Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Yeerkwads

"'It's a parasite; it's capable of attaching itself to a host, such as a man, and controlling the host. It is almost certainly extra-terrestrial in origin and metabolism.
The lab boss sniffed. 'Extra-terrestrial parasite on a terrestrial host? Ridiculous! The body chemistries would be incompatible.'"

Robert A. Heinlein - The Puppet Masters


Infuriating that of Heinlein's three best known works, two are among his worst written. Along with Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters recalls the few times he allowed himself to slip from measured, self-aware individualism to rambling chest-thumping jingoism. It dates from 1951, a ripe time for tales of insidious aliens masquerading as real people, thinly disguised morality plays about the subversion of holy capitalism by those damn dirty communists! This was the heyday of the red scare, with Grand Inquisitor McCarthy turning up the heat on the anti-communist paranoia simmering through the previous several decades. That same year, John W. Campbell's 1938 Who Goes There was dredged up and adapted into a movie, before it became "The Thing" years on. It only took a couple of years for the likes of Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury to come out with their own alien doppelganger tales (though really, for Dick this sort of paranoia was to be expected.) From then on the "pod people" trope was set in stone as a pop scifi staple.

1951 also happens to be two or three years before the discovery of the structure of DNA. Yet both Campbell in 1938 and Heinlein in 1951 made sure to at least note the implausibility of compatible metabolic/pathogenic processes across planets. The sheer complexity of life in its levels upon levels of organization lends even minute differences the potential for sweeping effects. A single mutation in the nearly four thousand base pairs comprising the hemoglobin gene yields sickle cell, and throws a wrench in the plans of one P. falciparum of sanguine bent. How close a match do you think you'll get between organisms which didn't even evolve using the same genetic code? If an alien parasite found you, it wouldn't know which end to start nibbling.

Science Fiction's golden age came with the resurgence of "hard" SF in the 1940s and 50s. That'd be when Heinlein went as far as to dedicate a couple of paragraphs every other chapter to the arithmetic of interstellar distances... in a young adult novel... and the young adults ate it up! The Puppet Masters is more pulpy, somewhat disjointed, with awkwardly interposed gratuitous sex references and repeated pointless digressions into glorifying the brainwashed murderers employed by the establishment. However, it still paid more attention to the science of its fiction than any of its endless "pod people" copycats through the decades. As after the Verne / Wells era, Science Fiction went slowly into decline, and we are now once again in a 1920s/30s mass-appeal phase. The SciFi Syffy channel specializes in bargain bin monster flicks of such "quality" as would've made Abbott and Costello roll their eyes in disdain. Our two best known SF franchises are both movies: Star Trek and Star Wars. Both were past their prime two decades ago. One has degraded from a Utopian tale of exploration and discovery to a militaristic Action RPG. The other was never more than science fantasy to begin with, a continuation of the planetary romances of SF's dark ages.

I would not want to live in the 1940s but then again neither did most of the people of the '40s. If nothing else, maybe this at least rendered them more capable of looking forward than we are now, still mired in messianic black hat / white hat heroism and narcissistic, myopic social justice tracts masquerading as futurism.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Today, I re-potted my cactus. So there, if that's not a life-affirming symbol of continuity, I don't know what is.
...
Unless it dies, of course.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hecate bobs her hair

"But when we contrast the state of man in the opening of the twentieth century with the condition of any previous period in his history, then perhaps we may begin to understand something of that blind confidence. It was not so much a reasoned confidence as the inevitable consequence of sustained good fortune. By such standards as they possessed, things HAD gone amazingly well for them. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for the first time in history whole populations found themselves supplied with more than enough to eat, and the vital statistics of the time witness to an amelioration of hygienic conditions rapid beyond all precedent, and to a vast development of intelligence and ability in all the arts that make life wholesome. The level and quality of the average education had risen tremendously; and at the dawn of the twentieth century comparatively few people in Western Europe or America were unable to read or write. Never before had there been such reading masses.
[...]
The precedents of history were all one tale of the collapse of civilisations, the dangers of the time were manifest. One is incredulous now to believe they could not see."

H.G. Wells - The War in the Air
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"Hey, brother, what ya thinking?
Leave that old record spinning

That good old sound is ringing
They don't know what they're missing"

Caravan Palace - Lone Digger
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"Could've been a passing thing
Just a little boom-boom-bang
But we keep going again
And going again!"

Earl - Tongue Tied
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War.
War never changes. (Hey, guess what classic cRPG Werwolfe is currently re-playing?)
At the dawn of the twentieth century, war loomed inevitable in the minds of many willing to acknowledge such inevitabilities. Most were unwilling. War came, and went, and was declared obsolete. Everything was better forever for a decade or two. Most, faced with declining hopes, only sought to re-affirm their standard of living. It was the roaring twenties, the prohibition era when everyone was drunker than ever, when a crisis of overproduction was addressed by increasing production.

We know better than that now. We buy excess food and burn it. I find it entirely fitting that swing music should begin to make a comeback. The Cold War is decades past. As in the interbellum, half the masses of the developed world throw themselves into a forced frivolity while the other half embrace nationalism, fundamentalism and conservatism to their logical conclusion of fascism. Half the public thinks inventing new personal pronouns will solve the world's ills while the other half is practicing their swastikas. Oh, it's all intersectional. The world would be so much better without those straight white males, wouldn't it? I hear they drink baby blood. #finalsolution? Me Too!

So you gotta swing, swing, swing like it don't mean a thing my flappers and dappers, queens of the ring cycle gotterdameragnarockandrollit. Skidoo, skidoo, while the world spins beneath you. When the truth can no longer be kept quiet beneath your crinoline, drown it out in a trumpet-blast of heel-clicking. Victorian heads couched in faint mores belong in the sands of time.

It's two minutes to midnight.
Pumpkin time, Cindy.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Surviving Mars

Y'know those strange games which seem to do so much right that you're actually surprised when you find yourself not fully enjoying them?
Surviving Mars is one of those games.
Like resource acquisition and base-building? Then allow me to extend you a bubbly welcome to the bubble red bubble planet of bubbles. To go along with the by now canonical SciFi image of transparent habitation domes, the overall aesthetic of human structures adopts a sleek, airy, futuristic architecture of soft curves and suspended platforms, something between Star Trek and The Jetsons. Even your drones and shuttles look like Wall-E extras.

It works well enough in itself. Those apartment complexes, mines and factories look like interesting, engaging places to live and work. Unfortunately this safe, cozy rotundity is neither taken to its logical, space-age extreme of floating rings and laser lights nor offset by any other game elements. The writing, as I complained, leaves a lot to be desired in its blandness, and further hobbles itself through pedantry:
Seriously? "Alcohol is not the answer?" Was this thing co-written by Betty Ford and Barbara Bush?

The music deserves special mention, as Surviving Mars pays due attention to this oft-neglected aspect in post-Y2K games. In addition to a standard light techno background music soundtrack we'd expect from such a title, it provides three in-universe "radio" stations with different themes. Unfortunately, two of those three themes are surfer music and a country medley that would've better served Sim Farm. It's all actually rather inspired and even justifiable. Of course your colonists choking on red dust would be nostalgic for blue waves, and all that lively banjo strumming supports the general constructive atmosphere of the game. Still, I can't imagine much crossover between science fiction fans and "fun in the sun" surfer ditties. Something besides easy listening would've been quite welcome. Whatever happened to blasting Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra as the sun crests the horizon?

Unfortunatelier, those radio stations are deejayed by some of the most annoyingly bland, forced, artificially relatable personalities imaginable, enough to make you minimize the game whenever one of their inane little interludes intrudes on your brooding over the latest impending disaster. In addition to their grating bonhomie, their monologues run a very narrow gamut of presumably safe topics from baseball to kebabs to cultural inclusivity. With that, the whole rest of the game's aesthetic is thrown into a new perspective, not just smoothed and sleek and awkwardly restrained, but padded and kid-safe.
Pablum.

Which is a pity, because Surviving Mars is actually a surprisingly challenging and involved game. While it may be marketed as a city simulator, placing apartment blocks and factories comprises barely half the action. Each playable space agency has a slightly different style. Europe, for instance, thrives on research. From the very start, choosing your map involves balancing natural disasters with resource availability. Then comes scouting out your initial landing site and cobbling together a sufficient pile of resources using automated drones and building a life support network before you can even put up your first habitation dome. This robotic aspect continues throughout the game as you keep rocketing precious metals back to Earth and returning with whatever processed goods your colony lacks, all while constantly scouring the map beyond your domes for spare metal and research bonuses.

Take just one possible event and its many outcomes. Wherever a meteor hits it might: break machinery, puncture a dome, disable vehicles, leave behind a small chunk of metal or polymer or even spawn an "anomaly" to be explored for research. Other disasters are less forgiving. I had a very promising colony completely wiped out by an unusually long 6+ day cold wave.

To spice things up further, you're given one "mystery" or randomizable challenge, each run. As with the aesthetics, this can be a mixed bag, quickly descending into annoyance at feeling railroaded, forced to trudge through a specific scenario before you've even had a chance to grow your colony. After it ends, there seems little point in continuing to play. It both cuts into the sandbox appeal of city building in the short term and undermines its continued appeal in the long run. Building domes becomes, after a while, very repetitive as your citizens demand the same creature comforts in each.

Despite Surviving Mars' various high points, it feels hopelessly restricted. Again, it's a pity. This is a professionally made product. It plays smoothly, provides both a fair array of options and challenges, addresses all the necessary bells and whistles... but does so in an unnecessarily self-restrained fashion. Upon trying to quit, you're greeted by the old joke from Alpha Centauri:
Except Alpha Centauri dared to use as its inspiration some of the most daring, spine-chilling, nail-biting of major SF literature, and its gameplay options reflected this. You could be an iron-fisted dictator nerve-gassing your enemies into submission and sinking entire continents. Surviving Mars is like a cheap TV-grade Star Trek script inspired by those much better stories, and despite some engrossing resource management its ultimate lack of scope should make its creators ashamed to quote such a classic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

ST: TNG - Hero of the Week

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.
_____________________________________

Seriesdate: 3.23
Sarek

Spock's daddy tops off his centuries-long ambassador career by gently caressing Picard's face. D'awww...
Vulcans meld in your mind, not your hand
V.I.P. (Vulcan Is Prissy) Sarek comes aboard the Enterprise to criticize their drapes in preparation for an assuredly sumptuous treaty-making soiree (which we never actually get to see; extras cost money, alright?) with a never before seen alien species (err, make that never seen all episode; make-up costs money, alright?) and needs a little something to steady his nerves before the big night. Turns out he's going senile and in danger of losing his stoic Vulcan emotional control. Most people would settle for a shot or three of whiskey, but Vulcans apparently would rather dump their butterflies into someone else's stomach.
... As disgusting as that sounds, it's not half as invasive as telepathy.

Very little of this episode makes sense. First off, if Sarek was broadcasting emotions at such a decibel level as to affect regular humans all over the ship, he should've rocked Troi's sonar like a marching band. Also, of all crew members to potentially have their mind shattered by an unspeakably intimate sharing of neural pathways, there must have been hundreds more expendable than the freaking captain of the ship! Maybe you need the right mind for it... but then why a non-telepathic Homo mundanicus whom you've just met days ago? Why not Sarek's younger Vulcan assistant, who's already been telepathically linked to him for months? years? Why not his wife? After all, it's her job to mentally castrate him. Or maybe the other assistant, a close confidant of years past? Why not Troi, y'know, the ship's official telepath? What do you even keep her around for if not to mind-meld with ambassadors?
Oh, right.

Eh. Fans probably find it easy to forgive such trespasses and get drawn into the acting instead. Stewart was at his usual best, both cold-bloodedly confronting his social better and hamming up his newfound Vulcan emotions after the mind meld. The portrayal of Sarek also manages to keep up with the show's resident Shakespearean, unlike many guest stars.

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Seriesdate: 3.25
Transfigurations

This one's about an amnesiac mutant alien messiah.
But first, let's spend a few minutes ridiculing Geordi some more for being despised by women, after he already absorbed Wesley's insults about it in the previous episode under Sarek's influence. No, no, really, it's okay, because after getting brain-zapped by the A.M.A.M., he finally works up the courage to subject his self-worth to a woman's judgment. He thanks the A.M.A.M. profusely for this gift of slavishness by the end of the episode, instead of asking the obvious question: "did you or did you not give me brain cancer?"

Anyway:
Meet the Amnesiac Mutant Alien Messiah, and his Amnesiac Mutant Alien crotch bulge. He suffers from hot flashes. Apotheotic hot flashes! As should happen, his entire species is primed to transcend their physical form, but a shadowy (everything's shadowy in space) government conspiracy keeping the wrapture under raps keeps killing off all the incipient godlings. Boy, ain't that always the way? Luckily, it only takes one fully actualized A.M.A.M. to infect the whole population with divinity, and if you think this story's beginning to sound familiar, then you must be an A.C. Clarke fan.
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Most action / drama TV shows tend toward villains of the week. The original series of Star Trek certainly did. TNG, given its greater emphasis on a polite, utopian society, tended rather toward heroes of the week, introducing positive episodic characters helping to solve a particular technological / astronomic mystery.

Unfortunately Science Fiction doesn't really thrive on characters, but rather on ideas. Transfigurations subjects you to an utterly forgettable string of cheesy, sappy commentary on the A.M.A.M.'s virtues, going nowhere until the entire backstory gets breathlessly exposited in the last five minutes. Even lifting your basic plot from one of SF's "big three" doesn't amount to much if you cram it into the end credits. Not much in the way of boldly going. Sarek fares a bit better, but ultimately resolves to "the one with Spock's dad" and some palatable thespianing.

Hard to classify either of these episodes as anything other than filler. Having some schmuck stand around expositing is cheaper and more audience-friendly (read:idiot-friendly) than actually playing out a true SF plot with all the bells and whistles. You can get a lot of "futuristic" mileage out of some chin putty and a leotard, and telepathy's always very budget conscious, depending as it does on the "special" effect of actors squinting and grunting at each other.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Deadfire Herchipelago

"You're not some baby [girl]
Why you acting so surprised
You're sick of all the rules
Well I'm sick of all your lies"

Garbage - Why Do You Love Me

_______________________________
Slight PoE2: Deadfire spoilers follow.
_______________________________
Like any reasonable person, I've abandoned all other concerns this past week to dive into Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. Not that I thought it would be an outright masterpiece (and it isn't) but for better or worse it's become painfully obvious that the cRPG revival largely hinges on its success. PoE 2 is meant to reverse-engineer the lasting influence of Baldur's Gate 2: not a proof of concept nor a risque pioneer but a trendsetter. While an ambitious project in many ways, it clings to the lowest common denominator to widen its appeal. Shelving a full game design discussion for some later date, I have to note the somewhat glaring thematic issue of gender relations.

For one thing, the NPC "romance" options conspicuously (and thankfully) absent from PoE, Tides of Numenera and Tyranny have made an unwelcome comeback. Apparently my choices are between a redneck bimbo religious fanatic and a murderous nationalist fanatic. Hm. Pass. Maybe if that intellectually integral, metaphysically dissonant nerdette Ydwin had made it to full scripted companion status...

But I don't doubt they would've found some way to ruin her, to turn her into some feminist icon instead of an individual. Deadfire makes such a show of toeing the current snowflake party line as to constantly sour its limited storytelling potential. For one thing, every party member seems enthusiastically homo- or bi-sexual, in defiance of all statistical expectations for a heterosexually reproducing population... even Aloth, all of a sudden.

Speaking of Aloth, as the least desirable to female eyes (the nerd, and not a rich one either) I wasn't surprised to find him relegated to the status of comic relief to an even greater extent than in the original. Whinier, prissier, everyone's punching bag, it seems like his every dialogue has him ridiculed, humiliated, pushed around, abused, shit on... and meekly swallowing it all. All this, despite being able to one-shot an entire squad of fire giants? Had Aloth been female, such treatment would've swamped Obsidian with hate mail.

Not that he's out of place. As usual, respectability is a prize not to be earned but won with femininity as the perennial trump card.



That screenshot is about where I realized even the last male leader in the game was about to get thrown out, with no particular foreshadowing and with a kangaroo court to lend the proceedings an air of legitimacy. Of Deadfire's four major factions two are headed by females, two by males, an ostensibly even split. The males, of course, can be ousted and replaced with their female seconds and you're heavily prodded by ample moral reasons (slavery, native rights) to undermine them. You're given no such incentives or even options to replace the endless parade of chieftesses with their male subalterns.

It's a very stable pattern. Narration of the main storyline was heavily increased and the male narrator replaced with a female (and incompetent) one. In the council of the gods, the males (Skaen, Galawain, Rymrgand) are grudgingly allowed one irrelevant token appearance each. The discussion is entirely carried out among genderless Wael and the four staunchly female goddesses, plus Berath always in his/her female half. Female villains are always of the tragic flaw variety (usually "for my people" to the point of "a single tear rolls down her cheek") while the few irredeemable villains are always male (the Splintered Reef, Crookspur, etc.) All traitors are male. All thieves are male. All designated losers are male. In quests with predetermined outcomes, if the NPC you're helping is female, she'll somehow miraculously escape any disasters and / or assassination attempts.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition tenaciously clinging to life, standing up to the villain, it'll be female.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition shamefully groveling before the villain or ready to be sacrificed, it'll be male.

The saddest part, as usual, is that we accept and expect such abuse.

Perhaps worse than the outright male-bashing permeating Deadfire is its revisionist agenda filling the game world with warrior women. PoE's universe makes a habit of parodying real-world cultures in a misguided, shallow pastiche of multiculturalism. Everyone talks in funny accents and tosses foreign-sounding buzz-words around because We Respect Their Diversity! They make a pretty good show of it, to the point where most references are easily recognizable... yet it rapidly breaks down when every heroic soldier you meet is female.
Remind me, did Renaissance-era Italian city-states fill their militaries with women? Were most famous pirate captains female? Were most Polynesian warriors female? I've already gone over the idiocy of such propaganda. Women have always used men as stepladders and ablative armor for their own purposes, for easily distinguishable biological reasons. Women play the power behind the throne not because they're oppressed into doing so, but because they can, because figureheads frequently roll and it's just safer to latch on to every new replacement king while still being bowed at. Let them eat cake and have it too.

Obsidian showed a hefty streak of female chauvinism in PoE 1 and Tyranny but it was tempered, if I had to guess, to a large extent by a certain writer of Torment fame who has since left for greener pastures. Deadfire shows none of those attempts at instilling sanity into modern propaganda, and is a much weaker product for it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

I'm talking about WWIII

A light blight might fright quite brights' sight-flight from trite heights and sleight kite smite's site-bite to slight fight for rights quite rightly tight.

A'ight?