The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

25 May 2015

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Try to summarise The Sirens of Titan with any sort of brevity and it always sounds like you’re writing a mad lib.

Here, try it for yourself:

A _____ (adjective) man went to _____ (place) with his _____ (noun) and on the way he _____ (verb) into a _____ (noun).

If you entered the words “rich”, “Mars”, “dog”, “crashed” and “chrono-synclastic infundibulum” into the spaces above then congratulations, you’ve either read this book already or you’re just as bonkers as Vonnegut.

The rich man from the above mad lib is Winston Niles Rumfoord, a well-educated New England gentleman whose collision with the space anomaly known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum has left him scattered across time and space. To all intents and purposes, he is now immortal and borderline omniscient.

Once a month, when the anomaly lines up with the Earth, he materialises in his old home for one hour. There he brings predictions of the future as well as dire warnings that will, in time, lead to the seeds of a whole new religion.  Predictably, he is a huge celebrity.

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

“The crowd, having been promised nothing, felt cheated, having received nothing.”

During one of his visits, Rumfoord asks to speak with Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world. Constant is the exact antithesis of Rumfoord. He is arrogant, lazy, utterly without talent. His father amassed his fortune almost entirely by accident and since his death Constant has done nothing to further his lot in life. Constant is therefore shocked to hear Rumfoord’s prediction that one day not only will he travel to Mars, Mercury and Titan in turn but that he will fall in love with and have a child by Rumfoord’s very own wife before becoming the head of his very own religion.

As you might expect, Constant is horrified by this prediction of the future and so he immediately embarks on a mission to do everything in his power to make sure these predictions don’t come to pass. Naturally, this only serves to guarantee that they do.

Thus begins a whirlwind mad lib of a tale that takes Malachi Constant half way across the solar system. On Mars he is recruited into an army that is planning to invade the Earth. His identity is stripped away from him, he loses his memories and he has an antenna planted in his head that rids him of independent thought. Just as he is starting to rediscover who he is, Mars goes to war with the Earth. Constant travels with the invasion fleet only for his ship to malfunction along the way.

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin -- one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

“The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the center post of the cabin — one labeled on and one labeled off. The on button simply started a flight from Mars. The off button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental-health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”

He ends up marooned on Mercury. In the midst of all of this he has (non-consensual) sex with Mrs. Rumfoord and impregnates her. Then he returns to Earth only to find himself the central focus of an entirely new religion built in reaction to his life of hedonism and excess… And on and on it goes for 300 pages.

Quite honestly, trying to explain all of the things that happen in this book in any sort of concise manner is exhausting. It feels like Vonnegut just vomited a bunch of ideas onto the page and then joined the dots between them in a way that vaguely made sense*.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

The crazy thing, however, is that the book isn’t really about any of those things. Sure, a lot of stuff happens: a war between Mars and Earth; a new religion popping up based on how much God doesn’t care about us; a redemption arc as a man with no memory of who he is tries to reconnect with a family he has never met just to prove his humanity; but the further the book goes, the more unimportant these events seem in the grand scheme of things.

Just like how a mad lib isn’t really about the wacky stories you create but rather the fun you can have coming up with the most nonsensical sentences possible, so the Sirens of Titan isn’t about the events that happen but rather the underlying point of it all. Which is no point. Vonnegut’s universe is a godless one, devoid of meaning and ruled by nothing but anarchy. It’s a typical hallmark of a Vonnegut novel.

That said, the Sirens of Titan lacks the same focus of some of Vonnegut’s more famous works. You don’t find the same personal angle here that you do when reading something like Slaughterhouse 5. Likewise, there isn’t the same ironic humour you get in something like Cat’s Cradle, as of someone recognising how stupid the universe is and just having a good old laugh at its expense. Instead this book hovers somewhere between, like a meandering treaty of Vonnegut’s personal philosophy interjected with moments of gallows humour. It’s fun while you’re reading it but for me personally, it didn’t have the same long-term impact as some of his other classics.

the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-505742c4e0b71

“Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews from people who say this book helped inspire Douglas Adams to write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (one of my favourite books of all time). They say you can really tell this is the case due to the random nature of the plot and the high propensity for funny happenings in both books.

Although I can see where these reviewers are coming from I have to admit I never had this impression while reading it myself. Despite the fact that Douglas Adams was every bit the atheist that Vonnegut was, his books always struck me as approaching the issue from the opposite end. His stories are filled with a sense of childish awe at the universe around him. The crazy events happening to his characters serve as a kind of celebration for how beautifully unpredictable life the universe and everything can be.

Vonnegut, on the other hand, writes to the other extreme. Empty, pointless, depressed, anarchic: The Sirens of Titan feels like a book written by someone who is desperately trying to understand the things he sees around himself and instead finds nothing but white noise and nonsense. He laughs at this fact and points out its absurdity but behind the witty lines is a man whose heart is breaking.

The Sirens of Titan was Vonnegut’s second book and it shows. As much as I wanted to love it, I have to admit I’ve never felt so depressed reading the great man’s work as I did when reading this book. The futility of war, the absence of God, the pointlessness of religion: these are all themes Vonnegut will revisit in other books far more successfully than he does here.

Just like a mad lib that doesn’t quite work, I think Vonnegut needs to go back to the drawing board and have another attempt at filling in those blanks.

MadLibs-cropped

*And, weirdly enough, that’s exactly that he did. According to Vonnegut’s friend, Harvard Crimson, Vonnegut “put together the whole of The Sirens of Titan […] in one night […] He was at a party where someone told him he ought to write another novel. So they went into the next room where he just verbally pieced together this book from the things that were around in his mind.”


Bits and bobs

16 May 2015

No time for a proper post this week so I thought I’d update you all on what’s going on this end.

First of all, I’m in a book!

It's a thing of beauty

It’s a thing of beauty

Not one of my own books sadly but one written by my former director Terence Clark-Ward. It’s called “I can Sing in English“. The aim of the book is to teach young children how to speak English through the use of songs and repetition. Admittedly it’s not a very new idea, but the core concept in this book is that all of the songs are based around just 25 key words. These words, according to research recently conducted by Professor Leslie Rescoria from the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College, USA, are the first 25 words that a child will learn in English if English is their mother tongue. This means that if a Polish child can master these same 25 words, they will have the equivalent vocabulary of an average 2 year old English child. That right there is a very persuasive argument for loosening any parent’s purse strings!

I appear on the CD as one of the lead vocalists. And yes, before you ask, I can sing. In English.

Here's a pic of me in the recording studio looking all singery and professional and stuff.

Here’s a pic of me in the recording studio looking all singery and professional and stuff. This is actually the second book of Terry’s that I have been a part of. The first was Zegnajcie Bledy all the way back in 2010

And finally, an update on the house.

Courtesy of a month of back-breaking labour, our garden is now (finally) weed free and neatly raked over ready for grass seeding.

Not a weed in sight

Not a weed in sight

We also have a vegetable patch complete with strawberries, potatoes, rosemary and onions. We did have some basil planted as well but the slugs attacked and killed it in less than a week. We’ve since swapped the basil out for mint and so far the slugs are leaving it well alone. So at the very least it’s nice to see they are fussy eaters. God knows there isn’t much vegetation left for hungry slugs to choose between in our garden, hence the impenetrable wall of loose stones that we ferreted out from around the garden to keep them at bay. (Un)fortunately our garden has no shortage of stones in its soil.

One day all of this will be in my stomach

One day all of this will be in my stomach

Our upstairs bedrooms now all have floorboards and the beginnings of a skirting board (although this will need neatening up as we are not happy with it at present).

Once all the furniture is in place, this room will look very different

Once all the furniture is in place, this room will look very different

The downstairs bathroom is a complete mess but at least we have a plan for it (more or less).

The bathroom. Minus the bath. And the toilet. And, in fact, anything

The bathroom. Minus the bath. And the toilet. And anything at all for that matter

Next week we’ll be getting a fireplace and exterior blinds. I’ll post pictures of that when I have them.

And finally, a last bit of news. Hard to believe but it’s now been over a year since I’ve been working for Credit Suisse. Yes, strange to say I am no longer the wide-eyed innocent that I was when I first stepped foot within these hallowed hallways. Next week I sign my full-time, non-probationary contract, and that is a very good thing.

That’s all for now. Expect the next proper post any day now.


Game review: Captain Toad Treasure Tracker

8 May 2015

captain_toad_european_box_artSpin offs: they are everywhere these days.

On TV, you have hugely popular shows like Breaking Bad spinning off into Better Call Saul, or award-winning shows like Battlestar Galactica spinning off into the woefully awful and instantly cancelled Caprica. In literature, A Song of Ice and Fire begot the the less popular though equally good Dunk and Egg short stories, while the Harry Potter series has spun off into multiple side books such as Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them. In Movies, Star Wars has had so many spin offs by this point it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Almost without exception* these spins offs are rarely anywhere near as popular or iconic as the media that spawned them.

And so, too, is this the case with video games.

Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is a spin off from the extremely popular and award winning Super Mario 3D World. It’s essentially an entire game made up of the small Captain Toad levels found within its parent game. Each of the games 70 worlds is a compact maze-like structure which has you using your brain to track down hidden gems and collect the power star at the end.

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

The levels in Captain Toad are very small and compact

Unlike uncle Mario, Captain Toad is unable to jump meaning he must rely on his puzzle solving wits to get through each level. This change, while sounding relatively minor on paper, has a huge impact on the way the game is structured and its levels designed. Gone are the time limits of the mainline Mario games. Gone are the hub worlds and sweeping 3D vistas. Instead the game focuses on very compact, localized challenges, each of which is over very quickly. It is not designed for long play sessions.

Even if this type of slow puzzle platforming isn’t your cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer quality of level design on display here. This is a very well put together game. The way you manipulate the height of platforms or transform the stage in order to move around reminds me of something out of a Zelda game, only played out on a smaller and more easily manipulated scale. This is definitely a good thing.

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad's touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

The pink blocks in this level can be moved around using the Game pad’s touch screen. This adds an extra level of interactivity not usually associated with a Mario game

Not to mention it’s gorgeous. It’s like playing a Pixar movie.

Of particular joy for me is the complete freedom you have over the in-game camera. Gone are the forced camera angles or over-the-shoulder perspectives of other 3D platformers. In this game, the camera points exactly where you want it, whenever you want it, which is a huge help in tracking down some of the trickier gem stones. However, one thing to note is that for some inexplicable reason Nintendo decided to map the camera controls to the game pad’s internal gyroscope, a feature which sadly can’t be deactivated. This can lead to unfortunate moments mid-game where you suddenly die simply because you shifted your grip on the controller slightly and the game interpreted this as you wanting to move the camera.

To say it’s frustrating when this happens is an understatement.

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on a pinball machine

Some of the levels are extremely creative: like this one based on the inside of a pinball machine

The levels are a bit on the short side, however there is a strong incentive to replay them. Not only are there three hidden gems located inside each level, but there is also an extra bonus challenge which only becomes visible once you’ve play through a level once (although it can still be completed prior to this point). For added challenge, the game is compatible with the Toad Amiibo from the Mario Party line. Tapping the Toad Amiibo to the game pad unlocks a special mode which tasks you with tracking down an 8-bit Toad hidden within each level. For those who enjoy replaying their games, this one certainly gives you a reason to come back for more.

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Some of my favourite levels are the ones where you need to toss turnips at enemies from the back of an out of control mine kart

Just like in any good Mario spin off, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker is packed full of items and power ups to help you in your quest. Returning from 3D World is the double cherry, which allows Toad to split off into multiple copies of himself. Also returning from Super Mario Bros. 2 are turnips, which can be plucked from the ground and thrown at enemies to kill them. There are also pick axes, complete with Donkey Kong arcade sound effects, which allow you to smash through blocks standing in your way to access other parts of the level. It’s a lot of fun.

Captain Toad for Smash!

Captain Toad for Smash!

On the other side of the coin, however, is the elephant in the room. The game is very short. Don’t let the glowing praise above fool you: this is a budget title and a spin off and it plays exactly like one would expect from both of these. A dedicated gamer could complete this game in less than 10 hours. There are only two bosses in the whole game and most of the post-game content, although plentiful, is made up of remixed versions of levels found within the main game. Couple this with the rehashed music and assets liberally stolen from Super Mario 3D World and you can see why the game was so stealthily launched by Nintendo over Christmas without any sort of fanfare and one of the softest launch dates I’ve ever seen for a mainline retail release.

Overall – C

cIt’s no secret by now that the Wii U is a struggling console. Nintendo lacks the third party support needed for regular game releases and this has lead to  droughts in the console’s software lineup over the last 2 years. Nintendo has clearly found it hard to make up for that software shortage on its own and so games like Captain Toad Treasure Tracker are developed: cheap and easy to produce budget titles that artificially plump out the release schedule during the vital Christmas months.

It’s not that the game feels rushed exactly (this is Nintendo we are talking about, after all, and there’s a reason they are so renowned in the industry for the polish they put into their games) but it does feel uninspired.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, this game is a spin off and it feels like one. Playing this game for longer than a few minutes just makes me wish I were playing Super Mario 3D World instead. After all, that game is clearly the superior one. And hey, it has Captain Toad levels included in it for free!

If you haven’t bought Super Mario 3D World yet, go get it now. Afterwards, if you are still hungry for more, then – and only then – consider giving Captain Toad a whirl. He might be “Ready for adventure!” but ready for Nintendo AAA treatment he is not.

* That exception being the hit comedy Frazier which was a far better written and more impactful series than its parent show Cheers ever was.


Short story: The Girl who Cried Glass (Before)

27 April 2015

crystalsRecently I shared with you an old story which I pulled back from the grave to submit for a writing competition.

It seemed to go down pretty well around here so, one month later, I’ve decided to try the same thing again this time with another of the many old stories cluttering up my hard drive.

The Girl Who Cried Glass was originally written during one of my more pretentious writing phases. It was right around that time when I was finishing university and it co-coincided with an increased level of confidence in my abilities that never quite matched my actual talent. The story is typical of my work at the time: over-sentimental, devoid of plot, and too in love with the sound of its own voice to bother saying anything worthwhile. All in all, a complete mess.

Click here to read The Girl who Cried Glass (PDF)

computer-human6

The story itself is a science fiction tale about a woman who is part computer, part human. Like all so-called Metapaths, she has been designed to act as a kind of human-computer interface that allows for far more efficient computer-human interactions than is possible with a mouse and keyboard alone. Thanks to her literally being able to think in hexadecimal code, Metapaths like her are able to give extremely clean and coherent commands to a computer. And, in turn, because of her human appearance and her ability to hold a conversation, she is able to better explain and analyze any output far more easily than a computer can. Win-win all round.

The hero of the story finds herself neither human or machine. Like any human she longs to find a purpose to her life. Like any machine she longs for order. Instead all she gets are sexual advances from older men who just want to use her as bragging rights as the latest technological gadget.

If all of this sounds very familiar to long-time readers then I’m not surprised: it’s an idea I literally stole from myself for use in the Arkship Ulysses.

Do I feel bad about stealing from myself? Not really. As you can see for yourself, The Girl who Cried Glass is a crap story with an even worse name. However, I do feel there is a good idea buried in there somewhere which I’d like to explore in more detail. For one thing, a shift to the third person would better emphasize the main character’s lack of identity. Getting rid of the flashback portion of the story would help even out the flow of the story and developing the dialogue between the two characters in the restaurant at the beginning would better help flesh out a story which is (ironically) in need of humanization.

All of which means completely rewriting this story from scratch. As always I’ll post back the results here when I’m done.

Oh and a final note on the title for this story: The Girl who Cried Glass was the name of a documentary by the same name which was on TV at about the same time I originally wrote this story (I did look for the documentary again before posting but it looks as though it hasn’t been uploaded yet. However, a shorter video about the same girl can be found here). I have no idea why I used this documentary as the title for my story. I guess it just goes to show the mindset I was in at the time.

As always comments and criticism are welcome.


Game reviews: Lego City Undercover

24 April 2015

lego_city_undercover_boxartLego games are everywhere these days. It seems as though not a single movie release has gone by in recent memory without the talented folks over at TT games immediately parodying it in brick form. There are yearly releases on everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter, There’s even a new Toys to Life concept due out this year which looks to further cash in on the seemingly inexhaustible well of popularity that is the whole Skylanders / Disney Infinity thing.

Believe it or not but by the third anniversary of the Wii U’s launch (November this year) there will be 9 distinct Lego games available for the system. That’s a bigger chunk of the console’s library than there are games with Mario in the title (7). Hell it single handedly accounts for most of the third party software coming to the Wii U this year (a fact which says more about the death of games coming to the Wii U than it does about the quality of Lego games I feel).

Whichever way you chose to cut it, suffice to say that TT games have a winning formula on their hands with this Lego series. And they know it.

A game so formulaic it practicly builds itself

A game so formulaic it practically builds itself?

So here we have Lego City Undercover: an exclusive game made for a console which is crying out for original third party content. A big, well crafted 40+ hour game on a console derided for how much shovelware and minigame collections it has. A game that uses the Wii U game pad to its full, when so many games are lambasted for failing to do so. It’s like grand theft auto for kids, the marketing spiel goes so I though why the hell not? I’ve never played a GTA game before, let’s see what this entry-level version of one has to offer.

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised.

At its core, the game play of Lego City Undercover can be summed up thusly. You are a cop who, in his whimsical and occasionally absurd hunt to track down arch-nemesis Rex Fury, must go undercover within the dark criminal underbelly of Lego City. Along the way, he collects new costumes which in turn grant him specific abilities he can use on the fly. The fireman costume, for example, allows you to break down doors, put out fires (duh) and rescue cats with help of a pocket-sized fish. The farmer costume allows you to make plants sprout into climbable platforms, glide slowly through the air suspended from a chicken and fire pigs out of cannons (no really). And so on. There are 8 costumes in total and you will need to use them all in various combination in order to progress through the game.

Because it's not

Because it’s not based on just one movie franchise like some of the other Lego games, Lego City Undercover has license to reference everything from Mission Impossible to Shawshank Redemption. The game is packed full of amusing one-liners and movie in jokes. Like Barry Smith (pictured here): 24 hour plumber and kung fu guru, who is clearly a send up of Morpheus from the Matrix

The Wii U game pad is used mainly as a map, but at certain points during your investigation you will be asked to hold it up in front of the TV and use it as a scanner to locate hidden items and spot criminals. It’s the perfect sort of game pad implementation: simple but effective. It serves a useful function but if you chose to ignore it the game can still be easily beaten without it.

The game pad is well used in this game

The game pad is used well in this game

Now it should be stressed that Lego City itself is huge. There is so much to see and do in the open world section of the game, it’s almost overwhelming. The bulk of your time playing, however, will be spent working through the game’s story missions on the hunt for Rex Fury. There are 15 missions in total, none of which are particularly difficult but all of which present you with simple puzzles to solve. There is combat and death, yes, but for the most part the challenge arrises from puzzling out where to go next and how best to use the abilities you’ve earned to gain to the next area.

Playing through just the main story missions will take you around 20 hours. However, once you finish the game you’ll be surprised to see that your completion percentage is barely more than 20%. That’s because there is an insane amount of content in this game. Every inch of the gigantic city is littered with secrets and collectables. There are so many hidden characters and items dotted around the city waiting for you to stumble upon them that you will easily spend upwards of 100 hours finding them all if 100% completion is your thing.

There are hundreds of characters and vehicles to unlock in this game. It’s slightly overwhelming

However, if I can level one complaint against the game it’s this: a lot of the item hunting feels like busy work. Yes there are a lot of things to do in this game but there’s relatively little impetus to do those things. It’s true that you can have fun just wondering around the city, just like in any open world game, but the fun of exploration soon wears off into a dull frustration that you’ve been exploring the same city district for two hours and you’ve only got a single hidden character to show for it. The same handful of missions repeat over and over again. Arrest a gang of hoodlums, stop a stolen vehicle, steal a vehicle yourself, race a vehicle, capture an alien and so on… Over and over again.

Its a minor nitpick, sure. After all, I would rather a game have too much content than too little but for people who are keen on 100% completing the games they play, like myself, you’ll quickly find that the humour and sheer fun of the first few hours of play quickly gives way to boredom.

It's child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

It’s child-friendly puzzle solving. Challenging, but never frustrating

Also an issue are the insanely long loading times in this game. As previously mentioned, Lego City is a big place and this shows when booting the game up. One minute load screens are common in this game, which is both extremely frustrating and also unacceptable in this day and age.

Minor niggles asside, however, Lego City Undercover is a good game. The game is challenging, but by no means hard. The music is simple but appropriate. The presentation clean and colourful. It’s nothing to wow you but then again what more can you expect from a game based around Lego bricks? There are a few glitches here and there, like falling out of bounds or getting stuck somewhere I shouldn’t be but that’s pretty normal for any open world game and at least this one has the decency to be charming about it when it happens.

You will have a lot of fun trying to collect everything in the game

The game takes you to some pretty unusual locations

Overall: B

bOverall Lego City Undercover is exactly the sort of game that it needs to be: a giant open world sandbox that you can play any way you want to. The story is fun, its gameplay is simple and overall it does everything with a lot of style and aplomb.

I don’t know if this sort of experience is typical of a Lego game, but if it is I can see why this formula has become such a successful one for TT games. Its as well constructed as the bricks of its namesake. If you’re looking for a funny, enjoyable distraction you can’t go far wrong.


Short story: Demon Hunter

17 April 2015

6a00d8341bf67c53ef0148c80f2a13970c-500wiSome of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet around here lately.

Mostly that’s due to me being bed-bound for a week back in March with a bad back. And mind you, when I say ‘a bad back’ I don’t mean that it was aching a little like as though I’d been lifting heavy weights. No, this was a whole new level of badness. I’m talking not being able to stand bad. I’m talking stabbing pains all across my lumbar region bad. I’m talking shuffling around like an old man everywhere bad… Yeah, it wasn’t much fun. Then my mother was over for Easter, which erased another week and all the rest of my free time has been eaten up by the new house, which I’m pleased to say now has paint on its walls and wood on its floors and a garden that is almost entirely weed free.

But never let it be said I’m one to idly lie by because I was able to get a new short story finished during this time and sent off to an anthology for submission. Which is nice.

Click here to read a sample of Demon Hunter (PDF)

Which anthology, I hear you ask? This one. It’s all about hunting monsters of the big and scary variety. Think Godzilla stalked by Elmer Fudd and you’ll be somewhere along the right lines.

Shhh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I'm hunting monsters!

Shhh! Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I’m hunting monsters!

My own entry for this anthology is a rather strange tail about an exorcist from the Catholic church who roams the galaxy looking for demons to kill. Except that this demon is a giant ball of corrupted flesh and this priest uses science and bullets to kill its prey rather than prayers and holy water.

It’s a silly concept, I know. But it’s nice to let yourself go once in a while and just write whatever nonsense comes into your head. And like with a lot of my stuff these days, the idea for this story is an old one. I’ve mentioned before that Warhammer was a big inspiration for me during my formative writing years. It helped me develop my world building skills. For all the hackery of the 40k universe (and the double hackery of its gameplay) Warhammer has some of the most detailed and interesting fluff of any fictional shared universe I’ve come across. There are some really interesting concepts in the 40k universe and lots of them ripe for exploring further in other media.

The 40k universe: damn does it do super sillyness with style

The 40k universe: damn does it do super silliness with style

One of the most intriguing ideas from this universe is the idea of the ‘warp space’. It’s how the humans in the Warhammer universe travel from planet to planet. The ‘warp’ is basically another dimension which (to oversimplify things) is literally the physical amalgamation of all the combined thoughts of every sentient life form in the universe. Traveling through the warp is extremely dangerous. Not only are there frequent storms that tear ships apart and scatter them across space and time at a whim, but it’s also home to the deamons who are creatures literally born out of our darker thoughts. Most humans go mad trying to navigate their way through it. Many others become possessed by the deamons who live there. But everyone agrees the benefits of being able to travel across the universe so quickly far outweigh the few negatives and occasional mass infestations that might occur along the way.

Like Nurgle here

Some awesome 40k art taken from http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Nurgle

This concept was one I basically stole hook, line and sinker for my story Demon Hunter, although, in my defense, I did try to make my demon a little more science-y and less all-out evil. My descriptions of the demon were inspired by China Mieville’s short story Familiar in which a tiny magical creature slowly grows into a monster by assimilating into itself the everyday things it stumbles across. I remember finding the story creepy as all hell when I read it about 10 years ago and something about the imagery has stuck with me ever since.

Anyway I hope you like it. It’s a silly story and far from my best work but sometimes it’s nice to let yourself indulge in your wilder fantasies now and again.

Oh and one last note on the priest’s name: Father Asakite. It comes from a very old joke I used to share with my best friend. He once told me that if he ever became famous he would change his name to Asakite. That way, whenever someone saw him in the street they would say “Hi Asakite!”. There was also Denseek (“Hi Denseek!”) and Hosilver (“Hi Hosilver!”) but they were never as funny for some reason.

Anyway, as always feedback is welcomed.


The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

9 March 2015

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

lathe-of-heaven‘What if?’ It’s a question that lies at the heart of almost all SF.

‘What if’ the world’s population were spiraling out of control? ‘What if’ there was no racial division or war? ‘What if’ hostile aliens landed on the moon? ‘What if’ a sleeping man had the power to change the world with his dreams? The genre of science fiction has made a name for itself by taking such impossible concepts and running with their implications. It highlights aspects of the human condition that might otherwise remain hidden. It helps us explore issues that are often too large or complex to examine through any other means.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 Hugo-nominated SF classic, is unique however, in that it doesn’t just present us with one ‘what if’ scenario to chew over but a veritable smorgasbord of them with the very concept of the ‘what if’ itself being put under the microscope.

At its core, the Lathe of Heaven is a retelling of that classic fantasy trope of someone wishing for a thing only to discover that it isn’t as good as expected.

In this case, the tool for that wishing is George Orr, a seemingly ordinary man who has somehow gained the ability to alter reality with his dreams. Sometimes these changes are small, such as changing a picture on a wall from a photograph of a mountain into one of a horse. Other times they are world changing. No matter the change, however, George Orr is always the only person aware of the changes once he wakes up. As far as everyone else is concerned, things have always been this way and George is a madman for thinking otherwise. It leads to some interesting philosophical questions on the nature of reality and our place within it.

“If [you were to tell me] under hypnosis to dream that there was a pink dog in the room, I’d do it; but the dog couldn’t be there so long as pink dogs aren’t in the order of nature. […] What would happen is, either I’d get a white poodle dyed pink, and some plausible reason for its being there, or, if [you] insisted that it be a genuine pink dog, then my dream would have to change the order of nature to include pink dogs. Everywhere. Since the Pleistocene or whenever dogs first appeared. They would always have come black, brown, yellow, white, and pink. And one of the pink ones would have wandered in from the hall, or would be [your] collie, or [your] receptionist’s Pekinese, or something. Nothing miraculous. Nothing unnatural. Each dream covers its tracks completely.”

As you might expect, these abilities to change the world on such a fundamental level have left George Orr terrified of his powers and doubting the truth of the world he is living in

To be fair: I'd be terrified if I kept dreaming of these things too

To be fair, I’d be terrified if I dreamt this was natural too

In an attempt to curb his abilities, Orr volunteers for therapy with Dr. Haber, a dream psychologist who has developed a machine that can monitor and control brain waves. At first, Dr. Haber is understandably dubious of Orr’s claims to be able to alter reality but pretty soon he not only believes his patient but actively starts using his powers to change reality for the better. At first his manipulations are small, consisting of little more than promotions for himself and changes in living quarters. But later, he sets his sights on much bigger prizes.

So, as an example, at first the world is over-populated*. So Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream that there is no longer an issue with overpopulation.

Instantly, most of humanity gets wiped out by a global plague which sets the economy into downfall and sparks off a series of brutal wars. Overpopulation is no longer an issue, but it has come at a terrible cost.

So then Dr. Haber asks George Orr to dream about humanity being at peace with itself.

Instantly George Orr dreams of hostile aliens arriving and landing on the moon. The human race unites together against this external threat. World peace is gained but, again, at a terrible cost.

So then Orr is asked to dream that the aliens are gone from the moon… and they leave, only to head straight for the Earth…

Each ‘what if’ leads inexorably to another, worse one. It isn’t long before what starts out as a plausible but hellish world for our heroes to live in turns into a nightmarish dystopian world of multiple ‘what ifs’ piled on top of each other that only becomes dream-like and transient as the novel goes on.

 

“You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job. Who has humanitarian dreams?”

A little confession here, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel universes and alternate histories. The reason I started reading this book in the first place is because I was hoping for a little mental titillation along these lines. I love reading about reality being changed on a fundamental level and then watching the fall-out from these changes. It’s one of the reasons why I loved the show Sliders as a kid. It’s one of the reasons why the Star Trek: TNG episode ‘Parallels’ has always been one of my favourites.

Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

Sliders. Man I loved this show. They should so bring it back

I was hoping for more of the same here. But what struck me while reading was how quickly these ‘what if’ scenarios fall into the background of the novel. These are hugely unsettling dystopians that Le Guin is creating for us here, each one of which is fuel for multiple novels in its own right, and yet the book never lingers on its changes. As the book continues and these fundamental changes such as pink dogs and grey people, aliens attacking and global plague pile up on top of each other, they somehow start to fall into the background, becoming almost inconsequential to the novel. Both main characters know that the world they are living in is subject to change and is therefore only temporary and so the central conceit of the novel shifts from being about the changes themselves to the very reason for the changing.

This is where the book finds its voice.

The crux of the novel hangs on the psychological struggle between the characters of George Orr and Dr. Haber. The book is surprisingly stingy when it comes to giving us characters. We are only ever presented with three distinct personalities and one of those, the lawyer and love interest Heather, only exists to highlight the changes happening in the world as well as act as a motivating factor for Orr. With so few characters to focus on, this book turns into what can only be described as a work of theatre. Long, dialogue-heavy chapters are the order of the day with the focus on characterization and philosophy rather than action. Small wonder then that this book is said to be the only one of Le Guin’s works to ever successfully transition to the big screen.

I haven't actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I've heard good things about it

I haven’t actually seen the movie adaptation of this book but I’ve heard good things about it

On one side of this philosophical struggle, we have Orr. Orr is an idealist. Literally a dreamer.

“Orr had a tendency to assume that people knew what they were doing, perhaps because he generally assumed that he did not.”

“He arrived at ideas the slow way, never skating over the clear, hard ice of logic, nor soaring on the slipstreams of imagination, but slogging, plodding along on the heavy ground of existence. He did not see the connections, which is said to be the hallmark of intellect. He felt connections – like a plumber.”

Haber, on the other hand, is a stern pragmatist. He wants to change the world for the better and in Orr he has found the perfect means to do it.

“When things don’t change any longer, that’s the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. The more things go on moving, interrelating, conflicting, changing, the less balance there is—and the more life. I’m pro-life, George. Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! […] What you’re afraid to accept, here, is that we’re engaged in a really great experiment, you and I. We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”

Some of the best moments of this book come when the two main characters are debating the morality of their actions with each other. Both come out with valid reasons for their position and while we are of course led to side with Orr (since he is our POV character), neither is essentially right on the issue. Both characters are believable and likeable in their own way.

Overall the Lathe of Heaven is a fascinating read and while things do get a little convoluted and bogged down by their own conceits towards the end (the climax in particular came way too far out of the left field for my liking), it’s a book that’s well worth your attention despite how laughable some of its ‘what ifs’ might seem to modern eyes.

I’ll leave with one final quote from the novel, perhaps the most famous quote in the book. It is a beautiful piece of writing and poignant too, both of which are words I would use to describe the Lathe of Heaven as a whole. Not perfect by any means but worthy of your time. A sweet, dream-like book which wears its ‘what ifs’ firmly on its sleeve and yet for the most part chooses to ignore them in favour of much larger goals.

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

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* Six billion people if you can believe such an impossibly over-inflated number, with America suffering from extreme malnutrition, the destruction of almost all forest and parkland and the extinction of every large mammal, including the horse. I love how wrong SF writers can be sometimes when they are imagining the future. This is practically Jules Verne all over again with people walking to the centre of the Earth by foot and astronauts being fired into space out of a giant gun. Well okay, perhaps not that bad.


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