Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Apr 29, 2006

Aeon Flux

This action flick is one of the best I've seen in a while, falling short of The Matrix 0nly because the production values are a teensy bit lower. There is *gasp* an actual plot, and it's pleasantly twisty and involving.

Aeon Flux is a revolutionary living in a utopian society where it appears that the government has started running amok. People are vanishing without a trace in a society without crime or any real motivation for crime. Some dark secret must be at work. So, she is sent to kill the visible head of the government.

She fails.

If I said anything more, I'd be giving it away, so you'll have to go see it for yourself. If you do, you're in for a treat. The scenery is fantastic and beautiful, precisely what you'd expect from a movie based on anime. The characterization is great: although stylized the characters are complex and very real. It reminds me in some ways of Dark City and Ultra-Violet (which I reviewed previously) without some of the former's grimness and the latter's idiot reference to vampires.

There's only one major technical flaw in the movie that requires significant suspension of disbelief, even, and even with it you're not completely sure that it's garbage, considering the sophistication of the technology in the game.

That, and I want to know why the old virus is referred to as the "Industrial Disease", it's never explained.

Apr 27, 2006

A Well-Orchestrated Spiel

I just bought some magazines. Now, I don't really read magazines. However, what happened was this:

I arrived home from work and noticed my next-door neighbor talking to a young black gentleman in a suit. I thought: religious prosletyzer. We get them around here occasionally, and though I am, in fact, anti-religion, I don't have the heart to give them a hard time. It's nice to see people being sincere and doing something difficult even if I think they are a few fruit loops short of a bowl. Anyway.

Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure he saw me arrive, because no sooner do I sit down at my computer than there is a ring at the doorbell. I was obviously home, so I gave up and went to answer the door.

It turned out this young man was not spreading the word of his particular version of God, he was selling magazines. However, through a rather ingenious and ingratiating approach I didn't actually discover this fact until I'd engaged him in conversation for several minutes. He started out explaining that he was looking to get a new start in life teaching young people skills to succeed in selling door-to-door. Then he explained that he only needed a few more "points" in order to get an upgrade to said teaching position.

Then he invited me to fill out a form commenting on his presentation; only then did he explain that what he was really doing was selling magazines. Since I'm not very assertive in person (and he looked like a little lost puppy) I ended up buying some. Oh, well, in for a penny, in for a pound; I spend more money than that on books every month.

I figure this is my donation towards Getting Young People Into Capitalism, sort of like donating to NPR or PBS.

Apr 26, 2006

It's Sad, Really

I can sympathize with Diana Hsieh's most recent coverage of the ongoing war between Objectivists and others that claim to be Objectivists, although my personal experience with behavior like this is more along the lines of coworkers sniping at each other and being mistreated by gaming buddies. Since I'm blogging as an Objectivist (even though I don't explicitly discuss a lot of philosophy) I thought it might be prudent to explain where I fall in this disagreement.

Previously, I hadn't really thought much about it, and I wasn't particularly concerned about the issue. However, reading Diana's blog has educated me a great deal about the importance of drawing a line between people who accurately represent Objectivism and those who distort it and use it for an unknown personal agenda.

So, here it is: I'm a full-bore ARI supporter. However, I don't claim to be an authority on the thinking of ARI scholars and I certainly don't claim to speak for them, so my views will now return quietly to the background.

On with the book reviews!

Oath of Swords

This is a fun and highly enjoyable book by David Weber about a highly atypical fantasy paladin and his various adventures. Since I love atypical characters (as should be fairly obvious from my own writing), I enjoy the series, although the books do have the occasional dull moment.

The basic plot of the first book is that Bazhell Bahnakson, a Horse Stealer hradani, gets himself into some serious trouble by having a vicious attack of nobility and is driven out into the lands of the other races (typical fantasy offerings such as dwarves, elves, etc.). This might not seem to be a big deal, except that the hradani are crazed berserkers and viewed with some alarm by the other races, if not hatred. Accompanied by his also atypical friend Brandark, a would-be bard, Bazhell manages to find a new place for himself in the world.

Still, things go fairly well . . . until Tomanak, the War God, decides that he wants Bazhell for his new champion (paladin, that is), and won't take no for an answer. A friend of mine summed the results up fairly succinctly:

"Be my champion! You'll have power and stuff!"
"Why not?"
"I don't want your power!"
"Here's a demon."
"Um . . . did you say something about power?"

One of the negatives of the book is Weber's occasionally overwrought writing style (must you describe every cut and thrust of every fight? And what's with the dramatic speeches?), which I think is overbalanced by his general outlook that most people are good, if wrongheaded, and will listen to reason. His really evil characters tend to come across as incredibly stupid, to the extent that you're actually happy when some suitably awful thing happens to them. You may even giggle.

The other doesn't bother me much, although it tends to bog the story down; Weber's books are full of logistical information that doesn't really pertain to the story so much. While it's nice that he put thought into where these fantasy populations live and work so that the story has versimilitude, if it's not important please don't devote ten pages to it.

Rating: 3.5

Apr 24, 2006

Epic: Diplomacy

Daian occupied herself with slapping dust from her clothes while she waited for her blinking, watering eyes to adjust.  In the far distance a few puffy clouds floated idly, but otherwise there was no relief from the ferocious light.  She rubbed her eyes, then grimaced and spent several minutes trying to clear grit out of them.

She turned to look back at the tunnel and grimaced again at the stone columns supporting the blocky lintel.  They were not particularly remarkable columns, lacking any artistic finishing, but they were also unmistakable.  This was the southernmost gate of Farsis.  The difficulty was, Farsis wasn’t in the middle of a desert.  Given, Farland wasn’t exactly a damp country, but there should at least be grass and a few trees.  And where was the road? An entire road didn’t just get up and walk away.

If she really had walked out of Farsis, there was at least a reasonable possibility she knew where to find some water before nightfall.  If she was mistaken about the gate then she could very well wander until the desert did her in.  It was a simple choice, really.  Daian frowned at the columns one last time, made another futile pass at her dusty clothes, and started walking.  After she found some water she could start trying to fit facts together.

There was very little in the way of landmarks to help her fix her position.  It was hot, and it only got hotter; she estimated it was an hour or so before noon when she’d begun, leaving her walking during the worst of the day.  She’d thought about waiting until a more congenial time, but traveling at night had its own dangers, and she decided risking sunburn and heatstroke was better than likewise risking stepping off a cliff in the dark.

The enormous pile of sand she’d thought of as dunes gave way rapidly to an even more featureless plain of unpleasantly sharp small rocks.  Heat billowed up from the unforgiving surface and obscured the distance in a dizzying flux.  Long black shadows wavered ahead.  At first she thought they were simply a form of mirage, then some trick of the plain brought an unusual sound to her ears.  A man’s voice.

There were people.  This could be bad.

Some part of Jemith’s mind, probably the logical part that had never done him much good, insisted on contemplating the problem that now presented itself to him.  Really, it was a question of simple arithmetic:  six men plus six swords minus all scruples equaled a serious problem for a lone magician traveling on foot.  Unfortunately, from there it progressed into algebra: he wanted to compute X, where X equaled a removal of the threat posed by these men.  Since they’d moved their horses to surround him, geometry now entered into the question.  He had a nagging suspicion that the answer to his problem lay in some realm of higher mathematics that he had not studied yet.

Bereft of a solution, he resorted to a habitual classroom tactic: stall!

“I truly don’t believe I have anything to interest you gentlemen”—gentlemen! Pfaugh!  That word was so divorced from anything resembling truth that he was amazed he could say it without stuttering—“unless, that is, you care for a demonstration of the subtle arts.  I am but a simple traveling performer, a magician, and I have neither coin nor goods to be of value to you!  I am too stringy even to eat!”

A hundred plagues on all guilds, schools, societies and associations of swordsmen, anyway!  He thought furiously.  On the whole wretched breed!  A thousand plagues on this vile sand pit!  And ten thousand on Ehmammin for sending me out here in the first place!

“We could always sell him,” one of the bandits muttered in a bored voice.

“Ha ha!”  Jemith burst out desperately.  “It pleases my lord to jest!  Look at my narrow chest, my shrunken arms . . . no one would buy a slave so tiny and pathetic! I would not even be worth the cost of feeding!  Frankly, your generosity in even stopping to converse fills me with”—horror, he almost said, and stammered slightly before continuing—“joy, that I have somehow merited the attention of such worthy gentlemen as yourselves!”

Why, oh why did there have to be SIX of them?   Now, if I use my poison cloud on that one and my last lightning crystal on the two in front of me, that only leaves THREE to cut my head off . . .

“Can we just kill him already?”

“It’s bad luck to kill a magician,” announced the one that was most likely their leader.

He’s superstitious!  That might give me an edge . . .

“The prophet says that all magicians are unholy infidels and must be purified by the flames.  We chould turn him over to the prophet’s men in Beserrib.”


“Will they pay us for him?”

“If he really is a magician.  He might just be one of those--what’s the word-- pretigators.”

“Prestidigitators,” Jemith corrected automatically, then cursed himself for a fool.  The bandits stared at him, shocked.

“That’s what I said,” their leader snarled.

“Of course, of course.  How rude of me.”

“Well, do some magic, then.”

Jemith blinked.  “Let me see if I understand you correctly: if I do some magic you’re going to turn me over to the prophet’s soldiers to be executed?”


“If I don’t do any magic, are you going to let me go?!?”

The man scowled, his scarred face and bristly beard contorting unpleasantly.  “If you don’t do any magic I’m going to cut your head off.”

“But if I do you’re going to take me off to be tortured and executed!”

“Are you volunteering to get your head chopped off?”

This is ridiculous.  You can’t possibly be serious.”  So much for diplomacy.  Ehmammin would be SO proud of you at this moment.  Jemith groused mentally.   He imagined what they might say at his funeral.  Beloved Jemith talked himself to death while suffering from a lack of mathematics.  If only he’d learned some patience.  If only he’d studied his mathematics harder.  If only he hadn’t left his FIRE SPELL in his BACKPACK.  There was no way he could get to it before they slaughtered him.

The leader drew his sword with a vicious scraping sound.  Joy, a rusty sword.  There’s consolation for you, Jemith; if he doesn’t succeed in chopping your head all the way off you can die from the tetanus!

“Last chance to perform some magic!”

“Fine!  But I have to get something out of my pack!”  Genius!

“Not a chance!  You’ve got to have some kind of little spell ready.  I don’t know what you’ve got in that bag.”

Ten to the fifteenth curses upon his unsanitary head!  Figures he’d pick NOW to develop some sense.  Face it, Jemith; it’s over.  Poison cloud and lightning it is.  He reached down and slid the vial from its holder on his belt, holding it up to sparkle in the glaring desert sunlight as though standing in the spotlight on a stage.

“Sir, do you require some assistance?” asked a woman’s grave and polite voice.  Jemith jumped and fumbled his grip, nearly dropping the bottle at his own feet.  Needless to say, that would not be an optimal outcome.

“Where did she come from?!” the leader bellowed.  The other bandits scrambled madly, trying to hide their surprise and deflect his wrath with a frenzy of activity.  In short order they had stopped surrounding Jemith and were arrayed facing this new person.  Jemith took advantage of the confusion to step aside, turning slightly so that he could observe the interloper.

He could not, at first, discern her features; they were obliterated by her too-bright coloration, by the vivid contrast between her crystal-blue eyes, sun-gold hair and ruby red lips.  Her cheeks, too, were red, from exposure to the sun, most likely.  Her tunic was fashioned from tiny links of silvery metal and glittered like the skin of a lizard.  Or, it did in the places where it wasn’t blotched with dust.  On second appraisal her appearance was much less comforting; she had numerous cuts, scrapes, and bruises, and she was even dirtier than the bandits.  The hilt of a sword protruded over her shoulder.

“Well, what are you waiting for?  Kill her!” the leader roared.  His men drew swords and clapped spurs to their horses’ flanks.

Jemith watched as her facial features resolved suddenly into perfect clarity, drawn into sharp relief as her expression tightened in anger.  Then she reached casually over her shoulder and pulled on the protruding hilt.  A line of liquid fire grew from the motion of her hand, silvery metal seizing hold of the sunlight and giving it shape.
Jemith watched, hypnotized by the insane spectacle, as the first bandit to reach her reeled back and toppled from his horse, his guts spilling from a slash in his abdomen.   It was as though the cut appeared without transition; the air sparkled, blood exploded, a man screamed and fell.  She grabbed the confused horse’s reins and sprang onto its back; facing the bandits now on a more equal footing.

The other horses backed and shied in confusion, reacting to their riders’ horror.  The bandit leader shouted, waving his sword, and they made a few feints in the woman’s direction.  Her horse jogged backwards as she pulled on the reins and they stopped again, afraid to commit themselves to an attack across that distance.

Abruptly, she grinned.  Then she bowed in the saddle, her hand on the reins drawing the horse’s head downwards so that it, too, bent its knees slightly and executed a bow.  Her sword swept up and back in a flourishing salute, a gesture of antiquated courtesy, leaving her defenseless for a moment.  The bandits, stunned and confused, failed to take advantage of it.  She glanced up at them and her face tightened once more, this time in contempt.  Then she slammed her heels to the horse’s sides and charged straight into their raised weapons.

Jemith realized then that he was still holding the poison cloud spell.  He stared at it, feeling ridiculous, and then smashed it on the ground under the leader’s horse.  Jemith covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve and danced back out of the way as the cloud of yellowish gas expanded.  The horse screamed and collapsed almost instantly; the man choked and twitched for a few moments longer before he also succumbed.  Satisfied that he’d done something useful, he turned to see how the mad swordswoman fared against four opponents.

Two more of the bandits were down, one headless and the other crushed under the weight of a flailing horse.  One of the remaining bandits swung his sword desperately; his blade encountered only air and the swordswoman hacked him down dispassionately.  The last man attempted to flee.  Jemith was of a mind to let him but the woman shifted her grip on her sword--which Jemith realized was slightly curved— and flung it overhand.  It impacted with an unpleasant meaty noise and the bandit flopped on the ground.

She turned to regard Jemith.  He found himself grinning nervously under her level gaze.  Her eyes, he realized, were not quite blue, but some strange color that shifted with the light.  For some unknown reason the sight filled him with dread.  He bowed. “Good timing!  If you’d waited any longer I would have taken care of them myself, and then what would you have done?”

Daian gave the man a perplexed look.  He was an odd specimen, with black hair and eyes and dark skin that had a faintly yellow undertone to it.  He’d used magic, which might explain why he didn’t carry a weapon, but he wasn’t carrying a lot of magician’s paraphernalia, either.  Then again, that loose, filmy black robe could hide anything.  He looked harmless, but she had the impression that he might explode without warning; his expression was pinched and irritated.

She dismounted and patted the horse’s sweating, shivering neck gently, and then stooped to begin methodically searching the corpses.  

“If you mean to rob me as well I’ll tell you what I told these fools; I have nothing worth the effort of stealing.  You will find me quite a bit more of a challenge if you wish to attempt it!”  Daian turned her head and looked up at him again.  The man made no sense.

Under the woman’s level look of polite acknowledgement Jemith felt his bravado leaking away.  She finished searching the bodies and approached him; he was hard-pressed to stand his ground.  She offered him a leather pouch with a diffident gesture.  “Your half.”

“If you think I’m going to touch . . .” he began.  Her gaze brought the sentence stumbling jerkily to a halt.

“If you don’t want it, I’ll leave it here.  It’s rightfully yours.”

“I’m not a thief!”

She rolled her eyes.  “They were going to kill you, you know.”  Shrugging, she dropped it on the ground at his feet.  “Do whatever you want with it, I don’t care.”

“Heh, so you aren’t really a bandit, after all!” he attempted a cheerful smile.  He certainly did not feel it.

She glanced his way.  It was distressing, how she waited until well after he’d finished speaking before she responded.  She left his words to stand on their own, adding nothing to prop them up or disguise the assumptions they implied.  It was, he thought, the most extraordinarily cruel method of conversation he had ever encountered.  

“No,” she said softly,  “I am not a bandit.”  She turned towards the horses, making vague soothing noises.

Jemith slumped, more exhausted by his brief conversation with this strange woman than by the entire day’s journey.  He felt terribly bereft, alone in a vast and threatening expanse of desert.  Suddenly he didn’t want her to leave, a horrible sensation he did not want to examine too closely.  He summoned his courage to approach her one last time . . . and realized he had nothing to say.  He looked down at the ground helplessly.

“Wait . . . um, look, do you have a name?  Something I can call you?  I mean, if that would be all right with you.”  He stammered helplessly, feeling naked and vulnerable and hating it.

“Daian.  You?”


“What is your name?”

“Oh!  I am Jemith.”  He smiled tentatively.  “Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

She shook her head gravely.

“Ah, yes.  I . . . I suppose I didn’t think that you would.  Er, I mean, that you would have heard of me.  Not that I’m not famous . . . at least a little bit, but you don’t seem like a local.  You don’t seem like you’d come from anywhere at all.  Who are you?”

“Just Daian.”

He frowned.  “And where are you going?”

“Out of this sun.”  She opened her mouth and hesitated, then added, “if I haven’t gotten turned around too badly, there’s an oasis of sorts not far from here.”

“Um.” Jemith said decisively.


“Perhaps I can . . . accompany you?”  He winced internally. Have you lost your mind? Oh, well.     


“Well, you saved my life once already, and I’m, that is to say, I’m not entirely certain precisely where I am.  Not that I’m lost,” he hurried to add.  “It’s just that, well . . . if you have a better idea of where we are, then I might as well go with you.”

“And there might be more bandits.”

“I can’t say that consideration hadn’t occurred to me.”  Jemith was relieved when she rolled her eyes and chuckled wryly.

“Good enough, Jemith.”  She pointed.  “That way.”

Apr 22, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

This is a very good movie indeed, conveying the essence of what might be a very foreign culture in a very understandable manner. The music and cinematography are beautiful, the characterization is almost frightfully clear, and the plot is suspenseful. Unfortunately, and this is the only “bad” thing about the movie, is that it’s the wrong plot.

The basic storyline is Cinderella, but you might not realize it right away. In fact, you may not realize it at all until the end. My mother was never fond of that story, and watching this movie makes me realize why. It doesn’t make any sense. So Cinderella is “good”, in the sense of being well-behaved. She doesn’t do anything to actually bring about an improvement in her own situation. It’s showered upon her from above.

In Memoirs, the main character is a bit more active in her own life, fighting against the constraints laid upon her, refusing to understand why she can’t have what she wants. Bravo. The problem is, it still doesn’t make any sense. Her actions really should have alienated the man she loved, but, Pretty Woman-style, there’s still a happy ending tacked on. Why? Because he’s a sucker for a pretty face, apparently.

In addition to being really unsatisfying rationally, the tacked-on ending is extremely non-Japanese. In real Oriental storytelling, romance is a tragedy, because it inevitably brings the romantic characters into conflict with their duty. Such a conflict cannot end in anything other than tragedy and death. It’s not a wonderful philosophy, but it is completely logical and self-consistent. Duty-based ethics by its nature precludes earthly happiness (and life itself, for that matter), and you don’t get any more earthly than romance.

So, as I said, it was a great movie up until the last 10 minutes or so. I’m curious now whether the book also has this peculiar flaw, or if it’s just a Hollywood thing.

Apr 18, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

If anyone noticed, I've been essentially absent from blogging for the past two weeks, apart from some half-hearted book reviews. Even worse, my promised fiction offering was delayed!

The problem: self-induced writers' block. Considering that I've read both The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction before, I should know better than to re-read them right before I plan on beginning a fairly ambitious new fiction project and then decide I need to make some revisions to my writing style. The result was somewhat predictable, and went something like this:

Me: Okay, here's the outline for my story, and I need to make sure that I write with great color and flair and that I dramatize instead of narrate and I hint at events to come and that I stay completely focussed on my theme so that nothing deviates from it. Okay, subconscious, what have you got for me?

My Subconscious: bleh

Me: C'mon, I have to write this story!

My Subconscious: Denied.

Me: Pretty please?

My Subconscious: The number you have dialed is not in service. Please dial again, or press 0 to talk to an operator.

Me: Dammit.

So, essentially, I was completely unable to actually write until I let enough time pass that the specific advice dissipated from my immediate memory. Way to go Jen! Hopefully my readers will come back.

1634: The Ram Rebellion

The basis for this series of books is that a very small, modern, West Virginian town named Grantville was transplanted, whole, to Southern Germany (specifically, Thuringia), during the Thirty Years War. The specific mechanics of the time-travel are given barely a footnote, which is appropriate because the story isn't about science fiction, it's about contrasting and comparing the Germany of three hundred seventy years ago with modern-day America. Specifically, the modern-day America found in what some might believe her most stagnant backwaters--small Southern towns--but what are actually, in the author's view, some of the last bastions of real principled Americanism.

1632, the premier book in this series by Eric Flint (and now, numerous other authors), is one of my favorite books, to the extent that it rivals such literary examplars as The Fountainhead. I consider it to be of supreme esthetic excellence because it projects, through fascinating characters, suspenseful plot, and beautifully evocative prose, the precise nature and uniqueness of America's underlying principles.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what has led to the destruction of the rest of the series.

In a bizarre case of art imitating life, probably without the author's full intention, the stellar dedication to uncompromising principles evident in the first book degenerates, through the second (1633) into politicking, and in both 1634 books (The Gallileo Affair and now The Ram Rebellion) into endless lists and records of minutia, much like political discourse has degenerated in real-life America! It is evident that the Americans are both devoted to their principles (freedom of religion, in particular), but that their reasons for devotion are really somewhat habitual. Sure, they understand that freedom is the best system, but their grasp of the reasons for it is either weak or nonexistant.

So, their methods boil down to, over and over, a sort of "show and tell", where they hope the Germans will pick up on their methods by observing how rich, prosperous, and happy the Americans are. Why should we have freedom of religion? Because it works better than anything else. What method should we use to promulgate this idea? Whatever method works the best, regardless of its other consequences. That, in a nutshell, is the full extent of the exploration of some really fundamental ideological principles.

I find it somewhat ironic that, in this book, the American intellectual chosen as representative is none other than Thomas Paine and his propaganda of freedom, Common Sense. That, and I get to giggle and announce that I saw THAT one coming a mile away.

Unless you're REALLY REALLY interested in the historical perspective and a LOT of minutia, I don't recommend any of the books past 1633. Eric Flint turned his series into an online community where a vast number of writers, mostly amateurs, are contributing short fiction, and I don't really enjoy anything written by a committee. The emphasis on writing good drama was left by the wayside, and it apparently became more important to make sure that everyone's pet ideas were included to flesh out the town of Grantville. There are SO many characters and they have SO few distinguishing character traits that it's literally impossible to keep track of them without an index. In general I consider appendicies/indecies to be a harmless affectation on the part of an author, but if you cannot read the book without flipping to the chart in the back then you have a serious problem on your hands. Time to trim some characters or characterize them well enough to make them memorable.

Rating: 2.0

Apr 17, 2006

Epic: Arrival

It was dark, the light swallowed so completely that her eyes burned with ghostly afterimages conjured by outraged nerves still straining after sight.  Her throat ached, residual pain left by a shriek she had not stifled quickly enough.  Her heart thundered, her lungs spasmed, she was deaf, dumb, and blind.

Nothing presented itself to distract her from the immensity of her fear.  She could only imagine herself lost in an endless void without hope of rescue or escape.  Her legs jerked in desperation and, off-balance, she sprawled face-first onto the floor.  

It hurt.

Shocked again, her lungs remembered their work and she sucked air like a well-fed soprano preparing to denounce the sins of Titans.  For a moment, all was silent and still.  Then she sighed heavily and announced, her voice almost conversational: “Dammit.”

Her name was Daian.  She was a soldier.

Large grains in the rough-hewn stone prickled against her cheek and the palms of her hands; it was granite, the same rock that, floating on a magma sea, was usually called a continent.  As floor, it was comforting, suggesting the safety of thick walls, high towers, and murder holes.  It was so prosaic that it banished even the thought of eldritch horrors.  It smelled of death.  Not the foul stench of rot and putrefaction, but the sucking desiccation of an eon of silence and dust.  

Daian pushed at it and sat on her knees, her hands searching through clothing, armor, and leather straps until they found the clasp of a pouch and snapped it open.  She withdrew two rounded pieces of metal, thimble-shaped, and fitted them over the thumb and index finger of her left hand.  When she snapped her fingers it sounded like the granite stones were grinding against each other, and a harsh green spark flared briefly, fell to the ground, and died.  

She frowned and snapped her fingers again, then a third time, flashes lighting without illuminating anything.  Then on the fourth attempt the spark stuck to her hand and erupted, green light leaping between her fingers and pooling liquidly in her palm.  It flickered like fire but there was no heat, only the sticky crackle of electricity.

It roared like fire, too, as she thrust her hand aloft, turning sharply, her eyes darting to discover her surroundings.  She stood in a room that was both huge and narrow, the walls invisible in the gloom while the ceiling loomed only a few feet overhead.  Rows of squat pillars ten or even fifteen feet thick hunched under its weight, so many and so close together that the room was filled with stone more than air.  

Unlike the floor, which showed the sharp black lines of hasty chisel marks, the pillars were polished smooth, flecks of quartz reflecting green sparks.  They were covered with writing, the symbols so small that Daian could feel her own breath on her face when she leaned close enough to read them.  A cloud of dust rose from the stone and she sneezed.  Everything was covered in it, powder-fine, invisible until a movement in the air disturbed it.  There was a wide dark patch where she had fallen on the floor.  And, leading away through the pillars, tracks.

Daian frowned.  She did not know where she was or how she had arrived.  Effects have causes; and here, at least, was sign that someone else had walked here recently.  Holding her light overhead, she set off to follow them.  

Leaving the maze of pillars, she passed through a narrow stone arch; the ceiling descended, pressing her down, until she was forced to crawl, holding the light out in front of her.  She crawled until sweat ran and her muscles shivered with weariness, but there seemed to be no end to the tunnel.  She stopped to lie on the stone and rest for a while, thinking that this tunnel might outlast her strength, or narrow enough that she could get stuck, unable to go forward or turn around and go back.  It might.  The hand holding her only light trembled and shuddered.  She got up and began crawling again.

The tunnel ended abruptly, becoming hole in a wall, a perch over a vastness that whispered with currents of air.  Three feet away, a narrow stone lip hung over the resounding space.  Daian edged forward and eased herself laboriously to her feet.  The wall leaned precariously over the stone lip, and as she sought for a handhold it crumbled ominously, small rocks clacking downwards.  She took a deep breath, gripped what seemed steadiest, and swung herself out of her mouse-hole, kicking her feet to find purchase on the ledge.  Her grip shifted and she crushed her face against the wall, bloodying one cheek, struggling to keep her balance.  

It seemed likely that the wall above her would disintegrate at any moment.  She threw herself sideways, her feet scuffling along as she sought for any grip that would hold long enough for her to find another.  In a frenzy of shuffling and clawing she reached the far side of the gap and fell face-first into another tunnel.  Her light had almost gone out, but she shook the dirt off her hand and it flared to life again.  She wasn’t certain whether she could manage any other activity for at least the next several hours.

The floor beneath her groaned and shifted slightly.  Her feet and hands came up and heaved her forward, stone collapsing beneath her.  Finally, filthy, scratched, bruised, and bleeding, she came to rest on stone that seemed content to stay where it was.  

“It might be nice to faint,” she muttered, wincing as she got to her feet.  Her torn cheek stung with coolness and she realized that, ahead, there was a breeze that didn’t stink of age and dust.  She started forward eagerly, then recoiled, scrubbing at her face and the sticky crawling sensation of walking into a spider web.  There was a blue flash and a loud pop, then an acrid, burnt smell.  She shook the pain from her fingers and frowned.

Cautiously, she took a step forward only to come up short again, blue sparks jumping from her arm and shoulder, her muscles twitching.  Whatever was blocking the passage was invisible in the green light.  She looked at her still-burning hand and grimaced, then crumbled the pieces of metal in her palm.  Dull flakes of metal rained down and the green light evaporated.

Daian blinked, her eyes watering in blindness, and waited as patiently as she could manage.  Her hurts intensified, aggravating her, and she began trying to rub out some of the pain.  A blue line shifted a few inches from her face and she realized that she could see, so dimly it was almost more a memory than vision.  More blue lines winked and died, looking like light reflected from fine floating strands, in a place where there was no light to reflect.  They were glowing, so subtly that they were still almost impossible to see.

Almost impossible.  Daian reached over her shoulder; her sword slid out of its sheath with a flat hiss and she swept the drifting threads out of her way, leaving the path clear.

The threads came more frequently as she climbed a narrow, steep staircase, sword leading.  At the top a visible blue glow illuminated the passage.  Occasionally a sharp blast of air, like a gasp, would come shooting down the staircase.  The room ahead seemed filled with a lump of blue light that rippled and wavered in the breeze.  She watched it warily for a moment, then sheathed her sword and stepped forward.  

The lump was a massive web of glowing blue cable, all snarled and piled in a heap in the center of the room.  Her patience and curiosity gone, she simply stepped around it and made her way towards the far side of the room.  Her foot came down on something that rolled, grating, over the stones and she flailed for balance.  In that instant the chain whizzed out from under her foot, pitching her headlong into the blue ropes.  Electricity arched through her body and Daian cursed.

Chains rattled and the lump shifted ominously.   Daian hurled herself out of the way as a heavy metal weight, connected by a chain to whatever was inside the magical web, crashed down where she had been.  A second passed while she fought to stand, her limbs twitching spastically from the aftereffects of the magical shock.  The sound of a winch came from across the room, cranking the chain back.  
Abruptly, the lump lumbered forward, blue energy crackling around it, the air whistling as the chain emerged once again, curving towards her with deceptive speed.  Another sprang from its mass somewhere and began an orbit intended to end among her splintered bones and pulped flesh.

Beads of panicked sweat springing up on her skin, she stepped away from the swinging chains and metal weights rebounded from stone with shattering clangs, striking white sparks.     Instead of letting the chains fall still the machine spun, sending them hurtling erratically through the room.  She ducked under one but the other swept her feet out from under her.   She rolled and a metal weight, gaining increasing speed, slammed down inches away and hurtled back into the air.
She dove forward but the monster anticipated her move and blocked her, forcing her to retreat or have her brains dashed out on the stones.  It was humming now on an almost musical tone, the pitch rising as it spun up to speed.  She backed away cautiously into the passage behind her.

The machine-whine slowed and gradually cycled to a stop.  The chains were winched back into the central mass.  The thing rotated in the middle of the room, uncertain, then suddenly shrank down and went still.  She sighed and leaned against a wall, rubbing sweat from her face.  Then she reached over her shoulder and drew the sword again.  Gripping its hilt with both hands, she thrust herself away from the wall and stood, staring across the room at an arch that she only hoped led outside.  Slowly, her eyes narrowed, her nostrils flared, and her jaw came forward.  

Then she sprang into the room, her sword a perfect mathematical curve, a graph of deadly intent.  The guardian exploded into action as though expecting her.  A chain snapped forward.  She shifted her grip and then a metal weight fell to the ground with a crash, the chain severed by a tremendous two-handed blow.  Not daring to pause, she cut again for the glowing blue tendrils that shrouded the main bulk.

Her sword rebounded harshly, but part of the web peeled away, severed, revealing a metallic surface that glistened like oil or blood.  Her arms tingling and numb, she dove back into the passage.  Behind her, chains clanged to the floor, rattling violently, and the entire mass of it shuddered like a machine that had suddenly hung.

It screamed.

In a blast like heat off a furnace, like water flashing into steam, it howled, sending her staggering back still further.  Great clawed hands thrust from its bulk as it hurtled at her, in rage or a perfect imitation.  She stumbled and fell.  It slammed into the mouth of the passage, caught, wedged, metal and magic grinding against the stone arch as it fought to reach her, claws tearing white scratches in the walls.

She watched it back away and attempt to make itself small enough to fit through the arch.  Whatever shape it had under the concealing magic, it could not quite manage to do it, but it seemed determined to try nonetheless.  It pounded on the stone blocking its advance, sending chips flying and threatening to cause a collapse.

Daian gripped her sword for reassurance and inched forward, daring it.  When it grabbed for her she ducked aside and slashed at more cables of magic.  The creature stumbled backwards and screamed in its terrible voice.  Seizing the opportunity, she hurled herself at it, slicing at cables, at anything that presented itself.  Magic ropes fell away, severed, and her blade rebounded off metal.  She ducked its claws, hacking away at what magic still covered the thing.  The glowing web ripped free, vanishing in a brilliant flare and a stench of burnt metal.  

She flung herself away and hit a wall, where she clung, panting.  Only a faint breeze blew through the room, carrying away the burning stench.  Blind for the third time, she felt her way to the passage leading on and staggered along it, moving as quickly as her battered body could manage.
She burst from the tunnel into the light of midday and stood, blinking at jagged rocks and the rolling dunes of a desert.  In the sand, tracks led off into the distance.  They were already fading under the abrasive force of the wind.       

Apr 14, 2006

The Big Bamboo

In his introduction to Big Trouble Dave Barry credited Tim Dorsey with originating the "crazy people in South Florida" genre. This title is more than appropriate. I'm not a huge fan of Dorsey's work, but his books are so bizarre that it's really hard to stop reading them. They're like potato chips, and about as good for you in the long run.

The Big Bamboo combines, in one freakishly spellbinding whole, The Long Con, the Japanese Mafia, the Redneck Mafia, Hollywood (which is an entire batch of crazy all on its own), kidnapping, a hyperactive serial killer named Serge A. Storms, lots of drugs, and tourist attractions galore.

Dorsey also likes to begin his books near the end of the chronological events, generating an instant "huh?" reaction from me, which he then proceeds to gradually explain over the course of the book. In The Big Bamboo he even spoofs himself through a bit of self-reference during the wrap-up.

I'd have to say that this book was about typical for his work: I think his best one was Orange Crush, but I give this one a solid 3.0 . . . worth reading if you like the genre. Which, admittedly, is somewhat narrow.

Apr 12, 2006

Mystic Empire

I was a little disappointed with this last installment of the Bronze Canticles Trilogy by Laura and Tracy Hickman. I've already discussed the first and second books, so I thought it would only make sense to cover the last one as well.

Like the second novel, this third one has new characters in new situations and is complete on its own. However, in an attempt to get everything all wrapped up, (if this is truly the last book, a lot of loose ends were left over, in my opinion), the book is a frenzy of activity, and a lot of important factors get dumped by the wayside. There's almost no characterization of the new characters, and most of it is told narratively instead of dramatized, so even the best-drawn characters are flat and uninteresting. They are floating abstractions without any meat to them, in other words.

The characters being marginal, it's really difficult to pay attention to what happens to them or care whether the results are good or bad, and several plot developments depend on literal "devices" that appear to have been manufactured out of thin air. They're examples of what happens when authors engage in "world-building for the sake of world-building" and convey almost no sense of real importance to the reader, because, yet again, these "devices" are narrated, not dramatized. They also use some tired old bromides, like the Mysterious Prophecy (and Prophetess, to boot), that don't improve matters much.

The story is told in a fairly suspensful fashion, however, so if you really enjoyed the first two you might as well read it to finish the series out.

Rating: 2.0

Apr 9, 2006

The House Above the Morning Clouds

I saw a link to this lovely example of architecture on Daniel Schwartz's blog and I couldn't resist posting about it. Here is a place that's doesn't just have a view, it's constructed entirely around that view. The vast distant infinity of the horizon is the focus and purpose of this building.

*Note: I'm sorry I've been so quiet this week, I've been doing a lot of heavy thinking and self-evaluation, which makes it more-or-less impossible for me to focus on reading or writing. So, I've been playing computer games instead, which isn't productive, but is relaxing.

Apr 5, 2006

The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Bethesda Softworks has a history of making games that are very ambitious in concept but sorely lacking in execution, almost as though their enthusiasm took over and ran ahead of their ability. The most notorious example of this phenomenon, is, of course, Daggerfall, with its miles of randomly generated dungeons that resembled nothing so much as a plate of spaghetti, repetitive random quests (I need mummy wrappings! Okay, you brought them to me, now I need more mummy wrappings!), and problematic graphics. Even the people that loved the game admit that it was, well, more than a bit difficult to play. I have been known to joke that it won RPG of the Year because it was the only RPG produced that year. It certainly wasn't because it was good.

Some other mediocre games followed (Battlespire, Redguard), then a lengthy hiatus during which it seemed that Bethesda had disappeared off the face of the earth. This proved not to be the case.

One day I went to the computer store and there, on the shelf, was this game. Morrowind, said the front of this tidy but unremarkable tan box. I'd been burned by Bethesda before, but the game looked intriguing so I decided to give it a try. Sometime later, when someone was able to winch me away from the keyboard, I decided that it was worth it! Here was a Bethesda game that incorporated all the good elements of their productions (enormous size and variety, tremendous flexibility) and was also overall a good game!

Not content with that much, or with the success of the add-ons they produced for Morrowind (Tribunal and Bloodmoon), they've released a new game, Oblivion, and it's even better. In the vernacular, this game kicks serious ass. Everything that was good in Morrowind has been retained and upgraded.

The graphics in Oblivion are so fantastic that simply tooling around in the countryside (on horseback, if such is your desire) is enjoyable. Still, you probably won't have much time for it, because you'll be busy discovering the numerous quests and career paths available in the game. The really nice thing is that they actually are paths; quests are related to other quests and form a contiguous whole that eventually adds up to something. It's quite cool.

In addition, quests are adjusted for your level, meaning that you won't manage to stick yourself with a job you just can't do. Some may be more difficult than others depending on how you've organized your character, since there's a lot of variety possible with custom classes and the numerous races. I haven't found any, however, that were flat-out undoable. The in-game map works wonderfully, and it's integrated with your compass so that you don't have to try and guess where you need to go from here. You just have to go there, which may turn out to be difficult if there's something nasty in the way.

Given, there are some caveats to go along with all of this praise. Firstly, do not try and play this game if your graphics card is not on the list. They've installed an ogre for a bouncer and it won't work. Not even a little. You can stretch processor speed (especially if you have a lot of RAM, a lot meaning a gig or more) but the graphics card is an inescapable absolute.

Secondly, although the path quests are well-integrated with themselves, the varying paths and the main quest are not well-integrated with each other. While all characters now speak, conversation is still somewhat lacking. You don't ask questions in complete sentences, but by choosing one or two word topics, which makes me, at least, feel like my character is an outside observor instead of directly involved in the events. In other words, it's not the game I would have made.

However, for the game that it is, it's objectively very, very good. Well worth the price.

Apr 3, 2006

Dakota Sue Shrugs

For now, at least.

I'm sorry to announce that I've quit the Mutants and Masterminds game that supplied the ongoing storyline for my "Dakota Sue Speaks" fiction due to irreconcilable personality differences. The thing that I find most ridiculous about the entire situation is that the GM told me that without me the game would most certainly crash and burn, yet at the same time I was ruining everyone's fun.

Needless to say, there is an inherent contradiction between those two statements. Clearly what is wanted here is a personality-less drone that will devote as much time and effort to this game as I have, yet somehow simultaneously elevate the confidence, assertiveness, typing skills, creativity, foresight, interest, and competence of the other players so that they will be able to keep up and not feel overshadowed.

Frankly, I find this request insulting and regard it in the light that I would a request that I speak only in whispers lest my strident voice frighten the timid. Or that I intentionally type with two fingers so that my speed doesn't make others feel overwhelmed. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Well, with any luck my removal is exactly what the doctor ordered and, deprived of my stifling presence, everyone in the group will discover their inner dramaturge and the game will be a roaring success. Somehow I think the GM's prediction is more likely, especially since he characterized my leaving as "a child taking their ball and going home." MY ball? There were six other people there capable of bringing a ball to the game. I was the only one that did. The result was somewhat predictable.

Some good did come out of all of this, however, in that I've been shocked out of my lethargy and made to see exactly the nature of the people I've been calling my friends. Well, I've come up with a better appellation now: leeches. Leeches that expect a home-cooked meal out of the bargain. Bad enough to be asked to be the dinner for people that have no inclination to procure their own. I refuse to do the cooking as well.

As for the fate of Dakota Sue, I'm actually back in the mood to do some real creative writing now. There's nothing like getting really, really angry to light a fire under my buttocks. So, I will keep my notes and sometime soon (meaning, this year) I will edit everything to suit me, finish the story out, illustrate using my, admittedly, mediocre drawing skills (all the better reason to work on improving them!) and put them up here somehow (.pdf file most likely) as fan fiction freely available for all to download.

I would like to thank my former compatriots for the things they did contribute, especially the player of Q. It's a pity they couldn't manage to put any power behind their ideas; without the fire of a really committed person, even the best ideas will rot in miserable stagnation.

The fiction serial feature on this blog is not going to die; I will start up a new serial called Epic next week.

Apr 1, 2006

Carnival of the Objectivists

Nick Provenzo takes advantage of his second Carnival of the Objectivists to rag me some more on the one political post I've made in approximately two months. Oh, well, I'll live.

Courage in Action

A friend (SoftwareNerd, his blog is over on the side there) pointed me to this story about an anti-animal-rights activist in Oxford, and I have to say that I support his ideals wholeheartedly. I'm very pleased indeed that he's decided to stand up for them.

Animals don't have rights. In order to have rights, you have to be capable of exercising them; in other words, you have to possess rationality and volition. In other words, you need to be Man. There is no evidence that any animals possess either of these traits, although some seem self-aware and possess remarkable ability to learn even quite complex tricks.

Using animals for our purposes is one of our better survival tricks, whether it's as guardians, muscle, drug testing, or even just as pets. Animals are property, not people.

If you think otherwise, consider the example of those who were killed trying to reason with bears. It is this faculty that grants men their rights, because you can reason with them.

An Amusing Story

I stumbled over this very silly nostalgia story when checking my email and thought it might be fun for a laugh.