man... I could spend hours writing about the mechanics of the game, which are fascinating and complex. I'll try to hold off. There's definitely a pretty steep learning curve. I started out by playing the tutorials, which was kind of a mixed bag. The first set of tutorials are more like an on-screen manual, with nice long expository descriptions of the various interfaces, but not a lot of interactivity.

Next come the tutorial missions. One tutorial has you play as Portugal, and has a good set of well-described progressive goals you need to undertake: basically you need to colonize the Azores, then recruit an Explorer, then send a ship westward to discover Cuba, then build colonies on Cuba. Now, the exploration/colonization game is just one small and largely optional sub-game within EU3, but the tutorial did a really good job of giving you hands-on experience with this task. The other tutorial, though, was just totally flubbed. You're playing one of the minor landlocked Germanic kingdoms, and your very first task is to move an army into an adjacent province. However, it's impossible to select the army to move. After spending several embarrassing minutes wondering what I was doing wrong, I finally started googling, and learned that Paradox had accidentally broken the tutorial when they updated the European map for the expansion - basically, they had created a new independent kingdom, but the tutorial was still set up to use the old kingdom, which now no longer controls the territory with the unit you're supposed to move. I know, it's silly - they should have just removed the tutorial altogether.

After this, I cracked open the PDF copy of the manual. It's a nice, old-fashioned strategy game manual, about 150 pages long and including detailed explanations of the game mechanics, nice big charts filled with data, and some good strategy tips. The manual was actually more helpful to me than the tutorials had been, and also gave some good advice on the overall philosophy and attitude I should take towards the game: there really isn't a way to "beat" EU3, like there are victory conditions in Civ, so they say that most players will set personal goals for themselves for each game. I totally get, and love, this approach. One of my (many, many) favorite Civ experiences was playing the Civ 2 WW2 scenario as Francisco Franco's Spain. It's totally impossible for Spain to "win" this scenario, but it's really fun to play around in that historical period as a minor power and try to come out of it more strongly than they actually did. I also learned while reading the manual that, unlike Civ and most other strategy games, it's nearly impossible to conquer or annihilate an opponent. As with history, there are plenty of wars, and often winners and losers, but very rarely does a loser get swallowed up by a winner; instead, losers generally need to pay some sort of reparations, and perhaps surrender some territories, but will continue to exist in a diminished form. It's basically impossible, therefore, to "conquer the world," so you need to come up with your own yardstick for success: perhaps to become the world's wealthiest nation, or the first to colonize America, or to completely control the East Indies, or whatever. (Personally, I think I'd like to someday play a game as Byzantium in 1399, and simply try to survive into the 16th century.)

While I did generally love the manual, I was disappointed later to learn that Steam was being stingy with the manuals. The two expansions in the Complete game don't just add content, but actually revamp many of the game's rules, as well as significantly rework the technology tree. This actually caused significant problems in my main game (which I'll get to in a bit), specifically because the way they handle the Holy Roman Empire changed quite a bit, and I wasted a lot of time pursuing the emperorship when it actually was a very poor match for the type of game I was planning on playing. I was able to find a PDF manual for In Nomine later online, but it only describes the changes specific to that expansion, and I still haven't been able to find a manual for Napoleon's Addition. It's perplexing that Steam doesn't just have all three manuals in the store.

So, on to the game!

As is generally the case when I'm playing a brand-new strategy game, I tried a couple of games first, going as far as I could and learning the ropes and then stopping once I'd played myself into a corner. I had an idea that I wanted to play as a small trading-focused nation. This is actually an excellent suggestion from the manual directed at new players; they recommend your first game to avoid combat as much as possible, even if it means paying tribute to larger and meaner countries, and to focus on the game's economic systems at first; after getting comfortable with those, they recommend trying out one or two minor wars against weaker countries, and waiting until future games to get involved in major wars. So, based on my vague recollections of European history, I figured that the Netherlands would be a good country to play as.

In one of the many differences from Civ, EU3 does not start with all the nations at the beginning of the game. The first thing you need to do is choose a starting year to play, and then to pick a country that existed at that time. This means that you can't play as the Netherlands in 1399, and you can't play as Byzantium in 1650. Now, the Netherlands came into existence during the Eighty Years' War, which started in 1568, when the Dutch tried to become independent from Spain. I was reluctant to play as the Netherlands during this time, since I didn't want to fight a war right off the bat. Instead, I decided to start in 1650, shortly after the end of that war. However, I soon learned that, while the Netherlands were no longer at war with Spain, they were now at war with Portugal. Furthermore, I realized that the Netherlands had already established significant colonial interests in the New World (including Manhattan!), extending all the way down to the northern coast of South America. Portugal, of course, had significant interests in the same region, particularly massive holdings in Brazil. It looked like I'd have to defend a disparate empire across northern and southern hemispheres, and both in Europe and the New World. Ugh. That might be fun, but not for a beginner.

I decided that I wanted to start in a simpler era, before the New World was found, with a nation at peace with everyone. I went to the earliest possible year, 1399, and started checking my options. The game gives a nice high-level overview of each nation you select, which doesn't just include the nations they're allied with and at war with, but also a summary of their relative military, economic, and diplomatic might, and a representation of how easy or hard it should be to play as that country. The pre-set "bookmarks" on the left side of the screen give you the interesting dates to start playing, and also a set of the interesting nations during that period. After looking through that list, I settled on England, who was bigger than I had planned on playing but who was at peace with everyone and seemed to be fairly well off.

I played as England for several decades, and had a great time - I learned a lot, though I certainly didn't do very well. One of the interesting things that EU3 added to the game was the idea of a national goal. At any given time, your country might have a general goal, like "Improve our army" or "Increase our wealth." However, they can also assign historical goals that are appropriate for your nation and time. The goals are optional, and there's no penalty to ignoring them, but the game gives you extra bonuses if you achieve the goal: for example, building your treasury up to 100 ducats might give a bonus of another 10 ducats, and becoming the controller of the Curia might give you 5 prestige points. Anyways, as England, my goal was to conquer Ireland.

Now, militarily, this didn't seem too hard. I had a nice big navy to move around my troops, and certainly outnumbered the few Irish armies on the island. However, in practice, this proved to be extremely difficult. In EU3, unlike Civ, declaring war is surprisingly hard. The game strongly encourages you to declare a "Casus Belli", a justification for your war, before you start fighting. Valid casus belli can include things like attacks on your allies, or reclaiming a province that your nation previously owned. In the case of Ireland, though, I didn't really have a good excuse for starting a war. The Irish were independent, they were at peace with me and the rest of the world, and we didn't really have alliances that would draw us into conflict. I technically still could have unilaterally declared war; but between the lack of a casus belli, and the fact that we were both Catholic, and that I was the aggressor, would have destroyed Henry IV's reputation, and plunged England into a period of deep instability. To make matters worse, I had to conquer ALL of Ireland, which I think was something like four other provinces besides the one I already controlled, and they were controlled by three or four separate clans (Munster, Ulster, etc.), which meant that eventually I'd need to declare war on all three or four of them, taking an enormous diplomatic hit for each. Yikes.

I decided to focus on Ulster, and spent years sending diplomats there specifically to insult them. This lowered our relationship down, eventually hitting the minimum of -200. It also gave Ulster a casus belli against ME, meaning that they could declare war on me even though I couldn't declare war against them, but they refused to take the bait. Which makes sense - they could probably see the regiments I had massed in Belfast, staring hungrily at their lone defender. So, they gritted their teeth, and smiled, and kept the peace.

While I was busy pulling faces at Ireland, Charles VI of France was on a rampage. He rapidly gained control of the Papacy, began excommunicating his rivals, and sending his armies on the march. Before too long, I found myself at war with him. This was another entanglement thing: I had ownership of a few provinces in France, not just the Normandy that I expected, but also one or two provinces on the southern Atlantic coast. A minor kingdom had a claim to one of those provinces, so it declared war on me; and, since he was allied to France and Scotland, I soon found myself at war with both of them.

I decided to write off those two southern provinces, which I actually hadn't realized I owned until they were already under siege. Instead, I moved to take Brittany, then consolidated my forces for a massive assault on Scotland. I wanted to create a united island, a Great Britain if you will, and after seeing how hard it was to declare war on Ireland, I decided I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to defeat Scotland.

So, that's how I got exposed to the combat of EU3. It's really interesting, quite different from fighting in Civ or other strategy games I've played. For starters, combat takes a long and variable amount of time. Occasionally a battle might be over in a few days, if a powerful army is pummeling a demoralized opponent, but it isn't at all unusual for a major battle to stretch over multiple months. Each side of the fight is composed of multiple regiments of infantry and cavalry (and, in the future, artillery), and each can be led by a general or conquistador. Leadership can confer some extremely critical advantages to the battle, and oftentimes a small, disciplined fighting force will win a battle against a much larger but poorly led enemy.

Fighting itself happens automatically; you can watch a window that visualizes the progress of the battle, but unlike games such as Total War, you don't take any direct control of the battlefield. There are two main variables to keep track of during the fight. The one you would think is most important is the size of each army. As the battle goes on, the two sides whittle down the opposing forces, as each count gradually shrinks towards zero. However, it almost never actually reaches that. The second factor, morale, is actually the most important factor. Each side can gain a little morale when it's successful in an attack; each loses more morale when it loses a round. There are a ton of behind-the-scenes factors that play into morale, such as the morale of the underlying units, their leadership, how much support you've been providing, and any losses they suffered shortly before the start of this battle. Because the battle continues across multiple days (or weeks or months), each side can elect to move reinforcing armies into the province, where their numbers and morale will shore up support on their side. Once one side's morale reaches zero, then it breaks and flees into an adjacent province. The victorious army takes the field. At this point, if the enemy owns the province, the winner can settle down and lay siege to the capital, hoping to eventually gain control of the province; otherwise, it may elect to pursue the enemy to continue the fight.

So, much like territorial exchanges are much less absolute in EU3 than in Civ, so are military conflicts much less absolute. Suppose that you have an army that consists of five infantry regiments led by a general. This army is defeated. In Civ, depending on which version you were playing and whether you were defending a fortress, either all five units would be wiped out or one unit would be permanently eliminated. In EU3, though, a likely outcome is that your 5000-man force has been diminished to only 2000 survivors, perhaps (for the sake of simplicity) 400 survivors in each regiment. The general might die after losing, but usually he'll survive. If your army moves back into friendly territory, then over time it will automatically, albeit slowly, repair itself: it will recruit new soldiers from the local populace, its morale will gradually recover from the punishment it took, and finally it will be back at full strength.

Therefore, unlike Civ wars, which are almost always wars of attrition, where you try to eliminate an enemy's units and capture their cities, wars in EU3 are more about gaining strategic position: figuring out which battles to fight, spending the time to subdue local populaces, keeping forces in reserve so you can respond to the shifting demands of the battlefield. Depending on the nature of the conflict, sometimes it will be more important that you chase the King of Scotland all the way across the highlands so you can definitively eliminate his army; or it might be more important to lay siege to Brittany to secure your claim to that province while the King of France retreats home to lick his wounds. I do like this kind of decision-making challenge.

 In my case: I fought a LONG and epic battle with King Robert III (who was both the ruler and the general of the Scots), which stretched over multiple months and actually gave me time to recruit entirely fresh regiments and add them to the battle before it was over. He finally fled, and I settled into a pattern where I would leave a few of my troops behind to lay siege to the province, while the remainder of my forces would chase Robert as he fell back to another province. We finally won a decisive victory over him after six or so battles, and then settled in for the long and painstaking task of capturing his castles. He kept sending me emissaries with increasingly frantic terms for his surrender. I held out until I'd captured every last one of his provinces, even the dinky island in the northwest, and then finally sent a diplomat to finalize the war's outcome.

That's yet another interesting factor within EU3: it draws a distinction between "controlling" a province and "owning" it. During a war, you can gain "control" of the province after a successful siege; this means that the enemy will no longer be able to reinforce there or issue build orders, but it isn't actually part of your realm yet. Ownership can't change hands during a war, it can only happen as part of the negotiated end to a conflict. And, even though I had CRUSHED Scotland, defeating all of their armies and taking all of their provinces (well, at least the ones in Britain; I think they still had some in France), I couldn't just take all their territory. It turned out that I could take everything except for two provinces: they couldn't surrender their capital, and I decided to also give them that dinky little island. We signed the peace deal. Next I negotiated with France, who was leading the alliance against me. Even though I had done rather poorly on the Continent, I think some of my victory in Britain added to their overall perception of me, so I was able to negotiate for a "white peace", which basically meant that everything went back to how it was before - I got back my southwestern French provinces, and nobody owed anybody anything.

That was all pretty fun, but I felt like I'd gone about as far as I could in that game and still have fun. I still wasn't making any progress on Ireland, I was close to broke, and had neglected everything else while I learned the ropes about combat. England is pretty huge, and I found myself longing for the simplicity of learning on a minor power. So, I started a new game.

This time I also started in 1399, but skipped the list of suggested/interesting nations, all of which were too big and/or too poor for my tastes. Instead I manually clicked around on the map, paying particular attention to each country's economic rating. I finally found something that sounded pretty perfect - a tiny little northern Germanic country called Mecklenburg, with virtually no military, some minor diplomacy, and a pretty substantial economy. I realized that Mecklenburg was the country that controlled Lubeck, one of the major Centers of Trade in Europe. I haven't written yet about CoTs; they're pretty important, though there isn't a huge advantage to directly owning them, at least I wouldn't need to worry about anyone banning my merchants from there, which had happened a few times when I was playing as England. It looked like Mecklenburg would give me a solid start on my goal of becoming a strong economic power, without making me micromanage a bunch of wars or a large territory.

I could tell after playing for just a short while that EU3 was delivering the goods: it could actually be fun to play as a tiny little country. This is something that was impossible in Civ up until Civ IV, and even then, you still needed to hit a certain size in order to be competitive. (Apologies for the constant references to Civ, by the way - it's by far the game I've played most often, and so it's my closest frame of reference to EU3.) Part of this comes down to the economy - without getting into too much detail, part of your economy comes from production, which measures how much stuff your country actually produces. Large countries, like England and France, will have a large production; similarly, medium-sized countries that produce very valuable resources will also make a lot of money from production. However, there's also a parallel economic system, one based on trade. Trade is conducted in major financial cities, known as Centers of Trade, each of which is the locus for economic activity in a geographic region. The Center of Trade produces income from all the buying and selling of resources that happen within that center's region. Your country can capture some of that income by dispatching merchants to set up shop there. If your nation's values prioritize cut-throat market competition, then you'll be able to capture a portion of the trade for your merchants, and your country will tax some of their income.

That's all pretty complex, and it took me a while to really grok how it worked, but once I did, I loved it. As with all good strategy games, you need to choose between multiple good options: is it better to send your new merchant to the wealthiest CoT like Lubeck, where he'll need to compete against a crowded market? Or should you send him to a quieter and relatively poorer CoT like Lisboa, where he'll certainly be able to get a seat at the table but will produce less income for you?

I started focusing on optimizing my trade income. Part of this was a patient and steady process of sending out merchants to the best centers of trade. There are quite a few in Europe at the start of the game: Lisboa, Andalucia, Ile-de-France, Antwerpen (which, amazingly, includes all of the modern UK in its region), Lubeck, Venetia, Genoa, Alexandria. I had a slight advantage in Lubeck, which was also the richest CoT, so I soon had maximized my presence there, and was climbing up the ranks in the other cities. At the same time, I was adjusting my national policy. Part of this had to do with adopting the proper "National Idea" - these are powerful bonuses that you can choose from; early in the game you can only select one of about 20 options, but as your Government level advances you can start picking more. Anyways, I found one that boost my Trade Efficiency by 10% - that doesn't sound like much, but that's 10 basis points, which in the early part of the game effectively doubled the income I was receiving from my merchants. That allowed me to pour much more funding into my research, which in turn helped me improve my Trade level, further boosting my efficiency and income still more.

You can also adjust a series of sliders, each of which offers choices along a continuum between two extremes. These are pretty fascinating options, for the most part; they include stuff like Aristocracy/Plutocracy, Serfdom/Free Subjects, Land/Sea, Quality/Quantity, and Mercantilism/Free Trade. That last one actually ended up being an interesting choice for me to mull over - Free Trade boost your trade efficiency, and helps you compete for trade abroad, while Mercantilism gives you an advantage in CoTs that you own. Now, since I did control Lubeck, I would actually gain some benefit from Mercantilism; but it was already quite clear that Lubeck alone wasn't nearly enough, and I would be competing in a dozen or so CoTs by the end of the game, so I started moving my nation towards unfettered Free Trade. The game prevents you from moving too hastily towards new policies, so there's a cooling-off period of about a decade after each time you adjust one of your sliders a notch.

Oh, yeah! I knew I wasn't going to talk about game mechanics, but... there's also this thing called a "National Decision". These represent historic choices made by your country or similar countries. You need to meet certain requirements, and then, if you opt for the decision, it has a set of impacts, which may include both good and bad elements. Fairly early on, I was able to make the decision to join something called the, uh, Hanseatic League (that's probably misspelled). This did some nice things, like improve my relations with Denmark and improve our trade efficiency, but it also made further adjustments to my sliders, pushing me even further towards Free Trade. Hooray! I took some time to look through all the National Decisions - even though most of these aren't available early on, and I doubt I'll ever meet the requirements for some of them (like one to unify Germany), I wanted to pick out the ones that I'd eventually want to make, and factor those effects in when I made my choices for the policy sliders, national ideas, and other game choices.

Because I'd been avoiding combat, I'd been able to focus entirely on trade, with the effect that after playing for a while, I was reaching my maximum possible position in the various centers of trade. This was a problem on a couple of levels. First of all, I worried that I'd become stagnant; my economic growth had been rapid, but I was reaching a ceiling for the income I could bring in from trade alone; meanwhile, my more conventional rivals could continue to grow by taking territory from one another or increasing their already substantial populations. Secondly, the game places a limit on the number of un-dispatched merchants you can keep around, so after I had 5 of them in my pool, I wouldn't gain any more. This meant that I'd just be wasting that resource, similarly to how I was already wasting my Colonist and Missionary specialists, neither of whom I could really use.

And so, I was delighted to see that I was very organically being pulled by forces that absolutely mirrored those affecting 15th-century Europeans, with exactly the same results. Namely, I needed to find new trade routes, and expand into new markets. Just to emphasize: the game does NOT force you to do this, and I could certainly have contented myself with fooling around inside Europe for the next hundred years or so. But, my trading-centric game had picked up a serious momentum, and I felt like the invisible hand of the free market was pulling me out to explore the unknown.

Now: Mecklenburg is in northern Germany, and at the start of the game your map includes all of central and western Europe, the north coast of Africa, the Mediterranean, and Scandinavia. By clicking on each province, you can find the Center of Trade that it trades in. For most provinces, these were well-known locations like Antwerpen and Venetia. Provinces at the edge of Europe, though, traded in cities that I had not yet discovered: Novogrod for central and eastern European countries, and Samarkand for Asia Minor. Those seemed like worthy goals for me: they were likely close to my known map, and once I found the cities, I'd be able to start sending my merchants there. And so, unlike the westward-driven expansion of Christopher Columbus and his ilk, I initially pressed eastward, drawn by the riches of the Orient, much like Marco Polo had a century before.

Like Civ, each area of the map can be in one of three states. Provinces that you own or have units stationed in will be visible to you: you can see details about the land and adjacent armies. Provinces that you have previously visited will be covered by the fog of war; you can see details about the territory, such as who it belongs to and how wealthy it is, but not see what units it holds. Provinces that you've never visited are invisible to you; in EU3, they're labeled as "Terra Incognita". Unlike in Civ, discovering these provinces isn't as simple as just moving a unit inside them. Instead, you'll need to recruit a special type of leader: a Conquistador for land-based armies, or an Explorer for navies. Once you recruit them, you'll assign them to an army or navy (basically a stack of units), and then you can issue orders for them to enter the new lands. The initial discovery takes quite a while, but once it's on your map, you'll be able to move regular armies in there as well at a quicker rate. Of course, discovering a new province will then reveal further terra incognita beyond its borders, so your exploration tends to get drawn progressively farther.

I recruited a Conquistador and attached him to a small army of Latin Knights and Men-at-Arms. Some earlier national goals had directed me to build up an army and a navy, so I was happy to have some units available to do something other than sit at home. I'd previously negotiated Military Access agreements with all of my immediate neighbors in the Holy Roman Empire, and as I moved east I signed new agreements with farther powers like Hungary and the Ottomans. In many cases, particularly where we practiced different religion (typically Orthodox for eastern Europeans and Islam for everyone else), I would first improve our relations by making several generous monetary gifts; again, with my enormous treasury, I could easily afford to do so.

My conquistador wandered for a bit, eventually discovering Novogrod and then pushing south towards Astrakhan, the economic heart of the Ottoman empire. By now I had started seeing some references to Samarkand, and so I started looking for that, only to soon be startled by the discovery that it was already on my map. All the provinces around it were still Terra Incognita, but Samarkand itself was visible; not only that, but some of my European rivals had already sent merchants there. Interesting. As far as I can tell, when one nation in your geographic region has discovered a new province, it will automatically be made visible to other nations after an interval; I must have just gotten lucky to have seen this.

My conquistador continued to press farther into Asia. Aided by my modern sense of geography, I could usually intuit roughly where each named Center of Trade was likely to be found; for example, I looked for Tehran at the south of the Caspian Sea. At each new center of trade, I quickly dispatched all of my available merchants, and instructed the game to keep on sending more traders until I had reached my maximum penetration. Few of these new centers of trade were anywhere near as wealthy as Lubeck, but each had a total trade value of at least a hundred or so ducats, and since competition was much less frenzied than in Europe I knew I'd be able to make back my investment over time. My coup de grace came near the end of my decades-long march eastward, when I finally discovered the economic center of the Ming dynasty: this was the richest CoT in the entire world, bigger even than Lubeck, and I was the only European with a seat at the table. Within a few months I had dominated that, too, and thus had tapped the wealth of the largest and richest empire in the entire world.

Around this same time, I decided that it would be good to start exploring overseas as well. I was discovering new CoTs rapidly enough to keep my merchants busy, but sooner or later I'd dominate all of them, and then be back to my old risk of stagnation, albeit at a higher level. So, I recruited a couple of explorers, made some small navies, and sent them off. One of them consisted only of Galleys, and was sent westward across the Atlantic. A larger one had both Galleys and Cogs, and I sent this one down the coast of West Africa, with the goal of eventually circling the Cape of Good Hope and reuniting with my conquistador army. This larger navy also carried a small army of its own, led by a new Conquistador, with whom I planned to explore the interior of Africa.

Exploring water areas follows the same mechanics as exploring land provinces, but the strategy is quite different. When your armies are marching across peaceful, civilized lands, they can keep on going forever without stopping. Ships, though, are constantly at risk: they're less likely to encounter combat, but every month that they spend at sea they will take damage and weaken. Once it weakens enough, a ship is destroyed, and any land units on board will perish. So, where my land explorations are a steady progressive march, my sea explorations are a steadily lengthening yo-yo. A ship will venture into uncharted waters slowly, expanding my visibility into the sea lanes; once it starts taking too much damage, I'll order it to quickly return to the nearest safe port. (Fortunately, you can repair in any water-bordering province with which you have Military Access; it would have been unacceptably slow if I'd needed to return to Mecklenburg after each expedition.) The ship will spend several months repairing damage, then head out again. This time, it will be able to move more quickly through the previously-explored territory, spend a bit more time driving farther into the void, before returning back again. After a couple of iterations of this, my ships got to the point where it made more sense for them to keep pushing across the Atlantic than to return home. Fortunately, we had entered the Caribbean, then found provinces controlled by the Mayans. I gifted them some ducats, then a month later desperately asked for access. They acquiesced. My ship gratefully docked, and spent nearly a year repairing its hulls, but I was satisfied to have opened a passage to the New World.

Meanwhile, my other navy had sailed past some uncivilized provinces in the west of Africa, but then encountered Mali, which was fairly friendly. We came to an agreement, and I sent out my conquistador to start exploring while my ships prepared for the next push down the coast. Mali and its neighbors actually had two Centers of Trade, including one in Gobir and neither of which was worth much at all. Still, I went ahead and started dispatching additional merchants there. I had decided that a worthwhile goal would be to dominate every center of trade in the world, no matter how puny.

Most of Africa is uncivilized, and actually available for colonization once your range is large enough. Not only that, but the vast center of Africa - Darkest Africa in turn-of-the-century parlance - is Permanent Terra Incognita, which you can never explore during the game. Once I had mapped out all of the provinces actually occupied by African nations and found my CoTs, I re-boarded my conquistador on the ship and kept sailing. Coming up the east side of Africa, we found a port in Somalia, where I rested before continuing into the Indian Ocean and meeting up with the people previously encountered by my Asian Conquistador.

Out of all the National Decisions available to Mecklenburg, there are actually only three or so that seemed appealing to me. One of those, though, was VERY appealing: founding the Indian Trading Company. This would provide some massive benefits to my trading-centric country, like increasing my trade efficiency, improving my chance at competing for new trade, and giving me a permanent boost to my Trade Research, along with some other goodies. In order to make the decision, though, I needed to own an East Asian trade port province. Now, if you're like me, when you hear "East Asian", you probably assume that means "Oriental", right? As in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. Well, it turns out that the game thinks that "East Asian" means south Asian - the "East Asian Trade Ports" region consists of India and the islands to its south.

There were some uncolonized islands out here, but they were on the opposite side of the planet from my capital, and I knew it would take ages, if ever, before I'd be able to colonize them. Hmm... how about a war, then? My entire army was now in Asia, and some of them had proven themselves well when fighting against African natives. I wouldn't need to carve out a large empire, only a single province, in order to take this Decision. I saved the game, and started looking for targets.

As we all learned from The Princess Bride, the most-known classic blunder is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Fortunately, many of the eligible "East Asian" provinces were located on islands. I initially considered Ceylon, which was a nice single-province island that would be easy to defend; unfortunately, Ceylon had alliances with several Indian states, and I didn't want to get involved in a major war. I kept looking and exploring, trying to find an island-based country that was diplomatically isolated. I finally found a target: one of the islands of modern-day Indonesia. It consisted of about six provinces, two of which were uncolonized, three led by another nation, and a small island hanging off the far east. I unloaded my army into the uncolonized area, canceled our military access (to avoid a blow to my reputation), then declared war and marched in.

My opponent had a substantial navy, which led to some interesting and difficult fighting. I had an explorer with mediocre combat bonuses, leading a fleet of 7 galleys and 5 cogs. Cogs, of course, are useless in a fight, and galleys get a substantial combat penalty when fighting on the ocean like we were doing. He had a decent admiral and a fleet of four carracks, which are larger and more powerful ships. So, his navy was made of more powerful ships, but mine was larger. I eventually decided to cash in some of the substantial Naval Tradition I'd been accumulating as I mapped the ocean, and get an Admiral. This guy had AWESOME combat bonuses. I split my fleet, sent the explorer to keep mapping the area around Malaysia, and assigned the Admiral to lead my galleys in combat. In the very first battle, we managed to capture one of his Carracks. I hadn't lost any ships, but they were all pretty weakened, so we retreated to Brunei to repair. By the time I had recovered, he was also at full strength. I didn't manage to capture any more of his ships, but we kept winning each skirmish we had. Each time he would retreat farther, and in our subsequent fights, his low morale would cause him to quickly flee. At last, we were finally able to sink all his ships. With the naval threat out of the picture, I reinforced my explorer's fleet, finally giving him a Carrack appropriate for what he was doing; my admiral took a smaller fleet and hunkered down in Indonesia to observe the main conflict.

The land fight wasn't particularly tough, but the war did last longer than I had expected. Both of our armies were of roughly equal size, and led by generals of roughly equal skill. I beat him soundly at first, then settled in for a siege, and captured his capital. After this, though, the war got trickier. I could chase him and beat him, but if I ever started besieging one of his other provinces, his army would circle around and lay siege to reclaim the capital. I could keep chasing him, but he was able to draw on more reinforcements than me, so he would grow progressively stronger as I weakened. It was a quandary.

I ended up resolving it by following another one of the classic blunders: dividing my forces in the face of a superior foe. Half of my army stayed in the captured capital, where they could reinforce. The other half started conducting the siege. He struck at the weaker half that was sieging his province. As soon as I saw his armies starting to march in, I directed my main force to rush in and join us. Because he was attacking us, we got a defensive bonus from the jungle cover. Once my army reunited, that terrain bonus gave just enough of an edge for us to beat him. His army still survived, but it was too weak to siege, so he ran off to recoup. We were also weakened, but had enough to siege, so we took that province, and then the third one on the island. We were gradually reinforcing while we sieged, so by the time we'd taken the island, we were back almost to full force. He started another attack on the capital, but now we could come in and strike him without worrying about the other provinces. After a defeat here, we chased him around the island for a while until we won a total victory. Finally, our fleet of cogs that had been waiting in a nearby port swung around so we could invade and capture the final tiny island.

We opened up peace talks. I had a War Score of 100%, which one would think would mean I could get everything I wanted, but that wasn't quite true; the capital province didn't even show up in the list of items available for negotiation. However, I was able to take his other three provinces, as well as all the ducats he had. And so it was that a tiny northern Germanic kingdom became the first European power in the Indian Ocean. I proudly declared the founding of the Indian Trade Company, and my already-significant economic prowess was now unmatched. It was around this time that I noticed that the game had started ranking me as the #1 country in the world; I'm not sure exactly when that happened, but even if it came before the founding, I'm sure that helped secure my position.

Since that time, I've been steadily progressing in the game, mostly building on my existing strengths, continuing to explore, investing in new CoTs in the New World (which unfortunately are so poor that they keep disappearing), and marrying everyone in sight. For a long time I was both the Curia Controller and the Holy Roman Emperor. I was actually a bit miffed by the HRE election - I had initially thought that it would be awesome, based on the description in the manual, but it turns out that In Nomine added the "feature" that the HRE automatically guarantees every member state. This means that if anyone is attacked, they'll ask you to come to their aid; you can refuse, but this destroys your relationship. What's truly idiotic, though, is that you're expected to make a choice even if both sides of the conflict are HRE member-states. So, that was all annoying, and required that I ruin some relationships I'd spent time cultivating. However, that experience did prompt me to invest some time in tracking down and fully reading the In Nomine manual, and also discovering the phenomenal EU3 Wiki, with the ultimate effect of making me far more knowledgeable about the game's mechanics and strategy.

Since Mecklenburg is located in the northern heart of Europe, it's been impossible to colonize anything yet, even though I've discovered plenty of promising-looking territories. It seems like just before I get enough range to colonize a province I want, like the Azores or the Canary Islands, Castile will swoop in and claim it. The next one that will open up for me is the western coast of Greenland, and I need to decide whether it makes any sense for me to colonize that. I am pretty excited, though, to see what happens once my Indonesian provinces become cores of my realm; I'm not too clear on whether colonization range is calculated from the nation's capital or from its nearest core, but if it's based on the cores, than I have a good shot at colonizing all of Asia long before any other Europeans will gain the ability to do so. More generally, I need to decide whether I want to pursue a colonization strategy or not. Part of me really wants to do it, both because it seems like a good way to continue growing my economy now that I've taken over all the centers of trade, and also because it just seems like a fun game mechanic. However, I'm also a bit reluctant to do so, because it seems like it will require fundamentally changing my strategy: I'll need to start emphasizing production over trade in order to derive the most benefits from a larger land-based empire, and I'd need to pay to maintain larger standing armies to defend against uprisings and larger navies to protect my sea-lanes against pirates. That flies in the face of my lean-and-mean strategy that's served me so well up until now, and I'm not sure whether the extra cost will pay off with sufficient additional revenue.

Oh, yeah: I've also been experimenting with government types. It took me a little while to figure out why I couldn't switch to a Noble Republic after I had discovered it: for some reason, you can't directly convert from a Feudal Monarchy into a Noble Republic. Instead, you need to first convert to a Despotic Monarchy (at a -1 stability penalty), and from there convert to Noble Republic (at a -4 stability penalty!). I was a bit nervous at first about making the switch - my monarch had been serving me well - but I'm glad I made the change. For starters, since your king apparently dies when switching governments (I'm not sure if it's any switch, or just between a monarchy and a republic), I was finally freed from the mantle of Holy Roman Empire leadership. (The one downside to losing the crown: I could have really used the HRE's stability bonus in digging myself out from the -2 stability hole.) And on the whole, a Noble Republic just seems like a perfect government, with all the advantages of both republics and monarchies. Like a monarchy, and unlike every other form of republic, you can still form Royal Marriages with other nations, which can really help boost your relations in Europe - I've married everyone in sight for the whole game, and have yet to get involved in a single European war other than the ones the HRE dragged me into. And under a Republic, you get to choose your leader - you won't see his exact stats, but you can pick between three candidates, each of whom will be focused in one area, so there's a Military Candidate, Diplomatic Candidate, and Administrative Candidate. I went with the Administrative one, nacht, for the economic boost, and was delighted to get my best leader of the game so far - I think he has something like an Economic rating of 9, Diplomacy of 8, and a Military of 6. As a final bonus, the Noble Republic also gives a boost to your Tolerance, which makes it easier for me to stay friendly with the Eastern religions that dominate Asian trade, and the Muslim religion that rules trade in Asia Minor and Africa. I found a really good chart that shows the forms of government, how you can move between them, and what benefits each offers. I'm really not sure if I'll ever want to use another form of government... I suppose I might eventually go with an Administrative Republic, for the nice trade efficiency modifier, but it would be tough to give up the benefits of increased tolerance.

Phew... well, that's where I'm at now in the game. I'm having a blast, still not totally sure exactly what I'm doing, but loving every moment of it. It's got those deeply addictive hooks into me, which I remember so well from a lifetime of playing Civ, although the mechanics of the game make it manifest in new and terrible ways. With "Civ", the mantra was always "Just one more turn..." where I would promise myself that, after I moved my units, and pressed Enter to advance to the next year, I was going to save and stop playing for the night. Of course, something cool would always happen then: I would discover a new technology, or a neighbor would declare war on me, or I'd learn that an opponent was close to finishing construction of a Wonder I was building. I'd need to take take of that problem, "While I'm still in the zone," and play for "Just one more turn..." until it's three o'clock in the morning and I can barely keep my eyes open. Well, in EU3, there are no turns! The game keeps steadily progressing, and stuff is always happening everywhere. You can adjust the speed so time moves more quickly or slowly, but without "turns" as such, it's even harder than before to tear myself away from the game. I'll think "Oh, I'll stop playing once this ship returns to port safely..." but then I'll learn that a Cardinal has died, and then I'll start bribing the new Cardinal - who is from FRANCE, so I have a 48% chance of winning him over, so of COURSE I'll risk it - and then I'll realize that I have 5 diplomats, and then I'll hunt down people who need to marry members of my royal family, and by the time I've done that one of my Conquistadors has found a new province, but also been attacked by natives, so I need to check and see if he's okay, and then monitor the fight so I can send him back to civilization to reinforce but only if he needs it, and then I suddenly remember about that ship I was waiting for, well it turns out that it's back in port and already repaired, so of course I'll send it out to explore some more sea lanes...

Ahem. Like I said, pretty addictive stuff. Steam has this AWFUL feature where they show how many hours total you've played a game; I won't even tell you how long I've spent playing this so far. And I'm only up to 1465! Columbus wouldn't even discover America for another 30 years in our timeline! The game goes all the way up to frickin' 1822, for crying out loud! I badly need to find an excuse to end this game before it completely envelopes the remainder of my life. But, when something is this addictive and fun, that's awfully hard to do.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Private Vote? Hah!

Whoops! I voted nearly a month ago, and I forgot to betray the confidence of the ballot box here. Mea culpa. I'll do as best I can, and spill the beans before the results come in tonight.

This was just a local election, without any fun state-wide ballot initiatives, so it's a much smaller set of choices than usual. Without further ado:

This was my first vote for Millbrae city council. Three four-year seats were up for election, meaning we'll be electing the majority on the five-seat council.

My first and easiest vote was for Robert Gottshchalk. Millbrae is kind of interesting, in that the council is term-limited to two consecutive terms, but there's no limit on the total number of terms a member can serve. Someone can serve for eight years, then sit out for two or more years, then run for re-election, which is exactly what Gottschalk is doing. I've never lived in Millbrae while he's been on the council, but he was still the mayor when I started my homehunting expedition, so I'm fairly familiar with his prior work as councilmember and mayor, and I was really impressed. He's an excellent example of someone who has a big, positive vision for the future of the city, while also being well tuned-in to the day-to-day realities… he can decide the small steps we should take today in order to get where we want to be a decade from now.

My second vote was for Wayne Lee, who is the only Chinese-ancestry candidate in the race (Paul Seto decided not to run for re-election after serving just one term). Lee seems to want to invest in the city, strengthening our (already pretty nice) downtown and helping make the city better. That might sound like meaningless boosterism, but it's actually pretty significant in the present economic and political climate; a lot of people get overly focused on the short-term present pains, without thinking about how they can help grow revenues over the long run.

I actually agonized for a while over my third vote, before deciding to cast it for the one incumbent seeking re-election, Marge Colapietro. On the investment/thrift continuum, she skews a little more towards fiscal conservatism than I personally do, but I think that's a helpful perspective to have represented on the council. Plus, on the whole I've been very happy with the way the council has performed, so it makes sense to keep that going.

The Millbrae school district put a bond measure on the ballot, primarily to improve Taylor middle school's cafeteria and also to help with some other infrastructure needs. I gladly voted in favor. I would have preferred a parcel tax to a bond (it's always better to pay money than to borrow and spend), but in the current political climate taxes are very difficult to pass, so I'll accept the form of a bond.

I feel a bit bad about this, but I voted against the community college issue… I totally get why they're going for it, since the state has been slashing its share of funding. Still, I had a hard time swallowing the price tag for what they had planned for improvements. The infrastructure improvements sounded good, but not critical; and as with most of these things, it doesn't look like the measure would help with operations, just with expansion. I'd certainly be open to revisiting the community college issue if it comes back next fall or later.

I don't know enough about the community college district to make informed decisions about the board elections. I THINK I voted to re-elect the incumbents, but had a third available vote that I didn't cast.

And, that's that! Hooray for democracy!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Up to It

Okay! Now that I've finished reading Terry Pratchett's excellent new Discworld novel, "Snuff", I believe I can go back to my standard reading habits for the next few years while I wait for another batch of glorious new books to descend.

Snuff isn't just a Discworld novel, but a member of the most prized strain within that corpus, known as a Watch/Vimes book. I've enjoyed all Discworld, but the books set in Ankh-Morpork are always the best, and the Watch books (along with the nascent Moist books) tend to contain the highest proportions of things I like: Vetinari, CMOT Dibbler, Nobby Nobbs, the media, hordes of chaotically coexisting races, and more. I have to say that Snuff isn't my favorite of the Watch books - it's probably towards the middle of the pack, or maybe a bit lower - but still one of the more enjoyable Discworld books.


It's pretty amazing to consider, given the sheer number of entries within Discworld, but the series does maintain overall continuity, with each new novel set chronologically after the ones preceding it. In many cases, such as novels with the Witches, this tends to have a subtle effect, since events tend to return more or less to the status quo at the end of each book. However, Sam Vimes has gotten a really incredible arc throughout the course of his series. He regularly gets promoted to higher positions of responsibility; the Watch regularly adds new, and memorable, characters, who become permanent parts of future books; Vimes always grumbles against admitting a new race to the ranks of the Watch, only to admit a book or two later that they're among the most useful coppers; and over time he has sobered up, gotten married, and had a son. In Snuff, Young Sam is now old enough to walk on his own, and is quite talkative, particularly on the subject of poo.

Snuff really only has two failings, so I'll get them out of the way now. First, it badly needed more editing; particularly in the first third of the book, there are an embarrassing number of mismatched quotation marks, typos, and places where the word used is simply wrong. (For some reason, a publican is repeatedly referred to as the "landlord," a term that certainly must refer to Vimes.) Secondly, while this is a Watch novel, it continues the recent trend towards dispatching Vimes to a far-off locale, and so there's a shortage of Ankh-Morpork humor to be found, and much less of the other Watch members than we would usually see. There is some tradeoff here - in particular, we get to see a born-and-bred city boy's perception of life in the country - but on the whole, life on the Plains isn't as target-rich as life in the city.

Sam is ostensibly on holiday, but sure enough, he stumbles into evidence of a crime, which may be connected to a larger conspiracy. He reasonably suspects, but we can never prove, that Vetinari was responsible for his dispatchment here. We do eventually get some brief time with other Watch personnel - Carrot serves as interim Commander (and manages to complete all of Vimes' tardy paperwork within one day); Fred gets infected in a very minor plotline that gets loosely tied in with Vimes' investigation, and Nobbs, Angua, Littlebottom and Wee Mad Arthur all help him get better. Wee Mad Arthur's parts were the best of the bunch. I still haven't read Pratchett's children's novels Wee Free Men, but it sounds like he has retconned Wee Mad Arthur from being a gnome (which he was at the time of Night Watch) into one of the Nac Mac Feegle. I approve of crossovers, particularly in a universe as broad and varied as Pratchett's, and we get a bit of dialog explaining the Feegle and their habits. Honestly, the whole section with the Watch felt a little extraneous - it could have been cut entirely and the main Vimes story would still have made sense - but I'm glad that Pratchett kept it in there, because I love those characters so much.

Other than those quibbles, though, I had a great time with the book. Moving to a new location allows Pratchett to introduce a larger than usual new cast of characters, which allows for some nice speculation as to who can be trusted and who is guilty. We also see much more of Vimes' home life than I think we've gotten before; instead of pecking Sybil on the cheek before he rushes out on a pursuit, we see several long exchanges between the two over dinner, in bed, and at a variety of social functions. It's quite funny (and Pratchett is still the master at the two-level double-entendre), and further enriches our understanding of already well-developed characters. It's a hoot to see Young Sam growing up, too; he seems well on his way to combining the most admirable qualities of his mother and his farther, while often baffling both of them.

The Watch (and Moist) books tend to contain Pratchett's most pointed and effective satire, and you can usually summarize a book pretty accurately by identifying which humanistic theme it conveys. Thud! was about race relations, how mutual distrust grows over time, and how to break the cycle of retribution. Night Watch was about the division between the Law and Power, and how the civil authority's highest responsibility is to the institution of the law itself, and not to the officials on top. I feel like Snuff doesn't really break open a new theme, but mingles several from earlier books. That sense of division between power and law is a strong one, this time playing out in a small tight-knit community rather than the chaos of an urban rebellion. It feels like the treatment of the goblin race is the latest of a process that has previously been played out for trolls, golems, vampires, and werewolves. The goblins' problem seems to be that they are sub-human (unlike, say, the vampires, where the problems was that all were seen as dangerous), and so people can get away with treating them like animals. As usual, we learn to differentiate from the mass of "the goblins" and get to know one or two in particular, see their admirable qualities (while still getting to laugh at their unusual habits), and eventually one becomes a member of the Watch and Discworld moves one step closer to racial harmony.

One oddity of this book: Death never makes an appearance. I hesitate to say that it's the first book where he doesn't show up at all - there are a LOT of books, and I could easily be overlooking something - but we almost always get a glimpse of him, even if just for a sentence or two. It's a puzzling absence; my immediate thought would be that Pratchett's current situation would discourage him from wanting to get too close to Death, but he's been quite vocal in real life about getting comfortable with death, so it doesn't seem like that's a likely reason. Maybe there just wasn't room for him, or maybe Pratchett wanted specifically to focus on life (particularly as seen in Young Sam) rather than death.


I'm delighted that we got another chance to meet Vimes and see how he's doing in the world. He has been the most consistently enjoyable member of the widespread Discworld saga, and this entry does not disappoint. Like all of Pratchett's best books, this one made me chuckle, made me think, and made me feel. It's a worthy addition to the series.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

With her eyes like a flame

Enough culture - it's TV time!

I've finished watching the two (and, so far, only) seasons of Luther, an amazing British crime import. First of all, I am now even more impressed with Idris Elba than before - he's now entered that rare cadre of actors whose work makes me want to see everything they're in. Between this and his work in The Wire, I've gotten a good feel for his range, which is quite good - each individual character is fully-realized and committed, so you don't get a huge range within Stringer Bell or within Luther, but the union of the two reveals his impressive acting chops.

I've commented on this before, but on a purely superficial level, there are significant overlaps between Luther and House. Both feature incredible performances from talented British actors; both play characters who work in high-stakes, life-or-death institutions; both are rogue agents who make choices that frequently risk the life and health of innocents, but whose superiors have no choice but to accommodate them due to their immense skill; both are fairly episodic shows but have longer serial plots that cover and span seasons; both open with incredible songs from Massive Attack that I'll never get tired of hearing.

That said, House is clearly an American show (if a more cynical one than we usually see), and Luther is clearly a British show. That means the seasons are quite short - six one-hour episodes for the first season; the second season was presented as four one-hour episodes, but it's really two two-hour movies. It has a way darker sensibility, too. The show is relentlessly violent and bloody, not to mention bloody-minded. The characters are all English, and in a few cases I found myself having trouble tracking their accents (Luther and the more cultured characters speak quite clearly, but many of the other detectives and suspects have a strong London accent that makes them hard to understand when they speak quickly).


The other great BBC detective show I've seen recently, Sherlock, has its own set of overlaps with this show, mainly in terms of plot. I'm not totally clear on the chronology of the two shows - when each started shooting, when it aired in the UK, when it aired here - but I'm guessing/hoping that they weren't aware of each other during their first seasons, because both of them rely on a twist about how nobody would ever suspect a London cabbie of being a murderer. They both use pretty much the same reasoning, too - it's someone who people would trust implicitly, even if they don't know them. In both shows, the actual cabbie turns out to be a thoroughly ordinary-looking person. In Sherlock, this elevates the chilling scariness of the whole sequence - he seems like a harmless man, even though he plays the role of evil incarnate. In Luther, he becomes an amazingly pathetic villain. He's a failure at life, and a failure as a killer, and his miserable little life is ended.

The first season seemed to draw from a highly varied and memorable list of villains: some were very high-class, like Alice and the guy who's a best-selling author and leader of a Satanic cult. Others, like the cabbie, were very low-class, memorable in their squalor. The second seasons' villains, though, were creepy because of just how ORDINARY they looked. I doubt anyone would look at those people twice if they passed them on the London streets. There's a huge gap between our image of these people and the atrocities they perform. To me, it felt like we weren't just watching some super-genius outsider criminal; we were watching the decay of English society itself, the birth of a culture whose very foundation could be twisted to evil.

Speaking of which... I found myself thinking a LOT about the differences between English and American culture presented in the show. At the start of the final episode in the second season, there's a long sequence where a policeman is chasing down a murderer who has struck in a public train terminal. The policeman keeps shouting, "Stop that man!", but even though they're running through a crowd, nobody stops, nobody wants to get involved. The citizenry seems cowed. I have a hard time imagining that happening in a major American city - we still have enough cowboy in our veins that SOMEONE would have intervened and helped out a policeman.

That was the most dramatic example in the series, but looking back over it, it seems to be in keeping with the show in general. There's a very clear demarcation between law and crime, and also a pronounced role for those who don't fit into either camp. I don't think we once see a citizen volunteering information that helps in an investigation. Obviously, I don't know enough about London culture to say whether that's realistic, or if it's a grim noir atmosphere contrived by this show for a strong effect.

One similarity I found was the protection of suspects' rights. I was a little surprised to see this; I don't watch a whole lot of British detective shows, but from the ones I have seen, I don't recall suspects being advised of their right to silence, etc. I know that this sort of thing isn't universal - in particular, in France police can arrest someone without a warrant, and have much more flexibility in how they conduct interrogations. The more I think about it, though, it makes sense that we'd have this similarity. The UK and America are both common law countries, after all, and the American judicial code is basically a direct descendent of the Magna Carta. Details will always vary, but the idea of the law itself as a supreme institution that's above everyone, even the most powerful individuals, binds our countries together, and informs the way we pursue justice.

Topic hop: Alice was arguably the best part of the show, maybe even more so than Luther himself. She's absolutely captivating every second she's on screen; her combination of beauty and danger takes everyone's breath away, even someone as thoroughly capable as Luther. I was really hoping that they would join forces more directly in the second season. One of the advantages of the British shorter-form television season is that they can be more experimental; it's more like a mini-series than a series, so they can do dangerous things and take a program in an unexpected direction, and not need to worry so much about writing themselves into a corner. (You would think that an American show with 23 episodes would cover more plot ground than a British show with 6 episodes, but if the American show shakes things up halfway through the season, they need to fill another 11 episodes that all have to acknowledge that change, while the British show can just treat it naturally and then end things.) All that to say, I think they could have gotten away with Luther actually leaving the police force... probably not leaving London, but perhaps becoming a private detective (do they have those in England? Would he be the world's second consulting detective?), or even the shadowy underworld figure that the various criminals want him to become. As it was, I was very sad that Alice didn't make an appearance at all in the last two episodes, which were otherwise quite good.

I guess that Mark dropped out, too. Ah, Mark. I really liked the way they handled him in the first part of the second season. I was never quite sure of what to think of him in the first season - we're supposed to hate him, since he stole Luther's wife away from him, but he's such a thoroughly decent person and such a good match for Zoe... but he's also overly passive and a bit too calm... well, we see him again once his world has been broken, and my heart breaks for him. It makes no sense that he and Luther would be friends now, and yet it also makes perfect sense - they're united in their love, not for one another, but for someone who's forever gone.


Quick thoughts on a few other shows. I'm actually pretty happy with The Walking Dead so far. None of the episodes has been as good as Season One's premiere, but I feel like the average quality so far has been better than the average quality last season. Most of the annoying characters have been eaten off, and we're getting a good chunk of zombie mayhem each episode, along with some good ongoing development.


In particular, the major non-zombie plot so far has revolved around Carl's accident. I'm struck by how much of the zombie atmosphere and design has infected these scenes, even in the absence of any infection. Carl's deathly white skin pallor... his sudden shifts between seeming death and animation... his uncontrollable jerking movements in bed... all very creepy, and it thematically links his private ordeal to the global crisis, even when there's no direct tie between the two. There's also, of course, a big obsession with blood. That might be a bit more appropriate in a vampire drama than a zombie drama, but it still fits. Carl has an insatiable desire for fresh blood to remain among the living, while the many zombies we see have an insatiable desire for fresh blood to remain among the walking dead.

I have trouble remembering everyone's names, so I use nicknames for everyone. Rick is Good Cop, Shane is Bad Cop. Boy, Shane has been on a tear lately - that reveal at the end of the third episode was just chilling. Just when I think I can like him again, he has to destroy it all. Rick seems to be pure goodness, and it's easy to root for him, but man, his opening monologue at the start of this season was probably the most annoying thing the show has ever done. I like all the other male characters, but other than Lori, all the women are seriously aggravating me. Which is, of course, well in keeping with zombie fiction practice: we're supposed to have at least some idiotic characters who make bad decisions that cause us to slap our heads and yell at the screen. Well. Part of me is hoping that Andrea and Carol get eaten, and the women from the farmhouse take their place. I'm a bad person.


Dexter is... fine. I'm surprised at just how much I'm enjoying Mos Def's Brother Sam character, who seems like he should be insufferable (given the really tone-deaf treatment of religion in the first episode), but has taken off. We'll see if he sticks around for the season. Edward James Olmos seems to be wasted as half of the villain team. I'm liking the new cop character, and am curious if he'll become a less-caffeinated version of Doakes in a season. Last week's episode didn't have any LaGuerta at all, which means it's automatically one of my favorite episodes. So far the show seems to be handling Deb's promotion well, using it to expand her character in believable ways. We'll see where the show goes. There's definitely a lot of amazing potential in using Revelation as a kill gimmick, and so far the show hasn't shied away from maximizing it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Phew! I plowed through the last third of 1Q84. It ends quite well - it doesn't wrap everything neatly up, of course (no Murakami novel has ever done so), but I think it will satisfy most readers hoping for some sort of resolution or closure. It's more akin to the closing of, say, "A Wild Sheep Chase" than to "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."

For the most part, the third volume continues the things I loved about the first two volumes. The plot directly continues, we get more exploration into the characters' backgrounds, and a few mysteries are resolved. There are several differences as well, some of which must be structural changes from the original Japanese text, others might be from Murakami or from the translator. In particular, I think that the first part of the book used metric units (certain individuals of short stature are described as being about a meter tall), while the last part used imperial units (those same individuals are about a yard tall). Also, while I loved the language, the last part of the book did seem to introduce some tics that I wasn't as fond of.


Tengo in particular, and I think some other characters as well, come down with severe cases of echolalia - lots of "dialogs" are more like monologues with an echo, as someone will say something like "Sakigake is searching for a dohta," and Tengo will say, "Sakigake is searching for a dohta." It isn't actually annoying, but is a bit perplexing. It's a bit similar to his conversations with Fuka-Eri in the first volume, though I kind of preferred those, because in those cases he's kind of trying to translate her by turning her statements into questions (or, in the Japanese, adding a "ka" to the end of what she says). Here, I'm not too sure what purpose it serves, either in the story or stylistically. (I'm not saying that there is no purpose, so if anyone has thoughts about what the significance might be, please let me know!)

Other than those very minor complaints, though, I pretty much loved the ending. The biggest and most noticeable change is the introduction of another point of view: in addition to Tengo's and Aomame's perspectives, we now get Ushikawa's as well. This was a really nice way to open up the story a bit, still keeping the focus on the central relationship between the would-be lovers and adding some more perspective on their situation. I thought the choice of Ushikawa was an interesting one; personally, I would have loved to get inside the head of a character like Komatsu, who is already involved in the plot and has a lot of personality. Ushikawa has some great personality too, though. He's definitely an outsider, and I enjoyed the way Murakami treated him... he honors Ushikawa's skills, but makes sure that we don't develop too much sympathy for him. I was vaguely reminded of Flaubert's treatment of Charles - we're getting a full, three-dimensional character with some admirable qualities, but we're not meant to actually like him too much.

So, yeah... Ushikawa has been involved in the story for a while, and we got to know him pretty well through his association with Tengo, and now we can actually peer inside his head, into his sad, slight life. Again, he's kicked around by society, and I do like the way he can plow ahead and do a good, thorough job even with the social impediments caused by his massive ugliness. He occupies an interesting spot, working for the villains but under just as much threat from the villains as the heroes are.

The second volume ended very dramatically, with Tengo and Aomame both perched on the edge of huge developments: Aomame had discovered that she couldn't return to the real world and was a few millimeters from ending her life; Tengo had rediscovered his memory's version of Aomame, seemingly presented to him through the auspices of the Little People. Both of those developments are necessarily backed away from in this last book. Aomame just changes her mind, and gets on with her life; soon, she renews her focus on reuniting with Tengo. Tengo never again sees that air chrysalis with Aomame, though he patiently waits for it for a long time.

Several new elements were very successful. I thought that the NHK fee collector was probably the scariest part of the whole book, right up there with the Little People. Part of that may have to do with some social phobias of my own - I get uncomfortable when strangers come knocking at my door, and the kind of verbally abusive and judgmental ire that the NHK fee collector doles out are the stuff of my nightmares. I really like the way that Murakami spins out this scenario, across multiple doors, multiple visits, and a varying set of tactics that tightly orbit around a very mean core. I also like how Murakami dangles a very intriguing explanation before us - that Tengo's father, whose body is gripped by a coma, is sending forth his spirit to do the only thing he was ever any good at, abuse people to make them pay up. It's interesting how Tengo himself is never visited by the specter, but others close to him are. The collector doesn't seem to have any great supernatural insight - in particular, he doesn't know the actual names of the people staying in the apartments, just the names listed in the building. That makes me wonder if his spirit may actually be making rounds throughout the whole neighborhood, but can only be perceived by those who are aligned with Tengo's story... similarly to how only some people can perceive the two moons.


Speaking of which: we get an interesting twist on the whole moons/worlds question in this volume. I'm still not sure what the final situation is, but in the first part of the book, my working hypothesis was that Fuka-Eri initially created the new world by the introduction of the Little People/Story. Then, Tengo entered into that world, and became important to it, by embellishing the story and bringing it to an audience. Finally, Aomame was drawn into it because of her emotional connection with Tengo. In this book, though, it seems more like that sequence is inverted. The world still might have come into existence because of Fuka-Eri, but the novel seems to say that Aomame entered into that world by herself, by her own actions, when she walked down that stairway. This connects nicely with the introduction we get in that very first chapter, of course. Tengo, too, might have followed into the world after Aomame. She presumably was in the new world from the first chapter on; Tengo doesn't seem to have entered it until after he wrote the book. (It's possible that he was in earlier, but given that he invented/discovered the details of the two moons, I place his entrance several chapters in.) In this new reading, it seems like Tengo might have a one-way trip into the world, since he arrived by writing and can't un-write the book; however, Aomame has a two-way path, since she physically entered into it and can retrace her steps back out.

The whole thing is so romantic and lovely, isn't it? It's a little like the myth of Orpheus, but this time it's the woman who travels into a dangerous place, and brings back her beloved.

Minor (but very spoilery) thoughts...

Very creepy that we get more Little People! Now that we've seen two cases of them entering the world, we can draw some conclusions, I guess. It looks like (other than through air chrysalises) they can only enter through being who die, and whose bodies are not disposed of in a timely manner. The goat was left in the cave for days before they emerged; Ushikawa's body had suffered rigor mortis, and they wouldn't be able to cremate it for several more days. I love how this totally invented creepy mythology nicely reinforces our mores and morals about how to handle the dead.

I'm also curious about exactly what world the new Little People are in. Is a new world created each time they emerge? Or have they found a new gateway into 1Q84 after losing Leader and hope of Aomame's child? Or (creepiest of all) have they made it into our world? I'm reminded of the emphatic words of the taxi driver at the very beginning, who insists that there's only one reality. Most of the rest of the book seems to disagree with that; I and the characters spend much of our time thinking about the world of 1984, and the world of 1Q84, and the differences between them and how to return to 1984. But, what if the taxi driver was right? What if, when Aomame went down that staircase, she didn't CREATE a new world, but CHANGED the existing one? In that case, walking up the staircase doesn't transport Tengo and Aomame back to the "real" world, but instead changes the one world back to the way it was before. In that case, though, the Little People have found their way into our reality... into the only reality. Brrr.

I was really, really expecting for the same taxi-driver who dropped Aomame off to be the one that picked them up. I liked the way that Murakami handled this, though. It's a nice call-back to the beginning without being overly symmetrical. And, really, it's very appropriate for what the story has done. At this point, Tengo and Aomame's journey is over; they don't need any more special help from outsiders, they now have each other, and can spend the rest of their lives exploring one another and building a future together.


Yep... this was a very, very good book. In addition to all of its other qualities - the amazing language, funny dialog, fascinating plot, surreal imagery - I'm really struck by how well it works as a novel about novels. Not just in the superficial sense of having a book within a book, but it seems profoundly interested in the CREATive aspects of fiction, the way that we build worlds with our words. In the text of this book, it isn't just something to play around with, but a very real and meaningful way that we can touch one anothers' lives, alter our reality, change the course of history, discover our soulmates. In some ways, 1Q84 reads like a love-letter to writing, penned by the master of stories. It's an absolutely remarkable achievement.