Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Abortion Is a Male Agenda

Stop calling anti-abortion and anti-contraception laws a "war on women."

Since half my hits these days come from abroad, allow me to clarify. The United States' two-party system is actually a system with two right wings. The Democratic Party (the good blue cop) plays a placidly conservative money-laundering game for their corporate overlords and seems to be mostly tied into the tech sector, Wall Street and other financial institutions as far as I can see. They condescend to institute de jure social reforms when pushed by the populace, relying on economic manipulation to slide the de facto gains in their moneyed masters' direction. The Republican Party (the bad red cop) is the militaristic old money, oil-money, farm-lobby reactionary wing of the single American Conservative Party.

For the past several decades, the reds have also increasingly allied themselves with religious reactionaries, so most of their social agenda tends to play on backwater superstition for maximal rabblerousing synergy: among other things they're anti-gay, anti-science, anti-Islam (or really anti-anything-other-than-Christianity) and yes, anti-women, or at least anti- any woman who doesn't bear young. They are also against any man who's not husbanding a family. Among the various reactionary programs the Republicans have promoted, they've very consistently pushed against abortion, being able to rally support for such idiocy based on aforementioned superstitious dogma about souls and whatnot. Since no individual state can criminalize abortion outrightly, they've resorted to various other legal measures to make it impossible for doctors to perform the operation. Here's where my disdain for both sides of the political system kicks in. The Democratic Party, instead of doing anything meaningful to combat this trend, has subsumed the issue into feminist rhetoric to increase Hillary Clinton's already overwhelming chances of skating into the presidency on female votes next year. They have dubbed it the "war on women" and framed it as male oppression, because, really, nothing sells better to women than giving them half the population as acceptable targets for abuse. Thanks to feminist programming, we've become unable to even spot the blatantly obvious assumption in that catchphrase. If the war is on women, then who's the villainous oppressor waging it? If you have testicles, you're the evil empire and any woman who spits on you is only standing up to your oppression... while making you financially support a child you didn't want, or having you raise a child you only think is your own.

If the Republican party were pro-man and anti-woman and that was that, you know the first thing they'd outlaw? Marriage. Anyone who would benefit men would first outlaw the legal device by which a woman can enslave a man for twenty years to raise her podlings, by which she can take him for half of everything and still have him pay alimony, by which she can efface his greater instinct for sex with her greater instinct for offspring. Last time I checked, however, the reds were so into enforced monogamy they won't even cheat on Jesus with Buddha.

You think babies are a male form of oppression of women? Is that the reality we've all seen around us every day of our lives, the truism of every fable and sitcom in history? The woman wants to preserve her freedom, have guilt-free sex, take exciting trips and keep the couple's income disposable, but doggone it, every young man is just so eager to buy a house with a two-kid garage and two-point-five Volvos and settle down into slaving away in ten-hour workdays for the rest of his life to support some brats. Yeah, obviously it's men's instinct that leads them to run up to every damn baby stroller and go "coochie-coochie-coo!" Get real. Abortion means more sex. Abortion means freedom. Abortion is the male agenda. Babies? That's your propagandistic cliche, my ovaried chums. At some point feminist dogma has to run up against the reality of female instinct. We have to realize that most women are not brilliant creative minds who want the freedom to write poetry in a secluded cabin in the woods but simpleminded, instinct driven machines just like men. Those southern red states have female voters too, dull minds who desire dull lives, and they've been voting for any politician who will give them an excuse not to have an abortion, to lock a man into supporting them while they live out the complacent, carefree home-maker scenario.

That's the most sickening part of all this, the false "liberal" wing's refusal to acknowledge the other half of the equation. We term abortion as a "woman's right to choose" but ethically that can only exist if we include the existence of another right: the man's right to refuse to pay. We've all heard the extreme case of some man poking holes in condoms to get his wife pregnant but how much easier is it for a woman to accomplish the same by simply lying about being on the pill? What choice does a man have about a woman lying about missing her period until it's too late for an abortion? Hell, what choice does he have if she flatly declares she's keeping a kid and he's going to slave away for two decades to pay for it whether he wants to or not? Back when DNA testing first started around the turn of the millennium, a lot of women who grew up with this mentality took their chances and got caught by the new measures. Thirty percent of blood bank DNA tests in paternity suits actually ruled out the defendant as the father. Almost a third of women trying to extort money from a man were actually doing so under false pretenses. So where's the fucking outrage over this from the supposedly freedom-minded left wing, where's MSNBC's round-the-clock coverage of paternity fraud and men paying for children they never wanted because it's a woman's right to choose whether to cage a man or not.

War on women? Not while a man has no choice in whether a woman brings the foetid parasite in her to term to use it to enslave him. The reactionary agenda is what it's always been: a war on freedom, on thought, on anything that might make the working class stop acting like cogs in the system and fabricating more cogs for the masters of the system. It's a war on sex, on contentment, on higher aspirations from the lower class, on women who bear children and men who pay for them.

The Republicans have been waging a war on fun, and through their complicity in mis-labelling the issue to harness male-bashing for Clinton's campaign so are the oh-so politically correct Democrats. But hell, if you think any political party wouldn't be thrilled to feed skyrocketing birthrates into the public economy that feeds their private yachts, private jets and private islands, you're looking at some other species. Blue or red, they'd secretly love to overturn Roe vs. Wade. They just disagree on whether that position can get them elected or cause a riot.

Monday, June 29, 2015

WASDriving While Distracted

Y'know, typing while riding your mount in an online game is a lot like talking on a cellphone while driving. If you don't mind your surroundings your ride gets pulled over by a lawful evil troll with a wand of call lightning and you have to pay some geld to respawn your license.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Tolkien Giveth -

"When we started out I was in the 1940s
Simplify the politics, marvel at the architecture
[...]
We almost forgot
Every building is a shop
Every person is a shopper"

Metric - Parkdale


I have just ordered all three Lord of the Rings extended version DVDs. This is weird. Granted I bought them used but still, I don't normally purchase this sort of commodity, excluding a couple of impulse disks from the one-dollar bin at the library. Maybe I'm just falling for a corporate plot to make the Hobbit movies so corpse-rapingly terrible that we'll all desperately grasp at the older movies for a decent breath of Rivendell air, but I don't care. I'm guessing this is as good as it's going to get for the next few decades and I want a memento of the brief period of time when it all went right for a change.

Science fiction, fantasy, comic books, computer games and imaginative geeky subculture in general has mostly been treated by Hollywood as a sideshow at best. Usually the only interest the mass-media shows in post-mundane entertainment is to run stories about religious con-men terrifying their sheep by equating Harry Potter with the antichrist or the ever-popular "blame games for all your kids' problems" routine. Yet at the turn of the millennium (with computing power at the height of its practical magnification in usefulness) movie pushers found themselves in possession of several kings' ransoms' worth of special effect studios whose abilities were wasted on the latest flick about a bad-boy violent cop cleaning the city of ethnically convenient street gangs.

This is the only way I can explain the sudden rush fifteen years ago to begin making good escapist movies. Not that there hadn't been, let's say... Batman adaptations galore in the past, but they were generally cheap and always marketed in an insultingly patronizing manner to the six-year-old crowd. The X-men / Batman / Spiderman cartoons of the nineties were, paradoxically, much more mature and interesting than any live-action superhero movies regardless of higher budgets. As for science fiction, when it was not assumed to be "kid stuff" it was assumed to be nothing more than acid-trip material and handed over to the likes of David Lynch. Fantasy? Forget about it. Except for cheap gore-spattered hamfests like zombie series and a few stilted, low-budget (even by animation standards at the time) cartoons of Watership Down and The Hobbit, fantasy did not exist in public consciousness. It was an inexplicable label on a bookstore shelf where teenagers hung out and nothing more. Mention it in public as an adult and people started making phone calls to the local insane asylum to return their escapee.
Aside from a few aberrantly good mistakes like Blade Runner, Terminator 2, the Interview With the Vampire adaptation or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the only interaction the public at large was allowed to have with such material for decades was to denigrate it.

Then suddenly it's 1999 and studios start tripping over each other to make a big name out of flashy live-action special effects adaptations of old or new escapism. The Matrix, one superhero movie after another, Pitch Black, A.I., Equilibrium, Underworld, Pirates-of-the-freakin-Carribbean even, after decades of being treated as mental disorders, speculative or escapist genres were finally getting serious treatments in Hollywood. Ah, but all of it centers on just one high point, doesn't it? One name did more than others in anglophone literature to revive the spirit of old legends, to disentangle escapism from the official definition of insanity, and when The Fellowship of the Ring swept the Oscars, shit finally got real, yo. Suddenly it was legit. Suddenly you didn't have to say that copy on the shelf was for your future children, or you're just keeping it for childhood nostalgia's sake or it's just there as book-ends for your John Grisham and Agatha Christie collection. Good imaginative movies were good marketing campaigns and for a decade afterwards benefited from a constant flow of big investment.

Now I guess it's over. Just as the first Lord of the Rings movie broke the dam for the various attempts (some successful, some not) to legitimize various forms of geeky entertainment, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the deliberate destruction of The Hobbit marks the point we'll all look back to decades from now as the corporate world's decision to rein geeky entertainment back to the realm of cheap derision and children's toy advertising. The various superhero movie series have gradually degraded back to their standard 1960s camp quality and science fiction has been increasingly militarized back down to Starship Troopers levels. As for fantasy, Game of Thrones might still be going strong, but that's mostly as a sexual fantasy. I doubt anyone's asking for a Fevre Dream adaptation. It's over. Back to cop movies and rom-coms, everyone, nothing to see here. Go about your mundane lives to the tune of mundane fantasies.

The corporate bigwigs have finally remembered that rather than sustain and compete in quality it's safer, cheaper and more profitable to maintain low standards, to engineer an unimaginative, undiscerning mass of consumers. So, yeah, I bought the damn LotR movies. I want a reminder that for a little while, imagination actually had a shot at the public eye.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Necromanticism

Has anyone stopped to consider the role of necromancy in fantasy fiction? I mean on one hand death is evil. Ending a thinking being remains the yardstick of "el wrongo" in any ethical system worth its salt. Necromancy, however, does not equate with murder any more than does cannibalism. In fact, of the various forms of fantasy RPG necromancy, the several which allow the subject to retain individuality (ghosts, vampires and the likes of liches) present an intrinsic good as longevity treatments. Of course forcing a good-aligned character into undeath and therefore preventing same from receiving just rewards for a righteous life in some sort of unbelievably dull harpy paradise might be considered wrong, but then maybe you're preventing a formerly evil soul from being dragged down to a harpy hell, offering a chance at redemption. Or maybe the good soul you're raising is just so damn good it wants to keep itself out of the heavens just so it can do more good deeds. Such digressions from form are in fact referenced in D&D but only about as often as zombie zit-cream or skeleton polish. Add to this the fact that necromantically raising dead material without trapping the soul (skeletons, flesh golems, etc.) is in fact an objective good, putting flesh to further use without incurring any moral dilemmas whatsoever and you have to wonder why every game paints necromancy as icky.

Well... because it's just... icky, that why!
There's little more to it than our frugivorous primate heritage instinctively reeling away from decaying, infectious flesh as a survival adaptation, a visceral urge reinforced by tens of thousands of years of religious scheisters building up the mystique of death as supernatural to lend themselves credibility. Were we descended from an at least part-time scavenger species like wolves, our attitudes would likely be quite different. We are only now learning to stop persecuting those dealing with "unclean" materials for the greater good, so you'd think necromancers would catch a break in our oh-so-polite modern society's escapist interactive fiction. After all they're just the Dalits of the Forgotten Realms.

Boy, the Political Correctness Police are really dropping the ball on this one.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Laudato Muchly?

"God Money's not looking for the cure
God Money's not concerned about the sick among the pure"
NIN - Head Like a Hole

How is a PR press release from a month ago still "in the news" on Wikipedia's front page? I guess when The Man in the Fanciest Hat scribbles something on a bar napkin, the world takes note (his.) Yessiree, his popeness has got hisself a brand-new best-seller out (which as I gather is all about how everything is everyone else's fault but his) and the world's been tripping over itself trying to pat the Vatican's resident Edward Scissorhands on the head for only partly nicking our carotid while giving us a haircut.

I mean, don't you just hate it when you try to do something decent but at the end of the day it turns out you're still a pope? We've all been there. Like most political figures, the Catholic Church's temporary figurehead has to toe the party line and for about seventeen centuries now Christianity's been a tool of social control for the rich. That's not going to change just because the Catholic public relations department decides to align itself with one token facet of progressive thought.

Wanna reduce climate change? Reduce the thing that's changing the climate. No, I don't mean carbon emissions. Dead tree-ferns don't ooze out of the ground of their own accord to build themselves a power plant in which to self-immolate. The best way to reduce fuel use is to reduce fuel users. In our century, the greatest force multiplier to all the world's ills is the magnitude of the swarming multitude of naked apes, but population control remains the greatest political taboo and it's easy to see why. The rich and powerful have always depended on population numbers to feed their Caligulesque excesses, whether as a labor force, cannon fodder or just a large enough denominator for resource distribution to keep the poor all fighting for scraps and vulnerable to being divided and conquered. Every corporate robber-baron snarls with glee at his work-force and customer base growing by another million squealing future consumers and wage-slaves, and the institutions of social control (advertisers, national governments, religions, etc.) feed the corporate aristocracy's demands.

So it's really no surprise that the puppet who claims the greatest concern for the poor thinks the best solution to poverty is more poor people. It is his role to maintain an obedient workforce for the rich, just as it would have been under the land-holding feudalism of a millennium past. So stop praising the head charlatan. If nothing else, the institution he represents is still guilty of the deadly sin of promoting the mentality of moral authority which leads otherwise rational individuals to accept such lies. Any average, 100-IQ cretin could get elbowed in the ribs on a crowded subway, conclude "hmm, y'know, maybe there are too many of us running around" and maybe postpone his next child by another five or ten years. It takes a bit of brainwashing to make people look at a picture like this or this one and conclude that what the world needs is fewer condoms.

So, y'know, I don't give a flying fuck that one of the sadistic backbirths threatening superstitious third-world villagers with eternal torture for aborting an embryo with no more human qualities than a brine shrimp or even putting a sock on it (tm) have decided to make themselves look cute and cuddly by feigning concern over industrial waste. You don't get to plead innocent because you disinfected the shiv before stabbing the species in the nuts. You don't get to pretend humanitarianism while encouraging crime-ridden South American villages to produce more desperately poor overflow for Colt to sell murder-sticks to. The Pope is a mass-murderer.

Wikipedia's news headlines are partly a political lobby and have sometimes reflected a leftist stance. They are also a constant reminder that "left" or "liberal" is not necessarily synonymous with social progress, especially when tainted by the catch-all facetious tolerance of postmodernism. When you popularize and promote (for weeks longer than you'd devote to other "news" items) the rantings of an institution that's been consistently responsible for the most destructively backwards social engineering since the Renaissance onwards, you are anything but a force for progress. You're not being open-minded. You're just acting spineless and gullible.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Last of the Rings Online?

Consider the way Tolkien arranged The Lord of the Rings. We start in a quaintly familiar environment (the Shire) which nonetheless whets our appetite for Middle-earth's divergence from our own reality. We are introduced to our highly empathetic hero and his companions. From here we catch a glimpse of elves, dive into the timeless Old Forest to pay homage to children's storytelling, meet the undead, give a nod to trolls, listen to Lord Elrond Halfelven exposit on matters of rings, orcs, gollums and such, then dive into Moria for a slice of goblined dwarfhood with a Balrog on top. Then we're off to more elves and some talking greenery for good measure.

Throughout all this, the only human presence has been the comic relief provided by the "town of Brie*" plus the heroes Boromir and Strider, one a disposable redshirt, the other a larger-than-life ubermensch bad-ass. Though seeing humanity's necessity as a mundane backdrop, Tolkien focused sharply on the wonders of his mythology for the first half of the story, on the faerytale elements which have allowed Middle-earth to define high fantasy.

For the second half, the tale of Middle-earth subsides in favor of character-centered war stories, becoming less about wonder or discovery and more about pathos and heroism. We reach the lands of men: relatable yet largely forgettable figurines supporting the main cast without requiring much of the reader's attention in themselves. This fit the writer's purposes wonderfully for a finite story, ramping up the excitement toward the grand finale. Any literature professor will gladly supply you with the requisite (decidedly unscientific) graphs of rising action.

But wait, I'm supposed to be talking specifically about LotRO here, not LotR itself, about a persistent world and not a finite story. It's been a topic of some discussion whether Warner will bother keep the project going. My own server is a ghost town and though it only takes a few reckless fanboys to bankroll an MMO out of the red (especially when you can make them buy imaginary shirts for fifty cents a piece in the cash shop) megacorporations demand pretty high profit margins. For now, LotRO is serving its purpose as cross-promotion with the Hobbit movie fiasco and other games, but that will only pay off for... what, another year or so? So it's getting very tempting to start betting pools on when exactly LotRo will get the axe, or at least will lose its funding for new content and be allowed to die the living death of all MMOs, kept running for as long as subscription fees outstrip server maintenance.

Now, the game's expansions have moved from the first half of the story to the second, from the captivating landscapes of elves and dwarves:


 To the humdrum Podunk routine of Rohan and Gondor:

Though the game's landscaping, writing, music and artwork (after the drop in caliber in the first three expansions) has returned to the quality of the original release, it's obvious that there is now much less to work with. Those Gondor houses certainly look authentic and Edoras is looking appropriately majestic, but let's face it: it's hopelessly mundane compared to Ered Luin or the Shire.

Moreover, the development pattern has changed, showing that the development team is well aware of the shift in priorities. They know damn well they've run out of the more interesting material. The "shadows" in Shadows of Angmar held a double meaning. Yes, it was about the return of evil to the yadda-yadda but it was also about playing in the shadow of the central plot, enjoying Middle-earth without mangling Tolkien's writing. For a long time, the game was about exploring the nooks and crannies of Midddle-earth: Annuminas, Fornost, Angmar, Eregion, Dol Guldur, expanding on all the places mentioned only in passing in the books, allowing you as a player to live Middle-earth. Since the Warner takeover, however, expansions have been more and more focused on railroading customers through the books' plot without further digression, banking on rapid-firing expansions to keep players spinning their wheels on the leveling/loot treadmill.

No more Mirkwood zones. No Iron Hills. No Lonely Mountain zone. No adventuring by the side of Ghan-Buri-Ghan. No forays into Harad or Umbar. No more trying to revive the old instances. Just an ever-accelerating race to the Black Gate, not attempting to flesh out LotRO as a holiday in Middle-earth for Tolkien fans but only desperately wringing as much money as possible out of disinterested but addicted players while the movies' popularity lasts. Face it, despite the fact that they're still paying a few artists and voice actors, LotRO's being dangled over the oubliette.

Know how else I can tell? Half-trolls have replaced Jorthkyn, no longer building but conflating, no longer logically expanding but repetitively contracting. Much like the other DnD-ish backsliding in Moria like flaming horned orcs, half-trolls reek of rushed desperation.
So how long do you give it?

* And yes, I know a bree is a brew, but it's funnier the other way.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Children of the Nile For the Future


"Your people are your most important resource - use them wisely!"

Anyone else think that sounds just a bit creepy-like? Then again, this is an except from the tutorial of a game about the ancient Egyptians, the people who thought cat corpses make quaint tchotchkes. Or maybe it's just the motto of the rich, pharaonic or otherwise. Quoth Dilbert: "They're called 'Human Resources' because they're meant to be strip-mined." Just so you don't feel too guilty about doing so, Children of the Nile presents you with  the same comedically oafish populace one comes to expect from City-oriented Sims, wandering your lands going about their placid, algorithmic ways as you scowl down from on high because damnit, it's been half a year and that temple still isn't built; get on it you lazy sandbums!

I skipped CotN when it first came out because, glimpsing a few screenshots, I thought to myself "meh, I've already played Age of Empires so's whadda I need with this?" Gold mines, workers, masonry, spears... throw in some green body paint and ya gotcherself a zug-zug, right? Wrong, of course, even if it took me a decade to ignore the screenshots of charioteers and find out this is actually a city-building sim and not an RTS. In my defense, however, CotN's reliance on units instead of buildings shifts gameplay toward RTS mechanics in more than a superficial manner. In most such games the citizens are mere window-dressing, a set of graphics generated by the buildings you place merely as illustration of their activities. In CotN, on the other hand, they are your main tool and obstacle, the life of your kingdom.

As per city sim definition your main activity as pharaoh is placing buildings. Uncharacteristically, these do not in themselves do anything. Linking them with roads does nothing. They will not draw power from any sort of divine electricity grid. A hospital will not immediately begin improving health around it wherever you plunk it down. Guard posts do not guard anything by themselves. A farm does not create food. Farmers do. Soldiers guard, priests pray and cure, scribes tax (my patience with their incompetence) and nobles, well... throw parties. Sure, ok, I mean, everyone's got their strenuous duties, right?
Even more frustrating to any starting player, the game uses no currency, no Simoleons, interstellar credits or Quatloos. There is no budget and no bottom line. Hilariously, this can obfuscate whether your city is growing or failing and you'll quickly learn how much more confusing it can be to keep a tyrannical strangle-hold on a scattered barter economy than on a conveniently centralized, aristocrat-friendly stock market.

However, Children of the Nile's central appeal can be grasped much more succinctly when compared to other sandboxish or open-world takes on FPS or RPG genres like STALKER, Mount and Blade or the Elder Scrolls series.
Rabiah Yutamun is deciding what to do (tm). Lost on a side-street between rows of farmers' hovels under the quixotic penumbra of monuments for the dead, one of the NPCs in your city is going about her own personal life. She may decide to go drop by the shrine of Bast and pray for the health of her children or help with her family's back-breaking work or maybe take a break to go shop for a pair of sandals (the sandal-maker down the street just invented heels) but whatever she does, she will do among a throng of other townsfolk all going about their own algorithmically forking paths. Just as you could trail a shepherd through his daily routine in Oblivion or a band of bounty hunters across the map in Mount and Blade, Children of the Nile places your grandiose aspirations in a meaningfully interconnected virtual world in which NPCs begin to seem less like props and more like fellow actors. The children are indeed the focus of this game, not the Nile itself.

Granted, that does come with some drawbacks. The AI in computer games is never quite sufficiently I to accomplish anything without tripping over itself. Though CotN gave up on the worst possible pitfall, pathfinding, by having its citizens walk more or less wherever they want, your humble subjects will still occasionally get stuck on some task or another. Having already related the saga of Anpu Tahet I must add that his is not the only such case I've encountered even in only a few matches. I've also had my economy stalled by an overseer refusing to shop at the stores right by his house and a graduate who refused to move out of his parents' house and get a job... and yes, that last one seems a bit on the nose when you're addressing gamers.

When you get a thousand different AIs all trying to interact they can very quickly turn into a constant Three Stooges routine. This may explain why games like CotN are so rare. Oblivion's populace was for the most part painstakingly scripted and did not act independently, and your success or failure in STALKER or Mount and Blade did not depend on the actions of any particular freewheeling, wandering NPC. Spore trivialized its otherwise robust simulation by giving you too many easy options toward victory, keeping the game stages short and keeping almost all of the elements out of the player's reach.
In CotN or the Majesty games, on the other hand, a single snapped lynchpin can too often break the game. Even ignoring what this means in terms of programming difficulties, the sheer amount of testing it takes to find and define such problems must make for very daunting development timeframes.

Still, can't we get more of this? The thrill of trying to establish a marble quarrying colony in CotN, coordinating bread, bricks, shops and cops, is enough to lead me to ignore the rudimentary flat map, blocky graphics and other flaws. Good music, a smooth interface, ambitious scale and detailed interactions plus some quaint street-level humor go a long way.

After the success of Minecraft and others, quite a few titles have sprung up promising sandbox interactivity on a large scale. Children of the Nile is old and relatively small by today's standards but it's going to serve as a nice reference point. Can you deliver a Pharaonic pipe-dream as good as this without retreating into small-minded Sims-style triviality, without taking the gold-mining and granite-quarrying completely out of players' hands, without giving up and scripting everything into submission? Can your AIs walk around without head-butting each other or am I going to find my good friend Anpu Tahet lodged in my spaceship's reactor intakes in The Mandate?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Cubespiration?

It's been several years since I played Portal and seventeen or so since I saw Cube. Cube with its cold, stark, machine-like, rectilinear, murderous head-games and Portal with its... yeah, that stuff.
I have just now realized the similarity between the two.
Oh lordy-loo, good thing I'm not really caught in some deadly maze taxing my perspicacity.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Snow Crash Ain't Cyberpunk

Spoiler alert? Lil' bit, mmmmyeah.

About twelve years ago, I was taking a general education university literature course. The professor, being relatively young, hip, cool, rad and in the know (yo) promoted a superficially different agenda from the otherwise stuffy, Hemmingwilted greybeards in the department. Note, I said "superficially" - important plot point!
For instance, he informed us young'uns about this thing called "blogging" which had become the latest craze in the days when LiveJournal was still a spring chicken. He also dared to promote a science fiction book, and even though I'm going to argue against that particular book, one must keep in mind this was back in the day when "nerd" was one of the worst insults college freshmen could throw at each other, right up there with "fag." "Nerd" got your teeth knocked out and scifi nerds the nerdiest. So, you know, partial props to my old prof managing to go against the grain both student and faculty-wise.

Still, recalcitrant nonconformist that I am, I wasn't about to take reading tips from an authority figure. Despite cyberpunk motifs being right up my alley, he wound up poisoning Snow Crash for me with his endorsement. It wasn't until recently that I became more objective on the topic and allowed Snow Crash to poison itself for me. Meaning I actually read it and found that the "other" staple of cyberpunk fiction routinely cited alongside Neuromancer left me more with the impression of a very skillful con artist playing at punk.

Not that Stephenson seems to have been all that worried about hiding this fact. When you name your main character Hiro Protagonist you're more or less sounding the trumpets in a crusade against conventional heroism. Also, as far as the "cyber" half of the equation goes, one can't fault his well-researched plot gimmicks, both within and without computer science. Now, though, we're getting into some of the book's negative issues. So much of it is simply a forced, recherche amalgam of '90s political correctness and pop-culture fads - any swill that might sell while allowing the audience to feel dignified while imbibing. A black ninja constantly being outshone by a plucky young heroine who trips into success at every step, a canis ex machina proving that love conquers all and sure, mix in some Aleuts to show how multicultural we can be. Can you paint with all the colors of cliche?

Much of this actually works as skillfully humorous twisting of old tropes but the author overplayed it through blunt, declarative sneering. YT's "she's a woman, you're a dude" speech, the "baddest motherfucker in the world" passage, the "mob's just another business" conversation, the overly-descriptive canine dreamscape and worst of all the inane yet disgustingly servile "will you be my girl" scene all prove once again that farce can dip very quickly from cathartic perspective to direct grotesque insult to one's intelligence. The worst of it, however, has more to do with the novel's overall tone and political stance, and it's why I've never had a professor recommend Neuromancer and Snow Crash is, if anything, more popular among literati.

The cornerstone of cyberpunk is punk: grim, macabre, anti-establishment narcissism. Self-criticism is certainly necessary within the genre but it can be handled elegantly and without betraying the central themes of individual freedom and class warfare, as Gibson did with the scene of Molly's collapse in Neuromancer itself. Snow Crash, however, simply betrays that worldview through its vindication of establishment means of social control. It presents the growth of quasi-religious belief systems (the New Age thing got big around 1990) as the ultimate embodiment of destructive deprogramming of the human brain, the cavalcade of memetic viruses waiting to assail us. The cure? Organized religion. A bit like curing a headache with a shotgun.

Not that I hold any love for the various pseudoscientific fads that spring up everywhere in the modern world where Christianity's death-grip on European culture recedes, of the many ghosts of God in Nietzchean terms, from Bigfoot chasers to healing crystals to alien sightings and Scientology and the old favorites like astrology and tea-leaves. Don't get me wrong, such memetic viruses infecting the human desperation for validation by authority are quite harmful and should be stamped out. However, in no way is God the cure for his own ghost. However sick and depraved such modern superstitious tools of manipulation are, they pale in comparison with the vicious, megalomaniacal, totalitarian depravity of established religions.

Through that one political statement, Snow Crash itself becomes a memetic infection, an establishment pamphlet snuck past its target audience's anti-establishment defenses under the cover of IT jargon, and this is perhaps the most flattering comment on Stephenson's skill as a writer. The book is undeniably masterfully composed, regardless of how despicable I might find its tone. It is also why a young literature professor might have felt free to enjoy and promote it, betraying his own desperation to give his youthful integrity the old Judas-kiss and join the ranks of tweet-clad greybeards sneering at youth culture. He had been infected.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Pin I'd Lynch

Welcome to ancient Egypt.

I am Pharaoh Werwolfe (the first through fifth, so far) and I would like to relate to you the means by which the grand march of civilization was brought to a grinding halt.
We begin our tale with one man, a simple man, an honest man, a very very stupid man. This, as you can read for yourselves, being of the refined, educated upper castes, is Anpu Tahet. Mr. Tahet is a laborer, the very first laborer as it happens to settle in my fair city
Regardless of his current activity update he is not, in fact, hauling. There is insufficient muscle available for any hauling to be going on. Our good Anpu is standing in front of a basalt stele. He cannot seem to carry it by himself but being the grim, determined sort of protagonist, he will see to no other cares until his task is done. Henceforth he will not budge from this spot. Day-in, day-out, year after year, he will neither shop nor pick up his allotment of bread from the local bakery (but don't worry, unlike priests, nobles and even pharaohs, Anpu is apparently immortal.) You can forget about him marrying. Anpu's household's satisfaction looks somewhat like this.
The overall satisfaction of citizens in my fair metropolis looks pretty good, except for one glaring red mark.
 Nearby, a row of quaint but sturdy huts remain uninhabited.

You see, the longer Anpu stands in front of the slab of basalt he can't move by himself, the less he shops and eats, and the unhappier he gets. The laborer caste, consisting in totality of our highly goal-oriented Mr. Tahet, quickly aquires an unsavory reputation for dissatisfaction, preventing any other farmers from trying their hand at laboring. Thus, Anpu will never receive the teamwork he needs to finally move that slab of rock then grab a sandwich, maybe buy himself a rug and show the world just how happy the laboring life can be. Catch-22.

Meanwhile, in front of the palace:
This is the pedestal awaiting that basalt stele to be engraved with proclamations of Pharaoh Werwolfe's grandeur.
Meanwhile, across town:
This is the temple of Ma'at awaiting a statue of same goddess to be carried in by a team of laborers.
This is a house which would be filled by a priest if only Pharaoh Werwolfe were prestigious enough to attract more literati to his service (say, by proclaiming his grandeur on a basalt stele.)

Priests in Children of the Nile provide not only the circus in the Roman panem et circenses (through shrines and temples) but also health care. An outbreak of measles and a very destructive flood later, the city's farmer and servant population takes a severe hit. Illness and existential despair run rampant. Pharaoh's prestige continues to drop. The city is now in a spiral of decay.
For lack of hands, a stone could not be moved. For lack of a stone, the word could not be spread. For lack of the word, priests could not be found. For lack of priests, pestilence ran amok and lo, the populace did fear the gods had forsaken them and fled. For lack of farmers, the harvest was poor. For lack of bread, no circuses availed.

Anpu is still standing in front of his immovable object.

Out in the desert, the foundation for my burial place stands eternally unfinished, unfinishable for lack of laborers.
You're killin' me here, Anpu, and I can't even get a worthy burial. It'll be us to the end, my friend, while the city crumbles, you and I. For how did you know, you simple genius, my lasting respect for nihilism?

"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed"




 ____________________________________________________________________


(P.S.:
Actually, my city did eventually recover, a couple pharaohs' worth of history later. It just took a lot of doing and some festivals to raise morale globally, and I like the story better the other way.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Galactic Civilizations 3 Lacks Zing






Look, it's the planet Terminus! Bonus nerd points if you can guess which other Foundation-inspired planet I'm going to reference later in this post, but look, look, I have the planet Terminus under my control and it's at the edge of the game map and specializes in research! How amazing is that? I am officially geeking out over here, people.  This is to a large extent the sort of thing we play games for, to place ourselves in grandiose escapist fantasies inspired by our favorite authors, to travel beyond the mundane.

So why is Galactic Civilizations 3 so mundane? I mean, okay, I really was somewhat jazzed about how promising this game looked in beta and it does many things right to engage the player. Little gimmicks like colonization events lend your 4x-ing some well-written flavor and the Spore-quality ship design feature allows for a little player creativity. Planet development makes satisfying use of the adjacency bonus gimmick so common in these games. Its biggest selling point is probably the sheer size of the game map putting an unruly expanse of hundreds of solar systems at your disposal, but that runs into the game's main problem. Your game experience on the whole is not that scenic close-up view above. There is nothing to do at the solar system scale. Instead, you'll spend most of your time zoomed out to the tactical overlay looking at simple ideograms.


Granted, the scale is impressive. As the genre for megalomaniacs, 4x games have over the past years finally been acquiring the grandiose maps we always hoped they would. Yet this throws their common failing of redundancy into starker light. Gal Civ 3 is blatantly intended as a representative 4x game but for a genre which is supposed to be all about growth, it gets a very flat feeling to it after the initial wave of expansion. The different tech options (missiles vs. energy weapons, etc.) are not different enough to make for meaningful choice. Every new building is yet another 40% boost to research or influence. Every new trade-oriented planet is just like your last three trade-oriented planets. Bigger ship designs don't really act bigger; they just have more slots to fill. All in all, it's no more than what you could get by firing up an old copy of Master of Orion or Ascendancy. It's good clean fun but lacks a good, solid "wow" factor for the end game. Why not put all this new technology allowing for such huge environments to more creative use?

See, spacefaring SciFi isn't just about a big galaxy. It's about big ideas. From lowly Terminus on the edge of the galaxy, I should at some point late in the game be able to progress to its logical counterpart: Trantor. Instead of upgrading hex by hex, why not pave over a world and turn it into a gigantic administrative center? Where are the damn wormholes? Why can't I desertify an entire planet and fill it with sandworms? Where's my damn Dyson sphere, or at least a Ringworld? I can't seem to even build a measly Death Star!
More than that, are robots the most exotic alien species we can imagine? Why can't I be a race of giant floating medusae living in gas giants or a plasma being living in stars? Why aren't the various types of planets at least home to different alien species, a la Space Empires? Why can't I be a brain parasite species gaining techs and bonuses for each new alien race I enslave?

I can't tell whether this game is just an outrightly cynical attempt to cash in on an existing fan base or just an attempt to lock down the exact definition of the 4x category. Maybe it's so restrictive for the sake of balance as it seems to have some multiplayer ambitions, but multiplayer 4x has always been a fool's errand. When your greatest selling point is a galactic-sized, turn-based marathon that takes a week of real time to finish, you're better off giving up on trying to get players together for it. This is a single-player genre.

I'm guessing things like stars of death will be making an appearance on $5-10 a piece DLC packs in the future but for now, after a very good first impression, Gal Civ 3 is merely a disappointingly unambitious project. For $50 you should get more than just a glossier version of Ascendancy, and by the time the DLC packs wring another twenty or fifty bucks out of you, much more inspired games will come along. If you've been wondering what classic 4x is all about, Gal Civ 3 is an excellent encapsulation of it... but do yourself a favor and wait a year or two for it to be priced as the bargain-basement material it unfortunately resigns itself to be.
Aside from its glossier graphics, this game's 1995 all over again, and is in many ways even less creative than its older counterparts.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

You're Not a Man

The indisputable grand marshal of the last Hobbit movie's cavalcade of sins against intellect would have to be Tauriel, warrior princess. Inserting Legolas as a major character into the Battle of Five Armies was bad enough, as he should more aptly have been re-named to Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, but at least ole Leg o' lamb and the White Council were actual Tolkien characters. Tauriel is inexcusable.
Inexcusable, not inexplicable.

Even ignoring Hollywood's perceived need for cheesy romantic sub-plots in every single movie, regardless of its topic, there was a more pressing revisionist agenda to fill. Regardless of the politics of Edwardian England, Tolkien knew enough about history to know that in any tribal conflict, it's always been the males who get thrown into the meat-grinder to protect the women who will in turn produce more meat for grinding next degeneration.
We like to ignore that reality these days.
Anything boys can do, girls can do better. Enter retconned warrior princesses into every re-hashing of old epics. Truth and perspective be damned.
Note, there's no problem with writing new stories featuring heroines in addition to or instead of heroes. Back in eighth grade, around the same time I was reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I also read Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, and found it fascinating despite wrinkling my nose a bit at Corlath being portrayed as a pig-headed male making a strategic blunder and having his kingdom saved by a female "chosen one."

However, writing their own stories is not enough for feminists. The Hobbit, as a whimsical children's or young adult adventure story, commits an utterly inexcusable crime against womankind. It allows its all-male cast to act without female supervision. Despite the lack of even the slightest derogatory comments against women, the book commits the deadly sin of portraying men acting on concerns which are not immediately tied into their role as protector/provider for a family/tribal unit. Peter Jackson's crew set about decisively correcting this problem of male freedom.

Here's the crux of the matter. We are rightfully proud of ourselves in Western society for setting about freeing women from their biological role as breeders, for allowing them freedom from the suffocating safe confines of the homestead. No individual should be so sentenced. We are, however, more comfortable than ever shaming, badgering and taunting men into performing their biologically determined role. Men are not individuals. They are extensions of the family unit, muscle unto death. At the same time as Tauriel tears Tolkien's writing to shreds to hammer home a completely anachronistic point, what do we get for the male half of that equation?

I would suggest adapting The Blue Sword to film, but the truth is that its relatively light eye-rolling at Corlath's masculinity is nowhere near feminist enough by today's standards. Today's women demand no less than utter humiliation. Glamorous Tauriel's counterpart is not Legolas but Alfrid the unibrowed, hunching, sniveling nebbish. Esgaroth's women are taken to safety, allowed to choose to save themselves. Naturally, since women are paragons of virtue, they turn and fight nonetheless. In the same scene, Alfrid the coward, who attempts to exercise that same choice, is berated by one of those heavenly matrons with "you're not a man" for attempting to dress as one of them to escape battle.

You're not a man if you don't sacrifice yourself in battle, if you don't play meat-shield for women. You're not a man. Let that sink in a moment.
Now, imagine the reverse. Imagine a scene in the same movie where a woman would become the reviled comic-relief straw-man for not performing her social role. Imagine a group of men in a scene in Esgaroth or Dale spitting insults at a woman because she refuses to marry and start bearing children as young as she can.
"You're not a woman!"
Right?
I say imagine that scene because you'll never see it. No big-name director or studio would dare append name and profit-margin to such despicable, dehumanizing reductionism... were it directed at women instead of men.

Anything boys can do, girls can do better. Anything girls can do, you're a sexist pig if you expect them to do it. Anything boys can do, you're a sexist pig if you don't shame them into doing it. Anything girls can do, boys have no right to claim for themselves. You sexist pig.
Get out there and die for your mate, who may or may not feel like performing her end of the bargain.
Otherwise, you're not a man.

Such is feminist equality and freedom of choice.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Battle of Five Sundries

So far I'd avoided the disgusting wreck we fans knew would round off the sorely disappointing Hobbit illogy, but if for nothing else than morbid curiosity, I was always going to wind up cringing through it at some point.

Point.

So. While it's sort of pointless to discuss the Battle of Five Armies as an adaptation or even a film (it doesn't qualify) its endless array of failings are better discussed as social or industry issues. Start with IMDB. As with any expensive movie, the front page is one gigantic glossy banner-ad attempting to overwhelm the viewer with grandiose imagery. Skip past the sensory overload, however, click the barely distinguishable "see all reviews" button buried somewhere between gigantic flame graphics and bragging about the sickening profits we've all contributed to this sick joke of a movie, and you can find out what some Tolkien fans actually thought about it. The first ten pages or so, filled by the die-hard fans who crammed into theaters in December hoping for some redemption after the shaky beginning and godawful second installment, range from "what did I just watch" to "piece of crap" and below. Ratings range from one to five stars out of ten.

Yet that's about a hundred or more well-informed, involved Tolkien readers. The rest of the 264,000 users who rated the movie gave it a 7.5/10. Such is the power of corporate propaganda. They were told this was something to like. Thus, they liked it (possibly on Facebook.) So, when discussing The Battle of Five Armies flick, it must be in these terms. What we've all watched was not a film but propaganda, a two-hour advertisement for Time Warner's various video game series exploiting their Tolkien license.

That aspect was fairly obvious (as I pointed out) with The Desolation of Smaug and is only somewhat more pronounced in the third part. Thorin vs. Azog plays out like any video game "boss fight" complete with the percentage-health determined combat phase transitions, for the most obvious example. Special effects are unnecessarily glossy so as to better reflect the conveniently cheap effects churned out for a video game series. Hey, let's make this a drinking game!
See how many video game tie-ins you can spot. Take a shot for each one. Liver failure imminent.

Other alterations were just regular Hollywood degradation. Peter Jackson has morphed into Jeph Jacques' prophetic Jimbo character somewhere along the way, and all those of us who complained about XenArwen ten years ago now have to admit it could've been much, much worse (but they didn't have to go and prove it!) I'll split off my comments on the movie's feminist pandering into another post. Eliminating the messenger thrush and replacing it with a heroic son for a heroic father just fits into the family/tribal lowest-common-denominator routine I complained about just days ago apropos of Interstellar. Aside from that, it was mostly a matter of cramming as many big names into a superproduction as per movie company standards, and quality be damned. Orlando Bloom just sells tickets.

However, the most astounding changes, those which led me to literally grit my teeth and groan until my jaw and chest hurt, were just the inexplicably random nonsense which litters every minute of this confused mess. For example, I get that they wanted a big scary monster type to put into video games afterwards... but why sandworms for the love of crap? Tolkien and Herbert share their readership only tangentially. You'd have been better off with taun-tauns and dinosaurs or something. And then, after shitting on Tolkien's corpse with that whiplash-inducing bullshit, after paying to create that special effect... they simply disappear and take no part in the fight.
Then we have Dain riding around on a pig because... I dunno, he bought an epic mount in Ironforge or something? Except the dwarven army makes no further use of pigs. What, they could only afford the one big pig?
Or take the missed opportunity to show Galadriel using her ring in the fight with Sauron, which would've been as simple as drawing a glowing ring on her finger in editing instead of a big blue flashing palm. That's ignoring everything else wrong with that scene, the least of which is the fact that they had all three elf-rings in one spot but Hugo Weaving was standing around like he forgot his lines.
Or take the fact that the studio didn't want to pay too many extras, so the movie about the Battle of Five Armies consists of a few zoomed-out CGI shots of rows of computer-generated faceless orcs, elves and dwarves plus all the video game boss fights which happen conveniently far away from more expensive choreography.

And on and on and on. I doubt we'll ever find out what really happened with this utterly despicable rape of a classic. I'm not sure if it's known exactly how much Peter Jackson was paid to ruin his reputation for the next decade, to become Jimbo the redneck fantasy writer. Or maybe he was a total moron to begin with and we need to comb the Lord of the Rings credits for the other writers, art directors and such who really made those films great. I don't know whether Christopher Tolkien is suing Time Warner for defamation or not. I don't know how many video game spin-offs they're selling to un-knowing ten-year-olds or whether the Jar-Jar Binks of middle-earth is actually a popular character.

I don't want to know. I'm done with this. It'll be a few weeks or months before I can think about Tolkien's stories without gnashing my teeth at dark memories of this utter pile of filth. I do have a couple more things to point out later in terms of its social effects but for now, fuck it. I can't even tell anyone not to watch it because we all already have, we've already paid into it. We've all supported this derogation of the author who created the modern fantasy genre. Chew on that.


P.S.
I do feel obligated to mention the one good part of this movie. Back before watching the first part of the trilogy, during that period of anticipation and dread when we knew there were good odds it would turn out, y'know, like it has, I listed some possible saving graces. They included the song scene I wanted in the first movie, which thankfully leaves me one happy memory out of seven hours of boredom and infuriation. Mirkwood was unfortunately utterly forgettable and Smaug was decent but nothing to write home about. There's one last thing:
Bilbo.
Yes, he should've been a bit pudgier and more hobbit-looking, but that was an art/directing choice. Martin Freeman, for his part, has done a thorough job with the character in all three movies and thank you, thank you for that, Mr. Freeman. You were the one outstanding positive in a ceaseless negative.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"We Like 'Em:

Is there any better encapsulation of modern Americana than some TV show titled "Obese and Pregnant"
?