Wednesday, June 01, 2022

The Spirit

The Spirit of Science Fiction is yet another enjoyable entry in Roberto Bolaño's repertoire. This one kind of reminded me of The Savage Detectives, although it's much shorter and with a far smaller cast of characters. It's set in Mexico City, primarily focusing on poets and the writers and artists and others who they associate with. The narrative is kind of loose and impressionistic, a collection of vignettes and fragments that orbit around a few key characters and concerns, leaving the reader to infer meaning.



This is yet another book of Roberto's, along with "Distant Star", with a title that sounds like it could be science-fiction but is definitely not. This title refers to the passion of Jan Schrella, a young Chilean author. Jan loves science fiction, but even more he seems to love the science fiction community: the constellation of authors, conferences, journals and magazines. Several of the "chapters" in this book consist of letters that Jan writes to his favorite science fiction authors, like Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree. Those letters are pretty fascinating: lecturing, hectoring, condescending, pleading, bragging. Sometimes it seems like Jan is just writing for the sake of writing, with the act of communicating across the border more important than what he has to say. Other times he's passionately trying to convince the author to not just write, but to use their platform and power to take action that will help the impoverished poor, the dispossessed, outsiders.

We read these letters but don't get much insight into their writing. For a while I thought that they were sardonic, a cheeky avant-garde prank. Based on Jan's later conversations about science fiction, though, I now think that they're the opposite: deadly earnest, the kind of painfully embarrassing hauteur that only a seventeen-year-old-boy can write. Bolaño may be engaged in a sort of self-flagellation here, as the final letter from "Jan" is signed Roberto Bolaño.

I do love those letters. One of Bolaño's many gifts is how many novels he can write without conventional narration, instead stitching together other forms like encyclopedias or police reports or newsreel footage. Besides these letters, we also hear fragments from the poets' lovers, describing their nights and mornings together from another perspective, or sit in on poetry readings in airless university classrooms. These are intermixed with more traditional scenes, describing the exciting sprawling night at a house party and the intense feelings welling up in the narrator's chest.

There are a lot of feelings in this novel, and another thing I like is how few of them reconcile. Remo spends an evening listening to the poetry of an autodidactic motorcycle mechanic, filled with great unease and distress; we never really learn why he feels that way, but it's a genuine reaction that he can't articulate.

It's kind of funny to see the same tics continue to pop up in multiple of these books: yet again, we have  sisters who are both poets, one a virgin and one very much not, light and dark. I think this is maybe the fourth book with a similar pair of characters. I'm a little curious if they're based on a very influential acquaintance in Roberto's life, or just an idea that he really liked and kept returning to.


Apparently this was one of Bolaño's earlier books, and it doesn't yet have the audacity of The Savage Detectives or 2666, but you can definitely see him exploring concepts that he'll return to later. His skills are already in fine form, and I really enjoyed reading this wistful, curious, eager little novel.

Hunting Accident

I love the idea of Humble Bundle, but go for years at a time forgetting that it exists. It's a fun little corner of the video game community: a rolling charity fundraiser where companies offer (often significantly) discounted versions of their games in exchange for donations to a worthy cause. HB was recently in the news for their Stand With Ukraine bundle, which raised a whopping $20 million to support humanitarian relief in Ukraine. I was glad to also see another bundle, for Europa Universalis IV: They were selling the game with virtually all DLC (hypothetically a $400 value) for $20. Incredible!



It's been nearly a decade since I last played Europa Universalis, specifically the third installment. To this date it's probably the game that I've spent the most hours on, which is pretty insane: first, because I play a lot of long strategy games and RPGs, and secondly because I only played one full game in EU3. EU4 came out not too long after that campaign, and it has continued to evolve along the modern Paradox grand strategy lines. It was released nearly nine years ago, but is still actively supported: roughly every six months or so Paradox releases a major update, including core features that are available to all players along with a paid DLC update that further enhances a specific aspect of the game. For EU this might be a geographical region, or a play style, or historical theme. Those evolutions are great, in that the game I'm playing now is significantly wider and deeper than the game that was released in 2013; but it also means that the core mechanics are constantly changing, and as a result, Googling for information on strategy, mechanics and tips is particularly fraught, as an excellent and well-written guide from 2018 will now be hopelessly outdated, irrelevant at best and misleading at worst.

Fortunately, this is somewhat counteracted by a typically fantastic Paradox Wiki. I've gotten to know the Stellaris one very well over the last few years, and the EU4 wiki is just as strong. I do love this recent trend, where gaming companies will create a new wiki, pay to host it on their own servers, give permission to use graphical assets from the game, and then leave everything else to the community to manage. It brings us one step closer to the day when Fandom is finally wiped from the face of the Internet.

Armed with copious enthusiasm and a false sense of competence from the wiki, I embarked on my first game. Mildly inspired by current events, I wanted to play as Ruthenia; they are not selectable in the game's 1444 start, so I took Poland instead, with an eye towards creating the Commonwealth. As everyone experiences when starting a Paradox grand strategy game, I was quickly overwhelmed by information and mechanics, my decades-old experiences with EU3 and more more recent comfort with Stellaris doing only a little to prepare me for the intricacies of EU4.



I tried following the Poland strategy guide from the wiki, but almost immediately ran into a roadblock, unable to declare the rivalry with the Great Horde that it lists as the first step. I have since learned that many "strategies" for the game include an unlisted step of "quit and restart until you achieve some specific conditions". Which I guess isn't all that different from how I start Stellaris games; if I spawn into a universe where I'm pinned between two hostile neighbors then I'm going to abandon that game.

In EU4, you can choose to play from any year as any country, but the starts in 1444 are most popular. The initial state of the game is almost identical, in terms of who owns what provinces, armies and fleets as well as active wars, alliances and treaties; but the main difference seems to be the initial Rivalries each nation has. These are influenced by history but somewhat random; it's very likely that England and France will be rivals, but also very possible that England will rival Scotland and France will rival Aragon. So if you're planning a very specific strategy, you might want to restart until a nation you want to ally rivals the nation you intend to attack, for example.

After my abortive Poland games I wanted to try something very different. Each year has a list of recommended nations at the bottom, who are in particularly interesting positions. I popped to the other side of the globe and played as Cusco, an Andean nation with a mission tree aimed at forming the Incan Empire. This was fun; I still did pretty badly, but the geographical and political situation in South America is significantly less confusing than the hot mess in northeastern Europe, so at least I could understand what mistakes I had made that led to bad outcomes.


I gave some thought to playing as a one-province or two-province minor, one of the Germanic duchies making up the Holy Roman Empire; in EU3 my big final campaign was playing as Mecklenburg, which turned out to be incredibly fun. Based on my reading, though, playing as a tiny country in EU4 is incredibly difficult, so I decided to pass on that for now.

Instead, I've launched into a fairly successful game as Portugal, which is frequently recommended as a good country for beginners. This is largely because of your geographical and political situation: you start the game allied with Castile, a very powerful nation that shields you from the rest of Europe. There are a few interesting and potentially lucrative things you can do from early in the game. You have a foothold on Gibraltar and can attack Morocco and other Islamic nations in north Africa. You also start the game with an Explorer, and so can begin searching for the New World decades before anyone else.


That Explorer managed to scout the coast of Brazil and much of the Caribbean before dying. I colonized Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa, then was in range to start colonizing Brazil. For Ideas I took Expansion first, which gives you a Colonist earlier and another Colonist later, and then followed that with Exploration, which gives a third Colonist, lets you recruit Explorers and Conquistadors, and grants several other boosts to colonization.

Castile has been my frenemy for my entire game. We've kept a solid alliance and royal marriage, and have helped each other out on wars against the Moors, but we heavily compete against one another for territories overseas. There's a particular pressure to this thanks to the Treaty of Tordesillas: whenever a Catholic nation forms a colonial nation by fully colonizing five provinces in a colonial region, the Pope grants that nation exclusive rights for further colonizing in that region. I knew that Castile would be gunning for the Caribbean, so I worked hard to push up into Trinidad and then leapfrog to Puerto Rico and Havana. I smiled in satisfaction once I started colonizing my fifth province, pleased to have successfully blocked Castile. I belatedly learned that I had not, in fact, accomplished my goal! The Treaty will prevent another nation from starting colonizing a province, but they will still finish any colonies already in progress. So a few years after Portuguese Cuba formed, Castilean Caribbean formed as well; and since they aren't considered a European nation, they can freely expand their colonies without incurring papal wrath. Mutter, mutter. So, lesson learned for future games: to block an AI, be sure you will finish colonizing your fifth province before they start colonizing their fifth.

Still, on the whole I'm very pleased with my colonizing game. While I have to share the lucrative Caribbean with Castile, I have wholly exclusive colonial nations in Brazil and Mexico, and am just a few provinces away from forming in Columbia and La Plata, where Castile has not yet even set foot. I've managed to block some important part of Castile's mission tree by settling Havana and Mexico, and I'm planning to plant myself in Miwok as well to keep him out of California. After grabbing the Falklands Castile has apparently become resigned to settling in northeast America, which tickles me to no end: those are very unprofitable provinces for Iberia, since their trade nodes flow to the English Channel and Bordeaux, and by settling here Castile will likely block England and France from ever becoming major colonial powers.


So far life in the New World has been relatively calm. I took the Repressive Native Policy, which boosts your settler growth rate but keeps the rate of native uprisings high. Many provinces here have no natives at all. For the rest I would usually try and plant enough regiments to equal the number of potential attackers; at higher military tech levels or full maintenance, though, you can get by with much less, with a single regiment of 1000 pretty easily beating back an uprising of say 4000 natives.

I started a war in Mexico to grab the province of Chorti, which wasn't terribly hard but did take a long time, including some annoying sequences where I had to chase down armies that were trying to attack undefended provinces. Later on I received word that another Mexican nation was planning to attack Chorti. I guaranteed the independence of Chorti so I would be dragged into the war, hoping to snap up a couple more provinces. Turns out, it doesn't work this way! Chorti remained the war leader even though I was vastly more powerful. My troops pretty much single-handedly won the war, including several long sieges, but all I had to show for it in the end was a couple of Prestige points and like four ducats in gold, while Chorti got to grow some more provinces.

I've also fought a couple of defensive wars in Brazil against the Portiguesa (sp?) and allies who keep attacking my colony. I improved relations with them while colonizing and kept them happy, but now that my colony is self-governing they aren't getting along nearly as well, and keep getting attacked when their truce is up. For this one I try to Enforce Peace, get rejected, and bring down the hammer. The geography of this war tends to be a little tricky. Unlike Mexico, where everything is tightly bunched up together, in Brazil things are very spread out, and my initial batch of 5 colonized provinces were scattered across the coast, focusing on natural harbors and high development provinces. So I was often torn between focusing on sieging down the enemy territory or chasing them through the hostile jungle before they could reach an undefended province. Fortunately, Portuguese Brazil has grown enough now that they seem to be able to field a decent army of their own, which will hopefully act as a sufficient deterrent against future wars.

While my main focus was on pushing west to found CNs and deny Castile territory, I was also moving south and east while I could. Portugal has a good number of missions related to colonizing and exploiting Africa and Asia. Here, my goal tended to be far enough ahead to be able to grab high-development provinces and provinces with a Harbor. An early goal was to settle the Gold Coast and an adjacent province; once my Trade Range expanded enough, I sent a merchant to the Ivory Coast and started steering trade to Seville. From here I moved down to the Cape of Good Hope and then up the east coast of Africa. I haven't fought any African wars yet, but there are a couple of gold mines in the area that I might try and take at some point.


I'm now establishing a more concerted presence in south Asia. Finishing up the Africa missions gives you free ownership of Goa, a province on the west coast of India. This is pretty fantastic as is allows you to colonize basically anywhere up to Australia; but first you have to core Goa, which means needing to build up enough other colonies to get it into range. As I typically do in a new region, I devoted some diplomats to placating my immediate neighbors while I settle in and get the lay of the land.

The East Indies have a lot of colonizable provinces, but they seem trickier than the West Indies. In particular, there are many more natives, more aggressive natives, and you generally have to share an island with hostile nations. Over the long term I think this will be good, as I should be able to conquer already-built provinces, but in the short term I need to give a lot more thought and planning to how I ferry troops to defend provinces and use diplomats to keep neighbors content.


My current focus is on conquering Hormuz, which is turning out to be really tactically fun. Hormuz is owned by the Timurid Empire, who I haven't had much contact with so far, and it's an island in the Straits of Hormuz that link the Arabian Peninsula to Persia. Timurid is allied with the Great Horde and several other nations, and vastly outnumbers me. But fortunately they were in the middle of a war and their troops were out of the region. While their land forces outnumbered me, I had a superior navy (having upgraded to Caracks). I took fleet basing rights from a neighbor, declared war, defeated them at sea and forced their ships to dock on Hormuz. Then my troops marched into the island, sieged it and took control. This pushed the Timurid fleet back out to the Straits, where I beat them a second time, capturing several prize ships and sending the remnants fleeing back to port. My ground troops then moved onto the Persian coast, split up to cover more ground and sieged the entire coastline while my fleet blockaded the ports. With all of the Timurid coastal provinces under my control, I finally crushed the remnants of the Timurid fleet, and then moved on to take care of their allies.


The problem remained that I absolutely could not defeat Timurid in a straight war: even alone it would be tricky, let alone with their Great Horde allies. I was able to push my War Score up to 10, but was still far away from them accepting peace, thanks to the power of their alliance and my failure to capture the capital.

But... while I couldn't take them at land, they absolutely could not challenge me at sea. I learned a couple of things about EU4 mechanics that proved very useful. First, if you have a war goal to capture a province, then your war score will tick up slightly for every month that you own that province, eventually reaching a maximum of +25. Secondly, if one nation controls a strait, then hostile nations cannot move their land units through that strait. Which all meant that, now that I had destroyed the Timurid fleet, I could let them recapture their coastal provinces. I would still get war score and income from blockading them; even better, though, Hormuz was completely inaccessible to them, I could leave it empty and just park a single ship in the strait and they would never be able to touch me.

Oh, I don't think I've talked much about Europe. I helped Castile fight against Granada, and in turn they aided me against Morocco, helping us all achieve our missions. I defeated Morocco a few times in war, taking provinces or money; once, though, I forced them to release their vassal Marakesh. I then vassalized Marakesh myself (as a friendly and benevolent overlord), and when I took additional provinces from Morocco, I gave them to Marakesh, making them happier and more loyal. Eventually I diplomatically annexed Marakesh. This can be a pretty great technique, since you don't need to spent Administrative Power on coring provinces, your vassal will core the provinces themselves and then transfer those cores to you once you're integrated. It does take a long time to annex, though, and eats up a lot of Diplomatic Power along the way. I switched my National Focus to Diplomatic so I could still gain some points while this was in progress.


After that was done, I got an Estates mission from my Nobility faction to vassalize the remnants of Morocco. This proved to be a bit tougher than I expected, as I needed to occupy every single province of theirs and destroy their army and destroy their remaining allies' armies. They eventually did it, though. Making more use of the Subjects panel, I embarked on a charm offensive (Placating local rulers whenever my Prestige approached 100 and keeping a diplomat busy), then I twisted the knife and forced them to convert to Catholicism. This makes them very upset and disloyal, but they did dutifully set about converting their provinces to the True Faith. Once I eventually annex them, I'll be able to skip the time and money to convert them myself.

Continuing on a vassalizing role, I recently brought Talifat under my wing as well. I'm basically at the cap of my Diplomatic Relations now, though, so I'll have to take it easy for a while.

Rivaling has been a little tricky. I rivaled Morocco early on, but after a couple of wars they stopped being eligible. For quite a long time Castile was my only eligible rival, which sucked. More recently Tunis became available, which I cheerfully rivaled, but shortly after that I eclipsed them, which is also fine. Now, for some reason I'm able to rival the Mamluks, which seems really weird to me: we're at complete opposite ends of the Mediterranean and have basically nothing to do with each other, but whatever, free Power Projection I guess.

So, that's where things are at now! Some random thoughts:

I'm running into an annoying bug where my colonial nations won't colonize additional provinces themselves, even though they're self-governing colonies and I'm providing them with generous subsidies. Apparently there are quite a few quirks or bugs with colonizing in this patch, which if I had known about might have made me play another nation for this go-around.

I've started using a handy tool called PDX Unlimiter that manages saved games. I'm playing Ironman and generally trying to avoid savescumming, but I had a bad experience early on when I accidentally misclicked and declined Castile's call to arms in a war, which screwed over that entire game. Anyways, the Unlimiter supports a few different settings like storing snapshots of previous Ironman saves on a schedule or on demand. It also has a really nice interface where you can see some useful information at a glance about the state of a save before loading it (like active wars, ducats, prestige, etc.). Maybe best of all, though, it skips the initial load to the main menu, which cuts nearly a whole minute off the loading time on my very modern gaming computer.

I'm sure I'll have much more later!