I missed my Xbox while I was in England. I had access to one for the first half the year, during which time I managed to be completely disappointed by...moreI missed my Xbox while I was in England. I had access to one for the first half the year, during which time I managed to be completely disappointed by Assassin’s Creed 3. Then I moved, and Xbox-playing became a faded memory for a while. So when I came back home for the summer, one of the first things I sat down to do was play Xbox—and specifically, to play Mass Effect through from the beginning. I love this game series beyond all reason. Getting to be Commander Shepard—and not just anyone’s Commander Shepard, my Commander Shepard—and making choices that span not one but three games’ worth of story is an amazing, immersive experience. It merges my love of storytelling with my love of shooting pixels by proxy, and it does so seamlessly.
I probably shouldn’t have read You while binging on Mass Effect, though, because the juxtaposition makes it abundantly clear that playing video games is infinitely preferable to reading about playing video games.
You is a Coupland-esque sojourn through the halcyon days of 1990s game development. Back in high school and college, Russell and his friends Don, Lisa, Simon, and Darren created a video game. The other four went off to form Black Arts and make more games while Russell said, “See ya later, nerds” and tried to become a lawyer. When that didn’t pan out, he came crawling back, and the book begins with an awkward job interview. A few days later, Russell is lead game designer for the next big Realms game, because that’s life in the tumultuous world of gaming companies!
Reading You is a bit like navigating a very confusing, poorly-laid out series of identical corridors in a video game. The graphics are stunning, mind you—3D so real you think it’s going to spit at you, super-realistic physics on the blood spatters, footsteps that sound appropriate to whatever material you’re walking over. But for all these improvements, the camera never quite seems to be where you need it to be, and it seems like every single time you try to swing Lara over to the next ledge, this causes her to miss and plummet to her death. Oops. Sorry, Lara.
Austin Grossman has a background in game development, so he should know how the development process works. I do not have a background in game development, so I’m not going to nitpick. Much. Most of what he spins here seems realistic enough from what I’ve read elsewhere. The pressure and deadlines from Black Arts’ new, disinterested corporate investors is believable, as is their dismal short-staffing. That being said, the idea that Russell is suddenly the lead game designer, despite having no experience in this field and barely being able to program his way out of a cardboard box, is laughably contrived at best.
I also raise a critical eyebrow at the contention that Simon’s WAFFLE game engine is so ineffably amazing that a) nobody knows how it works and b) no one has replaced it so far. I’m familiar with the fact that, once in a while, a genius programmer comes along and creates something so tightly constructed that it’s difficult for other programmers to wrap their heads around the design and how it functions. These programs then stick around across generations of employees, legacies that “just work” and should not be prodded with a stick for any reason. So I can believe that, until now, no one has really been motivated to disturb Simon’s engine. Barely. (I’m sceptical that the engine was so amazing and ahead of its time that it has remained competitive for so long.)
But when an intentional bug buried by Simon in WAFFLE happens more frequently prior to the launch of Realms VII, Russell and crew need to find out how to fix it … by playing all the previous Black Arts games. Because they can’t just go in and tweak the engine, oh no. They have to fix the problem in the game! This is just so monumentally stupid and the kind of thing that only happens in bad hacker movies. It’s the kind of self-indulgent nonsense that sounds much cooler than it really is.
As Russell delves further into the history of Black Arts (because, remember, despite knowing these people in high school and now being the lead game designer, he has no experience with any of their games after he drifted away from them), he discovers that the bug stems from Simon’s latent daddy issues, amplified by the break in Simon’s friendship with Darren. Simon was bitter and decided to cause Y2K, or something like that. Once again, the actual over-arching plot is flimsier than any excuses game designers give for boobplate armour. And I’m pretty sure Grossman knows this, mind you—he writes games; he knows how plots like this work.
And so You reveals itself as a combination of schlocky homage to paper-thin storytelling in the name of glamourous gameplay and a breathless exploration of the nineties gaming zeitgeist. Grossman deliberately goes over the top with aspects of the plot, aiming for melodrama where drama would have been sufficient, because that’s what games (and the atmosphere around games) were like in the nineties. In this respect, I’m not sure then if You is poorly written so much as written well, but in a way that does nothing for me.
Grossman does a better job at capturing the sentiments of ex–computer nerd Russell. I wasn’t old enough back then to be part of the gaming world and understand the ambivalence felt towards the companies, like Electronic Arts and Activision, that were simultaneously propelling game design to glorious new heights and stomping upon the hacker ethos that had spurred the field in the first place. A lot of what Russell experiences in this book feels like an accurate reflection of what many game designers and gamers who had been around in the 1980s probably felt in the 1990s as technology took off and game design started to “get away” from them. When Russell visits E3, he has an epiphany that the event is not about game design; it’s marketing towards retailers. Gaming went big in a big way while he was away from the keyboard, and he’s just now understanding how corporatized it has become.
To this end, You reflects a lot of the ambivalence (or outright bitterness) we gamers feel in the present day. Grossman capitalizes on some of the nostalgia for the “good old days” when gaming was a more underground experience: 5-inch floppy disks, printing out code and then entering it into another computer by hand, all the little tricks required to fool a player into thinking they are seeing something the computer can’t actually generate. And I can’t really pretend to understand or feel this bitterness myself, only a wistful yearning for such understanding—but I can recognize it and sympathize with it, thanks in part to things like this.
So Grossman has created a story that is not particularly well-structured or well-defined, and whether that is an intentional bit of satire or just poor writing, it doesn’t work for me. Yet he has, through intention or accident, stumbled upon a key requirement in fiction, which is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be factually true, but should be emotionally true. Here, he succeeds. You is confusing as hell at times, and I admit I skimmed through maybe the last twenty pages because they were rambling and pointless. (Seriously, just skip the Coda. There is no need for it.) But it tugs on some heartstrings on a single, visceral level, which raises it in my esteem just a little bit.
There are so many ways in which this novel could be better. I enjoyed but couldn’t quite extol Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I’m inclined to be less charitable here. Grossman’s handling of character has not improved—no one in You, Russell included, has much in the way of depth, and I didn’t care about them at all. Knowing now that he has these connections to game design makes his approach to storytelling in both novels make a little more sense, but I still can’t praise either work’s story.
In the end, I don’t think you’d miss much if you skip You. If you want a better book about life in software development, read Coupland’s Microserfs and jPod.
Another, albeit much more recent, addition to my to-read shelf courtesy of io9, Machine Man is sardonic exploration of the symbiotic relationship betw...moreAnother, albeit much more recent, addition to my to-read shelf courtesy of io9, Machine Man is sardonic exploration of the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology. I happened to see a copy on the library’s “New Books” shelf, so I took the opportunity and grabbed it. Unlike Fragment, Machine Man seems a little more plausible, which makes it much scarier. Max Barry’s main character isn’t someone with whom everyone will identify—he’s rather asocial and unable to empathize—but I think we share more in common with him than we would care to admit. In general, I had a very visceral, conflicted reaction to the ideas and questions raised by Machine Man, and that went a long way to helping with an otherwise mediocre plot.
I wear a prosthesis: I wear glasses. It’s a device I attach to my body to correct for a loss of function. Although not as invasive as contact lenses or, say, an entire prosthetic limb, my prosthesis is still a sign of disability and a significant part of my identity. I have resisted getting contacts both because I’m not comfortable with the idea of slipping something against my eye, and because I just don’t want them: “I wear glasses” is a core attribute of how I see myself. I’ve had the same pair of frames since grade 8; they are somewhat worse for wear, but I am going to keep them for as long as possible, because they are a part of me.
Now, the onset of my vision problems (near-sightedness) was gradual. I had trouble seeing the blackboard from a distance; I had trouble reading text if it was a certain distance from my face; suddenly people looked blurry if they weren’t close to me. (I don’t know my “20” rating, but my eyes are pretty weak. Other people try my prescription and go, “whoa”.) And glasses are a fairly advanced and stable technology, as far as prosthetics go: one trip to the optometrist, and I could see again. It’s miraculous, in a way. So unlike Charles Neumann’s accident in Machine Man, my experience wasn’t sudden and traumatic. Charles chooses to cope with the loss of his leg in a very original way: he builds a better leg. Not just “better” than the prosthesis, but a leg that is better than human legs. Because we can do that now. Our legs could have WiFi!
Many people do not have any prostheses (although, at least in developed countries, I feel like that number is shrinking, depending on how one defines prosthesis, as our technology advances). However, for those who don’t, how many are dependent on, say, a smartphone? That number is going up too. Barry begins to get us thinking about the relationship between humans and our technology with a simple event: Charles can’t find his phone. And he’s lost without it. The poignant part is that Charles doesn’t actually use his phone to make or receive calls—when this happens later in the book, he is puzzled by the sound his phone is making—he just depends on his phone to provide him with information, such as news. In fact, it’s this obsession with finding his phone that causes the inattention and results in the accident where he loses a leg.
I wouldn’t say I’m as desperate as Charles when I’m without my phone. I’m now accustomed to having a smartphone, so I would miss it, but it helps that I’m in class for several hours during the day and do not actually check it, except between classes or during a break. Nevertheless, I can certainly empathize with Charles’ discomfort when he does not have his phone: we become accustomed to using certain technologies as extensions of our minds and bodies, and when those technologies change or go missing, we struggle and flail before we adapt. Losing one’s phone is, for some people, like losing a limb.
There is really only one place to go after building a better leg, of course: build a matching leg. Charles realizes this quickly, and it is the start of a somewhat unsurprising slippery slope. This is where Machine Man becomes, for me, less interesting as a novel. None of the characters are quite real; to Barry’s credit they are dynamic people who grow and change, but I can’t shake the feeling that they are more like archetypes than individuals—most obviously, the CEO being called “the Manager” and being demonstrably an interchangeable cog in the corporate machine. (Austin Grossman provides a blurb for the back cover, and that’s so appropriate, because this novel’s style reminds me a lot of Soon I Will Be Invincible). The veil between the big ideas in Machine Man and the plot itself is just so thin that the very weight of those ideas overwhelms the story. Of course the company’s going to misuse Charles’ research! Of course Charles is going to become the company’s “property” in some way. Of course he’s eventually going to go on the run. There are very few surprises in Machine Man, at least in terms of the story.
So bear that in mind when I say that there are parts of this book I can’t shake off. It’s rather like my experience with The Dervish House, where I eventually decided to give it five stars because I could not stop thinking about it. Machine Man isn’t quite that good, but like McDonald, Barry discusses the choices we face as a society and as individuals that I feel are particularly relevant to us today. Although much of the technology in Machine Man is exaggerated, the spirit of Charles is very much something that is happening now, and our technology will get there soon. Already we must confront the use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics, as well as decide which types of prosthesis convey an unfair advantage. The question usually becomes one of distinction: where do we draw that line between “fair” and “unfair”. How much assistance is just enough and how much is too much? Should we just care about replicating the human experience with a prosthetic limb, or should we, like Charles, perhaps think about augmenting and improving upon that experience?
This are all huge issues, and they aren’t, if you will forgive my turn of phrase, science fiction. Brain-computer interfaces are also an item of hot discussion these days, and as those improve, so too will our capabilities to augment ourselves cybernetically. All those jokes about being connected directly to the Internet? Those might not be jokes in a decade or two.
Personally, I find this terrifying.
That might sound weird coming from a self-confessed technology geek. I should clarify right away that terrifying does not inherently mean “bad”; I’m not saying that we “must stop this at all costs!” Of course, one of the reasons this change is so terrifying is precisely that we can’t halt it. Humans love to innovate, and if the idea and knowledge is there, we will build it. It is only a matter of time and resources.
So here’s the thing: I love technology, and I dislike biology. The fact that I’m a squishy bag of water freaks me out constantly: thinking about how fragile and necessarily ad hoc my respiratory and circulatory systems are, contemplating the various fluids and other things my body excretes, and of course, sex. Corporeal existence is weird and sometimes very inconvenient. So why aren’t I the first in line for mind uploading? Why don’t I want to wire myself for WiFi?
Despite my reservations about this whole sack of meat thing, I am equally weirded out by the idea of putting technological devices into that body. It might be a fear of the implantation itself, the surgery, but I think on a larger level it’s just that we use technology and love technology, but we can’t trust technology. I’ll give my body kudos: it is remarkably resilient. It regenerates itself constantly; its capacity for healing is amazing, and it is in many ways very redundant. Simply put, we still can’t really design a “better body”. We might be able to design better parts, but the execution remains problematic.
All of this speaks from a specific socialized viewpoint. The next generation, or the generation after that, might view me as an outmoded conservative, even as they are downloading music directly into their cortices. But I want to illustrate whyMachine Man strikes a chord with me: these choices might not be imminent yet, but they are lurking beneath the surface of our society. We are entering a period of sustained tension between biology and technology, and it will be interesting to see how we navigate that.
The actual experience of sitting down and reading this book was extremely moving—and perhaps, in a way, the predictability of the plot freed me up cognitively to consider the implications of Charles’ radical self-modification agenda. I have probably spent more time ruminating on these ideas than discussing the novel itself. That happens. Usually it happens because the novel broaches these ideas, and I get so carried away with them that it eclipses the story itself. That’s the case here: Machine Man was entertaining, but its substance is nothing compared to its subtext. Great novels manage to include both of these elements in abundance; managing one out of two is still good, especially when it’s a subtext like this. Machine Man is not an amazing book, but it is a product of a stunning imagination and fruitful food for thought.
Well, this concludes my reading of this year’s nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and I’m struggling to decide which, if any, I should suppor...moreWell, this concludes my reading of this year’s nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and I’m struggling to decide which, if any, I should support. Last year The Dervish Househacked my brain and made it an easy choice. This year, not so much. Of all the nominees, however, I think Leviathan Wakes comes closest—it’s certainly the novel I enjoyed the most. (A Dance with Dragons is probably the second choice, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations.)
Leviathan Wakes has a lot to get excited about: scattered and sprawling humanity still confined to the solar system, an evil corporation (TVTropes) meddling with something better left alone, heroes on the run from pretty much everyone, and a noir murder mystery that turns into an obsession. It sounds like it could be a mess, but thanks to tightly twinned perspectives and a good eye for pacing, James S.A. Corey (i.e., Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), manage to make it work.
People often speak of their “beach reads” or their “guilty pleasures”, books that they turn to when they want comfort and fun more than, say, thought-provoking or challenging reading. I know what they mean—space opera is kind of like that for me. I still read it actively and critically, but these are the kinds of books that I turn to when I need something fun and hopefully good. Reading the other Hugo nominees has been fun, but for the most part they have been somewhat heavy-handed (Embassytown) or just not that good (Deadline). Because when I come to these books, it’s not the action that I crave—though that helps—it’s the application of fascinating SF concepts.
I love space opera so much, and I also love hard SF, and I think I’m not alone in conflating the two terms. It doesn’t help that hard SF has two contradictory meanings, and that we tend to equivocate between them unconsciously. On one hand, hard SF refers to science fiction that attempts to extrapolate plausibly from the science and technology available today or projected to be available in the future. This emphasis on plausibility means that, proportionally, hard SF spends more time talking about and explaining its technologies instead of just handwaving them away. Hence, on the other hand, hard SF has become kind of synonymous with any story that pays a lot of attention to the gritty details of its technology. A lot of hard SF these days is actually just science fantasy masquerading under very good technobabble.
There’s a sweet spot, of course. Those science fantasies of nanotechnology and wormhole drives are often born out of the author’s desire not to just make up a “warp drive” and be done with it. They see that space travel is hard and then look at possible ways to get around that. This nexus of creativity from the ashes of cynicism is what I love about space opera/hard SF. You still need a good story to go with it, but if you can find a compelling idea and figure out what you want to say about it, then you are on your way to a good space opera.
I often tend to neglect near-future space opera for its more dazzling, somewhat sexier posthuman cousins, like Singularity Sky or Revelation Space. Leviathan Wakes is set close to our time. Humanity has colonized parts of the solar system—particularly the asteroid belt—but hasn’t quite made it out of the system yet. When they do, it will be in generation ships, the first one apparently crewed by Mormons. It’s a picture of the future that, assuming we ever get off our societal asses and start actually flying beyond low-Earth orbit again, is all too realistic of how we might end up; throughout Leviathan Wakes there is a constant subtext that humans aren’t really cut out for living in space, but we’re doing it anyway. I love that, because it contains something that’s true (living in space is hard) and something I hope will be true soon (we’re going to do it anyway).
There are two main characters in this book: Jim Holden, XO of the ice hauler Canterbury; and Miller, a detective/cop on Ceres. Holden and Miller and diametric opposites in many ways. Holden is a diehard optimist when it comes to human nature; he believes that, given enough information, people can make the right, rational choices. Miller, on the other hand, is more tight-lipped. He has a darker view of human nature, one he believes comes from growing up as a Belter and serving on the somewhat lawless Ceres base. When he and Holden meet and circumstances dictate that they work together, watching them work out these conflicting worldviews is very interesting.
The plot of Leviathan Wakes comprises two mysteries that are pretty obviously one big mystery. Holden and his crew stumble onto what looks like a plot to get Mars fighting the Belt. (Ironically, his attempt to get “all the facts” out there is the proximal cause of Mars attacking the Belt.) They end up on the run, hurt and scared, turning to a semi-terrorist organization of dubious character to protect them while they figure out their next move. Meanwhile, Miller gets a case he isn’t supposed to solve about a girl he isn’t supposed to find. He ends up falling in love with someone he can’t ever meet and learning that Julie Mao was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are fight scenes. There is epic spaceship brinksmanship and posturing. There is plenty of exciting discussion of acceleration and g-force, of oxygen deprivation and radiation exposure and rail guns. Leviathan Wakes definitely reads like a cinematric thriller. But it’s more than that, because it goes deeper, exploring the rifts created in human society by our colonization of the solar system.
Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book is that it draws upon a lot of the latent, half-formed ideas and thoughts about near-future space colonization that are floating around in my head. (What? I read a lot of science fiction.) One of the more pragmatic but somewhat disturbing consequences of colonizing our solar system would be the speciation through specialization of the human species. That is, we might begin altering ourselves—probably through genetic engineering—to better suit the particular environments we colonize. The human body evolved to work well on Earth at about sea level. As the elongated bodies of natural-born Belters attest, that doesn’t work so well in lighter gravity or microgravity. So the views expressed by Mr. Dresden in this book are somewhat extreme but not all that wrong, even if his methods are disturbing and unacceptable (which is why Miller does what he does).
Speciation might be a necessary adaptation if we are to survive outside Earth’s biosphere. Corey reiterate that, despite having spread throughout the system, losing Earth would still likely be a mortal blow to humanity. But preserving Earth could be difficult. Environmental catastrophes aside, humanity is not exactly a united species. In the future of Leviathan Wakes, Earth and Mars are nominally allies but have a lot of bad blood because of Mars’ bid for independence. Similarly, those two inner planets are not friendly with the more anarchic Belt. This atmosphere of animosity and distrust is exactly what the bad guys need to draw attention away from their master plan, and it’s the powder keg that Holden ignites with his first broadcast. And these are just differences between different pockets of humans. Imagine what it would be like if we started diverging as species!
Corey don’t go quite that far in this book, which is fine. But it’s clear they’ve thought about such wider implications. The ultimate threat in Leviathan Wakes hints that humans have bigger problems than their own internal struggles. I love how Corey throw in mentions of relativistic warfare without bothering to stop and explain it to the reader; I think it speaks of a certain amount of trust in one’s audience. Some readers will know already that accelerating something (like an asteroid) to a significant fraction of c and then aiming it at a planet (or a ship) is a good way to kill the target. Those who don’t aren’t missing out on much, and of course, the real threat is more than just a rogue asteroid. It involves the possibility that we aren’t alone in the universe, that our neighbours know we are here, that they don’t want us here, and that they have a three-billion-year head start. Yeah. I don’t want to think about it either.
Look at me, I’m not even talking about the book that much any more. It’s a fine plot, entertaining, and the characters are pretty good. But it’s just a story. Whatever—the fact that it has inspired me to go off on all these tangents, has given me that prompting I need to start rambling about space colonies and alien threats and relativistic warfare, should be enough to attest to how much Leviathan Wakes got under my skin in the best way possible. If, like me, you geek out about all these ideas, read this book.