books games science fiction

Inconspicuous Consumption

Slowly, slowly, I am emerging from the sessile phase that I entered after surviving (and passing, praise Eris!) my doctoral qualifying exams.  I am anticipating a full return to something approaching full motility and sentience.

After such extended periods of ascetically-focused mental exertion, I find myself enveloped in a sort of lassitudinous passivity.  All of the needs that have been denied demand to be satisfied, and I descend into a gluttonous pit of media consumption.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a dozen books or so (not, I am sorry to say, of a particularly elevating nature), watched way too many back episodes of science fiction television shows, and finally got around to finishing several video games that had been sitting, unplayed on the shelf.  Work, school, and Latin studies continue apace, but my free time has been heavily unstructured.  Here are a few comments on what’s been occupying my mind.  I warn you, though: if you’re looking for high-brow in this post, you’d best move along.


From the books, I can definitely recommend Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives . . . it’s not often that one finds a novel where the central conceit is the existence of a proof that P=NP, and his melding of the myth of Medusa with quantum mechanical theory is a thing of genius.  The Family Trade, also by Stross, is a bit disappointing by comparison, as the characters and writing are a bit flat and the fancies do not fly as high.

Neal Asher had previously caught my attention with The Skinner, which was a great science fiction romp.  (One of its best small bits is a unique take on technologically-sustained undeath.)  I was pleased to get my hands on a copy of Prador Moon, but it left me unimpressed.  The plot was on the mechanical side, and the tension wasn’t particularly tense.  I also have a copy of Brass Man which I may or may not finish before returning it to the library; thus far, it hasn’t drawn me in.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Beguilement: The Sharing Knife is her second run at a romance-oriented fantasy, and it strongly echoes The Hallowed Hunt.  The plot structure is somewhat curious, with the ostensible dramatic climax coming in the first third of the book.  The remainder focuses on the relationship between the characters.  I have to say that it didn’t really work for me, though her writing is competent, and I enjoyed the story well enough.  I’ll be curious to see what she does with the next two novels in the trilogy.  The Hallowed Hunt is, in my opinion, a much stronger novel, if not quite up to her previous Chalion efforts.

I’ve been meaning to bone up on the history of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, and nabbed a few volumes from the library to that end.  Robert E. Howard’s early Kull of Atlantis stories are purple and overwrought, with some curious parallels to Lovecraft (who, it should noted, admired Howard’s writing).  I’ve never read any of his Conan stories, and it will be interesting to compare.

Also in this vein, I read the first three collections of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories: Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, and Swords in the Mist.  It is interesting to see how Leiber’s tropes have worked their way throughout the genre, but I really can’t recommend them as particularly good.  The origin stories in Swords and Deviltry were particularly weak, barely rising above the level of Gygaxian fiction.

To recover from too much low-grade fiction, I reread Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide.  What a difference!  Swanwick remains one of my favorite SF authors, and I hope that he’ll get around to releasing that new novel one of these days (his last was the 2002 Bones of the Earth).

I’ve followed Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels since I first found The Colour of Magic in 1989.  Over the years, his books have become something more than simple humorous parody.  His combination of mood, character, and humor is quite effective, and his Vimes stories are among my favorite modern fantasies.  Recently, he has written a few Discworld novels targeting the “young adult” market.  The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith tell the story of a young witch, Tiffany Aching and her interactions with the Nac Mac Feegle (a race of small, blue-tattooed faerie-kin called, well, Pictsies).  There are few characters from other Discworld stories: I only noticed Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.  These books are by no means inferior efforts, and should be read by everyone who likes Pratchett’s work.


It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Star Trek (Enterprise didn’t hold my attention at all).  I’ve just watched my way through the sixth season of Next Generation, which was quite a reasonable show.  The late seasons were much better than the painfully wooden early episodes, but they’re still rather mechanical, particularly when watched in close succession.  I did have have to skip two episodes for excessive obnoxiousness.

I’ve just started watching Firefly, which thus far has been quite engaging.  I’ll reserve further comments until I’m all the way through.

Video Games

First, Archangel.  This is a modern magic-themed first-person combat game with some sort of a story, but I couldn’t bear to keep playing past the training sequence.  The vocal acting is mind-shatteringly awful.

I hadn’t played a lot of racing games before this, but I have three that were picked up on deep discount: Midnight Club 2, Need for Speed: Underground, and Need for Speed Underground 2.  All are reasonably satisfying arcade-style racers, but I think that NFSU2 gets the nod.

NFSU is fun up until around 80% completion.   At that point the races become joyless exercises in perfectionism, even at the lowest difficulty setting.  I abandoned play at that point.

MC2 becomes quite difficult by the end, but is quite beatable.  Its key advantages over the NFS titles are: lots of shortcuts to discover, no mind-numbing closed-course races, and a semblance of damage model for the vehicles.  Watching the NFS vehicles bouncing hood-over-trunk then blithely driving on is just silly (though none of these titles get many points in the realism department).

NFSU2 loses some features that were well-polished NFSU, but makes up for them by adding an explorable world.  The visuals are superb, and the gameplay is rather easier than that of its predecessor.  I would have like to see a few more free-form races, but modifying and tuning the cars is surprisingly enjoyable.  The game would be improved by abandoning the silly graphic novel sequences that spring up occasionally.  I’m perhaps halfway though this game, but it will be going back on the shelf for a while.

I now return to my regularly-scheduled life.

games role-playing games

I choose YOU, Pikathulhu!

Iä!  Iä!  Pikathulhu fthagn!

I’ve just discovered that Pokéthulhu, the role-playing game of cute and blasphemous eldrich cuddliness is available as a freely-downloadable PDF. Huzzah! I bought a copy of the second edition some years ago, and I quite recommend it. Proper appreciation of its satirical humor will likely require prior familiarity with any two members of the set {H. P. Lovecraft, Pokemon, role-playing games}.

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
and with strange aeons even death may die!
To bring down our masters on an icy night,
And to claim the power when the stars are right . . .

Team Eibon!
Stand fast to resist our rage . . .
Or flee to the safety of a new dark age!

Only children can control the ‘thulhu, which are lovable, soul-devouring horrors. In the game you take the role of a young cultist, capturing and taming wild ‘thulhu, then pitting them against each other or various plot-driven objectives.

Each ‘thulhu has aspects and weaknesses, and special attacks based on each of these. Typical aspects are: decomposing, fishy, fungous, icy, luminescent, non-Euclidean, squamous, and sticky. For example, Jigglypolyp is a fungous, sticky ‘thulhu.

Chris Pound has a page of word and name generators for many different applications (such as conlanging, but that’s another thread entirely). Among them is a hilariously apt Pokéthulhu name generator. Also worth investigating is this interactive ‘thulhu identification guide.

Yog Soggytoth neblod zin!

discordianism games

Discordian Games

The Game of SinkIf you’re a Discordian (and who isn’t?), you’re probably familiar with the game of Sink. Unfortunately, if your intelligence is higher than that of a cabbage, this recreation will eventually lose a bit of its luster.

Fortunately, there are other Discordian Games suitable for even such jaded sophisticates.

  • Discordian Solitaire (for two players; suits do not matter because Eris is color-blind)
  • Hybrid: the role-playing game. “RULE # 223: You can using the cloning equation to figure out the # of people that you can effect telepathically. And, you can use the nuclear equation to figure out the radius within which that you can affect others, but you can use topology to increase the maximum distance that you can affect some particular individual. And, the same method of topology, you can, also, generate or simulate singularity (black hole): % = X^X, where X = (C2/M); or, % = Y^Z, where Y = (C1/10) & Z = exponent, which is inverse exponent that is used on his Life Span.”
  • Illuminopoly: Monopoly that forgot to take its anti-psychotics. “RACE CAR: Automotive interests. May roll 3d6 to move if it desires, or just 2d6. Wins if all four railroads are destroyed at any point in the game.”
  • Memetic Truth-or-Dare: Defend the indefensible.
  • Mao: Mao is a card game.  You want to know the rules?  That’s too bad.

And failing all of the above, you could always give Nomic a try.


Textual Retrogaming: Nightfall Lives!

Nightfall MUD Login ScreenI am agog.

Please pardon the excursus – I have just discovered that Nightfall (a MUD that was founded back around 1990), is still alive and kicking. See for yourself:


and there it is. I was quite surprised to find that my old account and character are still there.

Back in the early nineties MUDding, was a de rigeur recreation for an undergraduate computer science major. I don’t care to think how many 3 AMs would find me still at a terminal in the computer lab, trying to get those just a few more points. The patterns of gaming haven’t changed that much over the years, even if the specifics have flashier graphics.

It’s very interesting to observe how much of a sense of place I still have for a world that exists only in textual form, and that I haven’t spend time exploring in well over a decade.

Novels are different; the details of navigation are brushed aside in the interests of telling a story. When interacting with the world of a MUD, your primary activity tends to be travelling from one point to another. I’m sure I still have the pages upon pages of maps that I drew as I explored Nightfall (and other MUDs, such as Ivory Tower): practical cartography for imaginary places. I remember the path from my house to the guildhall of the Seekers of Magic.

Like interactive fiction, MUDs are far from dead. They have been eclipsed by more elaborate successors, but some people always seem to prefer text to visuals.


Nomic: Rules Are What You Make of Them

The Lady of Justice on the gates of DublinAfter graduating from college I lived for a time at my parents’ house, working in a local bookstore until I could find a job at least nominally related to computers. On a trip down to Ann Arbor to haunt the excellent used bookstores, I found a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas at Dawn Treader.

MT is a collection of Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns from 1981 to 1983, and it is a cornucopia of fascinating tangles. Chapter 4 describes the game of Nomic, invented by Peter Suber. If you’re not familiar with it, the concept behind the game is deceptively simple: the rules are changable, and the players take turns suggesting new rules.

A game of Nomic begins with an initial rule set designed to facilitate this self-modifying gameplay and to deal with common situations. For example:

107. No rule change may take effect earlier than the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it, even if its wording explicitly states otherwise. No rule change may have retroactive application.

116. Whatever is not explicitly prohibited or regulated by a rule is permitted and unregulated, with the sole exception of changing the rules, which is permitted only when a rule or set of rules explicitly or implicitly permits it.

The initial rules for winning are simple: the first player to reach 100 (positive!) points wins. If a player proposes a rule that is accepted, they gain ten points. If their proposal is defeated, they lose ten points. Rule changes are adopted only with unanimous agreement, but some rules handle possible situations in the face of changed rules:

204. If and when rule changes can be adopted without unanimity, the players who vote against winning proposals shall receive 10 points apiece.

To keep things moving, in addition to proposing a rule each player also rolls a die and gains that many points. Of course, that rule is often the first one to go!

Upon returning home, I immediately drafted my younger brothers into a game. I had already written out the rules on individual 3″x5″ cards, and we went out to the back yard to start the game. The garage contained any number of game materials suitable for livening things up: bocce balls, a croquet set, Frisbees, an astonishing number of hula hoops, and so on. I figured that in addition to playing with the rules, we could add some interesting physical challenges. Both of my brothers were amenable, so play began.

We began by abolishing rules. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure the first to go was rule 201:

201. Players shall alternate in clockwise order, taking one whole turn apiece. Turns may not be skipped or passed, and parts of turns may not be omitted. All players begin with zero points.

The ideas was that we would strip out the rules that didn’t match the kind of game we were working towards, and then build up a new set. We then went on to remove seveal other rules.

Suddenly, a problem became clear: Rule 201 was a very, very bad rule to remove. We no longer had any legal way to determine who would go next! We began discussing the problem. Disagreements arose.

An hour later, we were still arguing. The nub of the conflict was this: were any of the rule changes we had made after revoking rule 201 actually legal?

The game moved inside, and we were all getting hungry and tempers were getting short. As the argument continued, we split into two camps: M~ and I held that the game was always in some particular state, and by examining the rules closely enough we could determine exactly what that state was. K~ held that the historical aspect was irrelevant, and only the current ruleset was relevant for determining the state of the game.

We went on in this vein for quite some time, and K~ threatened to resign. I forstalled this by pointing out that he may actually have won. The last rule deals with paradoxes:

213. If the rules are changed so that further play is impossible, or if the legality of a move is impossible to determine with finality, or if by the Judge’s best reasoning, not overruled, a move appears equally legal and illegal, then the first player who is unable to complete a turn is the winner. This rule takes precedence over every other rule determining the winner.

As K~’s turn was right after mine, and I had proposed the abolition of 201, we all agreed that I had completed my turn, but K~ had been unable to complete his. Resolution!

My first game of Nomic was not a rousing success. For some reason, I was unable to get anyone interested in a second game.

Thank Eris for the Internet! A few years later I discovered online Nomics. These saw a real surge in popularity in the mid- to late-nineties. Sadly, most of these have now closed down. I particularly liked Acknomic, which had a highly-complex chess variant (Ackanomic Party Chess) as a sub-game. There are still a few running these days. As a starting point, see the database of active Nomics at, which lists 13 as of this writing.

(Image of Dublin’s Lady of Justice courtesy of MacBuckley.)

games religion

. . . Gang aft a-gley

flow.pngReally. You were going to have a nice post on would-be messiah Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, recently self-promoted from reincarnation of the apostle Paul to second personification of the big J. himself (though he seems a bit conflicted . . . he nattily sports a ‘666’ tattoo on his arm, according to MSNBC). Thanks, reddit, for the link.

But, reddit giveth and reddit taketh away. I’ve just lost two very enjoyable hours of my life playing flOw, a well-crafted, ambient game where you guide a stylized micro-organism through the sorts of challenges that face most micro- and macro-organisms: eating, and avoiding being eaten. So instead of reflections on cults and prophet motives (a salary of $98,000 plus perks, to start), you get a link to an aethetically appealing time-waster. Such is life.