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.