Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Oh, That's Pretty! Volume 26: Yup, It's Still Pretty

I spent a very pleasant couple of weeks participating in activities for the Spring Festival for Lord of the Rings Online. Along the way, I've gained newfound appreciation for the unique pleasures of this game and my own evolving preferences for gameplay.

The festival lasts for a limited amount of real-world time, during which the game world offers a variety of fun activities and some rewards that otherwise aren't available. It exists in an interesting sort of parallel to existing game systems: you still gain XP as normal for completing quests, and I probably gained levels as quickly by celebrating as I would have through normal questing. But instead of getting level-appropriate gear and item rewards, you receive Spring Leaves or other special tokens which, in turn, can be redeemed for cosmetic clothing, household furnishings, steeds, and other objects which aren't swords. Not to mention that you can attend dance lessons and learn how to dance like a hobbit, like a dwarf, like an elf, or one of those silly humans.

I quickly got into the spirit of things and began spending all of my in-game time pursuing these activities. While in these social areas, I took advantage of the game's fantastic cosmetic outfit system, putting on something appropriately festive and spring-y. However, it began to bug me that Taharien was still visibly dragging around a club and a wooden shield: very useful items in the Lone-Lands, far less crucial when running through hedge-mazes. So I moved those items into my inventory, figuring that I could easily re-equip them when needed.

I think that might be the single most representative example of my time with the spring festival: I didn't even have a weapon equipped for well over a week, and didn't miss it at all. Instead of killing monsters, I was racing horses, balancing on wooden beams while blind drunk, picking flowers, stomping on shrews with giant boots, going on epic pub-crawls, scolding rambunctious tweens, confusing elves, delivering booze, chasing chickens, drinking some more beer, drinking cider, helping sweethearts find each other, dancing, drinking, planting flowers, and drinking. Oh, and also drinking a lot of alcohol.

Anyways! I was really impressed that, in a fantasy roleplaying game, there was so much fun stuff to do that didn't fall into the typical RPG loop of "kill monsters so you can get better equipment so you can kill more monsters." In my grumpy-old-man persona, I often point to the release of World of Warcraft as the turning point in the decline of western RPGs, particularly in how things like rogue classes are handled. In prior generations of games, RPGs were more about problem-solving, and classes like rogues could overcome obstacles through completely pacifist strategies like stealth and deception. With the streamlined combat-centric design approach of WoW, though, rogues were reinvented as nothing more than a burst DPS class, and even great franchises like Dragon Age have largely followed suit, losing the complexity and variety of different playstyles to instead focus on making the killing experience as engaging as possible.

So, it's both welcome and ironic that another MMO would give me one of the more satisfying combat-free RPG experiences of recent years, while I continue to blame the biggest MMO for taking those options away in the first place. (Not to say that there's no non-combat options in other RPGs, of course, but I can't think of the last fantasy RPG I played where I could literally go for weeks without fighting and deeply enjoy it.) I believe that a lot of the credit has to go to the source material. The Lord of the Rings obviously has fighting, both on smaller and larger scales, and the game does a great job at representing that part of the story. But when people think back on LotR, the battles aren't the only thing they remember. They remember the hobbits eating mushrooms with Farmer Maggot, meeting Goldberry by the spring, swatting away midges in the marshes, listening to Aragorn sing, wandering the halls of Rivendell, smoking pipeleaf in the ruins of Isengard, Frodo and Sam disguising themselves as orcs, and so on. Fighting isn't the point: it's something that's occasionally necessary, but isn't really glorified, and the ultimate hope of the entire quest is to put an end to Sauron's aggression. With all of that as backdrop, it makes sense (and is fantastic) that the game designers would put so much care and attention into the other activities that make up the game beyond combat. It feeds into what I love most about this game, how it makes Middle-earth feel like a place where people live, not just an orc-slaying simulator.

As I mentioned above, the spring festivities included a very wide array of drinking games. This included the pub crawl, an epic circuit through the Shire that requires stopping in at a good eight or so bars, downing a half-dozen alcoholic drinks at each one before moving on. As the “quest” progresses, your vision and movement grow impaired. Early on, the world seems to grow a bit brighter; after the first few stops, the camera begins to grow a bit unsteady, swaying off the center axis, making it a bit trickier to navigate; by the end, you’re suffering from double vision, trying to figure out which of the two floating mugs in front of you is the real one you need to click in order to down the next beer. Your character’s speech also grows slurred, and they start singing to themselves and hiccuping. It was surprisingly fun, and I spent some time thinking about why I was enjoying it so much. To put it bluntly, I’ve never gotten that drunk in my life: never had a blackout, never lost control of my movement or vision to that kind of an extent. The video game ended up being a way that I could sort of vicariously have that experience. This is the sort of thing that we often look to games for: to provide us with the experiences that we will never have in real life. I’ll never fight in a war, but I can shoot guns in Half Life; magic isn’t real, but I can cast fireballs in Dragon Age; I’ll probably never make it into space, but I can explore the galaxy in Mass Effect. And, on a more mundane level, I COULD get blackout drunk, but I probably won’t, and instead will experience a simulacrum of it in Lord of the Rings Online.

As I write this, I realize that it probably doesn’t sound like a good thing: drinking can be a real problem, and the lighthearted treatment here may downplay the risks. The worst example is probably that LOTRO has the most fun drunk-driving simulator ever. On that pub crawl, there’s a time limit involved, so if you want to complete the quest, you’ll need to hop on your horse to make it in time. But when you’re on that stretch from Stock to Frogmarsh, you’re three sheets to the wind, and your horse will be crashing into fenceposts, falling into ditches, colliding with other riders on the road. It’s all consequence-free within the game context, and very amusing from an in-universe perspective, but becomes rather horrifying once you make the connection from horses to automobiles. It becomes a relief when the next pub lies along a stable route, so you can take a “taxi” instead of driving yourself when you’re in no condition to navigate the Shire.

The pub crawl was the most memorable, but there are also quests that involve delivering speciality drinks to Inn League members, and one that involves drinking a Bullroarer concoction and then running along a plank without falling off, and my personal favorite, where you have to find the middle of the Hedge Maze, drink from a huge sinister keg, and then make it out of the maze before you black out. I failed once, and was delighted/terrified to find myself transported to frozen Forochel. And of course there are plenty of non-drinking games, most of which involve spring themes of planting and growth.

As a side bar, going through this festival has given me a better understanding of and appreciation for Fallen London’s own seasonal events. I’ve greatly enjoyed participating in Hallowmas confessions and Feast of the Exceptional Rose liaisons and Christmas lacre-shoveling. I’d kind of thought of those as being their own idiosyncratic things, but I now see how they fit into a larger tradition of time-limited events in persistent-world multiplayer games. (The two other MMOs that I spent any appreciable time in, Ultima Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic, were early enough that they didn’t have fully-evolved seasons, whereas LOTRO has had eight years to build up its traditions.) Of course, Fallen London isn’t an MMO, but these events do provide a similar opportunity to shake things up and interact socially with other players, as well as a chance to break up whatever routine your character is currently engaged in (leveling up, buying an Overgoat, gaining Notability, etc.) and do something that can be enjoyed at all stages of a player’s career.

Anyways. The spring festival is over. Oh! And the Steam Summer Sale is over too, I just realized I forgot to mention that. I’d kept my eye open and grabbed some good sales on the Quad Pack, Helm’s Deep Premium Edition and Steely Dawn. Those unlock most of the game for me, and leave me with a tidy sum of Turbine Points for grabbing the remaining quest packs I need along with some cosmetic/quality-of-life enhancements. Story-wise, I’ve completed the Lone-Lands and am now traveling through Evendim, along the shores of the beautiful Lake AnnĂșminas. That should get its own blog post at some point - LOTRO continues to open up Tolkien’s world in ever-more beautiful ways.

Shifting from questing to celebrating and back to questing again, I’m finding that playing LOTRO is one of the most relaxing experiences that I’ve had. I’m surprised that I’m responding to it so positively, because “relaxing” isn’t something I typically look for in a game. I tend to play games because I want to be challenged, or I want new experiences. I’ve often looked down upon people who play “casual” games that seem to require little effort. After these last few weeks, though, I can totally understand the appeal. It feels so pleasant to log in, inhabit my character, and spend time just immersing myself in the calm beauty of Middle-earth. Yes, there's fighting, but there's also dancing and singing and drinking and sightseeing and wandering. Not all who wander are lost, and I feel like I've found the place I've been searching for since I was a little boy.

Edit: I forgot the pictures! Entirely too many are available in my latest photo album.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


It’s been a long time coming, but I finally managed to snag a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore from the library. It was well worth the wait. It’s yet another book that seems tailor-made to appeal to me, focusing as it does on the intersection of technology and literature, Google and bookstores, San Francisco and… San Francisco.

San Francisco really is a perfect setting for this story. In terms of scale, it’s small and intimate enough that you can completely buy into the coincidences and acquaintances that build up a social web in the story; I’ve had plenty of such encounters in my own time here, and that part of it certainly rings true. It’s also a city with a deep and abiding love of bookstores, with venerable stalwarts like Green Apple and City Lights and The Booksmith holding firm though the stresses that have shaken up so much of the industry. And, of course, it’s also the hub to much of the new innovations and startups in the country, with new ventures constantly popping up to solve previously-unconsidered problems.

The single thing I probably most appreciate about the Bay Area is how darn collegial people are. Folks around here tend to have an automatic default towards agreement, collaboration, cooperation. When two different ideas bounce into each other, people tend to start working towards synthesis rather than drawing up battle lines. That kind of spirit drives much of the plot of this book. I’m used to technology and literature being portrayed as in opposition to one another: discussions about how Amazon is destroying bookstores, how text messaging is destroying literacy, how ebooks are destroying books, etc. In MP24HB, though, technology is a useful aide that can enhance an already-good thing. It can help you glean more knowledge from a text, it can point you in the direction of new discoveries, it can make previously-obscure books accessible for all. Of course, as in real life there are those who dislike the new way of doing things, but the narrator is clearly on the side of the innovators.


Similarly, I was pleasantly surprised at how generous this book is towards genre fiction. Like a lot of readers, I first got started by reading genre books (in my case, mostly fantasy and a little sci-fi), without a lot of care for its quality. I read some great authors, but also some really awful ones, and even the great genre authors are often looked down upon by the literary establishment. I often feel like this is something I need to apologize for: “Tolkien is one of my favorite authors… oh, but I like Murakami and Pynchon, too! I’m not one of THOSE readers!” This book, though, makes a strong case for the value of such books. One that rung truest for me is how a shared love of reading can impact your real-life relationships. The narrator and Neel bonded together over The Dragon-Song Chronicles, and that bond has lasted for decades. I know from experience that one of life’s great pleasures is discovering someone who likes the thing you like, in the same way that you like it, and sharing in that joy together. It isn’t a static thing, either: Neel and Clay were driven to new heights of creativity from this shared love, weaving together their own stories as they planned pen-and-paper roleplaying games together. Again, this feels very accurate to me, and it felt great to have it captured here.

And, continuing along the fantasy roleplaying theme, I really dug how this book essentially had a class-based approach to its character development. This is explicit in the case of the Rogue/Mage/Warrior trio of Clay/Kat/Neel, but it applies to everyone. Each person has their own role and skills, and much of the fun in the book is seeing how they are deployed to solve particular problems that the "party" faces. Mat's artistry makes him a gnome illusionist, Mr. Penumbra's congenial devotion to institution makes him an ideal cleric, and so on. I like this idea of fantasy as a metaphor for real life: the excitement of an idealized fantasy role inspires the characters to step up and take extraordinary actions in their more mundane circumstances.

Some random thoughts: This book has what's probably the most upbeat, positive portrayal of Google that I've seen lately. It does a great job at capturing what's impressive and ridiculous about their culture. It isn't played strictly for laughs, but it's kind of nice to see them in a role where they're very powerful without being omnipotent.

The optimistic, collegial spirit of the book extends all the way to its villains, or more specifically, the lack of them. There is an antagonist, but even he ultimately seems more misguided and pitiful than malicious. This is ultimately the story of a group of clever people attempting to solve a puzzle, not of a clash between warring factions.

There are absolutely fantastic shouts-out to some of my favorite authors here in the sections describing the modern authors permitted onto Penumbra's shelves. Murakami, Stephenson, Gibson, House of Leaves, and more put in an appearance here. It shouldn't be surprising that I enjoyed this novel so much, since I seem to share a similar literary taste with the narrator.


One final small note on technique: there's a subtle but effective twist on the narration here that I don't recall having seen before. When Clay is talking with other characters, his reactions are usually given in prose rather than in dialogue. It often isn't immediately clear whether he's thinking or saying these words until the following paragraph where we see the other character's reaction. It lines up nicely with some of my own experiences in conversations, where I'm constantly engaged with the other speaker but might or might not be vocalizing my thoughts at any given time.

Anyways! Really fun, rewarding book here that gives faithful insight into my weird little corner of the world.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


I’ve watched some stuff! Amazingly, I have opinions!

Silicon Valley has been fantastic. On the whole I think I like it even better than Season 1, which is saying a lot. It continues to be rather frighteningly accurate about the lives and concerns of people like me… down to matters of company culture and the nature of innovation and collaboration and how bad news gets suppressed until it explored. The loss of Peter Gregory has been rather hard, but the show has actually improved in some other areas, and I’m very happy with how the story has developed.

Game of Thrones has been ROUGH this season. Previous seasons have done a great job at the “shocking” aspect that the show is so well known for, with sudden acts of almost unimaginable violence, but this season has shown a harsher, borderline sadistic sensibility where we receive ample warning of what horrific thing is going to occur, and then need to endure it. It’s also notable in that it has largely caught up to the plot in the books, and so I’m actually getting “spoiled” on some plot points for the first time. The spoiling actually feels pretty good! I’m happy to join the ranks that show-only folks have been in for the last four years.

Most of my viewing lately has been on HBO Now, as you can certainly guess from the shows under discussion here. After finishing my abbreviated repeat viewing of The Wire (jumping from the Season 3 finale to the last episode of Season 5), I watched through the first season of True Detective. It was good… darker than I had imagined, and with a surprisingly pronounced supernatural angle. It reminded me a little of The X-Files: there’s a conspiracy, unexplainable phenomena, and two detectives with clashing personalities who solve mysteries. The detectives here are considerably more flawed than Scully and Mulder, though; while they remain heroic, they demonstrate much more severe negatives than I’m used to seeing.

I’ve remarked on this before, but one of my favorite aspects of any television show (or, really, fiction in general) is ambiguity. I’m happiest when we’re presented with information and are left uncertain of how to interpret it, as in the first season of Lost or the last episode of Battlestar Galactica or any Haruki Murakami novel. True Detective has some great examples of this that are drawn into especially sharp relief in the final episode. Cohle sees hallucinations, thanks to his refusal to sleep and history of drug use; based on this history, we can’t be sure whether he “really” sees the galactic vision in Carcosa, or if it’s just an invention of his brain. Likewise, we get a pretty good idea of what Errol believes his sacrifices accomplish, but can’t really prove one way or another whether those beliefs are accurate or not. I love that perverse frustration of not knowing.

I had fun with a couple of things in the final episode that I got wrong. (Spoilers, obviously.) When Cohle breaks in to the shed, he sees a dead old man on the bed. It turns out to be William Childress’s corpse, but in the couple of seconds you see the body, I thought it was a super-old version of himself. (Similar-looking mustache.) Shortly after this, the dog chases Errol around the back of the house; when Rust follows, he finds that the dog is dead. Based on this, I came up with an elaborate and fully incorrect hypothesis about how the nature of time in Carcosa is circular, and now that the detectives have arrived, they’re bound to the flattened circle: Rust will be captured, tortured, and then discovered by his younger self, who will go on to be captured, and tortured, and so on, in an eternal hellish cycle. Likewise, I thought that the dog was stuck out of time, its life and death occurring in a cycle that didn’t line up with the one experienced by Marty and Rust.

There was also a brief moment (still spoilers!) after Errol stabbed Rust, when you could see the two of them struggling. The camera jumps, and then we’re seeing that scene again, but the positions are reversed: Rust is on the other side of the frame, and seems to be bearing down on Errol. The cult’s activities had seemed to be related to immortality of some sort, and I quickly seized on the (erroneous!) idea that the power from their sacrifices allowed their souls to transmigrate into other bodies. So, Errol’s spirit would inhabit Rust’s body, and even as the rest of the world thought that the killer had been stopped, he would have escaped justice, into the most secure position possible. This would be especially ironic, given that the state investigators had suspected Cohle of being behind the killings. Errol would absolve and damn Cohle in the same action.

None of that turned out to be true, of course. Still, it’s a good sign of how rich and twisty the show can be that it would lead my mind in those directions.

Speaking of murder: I also watched The Jinx, the documentary about Robert Durst. Wow! I’d read some news stories back when it initially came out, and so hadn’t felt particularly compelled to watch the show, since I felt like I already basically got what it was about. It turned out to be far weirder and more gripping than I expected… partly in terms of the factual events, and even more from the spectacle of actually seeing Durst. He’s such a strange guy; you could never call him charismatic, but there’s still something undeniably compelling about him. Anyways. After seeing this, I can understand why so many people were so taken by it.

And, wrapping up the HBO playlist, I’ve just started watching Veep, starting from Season 1 Episode 1. It’s been really fantastic so far. I enjoyed Arnando Ianucci’s other political projects, and Veep has a sensibility that feels recognizably similar to that of stuff like The Thick Of It. The performers are uniformly strong across the board. Everyone plays a caricature, but a DEEPLY COMMITTED caricature, and the show pushes into less-comfortable territory than I would expect. So far my favorites are probably Tony Hale’s pallid Gary and Timothy Simmons’ wholeheartedly unpleasant Jonah. The relationship between the Presidential and Vice-Presidential office is an obvious one, but no less funny for it.

Hrm. I think that’s it. Oh, and since I haven’t had a chance yet to say elsewhere on the blog, Mad Max: Fury Road is amazing. I highly recommend watching it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Fashionably Late

Lord of the Rings Online” used to be called “Shadows of Angmar”. I kind of think that they should rename the game again, this time to “Oh, That’s Pretty!”, since that’s what I keep on saying while playing it.

Not a whole lot new to report. The game is still gorgeous. I’ve traveled through Ered Luin, briefly through the Shire, and spent a pleasant long stay in Bree-land, the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs, and surrounding areas. I’m currently working with the Eglain in the Lone-lands, including some great adventures around Weathertop. Each new area of the game yields stunning new vistas, and even old areas look astonishing when viewed again at different times of day and in different weather.

I think that I’m closing in on the end of the easily freely playable portion. I’m still having a lot of fun, so I’ll probably pay a bit of money to keep on going. I found what looks like a good guide for getting content efficiently; with the Steam summer sale starting soon, I should have a good chance at grabbing the Quad Pack, and around that time I’ll probably pay for a month of VIP, which should get my main (so far only) character pretty much ready for Moria.

One thing I’ve been struck by, though, is just how differently I approach seemingly mundane matters in video games compared to in real life. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is fashion. In reality, my clothing mission is simple: I want to spend the absolute minimum amount of time, money, and brain cells in order to meet the minimum level of social approval. If I spent less than $20 and nobody’s staring at me, I consider it a rousing success.

In games, though… wow! I’m absolutely willing to spend HOURS doing research, poring over different looks, scanning online fashion guides, looking at in-game mannequins and staring enviously at NPCs with bespoke outfits. I’ll gladly spend in-game money that could be spent on healing potions and swords, instead grabbing a cloak that comes in the perfect shade of midnight blue. Or, instead of slaying dragons, will patiently slaughter the entire population of Nugs in the Hinterlands so I can craft a breastplate with brilliant white fur trim.

Anyways. I’m at a complete loss to explain the discrepancy, or even why in-game clothing ever became interesting to me; it isn’t as if I was following the example of another player or something. And, while I’m currently thinking of this in the context of LotRO, it definitely isn’t the result of wanting to be perceived a certain way by other human players: I’m at least as conscientious about fictional avatar looks in single-player RPGs like Dragon Age and Fallout as I am in [my rare forays into] MMOs.

I noticed a similar tendency back when I was working on Shadowrun Returns campaigns, specifically around interior decoration. As anyone who has visited my place knows, my “style” can best be described as Spartan. I’m perfectly happy living for years with nothing on my walls, no real decorations, and have just automatically kept on using the same pieces of furniture I’ve had since graduation since they work perfectly fine and I don’t want to expend any mental energy thinking of alternatives.

As soon as I start creating a virtual world, though, an entirely new personality takes residence in my head, and this personality has OPINIONS! About AESTHETICS! “Oh, no, no… Kali’s style is very sleek and modernistic, so her office needs to focus on neutral colors and glossy surfaces. That antique wooden desk looks fantastic, but it clashes horribly with her artwork. Let’s give that to Norton, it fits his warmth and eclecticism. Hrm, but the feng shui of this break room is way off. We’re channeling all of the energy into that dark corner, where nobody has a reason to go. Let’s examine A Pattern Language and see if we can find a solution… ah! Yes, let’s put a window in there, and lounge seating, while keeping the refrigerator and food preparation areas on the western side. That way people traveling through the office can quickly grab a snack without bumping into anyone, while those who want to spend some time eating lunch can do so in quiet and comfort. Oh, and the player’s probably running low on health after shooting their way through the four security turrets outside, so I should put two medium healthkits on the north wall. Hm… on second thought, the crimson of the healthkits clashes with the scarlet of the security alarm panels. Maybe I should put them over by the black dragon sigil? Ah, what a striking contrast!”

I don’t have a thesis or anything. It’s just another weird thing about myself that I don’t understand.

Oh! More photos in my album here. There's a bit of light narrative in there about my character's quest, but frankly, I haven't really encountered anything yet within LOTRO that would qualify as a "spoiler", particularly not for anyone who has read the books or even seen the movies. It's very much about the atmosphere and not so much about the plot.

Monday, June 08, 2015


I just realized I never mentioned/bragged that I got to see Neal Stephenson in person again! This is the third time I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of his book events. The seveneves reading was held at Public Works, a cool location on the northern fringes of the Mission District that's kind of a combination of art gallery and performance space. It was PACKED - we got there about 45 minutes before it was scheduled to start to find a lengthy line outside and a crush of people inside. We eventually found a spot on the second floor with a semi-obstructed view down to the stage below.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing Neal - he doesn’t seem like a naturally gregarious person, but has a kind of poised intellect and dry sense of humor that’s very compelling. This time around, he gave some very brief remarks introducing the book. One that sticks out in my mind was a quote that he said he’d heard from Bruce Sterling, something like “A thriller is a science-fiction novel that includes the President of the United States.” By that standard, he was comfortable describing seveneves as a thriller, and launched into reading a passage featuring the titular President along with an assortment of other characters in full-on crisis mode.

There was a lengthy question-and-answer period afterwards. I really should have written this earlier so it was fresher in my mind, but here are some of them, to the best of my recollection.

Q: Is Enoch Root in this book?

A: That would be a spoiler. Stephenson finds the biblical Enoch interesting because he’s from an era when there were so few people on Earth that you could keep track of when each individual person was born and died; and Enoch is the one person for whom we have a birth date but no death date.

Q: Will you write another book set in the multiverse of Anathem?

A: Maybe. Neal thinks that his [he visibly cringes here at his own words] most efficient value-add is in creating new settings. It takes him a long time to write each book, and he feels like that time is best served by coming up with wholly original books. But whenever he finished a novel, he does feel like there’s more left to do there. If he ever runs out of ideas for new books, he’ll enjoy going back and revisiting some old ones.

Q: Is Jesus a time-traveling alien?

A: Anything is possible in the Multiverse.

Q: Is the <something from one book> related to the <something from another book>? (There were a couple of variations on this from multiple questioners.)

A: No. [After additional variations are asked:] He’s noticed a trend where people are looking for connections between his books, like they’re some kind of puzzle to solve. He doesn’t really work that way. Every time he starts work on a new novel, it’s like he starts building a new car. He works on it for a while, then starts driving it, as far and as fast as he possibly can, until he crashes it. Then he walks away from the flames and starts looking for a new car to build.

I was kind of dreading the signing line, but our sub-optimal mezzanine location ended up translating to a decent spot in the queue, and we got through in a good ten minutes or so. This was a less intimate experience than the one at the Swedish American Hall, but still a positive one, and Neal was very gracious.

Now, on to the book itself!

This should come as no surprise, but I enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a solo-penned Stephenson book, so that wasn’t much in doubt; the more interesting question for me tends not to be “Will I like this book?” so much as “What the heck kind of book will this be?” I studiously eschewed all spoilers, so that was a fairly open question for me by the time I started reading it.

It isn’t directly comparable to any of his earlier books; it does have some of the fast-paced structure of REAMDE, but broken up with more typical scientific tangents. If I had to pick one to compare it to, I’d probably say The Diamond Age: the narrative is closely connected to learning about various scientific and technical principles, but in this case there’s a more propulsive central threat driving the plot forwards.

As is often the case for Stephenson, the plot itself is cool, but the ideas he spins out in the course of developing it are the real stars of the show. I don’t feel like recapping the story, but many of those themes are spread throughout the whole course of the novel, so let’s jump ahead and do some


First, a somewhat random observation: gender is really important in this book. There’s much more female representation than one would necessarily expect, and more than in Neal’s other books. Ivy and Dinah are our only eyes in space for a long time, and the strongest through-line of continuity in the novel. They are, in some respects, typical Stephenson heroines: smart, resourceful, and brave, probably in that order.

In some ways what was more interesting, though, were the women who were NOT heroes. Specifically, President Julia is almost inarguably the biggest villain of the first 2/3 of the novel, and Aida becomes a sort of evil matriarch whose shadow darkens the final third. On the one hand, I tend to be happy when women are portrayed in a positive light: making wise decisions and saving the day. On the other hand, though, I wonder if there might be a different, kind of softly insidious bias in doing so relentlessly: representing female characters as ONLY good and talented, while male characters may be either heroes or villains.

It’s a challenging knot to untangle, because you wouldn’t want to revive old gendered stereotypes about villainous women: the black widow, the femme fatale, the dragon lady. Thinking back over Stephenson’s earlier books, I can’t think of another novel where the clear, sole adversary was a woman, so this is fairly new territory for him, and he acquits himself well. Julia is hateful, but in a believable and complex way: there are reasons for her actions, which are not blamed on her gender. She’s just as capable of dooming the human race as any man would be. I was reminded in some ways of Meredith Stannard from Dragon Age 2, another rare example of a female villain who also manages to be a compelling and loathsome adversary while being a believable human being.

The nature of her villainy is an interesting one, which is kind of alluded to in a light-hearted manner during that early meeting in the White House, and draws into sharper and sharper focus after the Earth is destroyed. As in basically all Stephenson novels, the protagonists are engineers, scientists, and crafters: the “doers” who actually accomplish tasks, who build things, who solve problems. The first third of the book is almost exclusively focused on them, in a sort of “man versus nature” narrative, as they draw upon on their ingenuity to try and surmount the seemingly impossible threat facing them.

We get the first solid indications of problems once Tav is launched into orbit. There’s a surprisingly pointed critique here of internet “social media” culture: Stephenson invents some fictional social platforms (such as “Spacebook”) that are obvious doppelgĂ€ngers for Facebook, Twitter, and similar apps. People often see these things as annoyances or distractions, but Stephenson draws an even harsher picture: the ephemeral, low-friction nature of these platforms, which lends itself so well towards memes and bandwagoning and witch-hunts, is actively harmful, and ultimately dooms virtually all that remains of the human race.

The book presents a classic Stephenson opposition. On the one hand you have the “doers”, on the other hand the “talkers”. (This is subtly, but importantly, distinct from the Randian division between “creators” and “takers”.) Members of the GPop are doers, while the Arkies rapidly fall under the sway of the talkers. And the way in which this happens feels perfectly congruous with what often happens today: people are intensely interested in a subject, but have no means for directly affecting it, and so they endlessly discuss and argue and analyze and criticize it. Anyone who has seen a toxic fandom run amok on Tumblr or watched in horror as a seemingly rational person joined the ranks of a misogynistic mob will will quickly recognize the path down which the Arkies are traveling. People become obsessed with winning arguments and scoring points and gathering followers, and all of this noise eventually contributes to a shared hallucination that bears little resemblance to reality. Non-events become catalysts for incredibly harmful actions, good deeds are reinterpreted as gross insults, and the Arkie community eventually destroys the thing they claim to love. In the same way that some authors will insert fictional versions of hated critics into their works, it’s tempting to imagine that Stephenson is doing the same for the anonymous mob, but I think that he’s making an observation about a broader social sickness.

(And, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that me making a long-winded blog post about this book is pretty much Exhibit A in “talking about things instead of doing things”. It’s hard for me to ignore the fact that my posting frequency on this blog is inversely proportional to the amount of creative, productive work I’m doing in my life. Posts such as this amuse me, but really don’t contribute anything of value to the world.)

I think I was very much primed to respond to this section of the book, since it resonates with a lot of problems I’ve been mulling over for the past year. Mostly the stuff mentioned two paragraphs above: the ability to create tenuous and semi-anonymous connections with other people is a pretty impressive innovation in human history, but it seems to sap our capacity for empathy, and as a result there’s a shocking degree of hostility and abuse online which appears to be growing without abatement. We seem to live in a time when simple messages that align with your worldview are always more compelling than nuanced messages that question it, and the best way to gain influence is to produce a stream of those messages and channel them towards those of like minds. This leads to siloed thinking, echo chambers, battlegrounds where people on one side are convinced that they are right and pure and those on the other side must be eliminated.

But, any time my mind starts down that road, I realize that I’m sounding increasingly like a cranky old man, and start to question how new this all really is. You can imagine almost any criticism lodged against social media today to also have been raised at, say, the popularization of the novel. Just picture a solemn man with muttonchops shaking his head sadly. “Kids these days, with their books! Everyone is reading all by themselves, in solitude and isolation, losing the person-to-person contact that is necessary to form a healthy civic society. And people inevitably end up reading a few authors who reinforce their own prejudices, so they never become exposed to the range of opinions one would find out in the real world! Bah, humbug!” So, I dunno… the rise of electronic social media feels fundamentally different to me, but each generation probably feels that way about whatever new form of media arises in their lifetime.

Wow, that was a much longer tangent than anticipated. Returning to track:

In all the discussions about who to send into the GPop, and particularly when Julia makes her unexpected arrival, I was reminded of the “B” Ark encounter from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It’s been decades since I read it, but if memory serves, a planet facing catastrophe decides to send out three space arks. The “A” ark contains everyone at the top of society: the artists, generals, leaders, philosophers. The “C” ark has the people who perform actual work: stonemasons, janitors, welders, soldiers. And the “B” ark is everyone in the middle, people of status who keep the wheels spinning but don’t contribute physical labor or intellectual creativity: stockbrokers, insurance salesmen, middle management. The eventual joke is that there’s no real catastrophe at all: the planet just came up with this plan to trick all of its useless population into leaving, so the rest of them could focus on what needed to be done without supporting dead weight.

Those arks don’t directly map onto Neal’s, but it’s still a pretty good approximation. The heroes are all part of the “A” and “C” ark. People like Tekla are solidly in the “C” camp, but most protagonists like Dinah actually straddle both sides: Dinah has the leadership and creativity of an “A”, but tinkers enough with physical objects to be considered a “C”. Julia and Tav, in contrast, are pure “B”s. They don’t have anything of value to contribute, and yet they are incapable of doing nothing, and so they begin to churn, ultimately causing problems and preventing the “A”s and “C”s from doing what needs to be done.

In many ways, this division reaches its apotheosis in the third section of the book. “Blue” is led by technocrats, and is primarily driven by practical decisions: what’s the greatest need, and what’s the most efficient way to satisfy that need. “Red” is led by politicians and media experts; we only see it from the outside, but it seems to be driven largely by emotion (vengeance, pride, greed), and works towards its goals through media savvy, messaging, and cunning. Blue outnumbers Red, but Red kicks Blue’s butt. You get the feeling that this is happening because Red is playing to win, while Blue is trying to achieve the best outcome. Again, the parallels to our present world (or, really, all of history) are easy and depressing to make. While one does have a general sense that the human race has generally trended towards greater altruism over time, it is incredibly difficult to remain altruistic while another powerful party is willing to take advantage of it.

Okay, I think I’m done with discussing whatever that is. On to the next topic:

In a lot of schlocky fantasy and sci-fi, authors create worlds full of cultures, where each culture is defined by one or two major characteristics, and virtually every member of that culture we see exhibits those characteristics. I think I first became aware of this when reading David Edding’s Belgariad: Drasnians are crafty, Nyissans are treacherous, Chereks are brave, Mimbrates are chivalrous, etc. And of course there are ample examples in science fiction, such as Star Trek: Vulcans are rational, Ferenghi are greedy, Romulons are sneaky, Klingons are hot-blooded, etc. And, of course, humans are somehow the only species that exhibits varied personalities, where you can’t assume how someone will act before meeting them.

I tend to really dislike these sorts of creations: at best it’s boring or reductive, at worst it can smack of racism or bigotry. But, I actually loved how this comes about in seveneves. It’s kind of an inversion of the normal approach: we aren’t seeing individuals being defined by their genetic heritage; instead, we see genetic heritages being defined by individuals. The Seven Eves have control over their reproductive choice, to a greater extent than anyone else in history, and shape their own progeny to meet the needs they see. So, later on, when we see Doc being a stereotypical Ivyan, it’s not because Neal is being a lazy writer and saying that all Ivyans are smart: it’s the result of the choices that Ivy, the character, made five thousand years ago.

And, even better, the characters in the book are all self-aware of the situation and reflect on it. Einstein is prickly partly because he knows that he’s being judged by the standards of other Ivyans. Beled and Kath Two fall into an easy intimate rapport based on their compatible ancestries, but are very aware that those ancestries are defining the roles they play. There’s even a bit of eye-rolling when the Julian proves her treachery: she’s damned for the act, but also for the fact that she’s reinforcing negative stereotypes and playing back into a narrative about how one can expect Julians to behave.

As a quick sidebar: I was a bit surprised to see that, in the future, Dinans are the leaders while Ivyans are the intellectuals. Based on their namesake characters, I would have expected it to be the other way around: Ivy was the commander of ISS at Zero, and the commander of Endurance during the Big Ride. We know from her background that she’s intelligent, but not much of that is on display during the book, and tends to be portrayed more in her handling of people and situations. Dinah, on the other hand, never has any direct reports under her, and is mostly defined by the advances she makes in robotics research and development.

But, the more I think about it, maybe this does serve to emphasize the triumph of deliberate genetic engineering and intentional acculturation, over simpler ideas of natural inheritance of traits. After all, the Eves didn’t just say, “Make more of me forever!” They individually decided what traits were most important to them - often in secret - and worked with Moira to ensure that those traits were passed on to their children. That’s much more interesting than “Ned was an honorable man, and so all of his descendants were honorable as well.”

And, finally, some random thoughts:

There are just a handful of illustrations in this book, which are superbly done. One thing that's missing and would have been very helpful would have been a scale representation of where the various celestial bodies are in relation to one another: the Earth, the ISS, Amalthea, Probst's comet, and the moon. Much of the book is taken up with discussing the "Big Ride" and the amount of propellant that will be necessary to achieve it, but while I was reading it wasn't all that clear to me why Earth didn't just launch its people directly into the moon's orbit. I had a sense that it must be because the moon was much further away; this is the sort of thing that people like Neal who have actually worked with space explorers would immediately know, but civilians like me have a hard time visualizing.

Anyways, after finishing the book I eventually did some Googling and finally found a good scale diagram of where various objects are in orbit. I really wish now that I had looked this up while reading the book, because it makes the immensity of their task so much clearer.

(Click that image to make it big.)
Now: I would need to re-read the beginning to figure out exactly where the ISS is in the novel, but presumably it's in its present-day orbit, about 200 miles above the Earth. This is the same orbit into which all of the Arks are launched. This does make sense since, for the last several decades, all of our manned missions have been confined to launches in this orbit, so we wouldn't have the capacity to send up manned missions to much higher altitudes in the very short timespan allotted in the book.

In contrast, the moon is [checks Google] 240,000 miles away from Earth. Wow! That means that the ISS is .08% (not 8%) of the way from Earth to the Moon. That's really astonishing; both in terms of the task that the characters in this book need to accomplish and, in the real world, it makes me retroactively even more impressed at the success of the Apollo missions. And retroactively sad that our species' capacity for spaceflight has apparently declined so swiftly over the past four decades.

Neal continues to demonstrate his fantastic skill at coming up with wonderful character names. My favorite name in this book is definitely Sonar Taxlaw. Sonar also continues a grand Stephenson tradition of characters who are introduced very late in the book but end up becoming surprisingly compelling, along the lines of Olivia Halifax-Lin or Jules Verne Durand. We don’t get to spent a whole lot of time with her, but she’s pretty fascinating, both in her own right and as a window into Digger society, particularly its quasi-religious approach to societal roles while also recognizing the characteristics of someone “on the spectrum”. There's a great line like "Sonar happily recited some facts, which was her favored technique for interacting with other people," which is something that I can certainly relate to.

One persistent criticism of Stephenson’s books is their abrupt or lackluster endings. I actually think that his last few books have all had nicely satisfying endings: The Baroque Cycle, Anathem, and REAMDE all wound down their main plots gracefully and gave a good amount of closure to their characters, while leaving their worlds open for future exploration. seveneves isn’t quite as tidy; you could easily imagine another five hundred pages being spent to wrap up the Red-Blue conflict. Of course, this isn’t the worst criticism one can imagine: coming to the end of a nearly thousand-page-long book and wanting it to keep on going says a lot for the quality of that book.


Okay! So, uh, I really liked this book. I was going to throw together a snap-in-time list of my favorite Stephenson books, but I’m finding it impossible to compare them (how does one judge the relative merits of Anathem and REAMDE?), so I’ll just say that seveneves is another great book. It isn’t as difficult to read as Anathem and The Baroque Cycle could be, but also has more engaging ideas at play than REAMDE or Zodiac, and is a good all-around example of Stephenson’s capabilities.

Also! I wanted to point out this fantastic interview between two of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell. They do get into some plot points of seveneves, so you might want to hold off on the interview if you're avoiding spoilers for the book. It's a lot of fun to see them interact, connecting in some ways and not connecting in others. I hadn't really thought of it before, but Neal and David are in some ways mirror images of one another, in that they both combine elements of genre fiction with literary qualities. But, David Mitchell is more firmly on the "literature" side of the spectrum, while Neal is more on the "popular" side. This interview also gets at another interesting distinction. One of the things I most admire about Mitchell is his keen moral compass; he's unusually willing to delve into questions of morality in his books. Stephenson, as the interview makes clear, takes a more detached view: he doesn't deny the existence of good or evil, but also views it as a kind of fundamental and permanent aspect of the human condition, to be recognized rather than struggled against. I get the sense that David writes, to some extent, because he hopes to help increase empathy and altruism in the world. Neal writes, to some extent, because he's interested in studying how humans work.

Okay! These scattered thoughts are now done. Good book.