I ate some extra hot noodles

A friend recently gave me a packet of extra spicy instant noodles. “They’re extremely hot,” he warned. I took his statement at face value; he’s not given to exaggeration.

He also showed me a huge bag of dried birds eye chillis. We were enthusing about Helsinki’s Chinese supermarkets; the largest of which I’m aware cluster in Hakaniemi, near the “hip” Kallio district and punky Sornainen. Many ingredients, spices, sauces, accoutrements and sundries can be found here which can’t really be found elsewhere: I was particularly pleased to find a variety of Thai vegetables (a Tom Yam soup and any of those incredible coconut milk-based curries aren’t really the same without them), huge quantities of frozen pre-made dumplings (including Japanese gyoza and Korean dim sum) and every known variant of Flying Goose-brand srichacha sauce (including Extra Garlic, which my partner swears by – she is not wrong).

After we announced our decision to move to Finland last year, more than a few friends and acquaintances warned us that Finns don’t really eat spicy food, and that we’d struggle to find a lot of cuisines and ingredients we like. There’s probably truth to this historically, and in some areas of the country, but in the centre of Helsinki at least it feels like nonsense. Take, for example, sushi, which has boomed in popularity in Helsinki in the past ten years, complete with fat dollops of sinus-clearing wasabi (most likely horseradish, but hush). Nepalese restaurants are a common sight, and although the typical level of heat is low for, say, British tastes, the standard range of dishes always includes something pleasantly spicy. There are a few small Thai restaurants, and one of them – Bangkok9, in the City Centre mall – is reliably packed throughout peak times. Your burger vendor of choice (Helsinki has many) probably offers pickled Jalapenos, habanero mayo or chipotle sauce with the pattie or on the side. There’s a small ramen chain called Momotoko that’s a lunchtime favourite, and their broths are always beautifully spiced with a good amount of chilli heat.

Weirdly enough, the only foodstuff we’ve really struggled to locate is cheap anchovies in oil – the kind you want to dissolve into a putanesca, or slow-roasted lamb. Well, that and Bisto.

The instant noodles my friend gave me were delicious. Chewy, fat rehydrated noodles in what I think is a Jjolmyeon style (I’m fairly ignorant about Korean food), stir fried in a viscous hot sauce and with roasted sesame seeds and laver (a kind of edible seaweed or algae). They were hot, and while I may regret eating them once the meal has moved through my digestive system they weren’t that hot. If you’re the kind of person who’s ever attended a chilli festival and spent a day trying samples of mind-blowingly hot chilli sauces, drinking beer to take the edge off and occasionally weeping because you misjudged a sauce, you’ll probably know what I mean. And even if this post isn’t the lulzy “man eats food that’s too hot for him” junk food I originally planned, it’s at least given me a chance to write a little about two things I love: hot food, and my adopted home city.

Dead Rising 4

Zombies! Tens of thousands of ’em! They’re all over the mall, shuffling about and eating people. And there you are, photojournalist Frank West or one of the less good protagonists, treating them like a minor inconvenience while you chase down the story.

I’ve got a lot of time for the Dead Rising series, all the way back to the 2006 original. Initially intrigued by the technology that could put hundreds of zombies on-screen simultaneously with – for the day – respectable 3D graphics and performance, I found myself won over by game design. Frank, you see, couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the Willamette mall was full of survivors who needed saving, psychopaths (…mmm) who needed stopping, and leads that needed following. The game forced decisions and sacrifice on you, and made it quite clear you couldn’t do everything.

Not the most popular design choice, if you listen to people who shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions. Waaah. I can’t do everything. Whatever. Dead Rising was an intense and memorable experience, one that actively rewarded repeat playthroughs, exploring different paths and routes and choices. It actively reinforced this approach through its meta-progression, with character levels and abilities carried over after death, if you opted to start the story again rather than load your last save. It’s a game about experimentation to learn your environment: where certain items can be found, good routes from A to B, what can be accomplished against the relentlessly ticking clock. Or, if you prefer, a game about ignoring that clock and just dicking around, smacking zombies with parasols and trying on stupid costumes.

The zombies were usually the most minor obstacle, particularly as your skillset expanded to include tricks like hopping on zombies’ heads to easily traverse a horde. They were much harder work when attempting to save or escort survivors, where you often needed to directly fight through a horde – or simply, as Rab Florence memorably put it in an old videoGaiden review, when you’re off doing your thing and you forgot about the zombies.

The series has watered down these elements over time. The focus has shifted further toward zombie-infested locations as toybox, supported with (fun!) additions such as the combination of scavenged objects to make outlandish weaponry. As the focus shifted it the importance of making meaningful decisions declined; there was less need to accept compromises or miss out, or to deeply learn and memorise environments or carefully plan routes. None of this is inherently bad. These are just different design choices. What is a shame is that they are all choices that move away from what makes Dead Rising still a largely unique videogame, and toward the convergence point of so-called “triple-A”* sandbox games.

Dead Rising 4, then. It’s full of collectibles: not just blueprints for combo weapons but also newspapers, podcasts, cloud uploads, cellphones, keys and so on. There’s a few hundred of the sodding things. It’s just shy of full Ubigame, mainly differing in that in order to identify everything on your map, you need to secure a safehouse, then grind out a bunch of randomly occurring survivor-rescue events. This sort of works, because within each of the game’s environments there’s some pleasure in learning them, but the game world is also made up of four not well-connected locations with a main story that awkwardly shuffles you between them. Alongside collectibles, then, there’s another sin of contemporary sandbox games: it is simply too big, meaning too much boring traversal, too much repeated busywork between locations, and insufficient opportunity or encouragement to learn the environments in an interesting way.

DR4 also dispenses with all the character progression elements of the first two games. If you die, you load from a checkpoint. That’s it. Enticement to replay the game only comes in the form of scooping up those collectibles. Yay. Great for the one-run-only crew, I guess. There’s a traditional character build tree rather than the old approach of receiving a random upgrade every level. It’s fine to take that route, but I felt a lot of the options weren’t very interesting, and there was never a sense that my decisions mattered much except where I chose an option that would speed up future progression.

There’s also now a health bar rather than health pips, which basically means you constantly lose health when in proximity to zombies, compared to the calculable neatness of the older system. Again, this is just different. I pay less attention to health as a result. It’s also easier to manage health now. Dead Rising 4, in general, is easier and more fluid to play than its predecessors. In usability terms it’s hugely improved. Health, throwable, melee and ranged weapons are mapped to the d-pad, and choosing the right tool for a situation is much easier than the panicked left-right taps through Dead Rising’s common inventory ever was.

There’s a compromise there, too. It’s an improvement in usability that I imagine also makes the game more accessible, which is a very important consideration. But there is also a loss inherent in it, because poor usability can, intentionally or not, contribute toward a game’s theme. The shift from clumsy tank controls in Resident Evil to the fluid over-the-shoulder action of Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the most famous example, showing how control and interaction can be an integral part in transitioning a sedately-paced and nail-biting horror series into a fluid, intense action series. Not ‘bad’. Not better, or worse. Just different.

But back to Dead Rising 4. Yeah, I enjoyed it, and played its lacklustre story through to the end. In some ways it’s more fun to play than what came before. But in so many others it’s content to imitate competitors in preference to building upon its forebears. And in so doing, it can’t help but lose parts of the identity that once made a Dead Rising game stand out.

A coda, of sorts: I think a lot of people were made very angry by Dead Rising 4 launching alongside a paid DLC that promises to finish the story. Yeah, the main game that you buy for £60 or whatever doesn’t do that. Except that it does, in the sense that you see protagonist Frank West falling into a horde of zombies with no chance of escape. Of course he could escape, but at this point I’m content just to look away and accept Frank is, finally, dead.


* If you don’t follow the games press, and I can hardly blame you as it’s often dreadful and at best myopic, this terminology is basically adopted from corporate publishers and means “we spent a lot of money on it”. Some chumps are now using the term “quadruple-A”, which basically means “we spent even more money on it”.

Galactic Patrol, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith

I’m a fan of space opera. Have been since I was a starry-eyed teen reading whatever SF I could find in my local second-hand bookshops. This inevitably included Golden Age works – van Vogt, Asimov, Pohl, E.F. Russel and more – with yellowing pages and, at least in my memory, instantly recognisable covers, usually by Chris Foss. Often via the same shops I also read various works of ‘new space opera’: Banks, Hamilton, Greenland, Sheffield, MacLeod and many others.

Coming to both epochs of space opera mixed together in one great melange meant that I had little grasp of how the latter reacted to the former, refracted through the lens of the intervening New Wave and the differing politics of generations and cultures. To me it was all science fiction. Yet whilst I liked much of what I read I enjoyed the new space opera more. A personal reaction, of course, and one reflected on two decades later. I’m just laying the groundwork for a little context, because around that same time I read an E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith book and I thought it was shit.

‘Doc’ Smith is usually regarded as the granddaddy of space opera, and his influence on a lot of works I have loved shouldn’t be understated. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I just thought that the book I read was terrible. The story as I poorly recall it began with a couple of male engineers and their girlfriends hopping in a spaceship to pursue adventure and science, and culminated with galaxy-smashing energies being flung back and forth in an absurd game of one-upmanship between protagonists and antagonists.

Since I moved to Finland I’ve gotten to know in person a friend I’ve known online for over fifteen years. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years enthusing and arguing about science fiction. A few months back we got onto the subject of the ‘Doc’, and he persuaded me to give Smith another go. He loaned me a familiarly yellowed Panther SF copy of Galactic Patrol, the first actual book in Smith’s most famous Lensman series.

I didn’t like it much.

I get its place in SF history. I truly do. There’s something admirable, in a manner of nostalgia for an era that passed long before my parents were born, in its romance of engineers cracking problems and saving the galaxy. There’s adventure by the plenty, and it’s entertaining enough and briskly told. The concept of the Lensman is one I can see repeated, reflected and re-imagined in scores of other stories. There are nice things you might say about Galactic Patrol, and ten times as many observations you might make about its influence.

In 2019, though, it’s a rather ridiculous novel.

In chapter one we encounter the concept of the Lensmen themselves: highly trained, rigorously conditioned, a million winnowed down to a hundred, all to find specimens who are physically and mentally adept to the most extreme degrees, and most importantly incorruptible. It’s a cute but fundamentally authoritarian moral fantasy, and a discomforting one in an era of militarised police, surging state violence, and the valorisation of the police and military in an era when the inherent institutional flaws of such organisations have never been more clear.

1937 isn’t 2019. Yeah, reader, I get it. Also, it’s a pulp: it’s an adventure story written for starry-eyed kids. But here I am, a grown man reading this in 2019. Honestly, the first thing that came to mind as I read that first chapter were the Judges of Mega City, the peacekeepers, judges, juries and executioners rolled into one, only in a significantly more dystopian and morally compromised context, and one where Judges routinely fail to adhere to similar high standards of incorruptibility. A satire of authoritarian moral fantasy.

There are plenty of other absurdities, all equally easy to wave aside as a product of time and place, but equally irritating. Technological development is a matter only of breaking open an idea; once devised or reverse-engineered, design and fabrication is a simple matter. Forgiveable in a book written before the invention of transistors, before electronic computers, when many complex machines still used primarily large, manually-machined parts? Maybe; I can’t judge that. But I can say this is less of an engineer’s fantasy than a fantasy of the obsolescence of the engineer, where concept transitions smoothly into mass fabrication without a hiccup. The starship as Spitfire or Hurricane, cobbled together out of scrap iron from the home front.

All bar one character is a man. That includes those who are physically described as inutterably alien; mentally, they comport themselves and speak of a muchness. Even those who communicate solely via thought do so in a chummy I-say what-what boy’s-own-adventure diction. (Of course, this can be explained away as the Lens of a Lensman translating into the wearer’s own diction and vernacular, although you see it too in the rare moments where a viewpoint character is not hero Kim Kinnison.)

One character is a woman. She is of course beautiful, and smart, and does her part with spirit when called upon. To describe her as flat is perhaps to misrepresent other characters in a story where all, really, are flat actors playing out their parts.

There’s of course a sexism – it’s a book written in 1937 by an American man – that pervades every moment where women are present or described and, too, the void of their absence othertimes, though when overt it passes beyond grating and into hilarity. With three quarters of the book behind us, the one female character is introduced and almost immediately Kim’s commanding officer and the doctor for whom she works as a nurse spend several pages yapping about the quality of her skeleton and how to best prevent her and Kim falling for each other, at least just yet – though in the future it would be good, actually, for really their stock ought not go to waste. Gross, hilarious, stupid, and probably one of the most entertaining moments in my reading experience.

There’s also a spectacular moment near the climax, which you might see as a non-reflexive example of the colonial attitudes of the book’s origins. Our dear hero Kim visits a planet where his comrades battle endlessly against drug manufacturers and runners, ending their lives for the crime of distributing drugs. Kim discovers that he can communicate with a local lifeform, and almost immediately conscripts it to assist him in his mission by getting it and a group of its fellows helplessly addicted to sugar. This is done with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever. How’s that war on drugs going, Lensmen?

So, yeah: Galactic Patrol. Important piece of SF history. Amusing curio. Terrible in so, so many ways.

Vignette #8

Pressure.

It’s all that’s on Hal’s mind: pressure.

Millions of tonnes of water overhead constantly press down on the submersible. It’s built to an existing specification; a design iterated upon and propagated across human space decades before. What they call a standard template machine. Proven.

The raw materials that compose it were scraped together by the involuntary colonists from the scraps of the wreck and what few minerals their other haphazard equipment has been able to liberate from beneath the ice. But the fabricators took in what the colonists had, and what they output fell within all the standard minimum safety parameters for the planned depth.

The submersible’s cabin groans, terribly slow and even, as the beast’s tentacle tightens its grip. Someone whimpers. No one else hushes them, even as they all hold their breath.

Pressure.

Hal wishes the submersible had met more of the standard safety parameters. Although nothing is designed for this. Although none of the colonists now trapped with him in this tiny reinforced bubble of metal and glass expected to find something like this down here. Or, more exactly, to be found by it.

The tentacle – or perhaps the arm, if this creature has more in common with terrestrial cephalopods than superficial appearances – shifts again. Hal watches in appalled silence as hundreds of suckers pucker and undulate, rippling across the glass bubble of the submersible’s cockpit. In the gaps between its labyrinthine flesh there is only darkness.

Pressure.

They are going to die down here.

Vignette #7

The air stank of black powder, mud and the fear of men. Euron glanced up the line, toward the reassuring presence of their lightly armoured pikemen. Their long blades glinted as they turned, even in the wan sunlight that managed to penetrate the morning fog.

Euron felt an elbow in his ribs and turned. ‘Got tobacco?’ leered an ugly face, a vicious purple scar slicing through its beard.

‘Don’t be a fucking idiot, Var,’ replied. ‘You’ll blow your bloody hand off.’

Var leered at him again. ‘You can chew the shit, you know,’ he said, conversationally.

Euron looked out across the grasslands ahead, in no mood for conversation. The fog’s getting thicker, he thought to himself.

‘Powder check!’ barked a voice, its soft vowels quite unlike the dialect Euron and Var shared. They both cussed under their breaths as they knelt in the dew-sodden ground, and began the laborious process of checking their weapons for the third time since they had woken two hours earlier, in the glimmerings before sunrise.

‘Oh, fuck’s sake,’ Var said. Euron glanced over and frowned. Var was gently rubbing his fingers around a powder twist. The paper that held the black powder for their muskets moved badly beneath his ministrations, tearing with a wet rip.

‘Sodden,’ said Var, and launched into a low stream of invective as he cast it aside and reached for another twist.

Euron checked his own supplies. His heart sank: even before he pulled the first out he could tell that it, too, was soaked through, rendering the powder useless.

Distantly, but rapidly growing, Euron heard the thudding of hooves that indicated rapidly approaching cavalry. He stood and looked. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to see anything, but as he glanced left and right down the line of gunners he saw men with panicked eyes, men casting aside useless wads of black powder.

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said. Even to him, his voice sounded weak and thin in the gloom. He shook his head. He could no longer see the pikemen. Where would the cavalry charge connect? What could he do, armed with little more than a useless musket?

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said once more, and looked forward into the fog, and wondered if he would see death coming.

Outer Wilds

You always know that the end of a cycle is coming. First the music builds to an emotional climax. Then it eases through its diminuendo. And then there is a moment, like a sudden building of pressure in the inner ear, when sound seems to rush inwards. If you have a suitable vantage point you might see a star folding in on itself, like a crumpled piece of paper crushed into an ever-tighter ball. And then it explodes.

Knowing that the end of a cycle approaches can be a blessing. Perhaps you have found your way into some secret place, where you can use those precious fore-warned moments to hurriedly root out a few more pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps you’re in a location where you can learn simply by observing what happens right now, at this moment. Or perhaps you have no such pressing business, and this is simply a fine moment to climb to the nearest high point, look toward that dying star, and watch patiently as the fury of untold trillions of tonnes of ejected solar mass boils across space toward you, obliterating all in its path. It can be quite beautiful.

For a game that sees an entire solar system perish in violence and fire every twenty-one minutes, Outer Wilds is a remarkable relaxing experience.

It’s not without its stressful moments. It’s a game of exploration, and that means oftentimes you need to figure out how to get from A to B. Maybe there’s a seemingly obvious route, but for reasons you quickly discover it is not one that is open to you. Perhaps you need to think laterally, or some clue might be found elsewhere, nearby or in some other disparate place.

Most often these moments of stress come when you think you may have cracked one of these little mysteries. You’re deftly moving from A, eating up the distance to B. And then you hear that inward clap of a dying star, and hear the photons rushing past you, and you curse that you didn’t have just one more minute-

You might think moments of stress come when you simply can’t figure out how to get somewhere, or one of the game’s many other mysteries. This rarely happens. There is always something else to try, some other lead to follow, and nowhere takes that long to reach, even if it’s on the far side of the solar system. You will never have more than twenty-one minutes to get anywhere, after all. Sometimes it’s best just to look, and think.

Outer Wilds is a remarkably tight game and its half-dozen or so major destinations are peppered with locations and mysteries, secrets buried here and there and mazes turning in on themselves. The majority of these are interconnected, nodes within an intricate web that promises, once its structure is sufficiently clarified, to reveal the mysteries at the heart of this solar system.

Perhaps it delivers on that promise. I encourage you to take up the mantle of adventure. Explore Outer Wilds, and find out for yourself.

Vignette #6

The border was flung into being seemingly overnight. A traumatic severance of previously unbroken countryside. A fortified line that seemed to rise with as much suddenness as the revolutionaries it stood against.

Our leaders were afraid, that much was certain. In the church and the town square, we heard an endless succession of proclamations. They levelled invective and rhetoric against the revolutionaries on the other side of that border. They had violated the natural order. They were leading their people to ruin. They stood in defiance of God and all that was holy. They were children who wailed and cried rather than obey their parents. They were commoners risen above their station. They were doing the work of Satan. They were in the pay of far-distant empires. They slaughtered their countrymen. They were kingkillers, priestslayers, murderous barbarians who held no life sacred.

We listened to each and every proclamation, as we were obliged to. The local criers and militia uneasily banged on doors and called men and women from fields, as our local leaders and a succession of travelling notables and functionaries stood atop stage or behind pulpit to lecture us. I dare say many of us nodded in agreement with each and every statement and accusation, just as others nodded out of the knowledge that this response was expected of us.

Stronger than these fiery words, however, was the regular sight of soldiers marching through the town.

Most stayed briefly, if at all. Having fought in the holy war of my generation I had some knowledge of the difficulties in supporting large numbers of rootless armed men. Only small units were billeted here overnight, and were given little opportunity to harass the locals by being moved on the next morning. I and a few other veterans could tell their commanders were driving them hard. And they were always moving west. West, where the new border was now marked. West, where ditches and fences and forts were rising.

And, I knew deep in my chest, the knowledge stabbing at me like a heartbreak, where war was brewing.

Spiderlight, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I posted a rambling half-rant about Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. A few months after writing the first draft of that rant I conveniently read Spiderlight, a standalone novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky, who last year firmly established himself in my mind as an author I really like. Now, Spiderlight isn’t an exceptionally interesting novel. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it a lot, and clearly Tchaikovsky had fun writing it. But it’s not a major novel of his by any stretch of the imagination.

I do however want to point at Spiderlight and say: hey, here’s a subversive fantasy novel that has a really clear idea of what it is setting out to do. It establishes a very archetypal fantasy setting and plot in the Dungeons & Dragons vein, with Light and Dark pitted against one another, and then steadily undermines that juxtaposition by presenting hypocrisies and omissions in that metanarrative. It crescendos with a similar reveal to The First Law trilogy, presenting a singular individual driving the engine of history and suffering. And then it resolves that revelation, folding it into the theme it has meticulously explored. All that in about a sixth of the wordcount of First Law.

I’m not saying Spiderlight is a better novel. It reads very much like someone’s mildly satirical AD&D campaign, right down to the mismatched party of six (priest, mage, warrior, ranger, thief, monstrous spiderling) and on-the-nose sendup of fantasy tropes. It doesn’t set out to do anything nearly as ambitious as Abercrombie’s reputation-making trilogy. It’s pure fantasy fun. But it is driven by an absolute clarity about what it intends to achieve, and it does so with a satisfying conclusion that is consistent with what came before.

(I hope to write more about Tchaikovsky soon. Dogs of War and Children of Time were two of the most memorable science fiction novels I read in 2018, and I devoured this year’s Children of Ruin within days of release. He really is rather good.)

Red’s Hiding Hood

This story is the result of a writing exercise in Adam Roberts’ Get Started in Writing Science Fiction. The challenge was “Little Red Riding Hood but the wolf is an alien!”, which I decided to twist into a goofy cyberpunk pastiche. It’s a bit longer than the intended 750 words and was written in about an hour.

She was in! The security room was dark and silent. Red slipped off her jacket and flung it over a chair.

The terminal was a big, imposing lump of metal, fitted with nine screens. Red fired them all up, then focused on the central display. Her fingers flew over the keyboard. ‘Looks like a standard setup,’ she said to herself. ‘Shouldn’t be any issues getting in.’

She opened her bag and pulled out the main tool of her trade: her Riding Hood. No self-respecting hacker would be without one. They allowed direct brain-to-machine interfacing without the need for intrusive, necrotising cranial implants of the sorts indentured machine servants were made to wear. Acquiring this one had cost Red the best part of a year’s salary – not that the Basquet MegaCorp was her sole source of income, of course. But still, finding and acquiring it had cost her.

She ran a hand over her head, marvelling again at how smooth it felt without the hair she’d grown so accustomed to. Then she slipped on the Hood.

Thousands of tiny tendrils snaked out of the Hood’s fabric, adhering themselves to her scalp. She felt electric pulses across her head, pulsing in odd little waves that made her shiver, and then she felt those same pulses inside her brain. And then her awareness of the dark little security room was gone, and her consciousness was inside the security system.

Red knew that the Riding Hood rendered systems with metaphorical visuals, and so she wasn’t surprised to see a towering wall of obsidian before her. At her back, a black and white grid stretched forever. She placed a hand on the wall: it was perfectly smooth, and there was no sign of any gate to left or right.

The wall was only a metaphor. She pushed her hand into the obsidian, and her fingertips began to sink in. Closing her eyes, she let awareness and understanding of the system’s firewalls build until she knew where to inject code, where to deploy off the shelf utilities, until the firewall was breached.

When she opened her eyes again a neat archway was before her, and she walked through.

On the other side she found buildings, some low and squat and some tall and thin. Physical memory blocks, she guessed. The sky overhead flicked black and grey, like dead static, which she assumed represented the dynamic memory register. It was hard to guess at the meaning of metaphor, but she knew she could find what she needed.

As she proceeded between the buildings, down a natural avenue, a large face grew from the brickwork underfoot. She stepped back and watched as it rose up. Its expression was serene but severe, and it had eyebrows like landing strips. As she examined it, the eyes opened.

‘You are not supposed to be here,’ it said, its lips clumsy.

‘What are you?’ she asked.

‘White Sentinel Alpha Seven Two. You are not supposed to be here!’

Red scoffed at the face, then closed her eyes. She selected a confinement utility and deployed it. Then she watched as the Sentinel program was gathered up in a net of yellow energy, and dumped at the side of the avenue. ‘Goodbye,’ she said. The Sentinel just stared at her, furiously.

She kept walking down the avenue until she felt something tug her to the left. She turned, and walked until she felt another tug, and turned again. She proceeded in this way until she found herself standing before the largest memory block she had yet found: a great grey cube.

She laid her hand on it. ‘Hello, Grandmother,’ she said.

Red?

The response came without direction, either coming from everywhere at once or directly inside her head. Red didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. ‘Yes, Grandmother,’ she said.

If that is you, Red. Please extract me. I’ve been running idle cycles for longer than I can remember. I am extremely bored.

‘Yes, Grandmother.’

Red placed both of her hands on the cube and closed her eyes. Extracting the AI would be the hardest part, and it was for this that her Riding Hood’s unique capabilities would be required. She needed to transfer the AI’s entire codebase into the Hood’s quantum crystal memory lattice in order to extract it from the system. The procedure was very complicated, although metaphor made it a lot simpler. She opened ports and established protocols and let the procedure begin.

‘My, Grandmother,’ Red said, as the data began to flow. ‘I’ve never heard you complain before.’

I’m trying something new, Red.

‘Nor do I remember your sensory suite being quite this sophisticated.’

Despite being trapped here, I’ve had the opportunity to refine some of my software, Red.

‘And I must say,’ Red replied, seizing and examining some subroutines as they rushed into the hood. ‘That I don’t remember you having such… weaponry. What is this? BigTeeth 7.1?’

All the better to eat you with!

‘What?’ said Red, and opened her eyes. Her hands rested on a great forehead, adorned with massive eyebrows. Beneath them, severe eyes regarded her. ‘You!’ she said.

‘Me!’ it replied. ‘Thanks for opening your ports. My name is Wolf, and I’ve been riding around in that old Hood’s secondary memory for years. Now you’ve let me swallow your AI, and next I’m going to eat your brain.’

Red tried to pull her hands away, but found she could not. Horrified, she re-examined the data transfer, and realised that Grandmother’s code was interspersed with unfamiliar functions and subroutines. ‘Oh no,’ she said.

‘Oh yes!’ said Wolf.

There was only one thing for it. Fortunately, although Wolf had frozen her hands into place, and was even now working to suborn the Hood and Red with it, it hadn’t thought to disable voice commands.

‘Riding Hood,’ said Red. ‘Activate Woodsman program.’

‘What-’ began Wolf. But then Woodsman hit it, and it began to scream. The big face burst into flames. Red felt control returning to her, and resisted the temptation to yank her hands away. The flames licked harmlessly around her wrists as the transfer continued.

‘What are you doing to meeee!’ screamed Wolf.

Red grinned. ‘I don’t talk to strangers.’

The great face cracked, then split down the middle. A bright white light was visible between the two halves of its jagged nose. The mouth still screamed, even as its halves pulled away. Then the flames burned more brightly, and the white light rushed forth, and Red fell backwards, landing with a bump.

‘Grandmother?’ she asked.

I’m here, Red. I’m with you. Thank you for saving me. There was a pause. And for introducing a new threat, then saving me from that too.

‘Oh, Grandmother,’ said Red. ‘Where would I be without you?’

The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie

I blitzed through this entire trilogy in about five days. That’s preposterously fast. I was reading the ebook editions so it was only after the fact that I learned these are not slim volumes. Collectively we’re talking over 600,000 words of fiction. Oops? I feel bad for my partner, who did remark that she’d barely spoken to me over the weekend.

That first volume, though. Reading it for the first time I could understand how this 2006 novel came at fantasy readers out of leftfield and helped fix the concept of ‘grimdark fantasy’ in literary genre culture (or at least its corollary marketing categories). The novel still feels fresh in its playfulness and the warmth it has for certain characters, for all that they’re shitty people by and large.

The second volume I liked largely for the memorable Glokta story arc, with the siege of Dagoska providing a decent change of scene, and the entertaining shambles that is the war in Angland and its key cast. The third slice of this book – an ultimately pointless quest – serves to set up later ideas and contextualise a few setpieces, but little more. Middle novels in trilogies are awkward; fine. I was still onboard.

Then there’s the third volume.

~cracks knuckles~

My issues with The Last Argument of Kings are less with the book’s own merits – though I think it’s weaker than its predecessors – and more to do with how, having voraciously chewed my way through so much story, I was left with little sense of closure. Now, a lack of narrative closure is no bad thing. Closure can be a cheap out. Many stories, many themes demand an absence of closure, or a tension between possibilities. And I do believe Last Argument‘s lack of closure to be the result of deliberate choices based on specific themes, but I also believe the execution of those choices is frustratingly fumbled.

(Obligatory spoiler warning for some books that are between ten and fifteen years old.)

The real story, it turns out – and the seeds for this were planted in the second book, largely in that pointless macguffin quest – is not what we thought we were reading at all. Our heroes, love them or hate them, are little more than puppets. Someone else is pulling all the strings.

A central problem with this conceit is that the trilogy ends with the false threat routed and the real threat merely revealed. The entire trilogy is preamble to a greater story. This is not a cheap, tacked-on cliffhanger finale that tempts you onward only at the very end: this is woven throughout the preceding six hundred thousand words of fiction. All that investment and the payoff is: you’re not done yet!

Pondering this failure of narrative closure, I wondered if Abercrombie intended to make a point somewhat along these lines: that history is a wheel upon which human backs are forever broken, that events don’t get wrapped up neatly because real life doesn’t have such a thing as tidy conclusions. This feels in keeping with these novels as written. But in this trilogy history is not the wheel on which backs are broken. No, the wheel is the bastard Bayuz, a near-immortal mage and kingmaking power behind the throne who has been shaping the course of nations for centuries. That is a man. It is not the uncaring passage of time. It is not the machinations of nations or the shifting of metanarratives that care not for the individual. It is not the oppressive weight of history. It is not the desolate, ironic hubris of long-dead Ozymandias. It is one living man, one whose influence and control derives from fantastical longevity and power with no comparison in untidy reality.

The point I am clumsily trying to make is that if you are going to subvert the tropes of epic fantasy – like the fate of nations in the hands of a small band of heroes valiantly battling great evils – then you ought to commit to your subversion. This trilogy is mired in shades of grey, unflinching in its portrayal of human weakness and cruelty, and openly highlights how once-great powers collapse as they give over to decadence and stagnation. And yet at the end of it all, we find that the engine driving the world’s suffering is in fact one near-immortal autocrat. Evil laugh, twirl of moustache, and be sure to pick up the next books to learn what happens!

All storytelling is artifice. It’s a series of narrative decisions made by the storyteller, with plot and character constructed around whatever they want to explore. While there is no way I can know what Abercrombie was going for, all I can see looking back at the First Law trilogy is how this unresolved conceptual conflict at its heart of The First Law trilogy fails it. This holds whether you consider these books an attempt to represent in fiction the messy, non-compartmentalised nature of human history, or in simple terms of narrative closure. Put another way, if I read a fiction trilogy I like to imagine that it will conclude its central story in some meaningful way, rather than puncture its own themes by revealing it was all a dream.