Book Review: The Right Stuff

I was recommended The Right Stuff because of my interest in U.S. space program and space generally, but of course, this really isn’t a space book. Tom Wolfe discusses the military test pilots who participated in in the dangerous test flights, and later, the Mercury space program which put the first American men into orbit. It’s a study of personality and society; how these astronauts became Cold War heroes at a time when fear about Soviet technical superiority was ubiquitous.

The book is very entertaining and I learned a great deal about these individuals as well as internal NASA political struggles between the science and engineering division and the astronauts who crewed the capsules, as well as between NASA as a civilian agency with rocket propelled vehicles, and the Air Force, with jet propulsion planes.

The concept of “the right stuff” is thought-provoking, and credit goes to Wolfe for injecting it into the social consciousness. It refers essentially to pilot ability, but its relevance derives from the fact that early test pilot survivability was not great. Wolfe writes about how test pilot wives sat in fear of being called and informed of their husbands’ demise. Everyone knew a friend who had perished in a flight accident.

Nonetheless, I find it interesting to contrast the importance with which Wolfe places on the Mercury pilots as national heroes, particularly John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the actual memory today of Apollo and Neil Armstrong as being the most recognizable astronaut name; I thought of John Glenn as a senator.

I also thought the tension between the astronauts who actually flew the missions and science divisions who helped make the underlying technology possible was interesting, but I’m not sure I came to the conclusions that the author was pointing me towards. The profession of astronaut held a certain gravitas in my mind, but this book portrays them as people who should be in Top Gun alongside Maverick and Goose; they seem like dumb jocks and not particularly vital to the space program. The astronauts seemed to be a publicity stunt — the payload which was delivered to orbit in order to boost national morale against the Russians.

For me, this story foreshadowed NASA’s manned and unmanned programs and their respective trajectories. Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, partially to allow for the creation of a low Earth orbit space station in Skylab. The Space Shuttle program also focused on low Earth orbit and maintained roughly the same launch capabilities for 30 years before also being cancelled. On the other hand, unmanned missions from NASA have explored every single planet of the solar system, successfully landed on Mars eight (!) times, including several rovers which have operated for years. NASA has continued to launch more and more ambitious missions, even as the manned program has continued to cut back.

I also want to mention that while the storytelling in the book is wonderful, it also seems likely exaggerated and speculative. The book was written over a decade after the Mercury program, and there are no footnotes. Tom Wolfe states that he wrote it mostly through interviews with many individuals involved in the program, but it’s unclear where reality ends and hyperbole consumes.

I think the Mercury 7 astronauts were fascinating people willing to risk their lives to push the boundaries of where human beings could go. And I can understand why it is an American classic, interweaving Cold War politics, astronaut folk legend, and lurid storytelling. Ultimately, it wasn’t a book I’d feel compelled to read again even though the subject matter is something I otherwise find captivating. Nonetheless, if you want a good human interest story about the first people brave enough to get on American rockets, this is a great book! If you want a book about the hard science behind rocket engines and getting to the moon (subjects I find more personally compelling), you should definitely look elsewhere.

Deep Rock Galactic

Deep Rock Galactic is a cooperative first person shooter in early access from indie developer Ghost Ship Studios. Players are galaxy-fairing mining dwarves sent on dangerous missions on a hostile alien planet. The missions contain a variety of objectives and types of enemies, and allow for up to four players to play together.

This past year saw a slight uptick in the number of videogames I was able to play. This was particularly possible because I started talking with a couple old friends who often gamed together and they invited me to join them in playing specifically co-op games.

Multiplayer games aren’t exactly foreign to me, as I played World of Warcraft on and off since 2005. However, back then, I didn’t have great internet and I played very casually. I never got into raiding, and so I never really chatted with people on VoIP. I did often do multiplayer with people in the same physical location, and in fact I had a WoW arena team with my brother in high school as we played in the same room, negating the need for voice chat. Since then, I just didn’t play that many videogames cooperatively, and I didn’t have a consistent group. I still played a bunch of single player games, but I tried something new with Overwatch, as I wrote about a couple years ago. That was a lot of fun, but my lack of consistent playing group meant that after Overwatch, I went back to single player games…or Netflix.

This new group opened the door to Deep Rock, and it is spectacular. With the major caveat that I’ve only played the game with people I like hanging out with, Deep Rock seems to check every box you could have for this genre. The gameplay is pretty simple to learn; you shoot aliens and you mine rocks. But once you know the basics, you can start exploring the complexity of the game. There are multiple classes with different guns and abilities. They allow for grappling across levels, creating instant platforms on walls, permanent moving cables, or digging out tunnels through rock. More stuff is being added every month as it is still in early acess. Each class can now undertake quests to upgrade their various weapons which can be swapped out. There is quite a lot of firepower to choose from, with a big rotary machine gun, flamethrower (or ice thrower), shotgun, or even automated turrets, depending on your class.

There are also multiple types of alien bug creatures. Some are pretty standard enemies that run up and attack you. Others are suicide bombers that will stand next to you and detonate. If you know where they are coming from, you pick them off from a distance, but if you let them get close, you better call them out to your teammates who are busy mining rocks or trying to stop other bugs from eating their face off. There are also flying bugs, some that will try and pick you up and drop you far away from your teammates, ranged acid spitters, and giant armored beasts. Some bugs are even attached to shadowy cave ceilings waiting for you to drop under them, where they grab you and pull you helplessly away. Your only hope is for your teammates to blast the leach before you expire. These make for some hilariously chaotic battles.

And that’s not even counting the various types of levels you can play in. Each “ecosystem” on the planet has its own quirks and difficulties, from poison shooting mushrooms to radioactive crystals to giant sand storms that blind you for a short period of time–even in the midst of an enemy wave. The level design itself is beautiful even though I believe every level is algorithmically generated. There are several different missions types, including simple mining missions, missions to collect rare alien eggs, salvage operations where you recover equipment and then use it to escape the planet, and others. My favorite is extraction point missions where you are dropped in an area with many large crystals you must dig out and return to a central location while surviving waves of enemies. Then you have to protect the outpost until the your cargo is rocketed away, and finally battle your way to a rendezvous point.

The cooperative nature of the levels really makes the game for me. Putting up a good fight as aliens slowly surround you is tense, but when one of your teammates is suddenly picked up by a grabber and flown away, the panic starts to set in. There is intensity when making a daring run for one of your downed teammates, throwing up a temporary shield and reviving them while swarms of bad guys surround your bubble waiting for it to disappear. Another fun moment was at the end of a level where we had completed all the objectives, we now had to make it to the extraction rocket they sent. Somehow, the only way over to that part of the cave seemed to include narrow bridges of unavoidable enemies and it was taking too long to deal with them. It didn’t look like we could make it to the rocket before the level ended, meaning all of our work would be for nothing. With 90 seconds left, The digger thought he might be able to burrow straight through 60 or 70 meters or solid rock to get the chamber with the rocket, so we covered him, as tons of giant bugs tried to crawl into our tunnel while he slowly dug it out. We popped out right next to the rocket and got inside before time expired.

I recommend Deep Rock for its fun collaborative environment and interesting gameplay. Its level and mission design is really cool and it’s a pretty fun alien shoot ’em up, too. But the biggest personal takeaway from this game is that adults need to look at cooperative videogames as a medium for social gatherings. Modern society, and the internet in particular, has created a somewhat isolating social landscape. Netflix and HBO and YouTube mean that we live in an golden age of television and creativity, but also that we don’t need to interact with others in person in order to experience it; it comes directly to our devices in our bedrooms or living rooms. Cooperative gaming can act as a virtual social room, placing you at least ear to ear with your friends as you share an interactive experience and challenge. When I play Deep Rock, I don’t think of the time spent as “entertainment”, I think of it as “social interaction”. Even though my friends are thousands of miles away, we are talking about life and hanging out. I see this as a fulfillment of what people thought the internet could be; a place to allow people to connect in ways they could not before.

The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov wrote the several short stories that make up the Foundation trilogy in the 40s for a magazine. They were later compiled into three books, and eventually Asimov added to the series with two sequels and two prequels in the 80s and 90s.

The trilogy, and later series, revolves around the decline of a galaxy spanning empire far in the future, and the plan of the foremost expert in the fictional science of psychohistory, Hari Seldon. Seldon’s plan is to establish a Foundation at the edge of the galaxy that will grow and envelop the whole, shortening the period of galactic decay between the old empire and the new rule of the Foundation.

The short stories are heavily inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, rather than the decline of the British Empire which was more contemporaneous with the novels’ writing. It gives the books a substantial historical feel with references to emperors, generals, and barbarians while still clearly being science fiction. I think this helped to ground the books and establish Isaac Asimov as a writer, and science fiction generally as a serious genre. While certainly compelling, the books are clearly written a while ago, and not just because of the technology mentioned in the book, which often focuses on nuclear and atomic energy as the most advanced possible. The characters themselves feel like science fiction stereotypes with wizened bureaucrats, rule-breaking rogues, and tactical generals. I suppose they likely established those as science fiction tropes, but perhaps they also borrowed them from Roman historical fiction.

The books’ influence is interesting. The series won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-time Series” in 1966, beating out The Lord of the Rings (!). It was likely one of the first science fiction novels to explore the ideas of advancing not just physical sciences, but social sciences. The namesake Foundation is built on the concept of “psychohistory” which purports to predict human behavior mathematically at the level of planets and galaxies, with trillions of beings. Asimov never mentioned this, but it seems that this theme of social prediction must have been inspired by the dominance of Samuelson and Keynes in economics at the time. Friedrich Hayek would later have much to say about the limits of such social science knowledge. It’s some 60+ years after the publication of these stories, and the concept of psychohistory seems much more like fiction than science.

Before I get into spoilers, I want to state a qualified recommendation of the Foundation series. It’s an important part of science fiction history, but if you’ve never read science fiction before, other classics are a bit more accessible with more action and less history, like Ender’s Game or dystopias like 1984. Science Fiction is a really broad category, but one axis I’ve found useful to categorize sci-fi is “amount of world-building needed”. The range would be from a story that takes modern society largely as-is and only changes a couple things, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle to narratives where almost nothing is retained from modern society. This could be because the piece takes place in outer space or the far future or confronts and explores the implication of new technology. Examples include Dune and Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. The far end of this axis is fantasy like Lord of the Rings. This axis is interesting but also quite subjective. I would consider Seveneves to have more world-building than Jurassic Park (both movie and book) even though both are pretty hard science fiction, take place in about the present day, and assume one unusual science-breaking event (finding enough dinosaur DNA to clone a dinosaur or the moon spontaneously exploding). I think it’s because Seveneves‘ story takes place over a much longer period of time and so the world is built up around it. But that’s my rule, others might think differently about this axis.

Bringing it back to Foundation, I find that the further down the “world-building” axis a science fiction book goes, the more it risks becoming outdated in the future. 1984 does a pretty good job world-building, but the core of the book is the devastating social commentary on totalitarianism. It remains an interesting book because of that and because the technology explored aged pretty well into the 80s, when the story takes place (Orwell wrote it in the 40s). It’s not too important to the story, but there are several places in 1984 where the technology used betrays its 1940s origin, like the way Orwell talks about helicopters or the use of “telescreens” when hidden microphones would have been fine. Nonetheless, it doesn’t detract too much from the story since it’s supposed to take place in something approximating Earth’s past. But Foundation is a whole galactic society thousands of years in the future, and so the way that society is constructed is pretty important to the story. But of course, it was written almost 70 years ago and so you can’t help but notice this far future society has a very 1950s attitude on nuclear power.

How should we approach this science fiction limitation? To some extent, all books should be read in the context of when they were written, but for purposes of recommendation, since modern science fiction authors literally have more information than past authors, does it make sense to recommend to newcomers more modern science fiction — since it requires less context?  I think so, and it is for this reason that I qualify my recommendation of the Foundation series unless the reader has some context on when they were written and how they shaped other science fiction later on.

Finally, on to the spoilers. Once I got into the story, I found it extremely compelling. I thought at first it was going to be just a series of Hari Seldon’s genius plans going well as the Foundation steadily conquered the galaxy. And don’t get me wrong, I love stories where the protagonists have a genius plan that comes together, but I also thought it was a pretty silly view of the world to imagine that human action was so predictable. I suspect that’s how Asimov initially saw his magazine series, but then came the story about the Mule, which was much more engaging. The Mule is a genetic “mutant” which has more similarity to mutants in the X-Men than actual genetic mutations. His role in the story is to provide for a part of the Seldon plan that could not be predicted. The plan falls apart and the Mule conquers the Foundation. This re-introduced a lot of uncertainty into the story just as you were coming to understand how the Foundation might win by following the Seldon plan. True to it’s serialized initial publication, I was very excited to read about what came next, and I think the trilogy delivered well on that front.

In fact, as a consequence of everything I’ve stated in this article about how sometimes the technology seems stuck in the 50s, I’m pretty interested in reading the additional Foundation stories Asimov wrote later in the 80s. I am still wondering how the story of the Foundation continues, but I suspect the technology will be a bit more relevant to today with these books written 30 years later. Overall, I’m glad I got to finish this trilogy and my first foray into Asimov’s books as it helps put many other of my favorite sci-fi stories in perspective.

 

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a videogame developed by famed studio Naughty Dog, which also developed the Crash Bandicoot series as well as the various Uncharted games. The Last of Us was released in 2013 to extremely positive reviews and is often placed into conversation as one of the best videogames of all time. I didn’t own a PlayStation 3 so I didn’t get a chance to play this game until recently. Despite it coming out 5 years ago, I think it’s still worth writing about because it was just that good.

My favorite high school English teacher used to tell us that what made great authors and artists was their ability to build transformational art. By that he meant great artists could simultaneously do the well known and expected approach extremely well while also building on that and incorporating the new and avant-garde to seamlessly bring the audience towards new ideas. He would always use the Beatles as an example, pointing to their earlier generic pop sound which gave way to their more experimental later albums, but it’s a nice approach to use for almost any analysis of art.

For example, I’ve noticed that many of my favorite superhero movies aren’t really superhero movies at all; The Dark Knight is a detective movie disguised as a superhero movie, The Winter Soldier is a spy thriller disguised as a superhero movie, and Logan is a western disguised as a superhero movie. These movies are interesting because they pushed the boundaries of what was possible with their genre. The Last of Us pushes the boundaries of what counts as a videogame.

Taken solely on its merits as a game, The Last of Us is excellent. It takes aspects of games that are quite familiar to anyone designing a shooter in the early 2010s and does them really well: it’s a survival shooter that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world with zombies. Zombies are a somewhat common trope in horror films but they are heavily represented in videogame media. The zombies in The Last of Us are properly horrifying, varied, and challenging to deal with.  It also has you teaming up, or at least working with, a rebel group in this post apocalyptic society against the government’s military rule. There are specific gameplay mechanics that are familiar, such as sneaking around to remain unseen from enemies, various guns that are upgradeable over time, and physical puzzles or obstacles that must be overcome. The “survival” aspect of the game is particularly well done though.

Many videogames have good stories. Half-Life 2 and both Portal games are some of my favorites, but they still have a pretty strict boundary between gameplay and story. It’s fun to check out the story elements and much of it is told through cutscenes, but The Last of Us brings the story in close to the gameplay. You are constantly aware of the post-apocalyptic world around you, and not just through the beautiful level designs of real American cities in ruins, but also because you are constantly running out of materials. You find a shotgun, blast some zombies triumphantly, and then quickly realize you are out of ammo and have to switch to a low power handgun. Maybe you have time to duck behind some cover and swap out the hunting rifle so you can use those last three bullets before you’re forced to start bashing heads in with metal pipes or scraps of wood you find, which also eventually break. It’s almost always a good idea to stealthily dispatch as many enemies as possible, both to reduce the number of enemies and to conserve ammunition. Even other items like shivs and health packs are all constructed from collected materials, and making more of one might preclude you from making more of others. The feeling of scarcity is omnipresent, and improvisation is vital to complete most levels.

The gameplay is also well varied. The story of The Last of Us revolves around Joel, a deadly smuggler, transporting Ellie, a girl who is immune to the zombie disease, to the underground resistance. Throughout this journey, there are different types of enemies which require different strategies, but also different types of encounters. There are areas where you are alone, areas where you have a support, and areas with other characters who you must protect while they are somewhat unhelpful to you. These are well incorporated into the story, as early on, Ellie is unknown and not given any weapons. Her presence on levels is not very helpful, and the gameplay helps to contribute to the player’s slight resentment. Eventually she gets a rifle and starts helping you, which makes the player appreciate her more. Other interesting levels include the first level, where you play as Joel’s daughter on the night the outbreak gets out of control. This is also the first big twist (spoilers ahead), as she is unceremoniously killed once you finish the level, taking a page out of Game of Thrones‘ script. This makes you pretty sympathetic with Joel’s character as you feel his helplessness, after all, you were just controlling his daughter and there was nothing you could do to save her.

Other interesting levels include one where you have to avoid a sniper, sneak around with very limited cover, dispatch men as they charge your position, all while advancing on the sniper as you slowly run out of ammo and materials. Then you take the sniper position and cover the advance of your friends as more enemies swarm them. There’s also a situation where you accidentally trigger a trap meant for zombies and have to protect Ellie while hanging upside down from your ankles.

As I’ve stated, the story benefits well from the integration with the gameplay. But the storytelling itself is one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve seen. It changed how I imagined a videogame could tell a story. The voice acting creates emotional and broken characters who you want to see triumph. And while the gameplay helps to emphasize the desperation and difficulty the characters face, the story is brutally dark in its outlook, constantly putting the characters in harsh situations or even killing them off. Joel’s difficulty in making himself emotionally attached to anyone after the death of his daughter is explored really well. Additionally, the sound design and music is also excellent.

But of course, the most interesting part of this game was the ending. Joel and Ellie go through a lot in their adventure. They lose a lot of friends, and they are hunted by people of all sorts. Nonetheless, if you take the gritty realism of the game seriously, you murder dozens of people over the course of the game. These others are often pretty gross people. In Pittsburgh, they are set on by “hunters” who try to ambush them. You then proceed through several levels and likely kill about 30 people. Is this proportionate? Is this ok because it’s a videogame? It’s not like you have much choice, even if you sneak by people, you’ll still have to take out a lot of others, all of whom will kill you on sight. But towards the end of the game, Joel is injured, and you have to play as Ellie to try and save him. Again, Ellie is trapped and has to fight her way out. She’s faced with being captured, possibly raped or eaten by cannibals, so anyone she kills is probably justified, but it’s pretty dark.

Finally Joel and Ellie make it to Salt Lake City and find the Fireflies (the resistance). Of course, the Fireflies believe they can create a vaccine for the zombie infection…which they would need to kill Ellie to obtain. Upon hearing this, Joel cannot bear to lose the one person he has finally allowed himself to care about, and fights his way back to Ellie. It’s possible to do this level while only killing a couple Fireflies (but you always kill their leader at the end). I was not great at stealth, so I ended up killing about 20. Mostly with the flame thrower. Joel takes Ellie back to his brother’s compound, and lies to her about the Fireflies when she wakes up, saying they didn’t need her help and they couldn’t find a cure.

Joel isn’t a hero. Yet his actions are at least understandable to the player and we’re left wondering what we would have done in a similar situation. And while it’s uncertain whether the Fireflies could have found a cure, they were not interested in Ellie’s consent or buy in; Marlene (the leader of the Fireflies) was Ellie’s friend and ordered her killed for the greater good. Of course, Joel didn’t ask Ellie what she wanted to do either, he just lied to her. And having already killed Marlene perhaps he felt he couldn’t go back even if Ellie was willing to sacrifice herself. Ellie is also only 14, so should she have the ability to make this decision? It would be questionably ethical to let a teenager make such a decision today, but who knows what rules to apply in the apocalyptic world of The Last of Us. This ending is remarkable and differs from the videogame tropes we are used to seeing. It is truly ambiguous, and emphasizes there are no heroes and villains, there are just people trying to survive.

In the sci-fi novel Ready Player One, there’s a proposed technology that would allow you to play a film as a first person character in virtual reality. The hero plays through both Wargames as Matthew Broderick’s character and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as King Arthur. While amusing for the audience, this would seem to a highly limited and uncreative use of such VR technology. After all, art made for a certain medium is probably best in that medium; a first person VR cinematic experience would probably be much better if the scripting and events were made specifically for a VR platform.  The Last of Us is a real life example of this science fiction concept: a story-driven experience with many aspects of a film, yet tailor made for the videogame medium. It isn’t the first “movie as a videogame” but it is the most impressive exercise in expanding how interactive stories are told. It is transformational and is changing the way we consume media; there’s no longer a stark difference between a long YouTube video, a TV series, and a feature film. Netflix hosts all kinds of shows from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 15 minutes an episode), to Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which is 10 episodes ranging from 82 to 114 minutes each. The future will include the telling of stories in many genres and media, and I’m excited to see how videogames continue to contribute to that storytelling.

Book Review: Cat’s Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was my third Vonnegut novel after Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. It was published in 1963, a few years before Slaughterhouse-Five was published and Vonnegut became a household name. From a biographical perspective, it was one of his earlier novels that helped to define his style and approach.

Consequently, the book is ridiculous, absurd, amusing, dark, and self-referential as you would expect. It follows a writer who is trying to track down what famous Americans were doing the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The narrator gets caught up following information about a fictional scientist Felix Hoenikker and his now grown children, and the novel ends up on the fictional Caribbean island nation of San Lorenzo, which is ruled by a stalwart anti-communist and American allied dictator. The islanders are nonetheless uninterested in geopolitics and are instead obsessed with an invented nihilistic religion that everyone apparently follows, despite its official (and ignored) ban, punishable by death.

My thoughts on the book were mixed, but not strong; it’s probably good if you are already a large Vonnegut fan, otherwise, I’d probably opt to skip it. It is funny, in the bizarre Vonnegut way, but the bizarreness sometimes veers too far. I would often find the characters unrelatable. Nonetheless, there are some ideas that I did find historically interesting which I would like to discuss.

Having read Starship Troopers this year as well, these two novels capture the overriding sense of doom in the Cold War that we just don’t have any more. Heinlein’s response to what he saw as this existential and inevitable conflict with the Soviets was to argue for a hardline military response to save civilization.  Vonnegut saw the destruction of the second world war and then the creation of the nuclear bomb and the arms race as a trend in human history towards greater destruction. His response was to write black comedies and satirize the entire ridiculousness that humans were so technically intelligent yet so tribally stupid as to create the gadgets of their own destruction. Given humanity was stupid enough to fight the deadliest war in human history less than 20 years prior, it was inevitable that the next war would come and prove even more horrific. It’s a powerful view and I’m sure made a lot of sense at the time. Cat’s Cradle in this context is fascinating.

Felix Hoenikker is a ridiculous character; he just tinkers and builds without any regard for the consequences of his actions, inventing an ice crystal that will turn any water that touches it into room temperature ice. Its application as a superweapon becomes apparent, but Hoenikker is so short sighted that he leaves it out for his children to find without any thought. In turn, when his children take the ice crystal, they are swindled out of it, allowing both the US and USSR access to it. I found this whole narrative pretty weird and silly, but from Vonnegut’s perspective this “what-are-social-consequences” caricature of the scientists who created the atomic bomb must have been compelling. As a general techno-optimist, I’m not so sure I agree. Trying to stop technology from advancing seems pretty difficult, and had the US not pursued a nuclear program, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would also have followed after having captured German scientists.

Moreover, reading this book in 2018, I have a similar critique to what I said about Heinlein; both author’s worries seem to have been incorrect. The Soviet Union collapsed without us fighting a war as Heinlein thought and without us destroying ourselves as Vonnegut seemed to expect in Cat’s Cradle. Is this just luck or actual evidence they were wrong? It’s hard to know.

But whereas Heinlein’s book also established the “space war” genre, meaning it remains a staple of science fiction, Cat’s Cradle is pretty meh outside of the social commentary. There are a lot of references to the invented religion of San Lorenzo (which parodies actual religion, which perhaps is also invented), called Bokononism. Such references are strewn with made up words and some of the made up San Lorenzen dialect. I’m not an absolutist when it comes to inventing words and language, but I feel that any invention of made-up words comes at a cost of reader understanding. The payoff is usually in terms of world-building, but Cat’s Cradle‘s world is ridiculous and constantly absurd, emphasizing its bizarreness. There is no world-building going on, and so I don’t feel like I bought into it as a reader, and thus the invented words were just annoying.

On the plus side, this book made me wonder what narratives seem obvious and ridiculous to us today will be forgotten about in 20 or 30 years. For example, we all know social media is creating fake news and promoting vile extremism and trolling. Our country is being divided and politicized and there may be no escape. Cat’s Cradle suggests instead we may not have any idea what our future problems will be like.

Book Review: Snow Crash

Snow Crash has been on my list for a long time. It’s the third Neal Stephenson novel I’ve read after The Diamond Age and Seveneves and is considered his breakout novel. Published in 1992, it’s actually somewhat unbelievable how forward looking this book is. I actually found myself a little bored when Stephenson was describing the technology for the virtual world, the “Metaverse”, of Snow Crash since I just read Ready Player One a few months ago, and many of the concepts that ended up in that novel’s conception of virtual reality, published in 2011, were already present in Snow Crash, 19 years prior.

Besides virtual reality, which Snow Crash explores extensively, the novel also entertains the idea of anarcho-capitalism or post-national capitalism, where nation states have regressed, and the world is made up of a autonomous corporate states, seemingly inspired by David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom or Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty. Interestingly, The Machinery of Freedom saw its second edition published in 1989, right before Snow Crash came out. Several of Stephenson’s novels explore this idea of decentralized post-state economic systems, including his other 90s books The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Concepts covered include the decentralized implementation of a legal system, private roads, quasi-state citizenship and security, and the ineffectiveness of government. The Federal government does still exist in this bizarre Los Angeles, but it seems to do nothing useful except spend lots of resources ensuring the loyalty of its own employees. There is a memo about toilet paper usage in the federal offices that goes on for pages.

I don’t know what an anarcho-hyper-capitalist world would really look like, but Snow Crash‘s world feels vibrant and real. From a political perspective, I think its obvious Stephenson is intrigued by these ideas, as he’s written about them several times. It’s also undeniable that technologies like the decentralized anonymity, networked virtual realities simulations, and especially cryptography, although it wasn’t in the book, automatically contribute to a world where power is subverted by individuals who can hide from authority. The “hacker” mindset is that today’s technology can be used to coordinate against power, while keeping people anonymous. The technology itself is inherently punk-rock.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash isn’t necessarily a world you want to live in. Libertarian utopia, maybe, but we are following interesting characters who can navigate this world. In the background, millions of desperate people are part of the story too, and they are not doing too well. It’s a bad idea to reason from a work of fiction, but at least from the author’s political views, I thought this was a fair representation of interesting wonders and harsh horrors of a possible libertarian wonderland.

The story itself was actually fairly unexpected for me. I knew this was a cyberpunk novel going in, and so I expected the vast discussion of the hacker world and the gray legality the characters occupy. Because this novel was so early, some of the technology I expected, especially cryptography, didn’t play a big role, even though a rewrite of the story today would most certainly include the importance of encryption to anonymity and privacy in this decentralized virtual world. However, there was a significant reliance on Sumerian mythology which I had no idea about, and despite the incongruity, it was actually a really compelling part of the novel. The skills it takes to interweave 8000 year old myths the reader has never heard of into a modern sci-fi cyberpunk story should not be understated. It wasn’t all perfect of course; I had to suspend disbelief anytime the novel discussed the particular way in which it stated “hacker” minds were wired to make them susceptible to the Snow Crash virus, because that was pretty absurd. Nonetheless, it’s a minor issue in an otherwise highly creative work.

The characters were solid too. The reader ends up meeting the heads of several of the quasi-state corporations in the book, and their nature and juxtaposition creates a particularly American cyberpunk setting. I won’t go into more details to avoid spoiling large parts of the book. The best character is probably one of the villains, and every scene with him is properly terrifying. Y.T., the main character’s associate is also fun to follow. However, I’m still not sure I understand why the main character, Hiro, chose his last name to be “Protagonist” to make the absurdly ridiculous name Hiro Protagonist.  Despite being the character you follow the most, he’s not particularly dynamic. At the beginning he’s a smart hacker who helped build the Metaverse although things haven’t gone great for him and he’s not leveraged his important role to fame and fortune. But he uses his skills to uncover the main plot that drives the novel and works with others to end the threat. He’s centrally important to the story, so he’s the main character by definition, but his personality feels a bit like a video game protagonist (I guess that’s the reason for the name) as he’s more of a vessel for the audience to see the world through. Even his relationship with Juanita doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book.

Nonetheless, Snow Crash is an easy read and amazing sci-fi premise. I really enjoyed the book, although I think Stephenson has continued to improve as a writer, especially of compelling characters. The unique ideas in this book make it a classic of the cyberpunk genre and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Book Review: Unsong

This is the next installment in my push to read a book a month during 2018. So far, I’ve generally stuck to putting fiction book reviews on this blog, with nonfiction on my political blog.

Scott Alexander’s fiction story Unsong is a particular brand of humor and epic scope that I suspect only the rational community can come up with. I enjoyed this story immensely but I wouldn’t recommend it “cold”; the reader has to understand that this is an unusual take on fantasy and religion, and probably blasphemes frequently.

Unsong spends a lot of time worldbuilding. That may be a turn off to some people, but I found it very well done. A significant portion of the beginning of the novel is an exploration of the founding principle of Unsong‘s universe: what if the world turned out to actually follow Jewish mysticism? The world used to have a lot more theological magic in it, but over time, this “magic” was coalesced into more rigorous and mathematical physics until humans accidentally broke the machine running the world, and plunged everything back into chaos. Unsong‘s characters do not take this new world as is, they question it rationally, try experiments to see what works, and push boundaries. This magic follows rules and can be researched scientifically, grounded in reality, and in fact, Unsong‘s title comes from the United Nations Subcommittee on Names of God.  Perhaps more impressively, Unsong‘s bizarre world with angels and demons and true names of God and Kabbalah is all quite internally consistent.

The book also explores real theological challenges humans would have if we found out the divine existed. Most specifically, Scott tackles the concepts of theodicy, the question of why God is good given we see so much evil in the world.

If this sounds interesting, if philosophical theological debate in the midst of an epic religious magic fantasy storyline, oddly interspersed with whale puns sounds like something you might want to check out, I can assure you that Scott executes his story perfectly. The word “epic” is interesting when it comes to storytelling. It conveys usually that a story is great in length, which Unsong certainly is. It also implies great achievements done by heroes, which also applies here. But I feel a story has to be epic primarily for its scope and impact on the world and the characters. Length definitely helps with this; if an entire world is introduced in a single film, it’s hard for it to reach that “epic” feeling. This is part of the criticism of the DC universe films; they jumped quickly to world ending apocalypses when we hadn’t gotten a chance to really know the characters.

Unsong takes it time, starting from small stories of human and divine characters, slowly building the world and the stakes, foreshadowing and hinting at bigger events. The final story is epic in length, impact, and heroics; there is an excellent sense of divine oomph that the story leaves you with, having forced the reader to climb a mountain of understanding the world and its characters. I found my time well spent.

Book Review: Artemis

I’m planning on reading at least six fiction books and six nonfiction books this year. This continues my fiction book review series, which will be hosted on this blog. My nonfiction book reviews will likely end up on my other blog, depending on the topic.

Artemis is Andy Weir’s second novel after The Martian. It’s a fun read, and I found it primarily engaging for its setting. Artemis is the name of lunar colony some 70 years in the future. Weir takes his hard sci-fi approach that was so successful in The Martian, and applies to what a moon colony would look like with technology that isn’t too far removed from our own. Most impressive is his exploration of the economics of this small town.

It’s expensive to live in a harsh environment where you can’t venture outdoors without a spacesuit or plant crops for food, and so the book explores how the town can be economically successful. Artemis has two major industries: aluminum smelting and tourism. International treaties mean no country has a claim to governance on Artemis, and so the single law enforcement officer maintains a hands off approach. There are, of course, tradesmen and scientists in Artemis, but a vast amount of products must be imported. This leads to the de facto currency, slugs, from Soft Landed Grams, a credit that can be redeemed by the Kenya Space Corporation.  Kenya, located on the east side of a continent on the equator, is in a prime geographic location to launch rockets to space (rockets launch east to take advantage of Earth’s rotation, and Earth spins fastest at the equator). A launch corporation charges by weight, thus launching a kilogram of something to the moon costs 1000 slugs. The company credits become a valuable interchangeable asset, as quick wireless credit transfers easily facilitate trade.

There’s also just interesting points the book discusses that you wouldn’t have thought about unless Andy Weir had researched it, like that they breathe mostly oxygen at 1/5th atmospheric pressure since nitrogen would be difficult and annoying to transport there, or that fire would then become a massive threat to the moon base, as anything flammable in a 100% oxygen atmosphere will burn quickly and spread. There is also a lot more than you would expect to find about welding in the vacuum of space, or about how moon dust could cause lung problems.

The story itself is also pretty fun, although I don’t want to give too much away. The book follows delivery driver/smuggler Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara as she makes her living through the grey market underbelly of Artemis. As she uncovers more of what is happening behind the scenes, you learn more about the economy the lunar town and science and technology that allow it function. There are EVA/spacewalk sequences where several characters are isolated far from Artemis out on the lunar surface, there are action sequences where criminal elements take advantage of the lax law enforcement policies, and there is even a cameo of an unidentified botanist. I would say that the while the conflicts in the story were interesting, the characters are all portrayed as fairly realistic and flawed, so much so that the moral ambiguity of some of the choices Jazz makes leave it somewhat uncertain she should really be forgiven, at least in my opinion. My largest critique would be that the book wraps everything up nicely, when perhaps in real life, an international moon colony with no real law would have more abrupt and uncertain growing pains.

Artemis doesn’t really ask deep probing questions about what it means to be human, or whether robots will replace human minds in the apocalypse; it sticks to the hard and social science questions of what human society might actually look like on the moon. It’s a quick read, but it touches topics as disparate as immigration of various ethnicities, social cohesion and the lack thereof, population dynamics, economic growth, physical construction on the moon, and biological and chemical realities of lunar living. Overall, it’s a nice exploration of these topics in science fiction, at a time when I see more stories focusing on the dark side of technology destroying our humanity, when instead we could also be asking how humanity can tackle the questions of how to explore and create on worlds outside our own.

Book Review: Ready Player One

I was pretty skeptical about this book.

I saw the trailer for the big blockbuster that’s coming out, and it sounded like it was trying too hard. It’s sci-fi, but it’s also 80s retro? Do we really need more 80s nostalgia? Shouldn’t we celebrate more originality? I think it also didn’t help that many people were very excited about it being turned into a movie, and evangelical fans informing you that they are sure you’ll love the book just makes it that much harder for you to judge the story honestly.

Nonetheless, I ended up really enjoying Ready Player One. I realize that it may have just played very well to my ingroup; the “culture” of the novel went beyond just 80s nostalgia, but into early computer programming, videogames, and geek culture.  For that reason, I’m unsure if I would automatically recommend Ernest Cline’s book to everyone. I’m going to go over some of the weaknesses of the book, and if you think you could overlook them to enjoy a fairly creative and fun sci-fi adventure story, I think it’s worth a read.

In the first couple of chapters, I was a bit disappointed. I realized this was a dystopian near future young adult novel, and that’s a fairly common trope. The world has fallen on some hard economic times, and many people have turned to a globe-spanning shared virtual reality called the OASIS.

The “bad guys” are also incredibly simple. The villain doesn’t have an interesting alternative viewpoint or reason why he feels compelled to be bad. In fact, the obsession with the scavenger hunt just seems uncharacteristic of a large corporation. The evil companies that the story is trying to evoke, ISPs like Comcast or data hoarders like maybe an evil (eviler?) version of Facebook, they are concerning and worrisome precisely because they are large organizations without discrete goals. They optimize for profit, but not in humane or useful ways. Comcast is evil because they will promise to send out a tech to fix your internet who never shows up, day after day, and there’s no one else you can turn to. The evil corporation in the novel, IOI, is evil because it wants to take over the world by winning a contest and getting money. Comcast is evil because it’s already taken over the world, yet it’s so disorganized that its apathetic to how it’s ruining your life. Beating IOI is straightforward, but difficult; you need to win the scavenger hunt before they do. Beating Comcast is both deceptively simple, but yet so complex as to be impossible; you can’t just pass a law saying Comcast has to be less lazy, you have to actually introduce additional competition to cable providers everywhere that Comcast exists. Yet competition can’t just be introduced, barriers to entry, both legal and economic make that difficult. Removing legal barriers requires legislative will and legal knowledge which is sparse and distributed…etc.

The one area where the bad guys actually seemed pretty sinister was during a sequence detailing how IOI presses debters into indentured servitude to pay off their debts. The servitude never pays much, and everyone is forced to buy things in a “company store” type model which means they are essentially stuck in corporate slavery forever. That seemed way more bureaucratically terrifying along the lines of how I’d imagine a giant megacorporation grinding people’s souls for money. So points to that plot device at least.

The general outline of the plot itself also wasn’t too unexpected for a young adult dystopian novel. The creator of the OASIS passed away and has left his fortune to whomever can solve a very difficult puzzle/scavenger hunt which is inside the virtual world.  The protagonist, teenager Wade Watts, goes on an a classic adventure, re-imagined into the 80s nostalgia of the OASIS contest. He meets various friends who sometimes help him out, he gets occasional help from a couple older, wise characters, and he fights an army of bad guys.

But despite all these negatives, I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The general plot may have been fairly expected, but the specifics of the plot, including the challenges of the contest, and the intricacies of the world, both physical and digital, are quite creative and original. The rest of review is going to go into more plot details, so if you’d rather avoid that, you’ve been warned.

The world of the OASIS is an absolutely fascinating exploration of what the internet and virtual reality could be used for. The giant public school planet was a nice extension of what online learning classes could be. If you take Bryan Caplan-esque critiques of education as signaling seriously and then set aside the signaling aspect of education, there is little that couldn’t be taught on the internet almost as well as in a classroom.

Other parts of the world of the OASIS were excellent because they were tailored to exactly what a hacker/geek ingroup paradise would be. The idea of the Tyrell Corporation Pyramid being a default structure that anyone could place on an OASIS planet tickled my heart.  Built-in crypto was also pretty cool, and it even reflected correct cryptographic practices. Everyone’s actual information was encrypted at rest and not readable by the company’s own employees. While this might be tough to implement perfectly, it was nice that a fantasy book of a geek virtual reality world would correctly implement cryptographic privacy. (Of course, it turns out Og had a built-in backdoor to private chatrooms, which kind of breaks the whole “correctly implemented crypto”…) Additionally, there’s a sequence where Wade votes for Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton which was pretty funny.

Anonymity and privacy is actually vital to several plot points. First is the general idea that IOI can’t track where Wade is logging into the OASIS from since user data is well encrypted and he’s not using them as an ISP. But Wade is also able to generate an income from his avatar’s fame as a successful “gunter” in the contest. The concept of being able to anonymously generate an income where he can be paid without anyone knowing his real name was probably just a useful plot device, but would be a massive revolution for individual freedom in the real world. They didn’t really mention how taxes work, so this probably wasn’t entirely thought out, but the implications for such technology would be just fascinating. In a world largely ruled by VR, it wouldn’t be surprising if lots of work was done in VR instead of the real world. A world where the default interaction is encrypted and anonymous means that payment would default to being anonymous as well. Wade makes money by endorsing products with his online (and famous) avatar, but also by selling advertising on his personal vidfeed, which actually is pretty close to what Twitch actually ended up being in the real world.

A quick aside: Wade programs his vidfeed to show old 80s TV shows, movies, and music videos. He also spends a fair amount of time watching old shows that he thinks may prove useful in the hunt. There’s no mention of copyright enforcement or difficulty in obtaining access to these things. I guess it’s just one of those things that’s assumed away for the story, but having free and open access to these old shows is vital to the knowledge building of the “gunters”. I think the book could have taken a more explicit anti-copyright stance to match the hacker-culture of the gunters.

Back to the commentary on individualism: in a virtual world, there’s the almost obvious point that space itself can be easily privatized. Wade purchases a private asteroid and builds his own extensive base inside it. He can grant access to only people he wants to let in, and he can create whatever he wants in it. Property rights are pretty useful for creating a flourishing market, and so super property rights and the ability to manipulate reality itself (in a virtual world) puts that ability-to-create on steroids. Even Aech’s private chatroom is a pretty cool hangout, but it’s more than that; it’s the absolute privacy of an encrypted document, made “physical” via the virtual world of the OASIS. Maybe an evil dictator would just block access to the OASIS, but otherwise, people could literally meet in private chatrooms and share their ideas and frustrations with an oppressive regime face-to-face, without fear of actually meeting face-to-face. This is a pretty cool idea.

Finally, I want to note that the hacker-culture of the book and the gunters was very personally appealing. I’m sure everyone likes the idea of a community of righteous freedom fighters gathering together to fight the bad guys, but there was something that specifically invoked big MMORPG gatherings when Cline describes the gunter clans banding together to fight the Sixers. Even silly things like Wade’s ship being Serenity from Firefly was just really fun for me to imagine. I don’t know exactly how much of this would transfer over to someone who is less familiar with the references in the book. Then again, I only knew some of the references, and I was totally clueless to the 70s anime shows.

Ready Player One ended up being really enjoyable and did a great job exploring the implications of a worldwide shared virtual reality. Even if the adventure genre made some of the plot predictable and the bad guys cartoonish, there is so much cool world building that I found it easy to overlook any flaws. The sci-fi aspects of the book were excellent, the hacker culture backdrop was a lot of fun, and the plot did still have some impressive twists that I wasn’t expecting. I’m sure the upcoming film will be fine, but I doubt it will be able to capture all the small morsels of this really exciting world. I would definitely recommend this book if you have any science fiction interest, but remember it’s more like WarGames made into a hacker-culture tribute VR science fiction novel, not Foundation.

Overwatch

If you’ve been wondering where all my political blogging that I did last year has gone, I’ve transferred it over to a new blog to better separate personal stuff from political things.  I’m not linking it as to make it slightly harder for random prospective employers from the far future to find it. If you don’t know what my new blog is, just tweet at me or message me privately.

I enjoy videogames, but I often don’t have enough time to really indulge in them. I’ve had great experiences with past Blizzard games, and so when Overwatch came out in May, I decided to get it.

Not only do I not usually play video games, but I also don’t tend to play games when they first come out. I also like to stick to single-player, story-driven games (Portal, Arkham Asylum, Skyrim) and sometimes strategy games (Total War series, Civ V) or both (XCOM). And, of course, I tend to play these on a long delay, waiting for Steam sales to reduce the financial burden of my infrequent hobby. But in this case I decided to go for a multi-player game soon after it had come out.  Many have rightly stated that Overwatch is a Team Fortress 2 rip-off. Of course, I think people are far too protective of intellectual property anyway, and good rip-offs can be even better than the originals. Blizzard took the excellent gameplay ideas in Team Fortress 2, inserted their art and character backgrounds from their failed MMO Titan, and then created an amazingly fun and deep multi-player shooter.

Competitive role-based multi-player gaming is pretty fun. Trying to beat puzzles crafted by game designers is great too, but there’s something you can’t reproduce without battling against other people and their strategies. I always enjoyed player-vs-player parts of WoW, but part of it always came down to players who sank more time into the game got better weapons. This isn’t the case in Overwatch. Of course, this isn’t a new game genre either, but the creativity of what you can do and the absolute chaos you can fall into so easily is incredible. It’s just pure fun.

Blizzard also just did an incredible job with all the details apart from gameplay: the world is engaging and beautifully detailed, the game isn’t buggy at all, the point system is well crafted, the matching algorithms work quickly and efficiently, and the community dialogue has been amazingly transparent.  I don’t know what the game is like as a power player who wants to play competitively for dozens of hours a week, but I know for what I want as a casual gamer who will only sink a few hours into it a week, this game is essentially perfect. It’s also very easy to get into, and Blizzard has already started releasing additional content with no extra cost. If you haven’t played this game and were thinking about it, I can fully recommend it.

But this video game has also coincided with a renewal of board game popularity, not just in my life but in the entire market. This is somewhat surprising given the already mature market for games on computers, consoles, and mobile devices. Nonetheless here we are in the midst of a board game revolution. Somehow in the past year I’ve found myself playing Catan, Codenames, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Avalon, and more. I’ve undoubtedly played more board games this year than any other year I’ve been alive. And I even dabbled in Go a bit this year as AlphaGo made headlines. I suspect this renewed interest in applied game theory in a fun setting contributed to me buying Overwatch.

Unlike other multi-player video games which might rely on grinding to give players an edge, these board games rely exclusively on luck and skill; time devoted doesn’t factor in besides how long it takes you to learn. To me it makes these games a fundamentally higher brain exercise than something like WoW or Skyrim could ever be.  For me personally, this is a pretty exciting way to see gaming go mainstream (In a related vein, I’ve really enjoyed Crash Course’s new Games series with Andre Meadows).

When you put games on this axis of simple tactics to complex strategies, it also becomes clear why so many people want to watch games like Counterstrike, League of Legends, Rocket League, or Overwatch rather than games like WoW, Minecraft, or Grand Theft Auto; games that require more learned skill, innate talent, and strategy are far more interesting to watch that games that rely on grinding. And if you move further along the axis towards complexity and strategy, you’ll start to run into competitive physical sports like basketball and soccer. Obviously strategy and complexity aren’t sufficient make games universally popular (cricket is fairly complex but isn’t very popular in America, american football has similar popularity issues in the rest of the world), but they are necessary. EconTalk had a great discussion this week regarding the development of sports into entertainment; 50 years ago the major sports of today were nothing like we know them. They have developed into much improved products, and it wasn’t just TV exposure; the sports are measurably better in every way. Rules, nutrition, training, professionalism, advertising, etc have all improved drastically. There’s no reason to think games beyond the physical won’t see similar growth over the next 50 years.

It’s also worth pressing that this gaming revolution is a sign that Things Are Pretty Much Ok (TM). Despite what you may be hearing, violence and terrorism is trending downwards, fewer people are living below $1 a day than ever before, and apparently despite the ongoing technological isolation of our society, social board games where people play face-to-face are doing better than they’ve ever done. Seriously, if we agree that developed countries have mostly solved lifting everyone above subsistence existence, we get to philosophical questions of human existence beyond survival. What should people be doing, what activities should they engage in? Enjoying social gatherings with strategic brain games, seems like a wonderful way to spend that time, and I think could provide a proxy for a type of win condition for economic policy.  The future of games isn’t just fun, it should be a major part of our culture for many years to come.