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.

Thimbleweed Park

Earlier this year I finally dug Thimbleweed Park from my bottomless bag of acquired and unplayed videogames. For those unfamiliar, this is the crowdfunded traditionalist point-and-click adventure game from Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the duo who co-designed Maniac Mansion many years ago.

I found Thimbleweed Park a mixed bag. Jokes ranged from mildly amusing to flat; the setting a mixture of try-hard zany and odd, fun little ideas; characters were similarly variable. But I did enjoy some of the puzzles and it was a nice, sedate game to play over the holidays. Reviews I’ve read suggest the game’s plot coheres and its characters come to life as you move beyond the first act, so I’m optimistic I will return to it one day.

When I found the extensive library in the game’s own maniac mansion, I was reminded that I had written and submitted some books for inclusion a few years ago. And after a quarter of an hour of very old-school pixel-hunting, I’m pleased to say I’ve found all five. So here they are!

Cover of 'The Caverns of Coraxis', by Ian Weirdstone
'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
Cover of 'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
'The Thimble: A History', by Frenzel Thomb
‘The Thimble: A History’, by Frenzel Thomb

'Red Justice', by Thomas Fancy
‘Red Justice’, by Thomas Fancy

'Collected Reviews 1986-1987', by Harold Ford III
‘Collected Reviews 1986-1987’, by Harold Ford III

NEO Scavenger

Blue Bottle Games’ NEO Scavenger is predominantly the work of Daniel Fedor, an ex-Bioware technical artist and occasional designer/producer. BBG’s mission statement, “video games for players who enjoyed pen and paper role-playing games and want to have those experiences on the computer”, is a decent conceptual starting point for what it has to offer. NEO Scavenger features some fairly deep and complex systems, and the first few times I tried to play it I bounced right off, alienated by its rough UI and lack of hand-holding.

More recently my perseverance paid off. And I discovered that like many pen and paper role-playing games, NEO Scavenger is a great vehicle for generating memorable stories.

The rough theme and concept is this: you wake up in a cryogenic facility and very quickly discover that the world outside is in a bad way. Basic necessities – shelter, food, water – are hard to come by, and it’s not impossible that your first game will end with your character dying of hypothermia dressed only in a flimsy hospital gown. But if you utilise the skills available to you, and manage to scavenge enough gear and resources to attend to your immediate needs, you’ll find yourself with the freedom and flexibility to find whole new ways to die.

It’s a brutal game. My first recent attempt was probably my most successful. I found a child’s backpack, a meat cleaver, a sleeping bag and lots of warm clothing, which combined with my foraging skills (which enabled me to locate non-poisonous berries and mushrooms in the wilds) left me a sense that I was flourishing. Thus emboldened I walked eastwards, towards the horizon-brightening glow that marks Detroit, and found a shopping trolley. This qualifies as a vehicle, and meant I could carry even more stuff. Fantastic! Minutes later I was bum-rushed by a pair of dogmen, fast and dangerous enemies attracted by the noise of my rattling metal contraption. My attempts to ditch the trolley and flee, then hide, failed. Without much effort one of the dogmen left me bleeding out.

On my next attempt I picked a different set of skills and set out to the north. I was attacked by a few wild dogs in succession, but it turns out that them’s good eatin’. I also found a set of binoculars and discovered the joys of extra tile visibility. Unfortunately, as I’d not taken the ‘Tough’ skill I was less resistant to the kinds of things that flourish in non-sterilised water. It wasn’t a pretty death, and that’s in the context of “recently eviscerated by dogmen”.

I’ve taken a little break from NEO Scavenger but I’ll be going back to it. I’m sure there are many more stories to experience, and perhaps one day I’ll even make it to what’s left of Detroit. Where, no doubt, there will be even more exciting ways to die. Other fans of emergent storytelling should try this game too, if only to experience a confused sense of joy upon finding an old plastic bag.

Vignette #5

I woke one morning to find the world had changed. 

‘War,’ said my grandfather, as I walked into the kitchen. His face, already lined and thin, pinched from years of peering down at his workdesk, was grave. 

‘What?’ I said. My heart began to race. Naive as I was then, I asked myself: who would war with tiny, insignificant Ruritania? Who stood to gain from swallowing up a country of peasants and guildmen, ruled over by merchants? We traded with our neighbours, imported and exported goods from far and wide. We were friends with everyone. Or so, like any teenage fool assured in his view of the world, I believed. 

‘War,’ said my mother. ‘Communitaria and Feuditaria. It’s all the city can talk about this morning.’ My heart skipped a beat, steadied itself, then began to race anew. 

Over a breakfast of bread and eggs I learned what my family knew. Our two large neighbours, whose bulk compressed Ruritania into the narrow peninsula from which our trade ships sailed forth, had gone to war. Talks, it was said, had broken down, as talks so often do. Feuditaria demanded that the deposed Emperor and Princelings of Communitaria be reinstated, and Communitaria demanded that Feuditaria return the land and people it had annexed during those vulnerable years of upheaval. 

The headsmen of Ruritania, who lead and championed our guilds, were saying that these demands were always mere shadow-boxing. Our neighbours were helplessly opposed and both knew it. Fair enough, I thought, although they hadn’t been saying that in the weeks before. Now, everyone seemed to know that Feuditaria regarded Communitaria’s very existence as a threat. Meanwhile, Communitaria didn’t so much want its lost land returned as to ultimately see Feuditaria’s own leadership removed in a repeat performance of its own creation. 

The truth of Communitaria escaped me, the whole idea of the place being so alien to me, but I certainly found the stories of executed headsmen and aristocrats, families chased from their ancestral houses, sickening. So I had to admit that the idea of Ruritania being bordered by two Communitarias was perfectly terrifying. My father was second only to our guild’s headsman, and I didn’t like to imagine him killed, or my family run out of our small but comfortable home. I’d heard stories, too, of the hardship of life in this strange new country. Although, I had to admit to myself, the past years here in Ruritania had been hard, and our family had all witnessed my father’s hair grow greyer. 

Still. War! I hadn’t thought it would come to war. Communitaria’s birth had been violent, by most accounts, but that was ten years before. As a child I remembered that everyone said it would all blow over soon enough and the Emperor would be restored, but then the fighting was over with the Emperor dead and his foes victorious. The merchants who traded the goods of our guilds, the very same who had clamoured for the Emperor’s restoration, cautiously reopened the old trade routes as soon as the violence had ended. 

My grandfather had been a child himself when last there was true war; when Feuditaria had been Archaetania, and had split asunder at the death of its heirless King, and the War of the Bastards raged briefly and violently. It had ended with victory for Good King Aerik, who ruled over a country reunited and expanded. Woodprints of the War of the Bastards were among my most treasured possessions, and I had admired since I was a young child their images of tall knights on muscled warhorses, armoured and utterly fearless, and the stories of valour that my teachers would share with me. 

As a young man undergoing guild-training and being exposed to the wider world I knew, on some level, that war was not such a glorious thing after all, but some part of me still cherished those daydreams of chivalry and noble victories against terrible odds. I wondered what forces Communitaria would muster against Feuditaria’s knights. Would the killers of Princes field noble knights in war? Could they? Perhaps not, and perhaps that meant the war would end with the proper order of things restored. 

I still remember how I was excited by the idea of war — nearby but comfortably distant. I knew it wouldn’t touch us, and that life in Ruritania would carry on much as it always had. I was, as we have all since learned, a fool.