Anathem, by Neal Stephenson: A review.

Neal Stephenson has developed something of a reputation for writing novels which are both very long, and very erudite.

Anathem is something approaching an apotheosis of this - it is 937 pages long (very slightly longer than each of the individual volumes of the Baroque Cycle), and it is based, fundamentally, on themes of metaphysics, the long-term preservation of knowledge, and the nature of consciousness.

It is also a puzzle-book in many ways - the setting is a world similar to our own (to the extent that many of our philosophers and their conceptual developments exist in their history, albeit with different names), but in our relative future, where due to various world-destabilisating technologies (sorry, in the language of Abre, praxic devices) being made possible by the interaction of academics (avout), the avout have been confined to monastic cloisters, which operate on a very long time-scale. This is basically all I can tell you without giving you clues and hints about the rest of the novel - part of the point is that the reader learns the language of Arbre, and possibly brushes up on their philosophy and physics, whilst also uncovering the root of several mysteries about the world - including some which are hinted at very close to the beginning.

One hint that I will make is to note that Neal finally justifies his stance as one of the few modern SF writers who don't seem to believe in the promise of Strong AI (this was an underlying theme of The Diamond Age, and even influences Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Snow Crash), holding that there is something Special about human consciousness.

No book exists in a conceptual vacuum, and there are clear connections to A Canticle for Leibowitz, and possibly Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Book of the Long Sun sequences. Gene Wolfe probably writes better than Stephenson, but he is also trying to do a very different thing in his novels. M Miller Jr. was concerned with some similar points - both he and Stephenson are interested in the preservation of knowledge through collapse - but Stephenson is more cynical about humanity's tendency to reject knowledge through fear and (fundamentalist) religion, while Miller Jr, being Catholic, tries to present a position that religion is necessary for morality as much as science is necessary to advance knowledge.

Definitely worth reading, if you have the time and the intellectual energy for it. If you're anything like me, though, you'll wonder why you bother trying to write anything yourself afterwards (this is the mark of a great writer for me).


Nanowrimo Blues

Every year, some subset of my friends decide to embark on the Nanowrimo challenge - the yearly attempt for each author to write at least 50,000 words of creative writing in the month of November.
Every year, I'm tempted to join in - one reason Nanowrimo was founded was to give people an impetus to stick at and just write something of short novel length, overcoming their various hangups about composing something that long; this is a particular problem of mine.
And then, every year, it gets to the 1st of November, and I haven't signed up to the website yet (although I've spent too long reading the various forums, and advice posted by others, and the posts of my friends angsting about preparing to start)... and I crumble.

I spent this morning (and quite a lot of last night) frustrated, angry with myself and despairing that I'll ever be able to actually write anything of any worth of novel length (the other issue I have being that, not only does outlining a story totally kill it for me as a work, but that, except in rare situations, so does writing any scene or vignette in my mind).
There may have been some tears.

Nanowrimo isn't worth this kind of emotional investment from me, especially since it just emphasises all the hangups I already have about my total inability to produce any creative content of any worth (the SFX short story competition has a lesser effect on me, since at least I think I can write 1000-odd words before it all turns to ashes). Expect me to be avoiding any of your relevant Nanowrimo posts for the rest of November - it's not your collective faults, but it's just not good for me.


Support your Indie Developers: Multiwinia and World of Goo.

As I write this, World of Goo is less than a day away from full release. Because I preordered it, though, I have already had a chance to play the full game for about 5 days, which was quite long enough to complete the main storyline (but not the majority of the "extra" challenges for each level).

I can't add much to the enthusiasm in my previous post, except to say that any fears of the simple concept becoming stale over the course of 5 different sections are totally unfilfulled. Each section (themed by seasons, except Chapter 4, which is Special) introduces new environmental features that can be exploited (or avoided) in your task to reach the exit pipe, new types of Goo that in some cases radically alter the way in which you can approach problems, and new elements of the frankly odd overarching plotline concerning the massive World of Goo Corporation.

It is beautiful, in some places poignant, in others surreal, and very much worth your $20.

Another indie game in need of some support is Multiwinia, the recently released multiplayer "sequel" to Introversion Software's second game, Darwinia.

Multiwinia was actually developed as the multiplayer component of Darwinia for its release on Microsoft's XBox Live Arcade, but as Introversion added polish and complexity to it, they decided that the final game was strong and complex enough to deserve a standalone release on PC (Windows first, OSX and Linux coming soon).

Compared to Darwinia, the setting is bleaker, and perhaps lacking in some of the original's charm - after the successful defence of the virtual Darwinians from the Virus infecting their host computer system (the subject of Darwinia the game), we are told that the Darwinian population grew and split into four factions, differentiated by colour, which descended into mutual, and apparently endless, war over the resources of their world. Every map comes with a small chunk of fluff text placing the location in this context of a fall from Edenic grace into internecine warfare, which becomes rather depressing after a while. 

This is, of course, just the excuse for Multiwinia's arcade-styled approach to multiplayer real-time-tactics gameplay, which is faster paced than the original's methodical approach, tending to chaos in the later stages of a game. The sense of almost randomness is enhanced by the addition of randomly appearing power-up crates which parachute from the sky to be collected by whichever faction is close by: these power-ups vary widely in power, some even activating instantly with negative effects (like infection with a deadly plague) on those Multiwinians unlucky enough to have collected it. Many of the other power-ups allow you to place items from the original Darwinia on the map to disrupt your opponents with (for example) nests of Multiwinian-harvesting Ants, or eggs which hatch to release Viral monsters across the area. Others allow you to enhance a selection of your forces with time-limited bonuses - faster movement, faster firing, limited invulnerability, weapons which subvert the enemy to your team, and so on. Finally, two powerups add additional unaligned factions to the game - white-hued "Futurewinians" who are armed with the abovementioned subversion weapons and assimilate the other teams; and black-hued (and possibly undead, from the fluff) "Evilwinians" who are possessed by a Virus-driven rage which makes them considerably more aggressive than the other factions.

As well as playing to simply eliminate the opposition teams, there are also other gametypes available - points-scoring "King of the Hill", asymmetric Assault/Defence, a statue-collection mode (like Capture The Flag, but with a serious change of scale) and two variants on complex resource-capture and retention gametypes.

The result is a somewhat light, very very arcade themed RTT which is quite sufficient to while away a coffee-break or similar. 

You can buy it on Steam, or from Introversion's website, or you can try the demo (just like the full game, but you can only play against the AI) for free from here.


World of Goo

With the output of large games companies increasingly coming to resemble that of large movie companies in its genericism and general lack of experimentation or innovation, we increasingly must look to the "indie" games developers for interesting new games.

2DBoy are one such developer, who became known for their entry in the Experimental Gameplay Project - "Tower of Goo", a physics-based game in which you have to build as high a tower as you can out of, yes, Goo. The black goo balls form semi-rigid links with any already fixed goo close to them, and by careful balancing of forces, you can construct towers of impressive height.

This was, it turns out, a concept test for the first 2DBoy release itself - the titular "World of Goo", which is released to those who preordered it on Monday (and to the rest of the world on the 13th). Building on the basic physics with additional goo-balls (the preview levels provided to those who bought on preorder include "balloon goo", which can provide lift to sections of your structures, and "Ivy Goo" which can be detached as well as attached to a structure and exerts more force on its bonds), a distinct audio-visual feel reminiscent of Tim Burton and Pushing Daisies and what seems to be a quirky and non-intrusive backstory and plot, what we've seen of "World of Goo" is highly impressive for what is basically a structural physics game made by two guys whilst drinking coffee.

Even more encouragingly, World of Goo will be available not just for Windows, but also for OSX, Linux and Wii - and will have no DRM on it at all. 

You can read the opinions of Real Game Journalists who played the whole thing at Rock Paper Shotgun, the world's finest PC Games Blog Called Rock Paper Shotgun.

There's still time to preorder it before the release on Monday, and it's only $20.


3d applications redux: Google Sketchup.

All that complaining I was making about the parlous state of 3d rendering packages is still true; however, I have discovered that there is at least one exception to the rule.

Google Sketchup is actually surprisingly userfriendly, makes generally good guesses as to what direction you're trying to move in (as 2d projections are always ambiguous), and has a whole set of almost-intuitive behaviours regarding tools (there's a simple extrude tool as a basic option, the tape measure doubles as a guide-line maker and a scaling tool, and all tools colour-code themselves as a cue to the location they think you're in - a corner, edge, midpoint or face).

It is a beautiful beautiful thing. A pity it appears to be Windows only (I wonder how well it works in Wine...).


A brief note:

I've just spent my first weekend of TF2 since the Heavy Unlocks were released.

That was... fun. Actually, since I waited until the heavy-storm had died down, I think I even had more fun than with the Pyro.
(The Pyro is still my favourite class to play, though.)

Book review: "The Steel Remains", Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan is best known, probably, for his first series of SF novels - the brutal, cynical, depressing, political, angry and very much in-your-face Takeshi Kovacs sequence. That's the one that he got paid enough money for the film options to that he could afford to quit his job and start writing full time.
Given this freedom, he proceeded to write a satirical, brutal, cynical, political, angry and very-much-in-your-face near-future-SF novel called "Market Forces", and a brutal, cynical, political-commentary-strewn, angry and very-much-in-your-face slightly-less-near-future-SF novel called "Black Man" ("Thirteen" in the US, because your weak, cowardly publishers are afraid of race issues).
So, ladies and gentlemen, guess what adjectives I'm going to use to describe the first novel in his projected Fantasy trilogy?

Yes, you might argue that Morgan out-Abercombie's Joe Abercrombie (by Joe's own admission, he thinks Richard out-swears him, for a start), but really The Steel Remains is pure Morgan-SF, just with swords and demigods and elves, rather than nanotech, bodyswapping and evil corporations. Morgan is still really angry about the injustices in the world that allow the rich to fuck over the poor, he's still really angry about war and the effect it has on those who fight in them (and those who are fought over), and he's still openly hostile to religion.
Indeed, even the setting is slightly SF-tinged - his elves (clearly inspired by the Norse dark elves, or dwarves) are technologists, rather than magically-gifted, and the most alien feature of the world - the existence of a "band" in the sky, rather than a moon - is strongly implied, if not outright stated, to have been due to some cataclysmic, literally-moon-shattering, event in deep history. The only outwardly fantasy trope in the setting is the demigod-like dwemba - presumably named to evoke the Old English dweomer (itself, of Norse origin, like those elves) - and even they have some tinges of SFish rationalisation of the edges of their abilities.

Of course, much has been made of the main difference between major protagonist Ringil "Richard Morgan likes taking the piss out of fantasy naming" Eskiath and his predecessors Kovacs and Marsalis - Ringil is gay, in a medieval culture that doesn't appreciate that kind of thing. Of course, this appears mainly to be just one of three "markers of alienation" that serve to set each of the protagonists outside their respective cultures - Archeth is half-"elvish" (okay, Kiriath, but you're not fooling anyone, Morgan) and the last of her kind, and Egar is the barbarian who came to the city, got "civilised", and then had to go back to the people he no longer really fitted with. Of course, Ringil is also the one who gets the most explicit sex scenes, so perhaps the difference is a little more thrust, as it were, upon us. (There's also a potential issue with the depiction of sexuality - it does look as if Morgan is almost trying to shock us with Ringil's sexuality and the reactions to it, whilst Archeth manages to be relatively quietly lesbian without much being made of it. Of course, one might suggest that the fact of Archeth's non-humanity makes her sexuality a more minor breach of her society's rules in comparison - but it does seem rather odd. Perhaps, perhaps, we are supposed to infer that Archeth's existing apartness leads her to be more circumspect with her sexuality than Ringil (who likes to make his obvious, for reasons related to his otherwise esteemed position in society). That said, Morgan is wide open to accusations of male-bias here...)

Morgan spends rather a lot of his time subverting fantasy archetypes and tropes - even one he seems to play straight is subverted before the end of the book - but still has time for an edge of humour, a lot of swearing, violence and sex, and generally a good time. I'm not quite sure that it always holds together - especially in the climactic battle, where the dwemba are somewhat less impressive than we'd been led to expect - and I'm having horrible late-period-Neal-Asher moments with some of the implications that Morgan is making abour Ringil's future potential, but generally it's up there with anything else he's written in SF. He even manages to work in a reference to UFO sightings...

Buy this, and read it. And then wait a year for the sequel...


Horrible Software #1: 3-D Modeling Utilities

Ever since I had an Amiga, way back in the early 90s/late 80s, I've dabbled with 3d modeling software. Like, I've always assumed, a large percentage of people, there's a whole lot of images and designs in my imagination that I'd like to reproduce in some form, both for my own purposes and to share with others.

Ever since I've had an Amiga, my dabbling with 3d modeling software has always lasted for about five minutes of increasingly frustrated manipulations of impenetrably constructed menus, impossible to visualise projections of 3d space, and badly constructed mouse interfaces, before I lose all patience and promise to never again attempt to do anything so foolish as to express my internal representations of things using what passes for an interface in this kind of software.

The only software package I've ever managed to actually last with is POVray - the interface is entirely based on mathematical primitives and programming via a text-based system, rather than the clumsy and unintuitive visual interface of the majority of packages, and I find that I can actually interact with this quite easily and intuitively. Unfortunately, POVray can't usefully map its mathematical primitives onto exportable formats that other 3d packages use, so this severely limits what I can do with it.

I have tremendous respect for all the people I know (two in particular) who seem to have no problems in producing exceptional art and models in 3d packages. I salute you, especially since I've tried using at least one of the packages in question, and managed little more than an unpleasantly spiky box...

(This post, thanks to my latest five minutes of unbearable frustration with Blender, the free open-source 3d modeling package which appears to have been designed by sadists.)


International Year of the Potato

Did you know it was UN International Year of the Potato?

No, neither did I, until I encountered these cream containers in a pizza restaurant in Meyrin (between CERN and Geneva):

I'm oddly pleased that someone felt that the best way to advertise this was on coffee-related milk products...

(More CERN pictures later in the week.)


Objects of Desire and Internal Conflict: Asus Eee PC.

Probably, most of you will be aware of the first successful ultramobile PC - the Asus Eee PC.
There's been a lot of buzz about the roughly-A5 sized cross between a PDA and a proper laptop since it was first released last year - and ever since then, I've been trying to resist buying one.

With the initial models (numbered 70x, where x is 0,1 or 2), this has been less of a problem; while otherwise lovely, they are encumbered by a tiny 7" screen at 800x480 resolution, barely enough to view a modern webpage.

However, the new model, the 900 series, is due out Real Soon Now, and one of the major improvements is the provision of a 8.9" display at 1024x600. (The other, other than increased storage, is an Apple-styled multitouch trackpad, which looks nice but isn't really important enough to matter to most people.) This, of course, is much more tempting, and it would have been very hard to resist buying one in a week or two when they're offically available here in the UK.

Except that, ironically, Asus appear to be trying to sabotage themselves. The 900 series was rushed out to its present release date to compete with all the new ultramobile PCs that other manufacturers have begun releasing, now that the market has been shown to be lucrative by the original 70x models (and the One-Laptop-Per-Child UMPC before it). This means that it still has the old, inefficient, Celeron ULV that was in the 70x, rather than the new Intel Atom processor that it was originally supposed to be fitted with. Asus say that a new model with the Atom in it is due "by the end of June", sporting significantly increased battery life (and possibly more performance) due to this alteration.

So, what's a man to do? Buy a 70x series now (despite the small screen, they have exceptional value for money, and exceptional possibilities for homebrew modification - see here, for example), buy a 900 series in a week or two, or wait (arg) until "late June" for the actual model that everyone wants... knowing that there will probably be something even better on the horizon by then?


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Unfair demands on games: Continuity

I've always been a fan of structure in most things. It doesn't matter if the structure is hidden, partially or completely, although the more complex (and complicated) the better.
In fiction, this tends to result in my desire for some kind of continuity and canon to be established and never violated (of course, the weaker forms of retcon don't necessarily count as violation here, as they can simply add more baroquely interwoven layers to the existing canon); it also tends to result in my attempt to apply reason and logic to fluff which never tried to include
such concepts.

In particular, as I have previously mentioned, this caused me some disappointment with id Software's Quake series.
Recently (okay, this past weekend), I finally succumbed to the urge to buy the Quake Super Pack on Steam - this consists of Quake, and the two mission packs, Quake II, and the two mission packs, and Quake 3 and its team gameplay expansion. Since I already own Quakes 1 through 3, this was essentially just a way for me to get ahold of the mission packs for the earlier games (although, consolidation of things on Steam is always an important impulse for me).

So, once I'd acquired a suitably modern engine (the DarkPlaces engine for Quake, and ... for Quake II), I took the chance to engage in a little reminiscence.

To get my eye in, I tried Quake II first.
My initial impression wasn't actually that bad - its amazing how much particle effects and improved lighting models do to cover up low-poly models and low-resolution textures - and I was pleased to discover that a decade of playing computer games has resulted in my being significantly more skilled than my teenage self was.
However, the "Unit" system - a way of emulating giant levels by connecting several maps by two-way portals - quickly became annoying; it was very easy to get lost, both within the overly-dark sections of some levels, and also within the wider Unit itself. I frequently found myself taking the wrong two-way portal back to a level I didn't intend to revisit, or becoming unable to locate the final button to open a doorway or lower a lift.
Now, since I didn't have these problems in Half-Life, or its sequel, I shall assume that this stems from bad level design, and not my own stupidity.

The mission packs for Quake II were even worse for getting lost. Indeed, I don't think I got past the first Unit of either of them (although, in the case of Ground Zero, I think, this was because of the really annoyingly short time-limit it gave you to escape the unit before an automatic death occurred).

Essentially, my glowing memories of Quake II were sadly dimmed and crushed by the sad reality.

So, I came to Quake with somewhat lowered expectations. Surprisingly, then, I actually really enjoyed it; the level design, for the most part, was very good, the difficulty seemed reasonably placed, and everything was good. I didn't try to complete more than the first couple of levels, but what I did was very enjoyable.
And hence, onward I went, to the mission packs.
Mission Pack 1: Scourge of Armagon started out quite well, although with some uninspired additions to the array of weapons and monsters, but the end boss, Armagon himself, seemed extraordinarily unchallenging (I ran around him in circles shooting at him, and he rotated, very slowly, failing to ever actually face me enough to shoot at me) and also particularly boring in his design. The only saving grace were the Gremlins - sort of mini-Fiends, with the ability to steal your weapons (but easily distracted by the chance to eat the corpses of their comrades).
Mission Pack 2: Dissolution of Eternity gains additional points for the very silly title and for the statues (statues of knight-type monsters that "awaken" on various triggers); however, I was rather unconvinced by their "tough" monster addition - the Wrath (functionally, a flying Vore which explodes on death), and the majority of the weapon upgrades ("better" nailgun, "better" rockets and cluster grenades). The mid-game boss - a bigger, badder, Wrath - was seriously unfun. Later levels, though, actually showed some interesting features (the Elemental Fury duo of levels was quite interestingly themed, for example), and the Dragon end-boss was fairly interesting (although the model was a little dodgy from a modern perspective).

What I really was struck by, though, was my reaction to the changes to the canon of the original game. I'm probably unusual in actually believing that id software cares about canon in any of their games (and, indeed, indications suggest that id only really started to consider that plot had any actual significance around the point that Doom 3 was developed), but that's by the by.
Unlike Doom, where the invading Evil Forces were implied to be from Hell itself (an issue with theological implications that weren't properly explored within the game itself, or its sequels*) and, indeed, seemed to be partly motivated by the desire to acquire technology to augment their primarily magical society, the antagonists in Quake appeared to be less explicitly Evil and less motivated by technological gain.
Indeed, we can contrast the Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind from Doom - the two most obviously technologically enhanced enemies in Doom, and also the most potent foes - with the Ogre in Quake - the only cybernetically enhanced enemy, and one faced in the first couple of levels. Clearly technology is not an interest of "Quake"'s followers - they already have technology, of a crude, pseudo-steampunk (or even clockpunk) nature most significantly demonstrated by their use of clunky "nailguns" as ranged weaponry, and this seems to be as much as they care about. Indeed, all the significant enemies use magical ranged attacks, rather than this clunky technology thing.
The explicit inclusion of Shub-Niggurath as the end "boss" (although, of course, she doesn't attack the player herself) seems to be attempting to place Quake within the domain of Lovecraftian Horror; and hence, "Quake"'s motivation might be assumed to be ultimately unknowable.
Unfortunately, the mission packs both damage this perception to some degree.
Mission Pack 1 is the worst offender - while the Gremlins fit perfectly into the setting, the Centroids (a tough, Scorpion-with-attached-nailguns) seem jarringly out-of-place and Armagon himself seems disappointingly knowable (and rather Cyberdemon-like) - he's even described as one of "Quake's Generals", which seems disappointingly prosaic.
(Okay, so part of the problem here is that I'm trying to load too much subtlety into a genre which didn't, at the time, support it - still, Nyarlathotep or one of the other remaining Lovecraftian entities would have been better than Armagon's uninspired design.**)
Mission Pack 2 at least tries to reference some less-SF ideas - while I'm not sure that it works, the attempt at suggesting that various time periods have worshipped "Quake" as a deity was interesting; and the Elemental Fury levels (with Fire, Water, Earth and Air themed areas) and the associated iconography clearly references August Derleth's attempt at systemizing Lovecraft's setting (unfortunately, like Derleth's own attempt, it perhaps weakens the precursor somewhat). The "temporal energy converter" at the end, however, is Horribly out-of-place, being far too technical looking.

...I suspect I may be taking matters a bit too seriously.

*Note to the reading impaired: yes, this is sarcasm.
I know that Splash Damage were probably just trying to make a nod to the original Quake, but the inclusion of the Nailgun in Quake 4 was one reason why I didn't buy it. The Nailgun is part of the Quake setting, not the Quake 2 / Quake 4 setting, and its existence in Quake 4 rankles with me. It's even worse that it even appears in Enemy Territory : Quake Wars as this is a prequel to Quake 2! One wonders why the Strogg stopped using nailgun technology (which, actually, doesn't even fit their technology level - while their medical processes seem crude, and their industrial processes needlessly destructive, this appears to be a matter of not caring, rather than lack of ability - their weapons are consistently more sophisticated than human weapons, and tend towards the SF energy-beam, rather than the steampunk "nail") after their failed invasion of Earth, just to bring it back after the (first) Makron was destroyed...
**Which doesn't stop part of me wishing that Quake 3 had been a complex multi-factioned RPG/FPS hybrid featuring the settings of Doom, Quake and Quake 2, possibly with a plot tree and multiple possible endings... Although that's also partly because I always thought the Arachnotrons from Doom were cute (and, hence, a storyline which allowed you to play as any of the four factions would be a good idea, clearly ;) )