The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

The nightly hunt has begun. You’re a hunter; and a hunter hunts. That’s all you need to know. Amongst the streets of Yharnam, teeming with inhuman beasts, lying scoundrels, and soon to be much worse, you must remain vigilant and inventive if you’re to survive until morning, if it ever comes.

This game is fantastic. Forget superlatives, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. After I finished the Dark Souls II remaster, I felt like the series, while not stale, did need to start to innovate. From Software swapped the setting from faux-medieval ruin to faux-victorian ruin, sped the game up tremendously, and spun their best narrative-via-atmosphere yet. It’s a host of minor and medium size adjustments that makes the scheme fresh again. It was rewarding, immersive, and I’ve seen many forms of media riff on H.P Lovecraft but extremely rarely as well as Bloodborne. The Shadow over Innsmouth tribute is gets it without being derivative.

The city of Yharnam is famous for its speciality science slash religion of blood ministration. Through something termed ‘blood healing’, humans can imbibe blood (the source of which becomes known during the course of the game) to heal wounds and gain special properties. Or devolve into mindless beasts as it so happens. You, the hunter, journeys to this world, ready to hunt and untangle its mysteries. This is From’s most focused narrative yet. While it’s still highly ambiguous and distant from any kind of straightforward plot, it’s much easier to get a sense of the world, of its history and just what the hell is going on. It’s rarely vague for the sake of being vague and invites exploration and theorizing.  

But of course, this is a less a game of direct narrative and more one of atmosphere. It’s creepy and unsettling often. This can range from giant bosses that are hideous to behold to more low-key scares; there’s a guy behind a locked door who keeps asking for a password. After you finally locate the password and knock on the door, as soon as you open it all you’re greeted with is a long dead corpse perched on a stool. The sound design is excellent — there’s one skeletal boss who is literally screaming at you the entire time and it’s the sort of things where you want to laugh and shudder at the same time.

Mechanically, the hunter controls like a speedier and smoother version of a Dark Souls character. But the major differences come in your available armament. First of all, there’s no shields, just a joke version that proclaims that shields ‘engender passivity’ and should be avoided. So if you never learned how to dodge in the previous games (or never played them), and chose to hide behind your shield, now’s the time to learn. Next, your character has a gun. A gun that does much lower damage than melee and cannot function as a primary source of damage (unless you specialize heavily in a gun-specific stat) but they can be used to parry enemies if you shoot them while they’re attacking you. Lastly, instead of a host of different kinds of medieval weaponry with slightly modified movesets, Bloodborne has a much smaller list of weapons, but they’re almost entirely unique. And each weapon, termed a ‘trick weapon’ in the game’s lore, can be transformed into a different weapon. For instance, the saw-cleaver is a simple cleaver and upon transforming the hunter flips out the blade in the opposite direction and it’s a long-range saw. There’s also a cane with a whip inside of it. Yeah. Or, Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a simple sword until the hunter attaches it to its sheath and swings the entire thing as a massive, ornate greatsword.

The gameplay isn’t perfect. The camera is suspiciously poor at times and enemies seem capable of clipping their weapons through walls and pillars in a way that they couldn’t in the other Souls games. The potion system that does not reset on death is also a step backward. But these are trifling. There’s just something immensely satisfying about learning how to control your hunter, perfect your weapon handling and use your acquired knowledge and skill to learn and take down successively terrifying bosses. 

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is huge. Enormous. Gigantic, massive, humongous. Here, let’s cut to the chase and pull out the thesaurus.

huge

 

(Moby??)

I spent like one hundred thirty hours on the thing. Prior to this, I think the longest game I ever played was Persona 3, an RPG that came out like ten years ago(!), that involved a group of diabolically powered teenagers who, between fighting evil, had to play through every single day in a highschool year. The Witcher 3 blasts past it, featuring more than the interior of an anime highschool, indeed 3 separate, massive regions of gameworld. 

But is it any good? Is the length justified? How padded is? Yes! Sort of. More than a little bit.

Some unspecified time after the events of The Witcher 2, Geralt of Rivia starts to have dreams about his adoptive daughter: the young sorceress and heiress to the Nilfgaard Empire, Ciri. This means she’s in trouble. He hooks up with his on and off girlfriend, Yennifer, discovers that Ciri is indeed in danger and fleeing from The Wild Hunt, a host of spectral horseriders from another world. What’s interesting about the plot is that most of the characters involved are from the source materials books, and not the games. We know Ciri is important because Geralt thinks she’s important, not because we actually know who she is at the start of the game (‘We’ being people who haven’t read the Polish novels). It’s a testament to the game’s storytelling and character development that this is pulled off near flawlessly. I cared.

So the plot unfolds with Geralt learning of a series of leads on Ciri’s whereabouts; he sets off to investigate and as you collect clues, you trigger flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri and come to know what happened to her. It’s alright. The plot, I mean. I think the more focused plot of The Witcher 2, with its political murk and super assassins was stronger. The Wild Hunt’s plot is a bit more generic, too steeped in magical nonsense. For some reason, this game turns the villains themselves — the eponymous Hunt — from ringwraith-esque ghoulies, to world-hopping hedonist elves with muscles. This sets up some cool set pieces like marshalling your friends (a… fellowship, I’d say) to a fortress to defend an assault from the Hunt’s armies, but overall it’s not entirely compelling.

On the other hand, the character work is superb. The dialogue blows away most video game talking, which is further impressive since it’s a translation. Geralt is a great hero. His witty exchanges with the female leads feels natural and is only embarrassing sometimes, instead of all the time like in Dragon Age. But where it really shines, and what feels innovative, is how well the game takes on non-verbal communication. Characters exchange glances. Their eyes widen or narrow. They look pained or defeated without appearing overly theatrical. Immense amounts of information are characterized through these actions and many more, just like they are in the real world. One of the strongest sub-plot lines in the game has little to do with interdimensional invaders or magic crystals but is actually centered around domestic abuse and family drama. Geralt encounters The Bloody Baron, a man known to lose himself in drink, beat his pregnant wife, alienate his daughter. In other words: he’s scum. Most games would leave it at that. But he’s also somehow magnetic, his story and dialogue compelling. I really wanted to know what happened to the fucker. The game had me wondering if repentance is real, how we ought to handle people who do cruel and terrible things. At some point I shifted from thinking “Listen to this asshole make excuses” to “What if he’s really one hundred percent sorry?”, starting making excuses for him like “But, but, he was genuinely kind to Ciri!”. It’s surprising a game could do that.

witcher 3

There’s several side quests that might as well be main quests. They have expansive plots and tie in major characters. There’s just as many, if not more, that are just sort of filler. Or a quick joke. Hunting down a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire disguised as a mortician is cool, telling yet another parent that their son got eaten by a ghoul, or losing a game of poker so you can punch some guys who stole your clothes gets old after a while. Moreover, if you try and do most of the quests, you’ll quickly outlevel them and start getting zero experience/useable loot, not to mention any combat will be super easy since you’ve far outpaced the danger of the enemies.

In fact, the biggest weakness of the game for me is the combat and scaling. I played on the hardest difficult, supposedly only for the insane, and it was pretty hard at first, but became button-mashing trivial fairly quickly just by completing quests and crafting the best loot I could find. The character progression itself is pretty lame. Like the previous game, you can choose to specialize or mix and match between a witcher’s three specialties: Signs (basic magic), Sword mastery, and alchemy (though regardless of specialization, any witcher worth his salt is proficient in all 3). But unlike the previous game, many of the abilities you choose are weak, only providing marginal or very specific bonuses. It wasn’t particularly exciting to unlock a new tier of abilities. You’re also limited on how many you can equip at a certain time.

Anyway, as you can guess, something that I willingly spent so much time on honestly did captivate me, combat and filler side quests aside. And I haven’t even written about Gwent, the in-universe card-game you build a collection for, which I also totally conquered. The characters are lightyears ahead of most games, and felt real in a way the rest of the plot/world didn’t. I kind of miss them. The game has two(!) expansions as well. Who needs that much Witcher?? Maybe me. I’ll get to them eventually. 

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

nakedsingularityI just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completely absorbing.

Casi is a young, all-star defense attorney in New York City. The plot, insofar as there is one, is Casi’s detachment with the system and seduction by the perfect crime, which he plans with some characters who begin to trigger suspicions of a very Fight Club-type twist. But the plot is totally secondary to the thematic weight of this dense novel. It’s a book of musings, of internal investigation of self. Primarily, this is a book of conversations. People talking to each other. The author talking to the reader. Casi talking to judge and jury.

They’re not the types of conversations that real people have, but the kind of big picture what-is-life type discussions that use vocabulary that even the most over-educated real people don’t regularly use. Characters jabber back and forth in 1-5 word phrases, in almost slapstick comedy fashion of mispronounced words and misunderstandings, and then launch into a several page soliloquy on the meaning of life, law, justice, existence, life after death, the universe. I’m not positive what makes this work, but I’d hazard it takes a specific kind of immensely witty & intelligent writer who understands deeply the way human conversations function and flow.  

A Naked Singularity owes an extremely heavy debt to David Foster Wallace. Most remarkably is not just how unbelievably in love with Infinite Jest this book is, but how often De La Pava succeeds at what DFW succeeded at. Many writers have tried and almost all have failed. It’s actually uncanny how similar they seem at times. There’s a sequence where Casi overhears two men having a conversation at a diner about how shitty they are to women that is the exact set-up as the stories in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wallace isn’t the only major influence, Delillo is as well. And it wouldn’t be a good law-room novel if it did not hearken to Kafka’s The Trial.

Indeed, A Naked Singularity is at its best when it’s in the courtroom or its environs (prisons, law offices, etc). There’s a real moral force behind Casi as he tries to represent people society has collectively discarded. A plot line later on delves into the baffling cruelty of the death penalty and it pierces, both Casi and the reader. When the book is focusing on family or media absorption (there’s a cadre of roommates obsessed with Television and philosophizing on entertainment), it’s not quite as good. In fact, I think De La Pava cheats a little bit here: The novel ostensibly takes place in modern day but the technology isn’t quite right — everyone is obsessed with Television and news stations and the internet, etc doesn’t quite exist. Events that would surely occur online or tasks people would fulfill with smartphones (which no one has) just… don’t. Even though the internet is occasionally mentioned. This was written in 2012, (not 1996 like Infinite Jest!). So yeah, De La Pava’s notes on television are cogent and interesting but it’s trodden ground and I wonder why he didn’t take on the same kind of issues with modern tech. 

De La Pava also deploys employs another DFW staple (or I guess to go further back, a Miguel De Cervantes staple): characters telling stories to each other that become as engrossing as the main narrative itself. One of Casi’s clients opts to become a criminal informant and launches into a thirty page long story of how he came into the drug trade. It’s completely absorbing — I experienced an almost physical jolt when he finished the tale and the book returned to the main narrative thread. Similarly, boxing is to A Naked Singularity as tennis is to Infinite Jest. At several points in the book, Casi purposely abandons his conscious thoughts and relates the story of boxer Wilfred Benitez, in scintillating detail. It’s a thread that runs the entire length of this lengthy book and it’s completely absorbing, like just about everything else written here.

Hearthstone: Everyone, get in here!

hearthstone

While I’ve maintained a lifelong absorption with video games, books, and film, there’s other aspects of nerdom that I have totally overlooked or clearly do not have interest in. Hobbies such as comic books, anime, fantasy football. I read Watchmen, I watched Akira, I gave a half-hearted attempt at finishing a  fantasy season. They were mildly entertaining but just did not astonish me like a perfectly crafted sentence, enclose me like a perfectly framed wide shot, or crease my brow like a challenging but perfectly designed platformer.

This brings me to another hobbyist pillar: collectible card games.

When I was in grade school, Magic: The Gathering became popular and I begged anyone in my family to buy me a starter deck. My uncle eventually caved. What followed: A textbook example of the eager kid whose life depends on getting a new toy, only to abandon it shortly afterward. I lost interest in about five minutes. Keeping track of cards, having to buy new ones to stay competitive, the ponderously slow pace — nothing to a kid addicted to fast-paced NES/SNES platformers, a kid who could polish off Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels in three or four days tops.

And initially, my impression of Hearthstone was the same as that of Magic. A year-plus ago, I tried it only because I like all of Blizzard’s other games. It was fun for a little while and predictably I got bored. Card games weren’t my thing; least of all games that required you to fork out cash for merely the chance to get useful new cards. At least it was digital. I put it down.

Later, Blizzard added single player ‘adventures’ where you had to fight AI battles of card versions of World of Warcraft bosses. It was pretty fun. I did the daily quests in the normal game to acquire minuscule amounts of gold and buy the adventures without using real money (things like: win 2 games with rogue, cast 20 spells, destroy 40 minions). The game held my interest slightly longer this time.

And then something crucial to my investment in Hearthstone happened: It became available on mobile phones.

Now I could play Hearthstone between lifts at the gym. Waiting for people to attend meetings at work. On the bus. Waiting in line. In a house with a mouse, in a boat or with a goat, I would play it here and there, I would play it anywhere. Ahem.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t totally engaged as I would be with other games. I can’t play those other games on the run (and most mobile titles are either repetitive timewasters or so involved you can’t really play them while mobile).

Just by completing quests regularly from my in-between-life-no-attention-span-twitter-generation-playing, I suddenly started accruing enough in-game currency to purchase card packs (or win them in a build-a-random-deck mode called Arena) that I could actually build decent decks. Suddenly, something clicked. Arcane Hearthstone lingo made sense. Tempo and mana curve and lethal and board control and value (I still don’t know what SMORC means). I began to be able to interpret what makes a deck good. I climbed the ranks and actually saw interesting play styles and cards. According to Blizzard’s in-game math, I’m a top 9th percentile player. /smug

guldanBut anyway, what is Hearthstone? It’s actually quite simple. You pick a class, one
of the nine original World of Warcraft classes — Paladin, Warrior, Mage, etcetera. Indeed, the whole narrative conceit of 

Hearthstone
is that our World of Warcraft characters are all sitting around a table in a tavern playing a card game whenever we’re not adventuring as them.

You build a deck of thirty cards. Every turn you draw a card. Each card has a mana cost it takes to play (you accrue +1 mana every turn in order to play those cards). The cards are either spells or minions. Spells perform various functions like slinging a fireball to do direct damage or freezing a minion or hero so they cannot attack. Minions each have attack and health values and can attack the turn after they are placed. The whole point is to kill the opposing hero (they each start with 30 health) before they kill you, or before one of you runs out of cards.

mogortheogre

Cards are generally well explained and follow observable trends. Ogres attack the wrong enemy 50% of the time. Mage minions do various things when the mage casting spells. Goblins blow things up. There’s a few shorthand terms like deathrattle and battlecry and windfury, but they become clear with a minimal amount of playtime. Heathstone perfectly encapsulates Blizzard’s strategy of tackling a popular genre and making it more widely accessible.

Inherent Vice (2014 film)

ivWhoa. This movie was really good.

Knowing this was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel and seeing the reviews most cunningly coin it ‘incoherent vice’, I was expecting an aesthetically pleasing albeit nonsensical stoner tale. Instead I viewed a hilarious, surprisingly linear romp through a hazy 70s neo noir Las Angeles. Indeed, even a plot that made sense… sort of… eventually.

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator on the trail of a missing land developer, bumbles from one outlandish clue to the next, unveiling police corruption, lost loves, rehab clinic conspiracies, and a mysterious entity called ‘The Golden Fang’, which could be a boat or a cocaine cartel or a dentists consortium. There’s copious amounts of drugs and sex, but the film does not devolve into going ‘Isn’t the 70s funny? Ha Ha’. Though if Doc isn’t sucking on an oxygen mask, he’s bending backwards over a table to snort some high-grade coke.

Presented almost as a series of vignettes, each ‘clue’ involves Doc, undoubtedly high on something, investigating everyone from double agent Owen Wilson, to coke fiend dentist Martin Short, to crazed & corrupt LAPD cop and failed tv star Josh Brolin (a flawless, hilarious, somewhat disturbing performance). Each segment reveals some new tidbit to the overarching plot, or some heretofore unknown quirk or connection between parties. I was halfway expecting this to go nowhere, to end in a puff of grassy smoke, potential resolutions swirling away up into the atmosphere.

I also realized I could have watched Doc bound from scene to scene, literally all night.

The casting is superb. Joaquin Phoenix is sublime as Doc, the bumbling but sort of lovable hero, who owes no small debt to The Dude of The Big Lebowski fame. It feels like all of the rest of the big name actors belong more to the neo-noir world of 1970 than they do to their own present. Plenty of 70s movies have a habit of haphazardly dressing people up in bright colored hippie costumes. The period dress of Inherent Vice is colorful, but actually adheres to a style people conceivably enjoyed and wore. The desaturated color of fictional Gordita Beach paired with the impeccable soundtrack encapsulate the setting perfectly, and leave the viewer yearning for that sleepy beach bum lifestyle. At least for a while.

The meaning of the title is revealed via monologue late in the movie. ‘Inherent vice’ is an old shipping term, a label for cargo that is uninsurable due to its volatile and fragile nature — eggs for instance. It’s low hanging metaphorical fruit to extend this to the cast, to 70s America at large. But this is a fond, forgivable kind of vice. The movie warmly treats its cast, even its most degenerate goons. While I haven’t read the novel, I’ve read other Pynchon books and would have thought them nigh-unfilmable. Paul Thomas Anderson not only succeeded, but made one of those movies that I knew, before it even ended, would become an instant favorite.