Miscellaneous

I’ve got less time to write with school starting up, but here are short reviews on a few things leftover from the summer.

Humankind

It’s a game mimicking Civilization-style gameplay. Two major differences are the inclusion of a “hunter-gatherer” phase before you’re allowed/able to actually found a city, and the ability to establish “outposts” without committing to a whole city. It’s also much easier to incorporate the neutral tribes (analogous to more recent Civ releases city-states) into your empire. In fact I haven’t finished a game yet but judging by game status I’m really not sure how you’d lose on normal difficulty.

I quite like the artwork, but it’s a little harder to follow the terrain – in part because there are multiple levels navigable. The interface doesn’t make it very obvious how to implement your different options or take advantage of resources/features, either. (I started with tips set to the level supposedly appropriate for having played games like this before; I wonder if extra tips would have helped? But in that case those tips aren’t very well calibrated.)

The computer’s combat AI is much, much better than I’ve seen from Civ games. I haven’t tried the “manual tactics” mode to see if it makes a difference, but computer forces are very good at targeting units they’ll defeat. I don’t mind the way the “retreat” mechanic works but I think it’s bugged – your units will automatically back away until some kind of condition is met in the programming, but this can end up with them halfway across the continent – distances that ought to take 7 or 8 turns. You’re also basically forced to keep up skirmishes in order to maintain your “war support” meters, which annoys me.

Overall, it’s got some neat features, and is a little more transparent in places than especially recent Civilization releases, but I don’t think it’s unseating the titan any time soon.

Moby-Dick

He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic… quite hypnotic. Of course Melville doesn’t actually confine himself to a single sentence, but it really is a little bit like listening to somebody who just won’t shut up – and you don’t quite want him to.

I started reading this years ago on a college visit and was fascinated by the first fifty pages or so I read. I’ve kept meaning to come back to it. I’ve finally gotten around to it, but admittedly still haven’t finished it. I will; but so far I find it hard to believe I’ll ever re-read it afterwards.

It reads a bit as though it was published serially, although I don’t believe it was; my thought, honestly, is that Melville was a short story writer with delusions of novelistic grandeur.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Like a couple other Zelazny novels, this one seems to have been cobbled together from previously-written short stories, possibly not intended to be related. The plot tying them together deserves, I thought, a little more reverence and pathos than Zelazny actually give it. The writing is that of the author at his most elliptical except for certain obscene details; I read it, and then immediately read it again just to figure out what actually happened. It is, in short, not to my mind a success as a book, whatever the effect of certain scenes.

The universe of the book, incidentally and anachronistically, reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Iain Banks; apart from certain unmistakable stylistic elements that mark it as Zelazny’s work, one could easily believe it a juvenile effort of Banks, before he mastered his own distinctive style – which is effective through realism: Banks leaves you convinced that the absurd and despicable might really exist side by side. But Zelazny’s style highlights the incongruities in the story compared to our expectations, and the end result here is highly unsatisfying.

Starliner

A stand-alone novel by David Drake, best known for his military science fiction, it might be one of his better efforts. The dedication calls it “a book I wanted to write”, and I can only speculate as to the reasons. Oh, there are fist fights and gun fights and mercenaries floating around – there’s a certain resemblance to the early Hornblower books – but on the other hand, there’s not that much sci-fi floating around out there glorifying customer service. I’m inclined to think Drake wrote it just to prove he could do something different.

But then there are the twists – and break-neck pace – of the last couple chapters, which leave you rather wrung out and wondering if the book was more serious after all. Watch carefully when the question of duty is raised – and Drake gives an answer, but he seems to me to be positively inviting criticism and discussion.

Review: Ellison’s Invisible Man

Reading Invisible Man produced an odd sort of emotional whiplash. Ellison’s prose is wonderful, and the reader is brought to identify with the struggles of his protagonist, who is misled by a series of abusive, hypocritical, or simply thoughtless superiors – as might happen to anyone. But Ellison, being and writing a black man in America, constantly considers not only his individual circumstances but his – or the character’s – role in relation to the racially-defined classes of his America and the power relationships – equally hypocritical socially as individually where we have said “all men are created equal”.

The emotional difficulty is this: Ellison’s wonderful prose creates identity between his narrator protagonist and the reader. But much of the tenor of discourse about racism today suggests that the identity is false – that for a white reader to perceive an identity with a black author’s concerns, especially about race, is not possible. I don’t believe this myself – Seneca’s dictum that “nothing human is foreign to me” is the right approach – but it colors the cultural atmosphere from which I read. That we all can identify with Ellison’s lament is in fact the point, and what makes the additional abuses heaped on his narrator’s life purely by an accident of skin color so horrific.

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” So Ellison writes in the epilogue, and a lovely thing it is to have said. But I am not sure if Ellison believed it; and his protagonist surely does not. Or, does not at the end; or, has found the certain defeat too certain, and is content to abandon humanity. Society having failed to respect his manhood – having failed, in the metaphor begun in the title, even see his humanity – one can only pity the descent of gullible youth into paranoia or perhaps insanity; the novel is a classic tragedy in somewhere between three and five acts depending on your inclinations.

Ellison’s writing is magnificent, and I highly recommend this book to any mature reader prepared to deal with a certain amount of obscenity, not so much of language but in fact of scene, both sexual and otherwise.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.

Reviews: Inversions, 2046

The problem with break is that it means I have more time to read and watch things, which means I get behind on this.  Almost done with 2015, so my project of reviewing all the new things is just about over.  But for now, another twofer.

Inversions, by Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks is best known for his science fiction, oddly personal stories set in a cosmos starkly unforgiving, not to say amoral and at times inhuman (literally or figuratively).  Inversions is not one of those, however, but is a fantasy set some time after the fall of a great Empire, leaving warring kingdoms squabbling over the remnants with late-Medieval technology.  The title refers at least to the structure of the story, as Banks presents concurrent events from the perspective of members of two such courts.  However, I think the reference is supposed to go deeper than that – the story has layers – I am simply not sure how far.

I am inclined to consider this one of Banks’ better novels; it is also probably a good place to start for the reader curious about Banks but put off by his reputation, as his normal tendency to vulgarity (and depravity) is toned way down.  He may even suggest something like a moral.

2046, dir. Wong Kar-wai

I stumbled across this film by accident, trying to track down on YouTube the music of Hanyu Yuzuru’s recent phenomenal free skate, “Seimei” by Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru.  Various tracks he did for 2046 came up – and the full movie, which tells, in what is apparently Wong’s signature style, the story of some of Mr. Chow’s various affairs, over which the number “2046” seems to hang.  The Chow character, a journalist and writer, serves as narrator as he recounts his various misadventures and reflects on what love is, or could be.  I am not entirely sure whether to regard the film as attempting to be profound or at least “human”, or to see it merely an exercise in displaying pretty women in pretty dresses (or out of them but carefully covered up, in a plethora of sexual moments throughout the film).  At times Chow reminded me of Hemingway (either the author or his characters), of Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, or of some of Le Carre’s work.  A very finely made film, and one I would not mind seeing again, if only to puzzle out its “message”.