Saturday, August 27, 2016

Full Steam Ahead

I had complex feelings heading into Raising Steam. Excitement, caution, happiness, melancholy. This was one of the last books Terry Pratchett wrote before his passing, and was written while he was deeply suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact that he wrote it at all is a small miracle, and the fact that he kept on writing for his fans during his final years is a huge testament to the guy’s big heart. Still, I worried that it wouldn’t be up to “Snuff”, as it were, and would end my relationship with Discworld on a sour note.

Fortunately, it ended up being a great read. I’d probably place it on the top half of my list of Pratchett books. It bears the classic hallmarks of Pratchett: clever dialogue, groan-worthy-yet-enjoyable puns, deep affection for all its characters, and a fundamental, abiding humanism. As with many of Pratchett’s recent books, it has fairly obvious analogues to real-world social issues and struggles, using the medium of comic fantasy to get at some weighty topics.

Best of all, it’s a Moist book, through and through. Most von Lipwig is probably my favorite character in the Discworld universe, which is saying a ton considering that the Discworld universe also contains Sam Vimes. Moist is a fantastic character, unique and very likeable. Raising Steam continues the “industrial revolution” theme that’s been present in several Discworld books but particularly the Moist books, introducing Victorian-era technological innovations into the classical medieval fantasy setting of Ankh-Morpork and seeing how it alters the status quo.


The innovation here is, of course, steam power, specifically the railway. This is probably the most obviously “modern” of all the advances shown thus far. Previous institutions, like the Post Office and the Mint, arrived on Earth more recently than we generally think, but conceivably could have been existed at any time since antiquity. The Clacks is in many ways even more modern, with strong parallels to the Internet, but is also a unique authorial creation and primarily fictional.

Steam power, in contrast, is exactly the same on Discworld as on Earth, and requires a series of innovations: not just the observation that a boiling kettle attempts to lift its lid, but also advanced metallurgy techniques, mathematics, and supply chains. The presence of a railroad links Discworld to Earth more closely than anything else has before.

What’s uniquely endearing about this is that it’s generally presented as a benign link. Modern fantasy exists in the shadows of J. R. R. Tolkien, who infamously disliked factories, machinery, and other hallmarks of his modern world. Previous to Raising Steam, the closest example I can think of depicting the introduction of steam power to a medieval fantasy setting is Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels,” and chops down the forests around Orthanc in order to build and power his machines. This is wholly evil in the context of Lord of the Rings, which is in keeping with Tolkien’s tendency towards nostalgia: a belief that things used to be simpler, better, purer in the past, and that humans tend to muck things up when we innovate.

I adore Tolkien, but I find Pratchett’s alternate perspective really refreshing; it reminds me of Philip Pullman’s philosophy expressed in “His Dark Materials,” albeit in a gentler and less polemic way. Pratchett treats the disruptions of modernity respectfully, and in ways that mirror our own: Vetinari worries about rising unemployment in sectors of traditional conveyance, those who live near proposed lines have concerns about the noise, etc. There’s no discussion of, say, ancient tree spirits rising up to drive the metal blight from their lands.

Pratchett’s take on steam power is ultimately a mature one: it can bring problems, but also brings benefits, and ultimately the advantages outweigh the harms. Swift transport means that fresh fish can be conveyed from seaside Quirm to inland Ankh-Morpork before it spoils. It allows citizens to live in bucolic settings but work in the city. It enables people to quickly reach their destinations in comfort and with fewer bandit attacks. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s just fun: multiple pages are devoted to the childlike joy people experience in the presence of the steam engine, chasing after it along the track or pulling its whistle or dancing on top of the cars.

I saw something at the front of Raising Steam that I haven’t noticed before: a map of the Discworld. I’m not sure if this has been around before and I’ve just missed it or if it was created specifically for this novel, but as I read deeper into the story, I realized that it’s more appropriate now than ever before. In the past, the limitations of medieval transport have meant that most stories - heck, most lives - are lived in relatively small places. People can live entire, fascinating existences without ever leaving Ankh-Morpork. The witches can mostly stay put in their world. If someone goes on a journey, then that journey is the adventure: the terrain is the place where everything happens.

With the advent of steam, though, the world shrinks. Suddenly Quirm is not a mysterious foreign power: it’s practically a suburb to Ankh-Morpork. Sto Lat becomes an extension of the city. Even far Uberwald, once thought of as impossibly distant, is now a feasibly destination. Of course it makes sense to make a map: the world is now full of possibilities, with a multitude of places to choose and travel between. Steam makes the world small, and brings everything within reach.

Pratchett himself is pretty clearly in favor of this change, but it has opponents within the story. The most serious are reactionary dwarves, who fear the advancing modernity of Ankh-Morpork: primarily for the social disruption it causes, but also because they fear being left behind economically as others ride the wave of innovation. It was really interesting to see dwarves cast in this somewhat-villainous light, especially in the wake of my own storyline in “The Caldecott Caper” (for the record, Raising Steam was published first, though obviously I hadn’t read it before now). Pratchett may have had the same thought process and motivations as I had: dwarves aren’t a classically “evil” race like orcs or goblins, so it’s more surprising and thought-provoking for them to play an antagonistic role. They are also believable as reactionaries, since dwarves are vaguely portrayed as traditionalists in many fantasy settings - often just for flavor, so it’s interesting to dig a bit deeper (heh) and unpack those tendencies. (Of course, Pratchett also avoids overgeneralizing: he makes clear that the hostile wing of dwarves is relatively small, and provides multiple personal examples of “good dwarves” who aid the heroes and oppose their counterparts.)

The “bad dwarves” are often referred to as “grags”, and I actually needed to look up that word to remember what it meant - I think that Pratchett might have previously introduced the grags in Thud!, which is one of my favorite Discworld books but which I haven’t read in a long time. The grags are roughly analogous to the priest caste in dwarven society. They keep traditions, remember the histories, instruct younger dwarves, and generally serve as the link to the past.

Modern Discworld books frequently tie in to the real world, and I think there’s a pretty explicit connection between the grags and radical Islam. These include madraas-style education, indoctrination of an impressionable and disadvantaged youth against the threat of a liberal and modern foe, rhetoric of just war united with cowardly acts of terrorism, and so on. It was a bit disconcerting to read about “terrorist attacks” within Discworld, but that’s what Pratchett is concerned about, and he faces it head-on.

To be honest, the grags lacked the subtlety that I’ve come to appreciate from Pratchett villains. He’s usually good at making you feel sympathy for the antagonists, but here the grags are mostly faceless, interchangeable, and wholly irredeemable. There is a distinction he draws between the leaders, who seem wholly evil, and those who actually carry out their will, who come across as lesser victims. Again, I think that this just matches Pratchett’s own beliefs, and if he doesn’t want to mount a spirited defense of religious terrorism, well, he doesn’t need to.

This quasi-religious element was an interesting addition to the Discworld canon, and cast the existing dynamics of Ankh-Morpork in an even more interesting light. Ankh-Morpork has, of course, always been a stand-in for London: both the city itself, and as a representative of British society; in Raising Steam, it can more broadly be read as the entire modern Western world. Ankh-Morpork isn’t static, and over the course of dozens of novels, we’ve seen it evolve from a simplistic autocratic fiefdom into a complex, diverse, generally multicultural and integrated society. It’s still technically a dictatorship, but Vetinari has always known that the city runs best when it doesn’t feel his heavy hand.

Anyways, what really struck me in this read was how many of those modern civic virtues (tolerance, diversity, creativity) were explicitly linked to greed. Goblins are welcomed members of society: not necessarily because people suddenly grew bigger hearts and saw the personhood in them, but because goblins tend to be hard workers and resourceful and are valued employees of the Clacks system. Over time, this brings them into contact with more humans, who gradually become familiar with these erstwhile monsters and come to like them. Likewise, Ankh-Morpork used to fight wars against its neighbors; in more recent times, though, it has discovered that trade is far more profitable, and so it now generally promotes peace: not because the city is intellectually devoted to pacifism, but because its primary virtue is making more money.

The greed of Ankh-Morpork has been a running joke ever since the earliest Discworld books; we admire and laugh at the boundless optimism and tenacity of characters like CMOT Dibbler, who will do anything to make a buck. By the time of Raising Steam, it seems like greed is the defining characteristic that elevates Ankh-Morpork and has done the most to improve life within it. It’s… kind of weird, to be honest. I feel like the one thing that unites both left and right in our world is a shared vocal disdain for the primacy of free-market capitalism: it’s amoral, or even immoral, ignores the value of individuals, and really has no values or goals except for promoting itself.

I don’t think Pratchett would disagree with any of that, and yet… while entrepreneurship doesn’t explicitly contain any humanist values, he portrays it as creating a space in which humanism can flourish. It’s a shared neutral value, but the fact that it IS shared allows it to unite diverse groups. Traditional Troll teachings tell us that dwarves are ruthless and evil and must be stopped. Traditional Dwarf teachings tell us that trolls are stupid and evil and must be stopped. If both of those teachings are abandoned in favor of the belief that making money is good, and a Dwarf and a Troll are both useful customers and suppliers… well, is that really so bad?

It’s one of the few defenses I’ve ever read in fiction of our dominant form of Western free-market trade obsession, and showing it as essential for, rather than in opposition to, our supposed values of peace and diversity. I thought that was interesting!


The overall themes of Raising Steam were great, and the writing was strong throughout, but the overall plot structure felt a tad weak. The good guys kept on winning, endlessly. Nearly every threat that arose was squashed within a page or two of its introduction; in the few cases where real damage was done to the course of steam, Moist was able to very quickly overcome it, avenging the victims and turning the setback into a fresh advantage.

This deprived the story of tension, but also helped make it a pleasant read, which I was very much in the mood for. Part of it may have to do with Moist’s character: one of his defining characteristics is how sharp and quick on his feet he is, so he isn’t the sort of person who will sit around and agonize about the problem he’s facing: he’ll be struck with inspiration, or just open his mouth and start talking, and quickly get things back on track.

The ultimate climax comes in the form of a long overland train ride from Quirm through Ankh-Morpork and on to the dwarf caverns in Uberwald, with the crews desperately attempting to finish the line even after the engine has departed. This attempts to tie together the railway construction primary plot and the dwarf insurrection side plot, with limited success. The weaknesses of the dwarf characters become pretty obvious here: apart from two sleeper agents who somehow got on board this heavily planned trip, we mostly see endless waves of anonymous and disposable grags who mount a series of increasingly audacious but completely ineffectual assaults on the magnificent Iron Girder.

There is an interesting plot twist late in the game, where it’s revealed that Rhyss Rhysson, the King of the Dwarves, is actually a Queen. This touches on some of my interests, particularly the gender portrayals of traditional Tolkienesque dwarves; while doing “research” for Caldecott I was reminded of Dis, the only named female dwarf in Tolkien’s legendarium, and was delighted to discover a trove of amazing fan art  about that character. As we are told in Lord of the Rings, dwarf woman are visually almost indistinguishable from dwarf men; this idea has some really interesting implications in how individuals relate to the world in different settings.

This isn’t exactly new ground, of course - Cheery Littlebottom paved the way long ago in the Watch. Still, in light of the modern conversation around transgender issues and people coming out for their gender expression, the scenes in Raising Steam struck me as more resonant: I remember Cheery’s revelation as being primarily comic, and a little sweet; here, it’s more deeply satisfying and significant, both for Rhyss personally and dwarf culture as a whole. I was also reminded of Monstrous Regiment, which increasingly seems ahead of its time: Pratchett has been playing around with gender and promoting the values of expression and autonomy for a long time now, and it feels like society is catching up to where he was long ago.

Finally, as a random note: Death is back! He doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but it was kind of nice to see him again after he was missing in action for Snuff. It's sad, but also encouraging, to realize that Pratchett has had such a warm attitude towards Death throughout his career, and makes me think that he was ready to move on to whatever comes next.


It's a little sad to have more or less finished the Discworld books (excepting only the YA entries) and know that there will not be any more. I really like how he's wrapped them up, though, and the legacy he left behind was incredible. I believe that Pratchett will be remembered as the Jonathan Swift of our era, and his novels place him on the right side of history in their satirical-but-heartfelt examinations of contemporary social questions. They've always been entertaining fantasy romps, but for most of his career they've been much more than that, and it's great to see that he managed to go out on such a high note. Toot, toot!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

White Duck Red

David Mitchell's books tend to have ambitious structures. They hop across the world, over centuries of time, or both. Even something like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet feels expansive, in the way it taps into a grand and/or sinister background that connects a quotidian setting to fantastical developments.

Black Swan Green is different. It's a much more realistic novel, and one that feels a lot more personal. I'm not sure how much (if any) of this is autobiographical, but it certainly fits what I know of David Mitchell's life: both he and Jason Taylor, the book's narrator and protagonist, were born and raised in England, were children during Margaret Thatcher's reign, harbored literary ambitions, and suffered from stammering. The novel doesn't get as delightfully crazy and weird as Mitchell's best books, but it's wonderful in a different way, delving deep into the inner life of this one vulnerable kid.


There's really only one part of the book that seems like it might enter the more supernatural territory of Mitchell's other novels, and it comes early on. Jason is skating (in his tennis shoes) on a frozen lake. It's an eerie setting: earlier in the day the lake was crowded with people, but now everyone is back at their homes watching a scheduled movie on the BBC (a recurring element in this story, long before the advent of Sky TV and the Internet). He sees an unexplainable person skating opposite him, an external manifestation of his interior self. After a massive crash, he limps into a spooky cabin in the woods, where a witch-like lady gives him a healing poultice before locking him inside. Creeping upstairs, he is confronted with the old lady's mortality, unsure whether she is still in this world or has moved on to the next.

The chapter ends abruptly and the next begins in media res, without any explanation of how Jason escaped his captivity. As the story continues, it seems increasingly likely that this was a dream: perhaps Jason suffered a small concussion after his fall, and his creative mind invented the story of the widow and her dead boy. By the end of the book, though, it becomes even more understandable. We realize that everything had happened just as he remembered, and it really wasn't that unusual after all, just a frightening experience for a young boy.

I frequently compare David Mitchell to Haruki Murakami, and it's very tempting to compare Black Swan Green to Norwegian Wood. Both are strongly realistic novels, in contrast to the more unusual stories the authors are most known for. Both seem like they may contain autobiographical inspiration, drawing from the author's youth. However, Black Swan Green seemed darker to me. Norwegian Wood is about young adulthood: a time when possibilities seem endless, a lifetime expands in front of you and you can chose any one of many intriguing paths. Black Swan Green is about childhood: a time when boundaries are stifling, where the world around you seems dangerous, and survival (social, mental, and physical) takes precedence over growth. It's easy to think of Murakami as being nostalgic for Norwegian Wood, but Black Swan Green felt more like something to escape from. It's a formative experience in the past, and one that a father would probably hope to protect his son from.

The story sometimes resonated with me in an uncomfortable way. I never experienced the kind of bullying that Jason encounters, but vividly remember the feeling of being an outsider, of trying to navigate the social structures that surrounded me. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I do remember thinking of who the "cool" kids were, and never sought to join their ranks; but at the same time, I also avoided associating with those who had even lower status than me, much as Jason steers clear of Squelch. School culture is highly stratified, apparently in England as it is in America. Much like when reading Enter Title Here, I hadn't thought of this uncomfortable dynamic for a long time; but it had a big impact on me when I was young, and I'm sure it helped shape the person I became.

Conformity is a big, important force in childhood, and it's something you can embrace or fight against. Being part of the group requires adhering to their standards, however good or bad they might be. There's more freedom on the outside, but it's also lonelier. I remember feeling very isolated up until the time I got labeled as the "bookworm". It was initially intended as a derogatory term, but I leaned into it, embracing my reputation as the kid who was always reading something. Before too long, I had a role: I never felt like I was part of the cool crowd, but I had a status that allowed me certain access. It required me to play a part, but it was one I felt comfortable with. Jason takes a different path, but I once again felt a sense of resonance at his ultimate arc. He does something very out of character for him that puts him at odds with the norms and expectations of his peers; but then he leans into it, embracing his actions, and earns respect.

We often have this idea that children are innocent, peaceful creatures, but the reality is that they can be quite awful... it takes time and experience to develop empathy, and kids are short of both. I winced often while reading about the various ways kids would abuse others. Jason is much better in comparison, but he's not an angel either. There's a certain transactional nature to some of his relationships: he consciously invests in his friendship with Dean Moran, specifically so he will have someone by his side if he loses status due to his stammering.

This sort of fear and planning seems to dominate much of Jason's life. The main example of this throughout the book is the loss of the Omega watch, a family heirloom that Jason accidentally smashed that night on the pond. He doesn't tell his father about this, piling lie on top of lie to explain why he isn't wearing it. Much later on, a stranger gives him fantastic advice: whatever punishment he might fear, it will be far better than spending years toiling under the weight of his secret. It's particularly sad to see a life bend itself to avoid something, when the bend itself causes more pain than the thing it sought to avoid.

Jason often deliberates his course of action, and will sometimes personify different roles into alter egos. The most prominent is Hangman, his nemesis, the force that causes him to stammer. Unborn Twin pushes him to be reckless and daring. Maggot harangues him with self-loathing. I like how each alter-ego is introduced: for the most part, they aren't really explained. Jason has lived with them for years and so they aren't particularly remarkable to him. We come to know them by listening to their words.

This description sounds like schizophrenia - "Jason hears voices inside his head that tell him what to do!" - but the way Mitchell writes it seems very familiar and natural. Jason is just a child, figuring out the person he is going to become, wrestling between his different impulses. I was actually reminded of Neal Stephenson's writings about the bicameral mind in books like The Big U, Interface, and Snow Crash. There's a theory that, in the past, our brain's hemispheres were more separated than they are today. When people would have thoughts, they would arise in one side of the brain, and be "heard" on the other side. Thus, everyone was accustomed to having voices in their heads telling them what to do. This supposedly continued until around 1000 BC, when (gradually and over time) most people ended up with more connected, unicameral brains. Thus, for example, the experience of prophets hearing voices: they were the people who retained more divided minds. Anyways - reading this book reminded me of that, and also made me wonder whether bicameralism is also something that might change with age. Young children seem more likely to have imaginary friends or see things that aren't there. This doesn't mean that they're crazy: it may mean that their brains are still growing and figuring out how best to work with the world.


This story has an unusual arc. Taylor is the sole narrator and primary character, but the novel seems to elide some significant scenes: each individual passage is detailed and thorough, but we'll sometimes discover later that a crucial development was reversed off-page, or that Jason has already adapted to some major new fact. It's hard to tell what the point of the novel is: while it's very engaging, and we root for Jason on a variety of issues, there isn't a central goal that drives him.

Despite all that, though, it ends up with a surprisingly conventional climax. He defeats his nemesis, becomes popular, and even gets the girl! But! In each case, the details are different than we expect. Neal Brose isn't a major figure in the parts of the story we've read in the same way that Gary Drake and Russ Wilcox are: we the readers learn about the extortion racket at the same time that the headmaster does. Jason does not become popular by overcoming his speech impediment or embracing his poetry: he gains respect by essentially tattling on another kid. And up until now Taylor has only seemed to care for Dawn Madden... but she's been bad for him, so we cheer as he lands in the arms of Holly Deblin.

I really liked that. I wanted so badly for things to go well for Jason, and it was great to see him find success on unusual terms. Of course, the story doesn't end there. His family life takes what seems likely to be chaotic turns: his parents divorced, his dad financially insolvent, himself uprooted from the school where he's finally found acceptance and moved to a strange town. He stresses out, of course, but I think he handles it much more gracefully than I expected. It's really encouraging, and suggests that Taylor has gained inner strength as a result of his ordeals and is incrementally more prepared to face the world's trials.

Finally, I think this book has one of my all-time favorite endings, in this conversation between Jason and Julia:
"It'll be all right." Julia's gentleness makes it worse. "In the end, Jace."
"It doesn't feel very all right."
"That's because it's not the end."

Which is SO GOOD! In so many ways!

First of all, it hits you with the humor: it literally is the end of the book.

Secondly, though, it strikes a note of bittersweet optimism. These have been momentous events, but they're only a small fraction of Taylor's entire life. He will grow, memories of pain will fade, and will arrive in a better place.

Finally, the more that you think about the physical book, the more you realize that it is not, in fact, the end. This novel is merely one thread in the tapestry that Mitchell has been weaving for decades. Stories came before this, and more stories will come later. We will see these characters again, in different times and different circumstances. There's a unique sense of warm comfort in finishing one of Mitchell's books: the story ends in a satisfying way, and also elevates everything that came before it.

There are a couple of tie-ins from Black Swan Green. The most obvious is probably the Cloud Atlas sextet, which is played to Jason by the daughter of Vyvyan Ayers. A few other things grabbed my interest, though I'm not sure if they're actually connected. The name Yew (Nick or Tom) seems very familiar, and I feel like he might be one of the characters in... I dunno, maybe The Bone Clocks or something. I'm sure there are more that I missed, so I'll have fun finding those connections when I re-read the other books.


Speaking of which: I was going to whine about how this was the last Mitchell book and so I didn't have anything else from him to read, but it turns out that that's incorrect! He published Slade House shortly after The Bone Clocks, so that's another one for me to pick up.

So, yeah. Black Swan Green is really good. For better or worse, it has a different feel than most of his other books... but, then again, it isn't like number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet were all that similar, either. I might not recommend this as the ideal introduction to Mitchell, but I do think that many people who don't ordinarily enjoy his work would appreciate the quiet realism and vulnerability of this tale.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Post Review Here

My friend Rahul Kanakia has published his first novel, and it's fantastic! I grabbed Enter Title Here shortly after its release, and devoured it over the course of a few days. It was really funny, and gripping, with a propulsive plot narrated by a Machiavellian eighteen-year-old over-achiever.

I've enjoyed reading Rahul's short stories for a few years. He's written some terrific science-fiction pieces before, but lately has been veering in a more literary direction. My favorite one is probably a terrific and odd story about ghosts and the East Bay rental market. I wasn't sure what to expect with Enter Title Here, and was glad to go into it cold.


The novel is consistently funny throughout. In one early scene, Aakash asks Reshma out via text message; when she accepts, he writes back "OMG, everyone! She said yes! #CrushedIt #TotalVictory #ThanksForAllTheFish", following it up shortly after with "Um, that was meant for someone else." I actually laughed out loud during the commute on BART - embarrassing, but well deserved!

Aakash in general was one of my favorite parts of the book. He crowd-sources all of his romantic ideas, researches kissing on YouTube, and generally approaches life as a puzzle to be solved. He was funny, but also weirdly relatable, and a couple of times I caught myself thinking, "Dang, I wish I'd thought of doing that." Like many of the characters, he can be a really decent guy and has a lot going on inside his head; but Reshma doesn't care about the aspects that do not directly affect her own ambitions.

The most noteworthy aspect of the novel is probably its fun meta-fictional structure. It's narrated in the first person by Reshma, who is writing a novel. So we're getting her description of events, but also her opinions on those events, and her running commentary on how she can reshape and mold this narrative to (1) cast herself in the best light, and (2) use it as a tool to get into Stanford. That's already great, but it's further elevated in the scenes with her psychologist, who not-so-secretly dreams of publishing his mystery novels. These scenes, with Reshma and her psychologist arguing over whether she should murder someone in order to provide more dramatic tension to the final act of the book, were some of my favorites; besides being funny, though, the self-awareness elevated this (for me) from being "just" a really well-written YA novel into something more literary.

I loved all of the sign-posting and telegraphing, which occur frequently in Reshma's commentary but are densest in those "workshopping" scenes with Dr. Wasserman. They often anticipate upcoming plot developments, or provide commentary on the story we've been reading so far. Near the midpoint of the novel, Reshma is convinced that she's nearing the end (since the Stanford application date is approaching), while Wasserman argues for the need for a complication - the "third option" that will surprise readers but satisfy them as they reach the end of the novel. Of course, we have a ways left to go, and Wasserman (despite being a bad writer) is correct here. There's also really fun ongoing discussion about how likeable/relatable/well-drawn the characters are. Reshma keeps trying to find succinct and clear motivations and actions for the people in her life so they can fulfill their necessary roles. Near the very end of the book, she finally kind of gives up, and acknowledges that the real complexity of people is greater than the simplified version that a novel demands. "Maybe the problem is that I'm trying to slap an ending onto a friendship that only began like six months ago." This stuff can be enjoyed on so many levels: for Reshma herself, for the story Reshma's writing, and for the novel we're reading.

Reshma has been shaped by the hothouse environment of Silicon Valley, and the novel does a great job at grounding itself in the weird environment here. The startup scene is just a background to the main plot, but everything about it feels correct: in particular, "Bombr" is a perfect name for a new social networking platform, right in step with Twitter and Tumblr and Flickr. Las Vacas itself is made up, but is obviously a stand-in for Atherton or Menlo Park or another of those mid-Peninsula wealthy, highly-educated, intensely-competitive cities.

The high school scenes themselves were really engaging and brought me back in mind to my own high-school experiences. I was fortunate enough to have a stronger social circle than Reshma, but I remember being keenly aware of the importance of group connections and social standings. All of the plot about GPA also rang immediately true for me - my high school was fairly similar, in that we had classes that were either "R" (supposedly "Regular" but de-facto "Remedial"), "I" (for "Intermediate", or standard) and "A" (for "Advanced"), with each tier getting 1 point higher in GPA calculations. There were people who, like Reshma, successfully gamed the system and figured out how to get the most "A" and the fewest "I" courses. As with Reshma, those weren't the smartest kids: in my particular class, most of the smartest kids were in band, which hobbled all of them with an extra "I" for a total of 8 semesters. I made out a little better since I wasn't in band, but I did take two computer science courses that, inexplicably, were "I" levels as well. But we all liked the material enough that we were fine being in the top 10 instead of valedictorian. But I also think we, and our parents, were a lot less competitive. Some of that is probably the difference with Silicon Valley, and some of it might be high school and college getting more competitive in general since I attended.

Anyways! I almost never think about high school any more, but Enter Title Here reminded me vividly of how crucial everything felt back then: the grades, the rankings, college admissions, finding a date to Prom, having people to eat lunch with. So much of that seems unimportant now, but I'm sure it helped shape who I am today, and it was cool to reconnect with that part of my past story.

Reshma is, of course, absolutely ruthless in her climb to the top. I was really impressed at just how consistently negatively Reshma is drawn, seeming borderline sociopathic. There were quite a few times during the book when I thought "Okay, this will be the moment when Reshma will acknowledge her hubris and draw back." Nope! Inevitably, she doubles down, placing others or herself at greater risk as she claws towards her goal. These escalations often occur during her interactions with Alex, and are shockingly funny. I just love the absurdity of Reshma wielding her friendship as a sword over Alex, refusing to let her escape even when they both hate one another.


After reading an entire novel painting Reshma as the most cynical and relentless person imaginable, I was even more impressed at how quickly but believably she's "redeemed" at the end. It's still recognizably her, particularly her determination and ambition (which loses focus for a time but never disappears). She hasn't lost her personality, but she's gained empathy. Or, at least, she's gained the ability to recognize when she does not have empathy, which is practically the same thing. There's a moment, late in the book, when she finally realizes that parts of George's life are pretty crappy, and actually cares about that, and not just as a means to improve her own life. It's a wholly satisfying ending that, as Dr. Wasserman promised, we didn't see coming but makes perfect sense once we see it.


I was lucky enough to attend the launch party for the novel, which was a lot of fun - Rahul read from the book and gave a really enlightening and amusing Q&A. As he pointed out, this is a young-adult novel, but exactly zero teenagers were in attendance. I haven't been a teenager in a while, but I think many will get a kick out of this book - either because they relate to the intense competition and ambition, or because they can be grateful they have escaped it. I do know that I, as an adult, thoroughly enjoyed it. From the gripping, charismatic-yet-sometimes-horrifying characters to the really clever story construction and self-commentary, this was a terrific read, and one that I can unhesitatingly recommend to anyone.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who Witches the Witcher?

I'd planned to wait until finishing the campaign before writing another post on The Witcher, but the game is massive enough to merit an earlier check-in. I just reached a decent stopping point after a ridiculous amount of gameplay, and can tell that there's still a ways to go.

So, first of all, the good news: it's definitely growing on me! Some of the specific things that had initially irritated me have proven to be more palatable later on.

I've gotten used to the combat and it no longer bothers me. I'm definitely not an expert. I'm playing on the normal difficulty level, and have gotten by with just a single fighting technique: quick strikes and combat rolls. I never parry, dodge, or use heavy strikes. I do frequently use Yrden to slow my enemies, and will break out Igni against drowners or Aard against flying foes. Now that I've gotten the hang of it, fights are generally pretty short and enjoyable.

The bigger and nicer surprise, though, has been to realize that, in proportional terms, there's actually surprisingly little combat in The Witcher. This wasn't as apparent to me early on, since I was systematically clearing the map and fighting literally every monster I saw. Ever since reaching Novigrad, though, I have shifted to just doing main and secondary quests, and have been delighted to see how frequently you're able to clear quests without fighting. Quite often you'll be able to choose multiple approaches, or perhaps be able to break out Axii to stall a fight from the start. When there are fights, they're usually either very quick affairs, or interesting boss fights with enough good mechanics to feel worthwhile.

I should probably warn right here that this post will probably be filled with comparisons to Dragon Age, particularly Inquisition. DA is my favorite current franchise, and The Witcher is one of the only competitors to its AAA-fantasy-RPG throne. Anyways, after playing The Witcher 3, I think I finally understand what BioWare was trying to do with combat in Inquisition. I didn't particularly care for the fighting in that game, particularly as a melee fighter. It makes sense, though, if you think of it in terms of moving the DA franchise closer to TW, adding an element of action RPG fighting to its existing party-based, semi-tactical combat. At the same time, I kind of wish that BioWare would focus on improving its party-based combat, rather than adding new elements.

Back to The Witcher: Inventory has also become much less of a hassle. One big piece of this has just been getting more inventory space. This is done by getting bigger saddle bags, which is a great in-universe explanation (theoretically, you aren't ACTUALLY carrying around two dozen broadswords at all time, you're just having your horse carry them). It also helps enormously to have found quick travel points close to merchants, so I can easily sell off excess goods between quests.

Besides encumbrance, the other thing that was previously irritating was just sorting through equipment, figuring out what to keep and what to sell. For better and worse, there isn't a clear progression path. Do you keep a lower-level Relic or switch to a higher-level Magic item? Do you want more Glyph slots or more raw power? Take an item with Burning or one with Stun? Not to mention the trade-offs between light, medium, and heavy armor.

This got much more tolerable for me once I decided to just stick to Witcher gear. This is the best equipment in the game at any given level, and you can upgrade it at various points as you level up. It's kind of fun to acquire; there's a "scavenger hunt" element to finding the diagrams, and then you must gather the materials to craft it. It isn't too time consuming, either. Once you have it, it'll be better than anything else until you reach the level for the next tier of Witcher gear. (The only exception is that, at least at lower levels, it has fewer glyph slots; but even this is arguably an advantage, at least in terms of keeping it simple.)

So, on the one hand, that's great: I can now go through a half-dozen quests at a go, and then simply sell off every piece of armor and weaponry in my inventory without giving it a second thought. But, on the other hand, why?! What's the fun on mindlessly clicking on a ton of things to loot them, and then right-clicking a bunch more times to sell them? I increasingly feel like the Shadowrun games have spoiled me for RPGs. After experiencing a radical system where you get money for finishing quests, and then use that money to buy better gear... that seems like it should be the most common game design system for RPGs, and it's kind of stunning that it's such an outlier.

Er, that compliment kinda morphed into a criticism. Sorry. Bottom line: the inventory system was very annoying early on, and is hardly annoying at all now.

Other high points have continued to be good and get even better. The environments continue to be astonishingly beautiful, and grow ever more varied as you progress through more of the game. Reaching Skellige in particular opens up a whole new set of ecosystems, some of which are reminiscent of Skyrim but more gorgeous. Skellige also features my favorite ambient music thus far. It took me a while to notice, but it's great of the game to reflect different cultures in the different music you hear.

Another great thing: Gwent! I've become kind of obsessed with this card-game-within-a-video-game, and, if I'm being totally honest, my biggest single motivation for advancing the story and exploring new areas is so I can find new NPCs to play against and win cards from. I think that I now have what's more or less the ultimate deck. I play as Northern Realms, with the ruler who can clear weather effects. I have a lean deck: 22 units, including 4 spies, 9 heroes, 2 medics, and 3 groups of Bonded Pair cards. I usually just run with two Decoy cards, plus a Scorch and a Siege Horn (and Dandelion). I am kind of tempted to try out Nilfgaard, mostly for the leader's awesome ability (draw one card from your opponent's discard pile; unlike a Medic, you don't even need to immediately play it). I almost always win my matches now, but it's still fun as I set myself new challenges like running up high scores or shutting them out in the first round.

Now, onto the more mixed stuff...

Like I mentioned in my initial post, one thing that TW3 is particularly good at is varied character modeling. Once again, I'll invoke a comparison to Dragon Age. In most of those games, apart from a handful of iconic characters (your companions and a few major NPCs), most characters look very physically similar. There's a "human male" body type, a "human female" body type, an "elf male" body type, and so on. Different people get different hairstyles, skin tones, and so on, so you get the impression that they're all distinct, and I never really thought much about it. After playing The Witcher, though, I've been thoroughly impressed at how diverse their bodies are. Even random unnamed merchants and innkeepers are fat, or squat, or cockeyed, or unusually tall, or have huge jowls, or beer bellies, or goiters, or... well, you get the picture. That's all fantastic; but, on the flip side, most of the women you meet are attractive damsels with wide busts and narrow waists, and virtually all of the people you meet are white. It feels like CDPR did the harder part by representing unusual body shapes, but missed out on an easy opportunity to add more variety to their characters.

That said, it does feel like CDPR is moving in a great direction. I didn't make it all that far in The Witcher 1, but one thing that did feel kind of squicky was how you would unlock playing cards by sleeping with different women. This felt like an explicit conquest/trophy system which is troublesome in general, and particularly in a video game. There's none of that here: Geralt can still sleep around, but the game (generally!) pays more attention to the emotional situations of its characters. There's also a bit, in a very early quest, where you realize that your quest-giver is gay. The way it's delivered feels a bit clumsy and ham-handed, but the fact it's in there at all is great, and I think it shows that the developers are caring more about how they portray people in their games.

So, yeah. I feel a mixture of optimism and frustration in so much of the game's story. I don't think it needs to be a morality play, and there's probably a place for a "James Bond of Fantasy" somewhere in here. But the game seems to sometimes realize that it's capable of being more than "violence + sex = fun!!", and I wish it could lean more into that vein.


As noted before, the big problem with this is Geralt himself. Geralt is a fixed protagonist, and you have only limited control over how he expresses himself. He has kind of been growing on me, and I have a better understanding of his deal. It isn't like Talion from Shadow of Mordor, towards whom I felt almost pure frustration by the game's end. Geralt is part of a community, forms relationships, and has some capacity for introspection and growth.

For a lot of the game, you don't really get any significant choices at all: you can take a contract or not; you must say a certain line to advance in the plot. I miss the conversation systems of Dragon Age and Shadowrun and Pillars of Eternity and others where you would have a variety of options in how you respond to something: the game might make you go from point A to point B, but you can decide why your character agrees to do it and how they feel about it. Here, the answer is almost always the same: Geralt is doing it because he's getting paid, he feels annoyed by it.

There are some points where you can make a choice that affects the plot, and a couple of places where you can actually (gasp!) say how Geralt feels about something. I was delighted to find these, but in one of the earliest examples my delight was quickly replaced with horror. The Bloody Baron is an interesting character: a straight-up bad guy, a warlord who is responsible for suffering on both a macro political level and a micro personal level. During a long plot thread, you eventually piece together the story behind his missing wife and daughter: the years of separation, anger, resentment. At the end, you can pick between two options like "It was your fault" and "It wasn't your fault". I had some sympathy for the Baron, but I thought he was clearly in the wrong, so I chose the first option.

Then Geralt opened his dumb mouth. "It was your fault. This never would have happened if you hadn't left to go to war." NO! I didn't blame the Baron for doing his job. I blamed the Baron for beating his freakin' wife! At that point, I almost wished that the game didn't offer dialogue options. That way I wouldn't feel complicit in Geralt's assholery, just an observer of him being an asshole.

That said, that was the one scene I remember where I felt quite so blindsided by one of Geralt's statements. For the most part the game either shows Geralt reacting to stuff going on around him, or lets you tone his reactions up or down. So far they've avoided anything quite as disturbing as, say, scenes in Shadow of Mordor or GTA V where the player is forced to torture a prisoner in order to advance the plot.

Speaking of plot... I'll probably hold off on my overall reactions to characters/storylines until the end of the game. Just a quick check-in on where I am now:

I had a really hard time choosing between Triss and Yen, to the point where I put their plots on hold while I did everything else that I could. They both are fantastic, in very different ways. I love Yen's confidence and accent, and Triss's kind spirit and red hair. I ultimately decided to stay with Yen: partly because I see Geralt as a bit of a pragmatist, and think Yen's ties with Emhyr could prove most useful in both finding Ciri and potentially reshaping the world; and because some supplemental information in the world suggests that Ciri sees Yen as kind of a mother figure, and I like the idea of us being a pseudo-family together.

I almost immediately had cause to regret my choice. Right after making up my mind, I watched as Yen committed a horrifying act of necromancy, simultaneously mistreating a damned soul and defiling one of the world's most sacred sites. But I'm ride-or-die, so now I'm just backing Yen 100% no matter what and seeing where it takes us.

It will probably take us somewhere bad.

To be honest, if I had played the earlier games I probably would have chosen Triss. I just finished the segment at Kaer Morhen, and am starting to realize that Yen has little hesitation about treating people like disposable assets in pursuit of what she wants. That said, what she wants now is Ciri and, to a lesser extent, Geralt. If nothing else, I do appreciate the different dynamic of the relationship. I'm so used to video-game romances being gradual wooings, where the motivated player wins over a receptive NPC. Yen is (at least at this point in the story) the total alpha, though, and everyone knows it. It's a dynamic I haven't seen before, and there are elements of it that are really cool.


In terms of main story beats, so far I have:
  • Aided Keira in her various efforts, but ultimately persuaded her to leave Velen and seek refuge in Kaer Morhen rather than attempt to barter the research for Radovid’s protection.
  • Reunited the Baron with his wife. He’s currently traveling with her in search of a hermit or someone who can help cure her mind.
  • Helped Lambert track down his prey, but then forced him to abandon his plans of revenge.
  • Supported Triss in rescuing the mages of Novigrad, except for two who we left behind.
  • Used deception to trick a hym into abandoning its parasitical hold on a lord of Skellige.
  • Helped Cerys uncover Birna’s plot to kill off the competitors and crown her son, and saw Cerys made ruler of Skellige. (I do really like how she’s the King rather than the Queen.) I am a fan of her “maybe we won’t kill ALL of our enemies” policies.
  • Put on a fantastic new play by Priscilla, starring Geralt as The Witcher. It was a financial and critical success!

There’s a TON more quests, of course, but those are the major choice-related ones that come to mind at the moment.


I assembled another album for this, and it’s frankly ridiculous. 704 pictures! That’s probably the most I’ve ever done for a game. (Checks.) Yes, it beats my previous record of 599 pictures for Part 4 of my second Dragon Age: Inquisition run. There are many spoilers in here, but mostly just in the captions. The pretty pictures are pretty to look at.

I’m not sure how much of the game I have left. I’m currently level 24, and I know that the DLC is targeted for around level 35. That said, I’ve been earning XP at a crawl lately because I’ve been clearing low-level quests (and not even touching Witcher Contracts or Treasure Hunts), so that probably isn’t the best gauge of progress. Anyways, I’ll have at least one more post, possibly more if I do the DLC separately.

Speaking of which - big thanks again to Andrew, who clued me in on the insanely vast array of free DLC available for the game. In Steam, it’s all accessible under the “DLC” link in the Library. There’s a huge amount of content available, from new character skins to new Gwent card art to new quests to new equipment and more. Really cool to see how much effort the developer put into expanding and enhancing the game after it was released (and another affirmation of my policy of generally waiting until at least a year after an RPG is released before I start playing it).