wax banks

second-best since Cantor

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017): first thoughts.

Spoilers abound, obviously. If you haven’t seen the film: well, you’re going to or you aren’t, it doesn’t matter what I say.

First thoughts, not last:

Episode VIII is the most ‘mythology’-heavy episode of the series, dealing more explicitly with the Skywalker legacy as legacy than any of the previous seven. The prequels were about Anakin Skywalker and the end of the Jedi, in a mix of mythic register and present-time biographical/psychological mode — the sort of ironic story a middle-aged artist tells about the idols of his early life (even those he himself created). But the sequels are (pre)occupied with ‘Star Wars’ as legendarium. They’re not ‘mythic’ at all, they’re about myth. A neat, characteristic moment: Rose the starship technician genuinely squees when she meets Finn — ‘a hero of the Resistance’ up close! — but once she realizes he’s trying to escape from the Resistance/Rebel ship, she doesn’t hesitate to tase him and turn him in.

The Last Jedi, like the considerably tighter but less resonant The Force Awakens, treats ‘Star Wars’ as something received, to be acknowledged and honoured and then tweaked. Both films are explicitly political in this regard: if the multiracial and multigenerational ensemble doesn’t feel at all casually constructed, that’s a function of the advancing age of its writers and directors, but their agenda is entirely progressive. Rian Johnson, much moreso than JJ Abrams, seems able to imagine a universe after the Skywalkers and the Solos — the difference between the liberal and, well, the rebel — and in Episode VII he reveals again a gift for building on the old stories, looking past them, without anathematizing them.

The shocking death of Snoke is the smartest turn in a smart (but at times confused and overly busy) film: tasked with becoming ‘the next Darth Vader,’ Ben Solo does precisely what Vader tried to do in this film’s elemental template-story, The Empire Strikes Back — he kills his abusive surrogate father and reaches out to the powerful enemy he he envies and perhaps even loves…who rejects him, beginning the process of his dissolution.

Boyega is great. Go watch Attack the Block, the kid’s a star.

Laura Dern is great. Go watch literally everything she’s done, she’s a natural treasure.

Poe and Leia are well characterized, though it’s frustrating to have an actor with Oscar Isaacs’s extraordinary charisma cooped up for the entire film; on the other hand, that frustration puts the audience in the character’s position, which nearly justifies the decision to ground Poe early. Leia, meanwhile, is utterly Leia, which is to say my heart leapt every time she appeared onscreen. If Carrie Fisher in her final days was no longer able to be as expressive as in the original films, she manages a weary grace that nicely suits the story.

(The young Fisher had genuine comic gifts to go with her princess-next-door beauty: timing, flexibility, and enough trust in her innate dignity to play the goof. She played comedy like a writer-actor, which of course she was. Johnson makes excellent use of footage from the original film, in unexpectedly moving tribute to Fisher. As Edelstein put it in his perceptive review: Fisher and Leia merged, in the end. This is a lovely swan song for both.)

Unfortunately, what goes on around Isaacs and Fisher is silly. The chase bits are nonsense, and of course the overall plot premise — apolitical lunatics in Empire cosplay manage to destroy the entire galactic republic with a single gun, then reduce the Rebellion to a single shipful of goodies — is almost offensively stupid. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the worst of the film’s plotstuff is the sequences that get us from one iconic tableau to the next. The unusual power of these sequels is generated by the tension between the passing old world and the emerging new, but the actual mechanics of the First Order/Resistance material are deadly boring. Characteristically Abrams-y, you might say, though indebted to Galactica in the final act.

I need to think more about Mark Hamill’s place in the film, and Luke’s place in the story. I’ll say this: Hamill does strong work, handles the comic material with a sparkle that made me wish he’d worked on camera more often over the years, and invests the dramatic pieces with real dignity. It’s so good to see him again. Hamill has a very different presence from Harrison Ford, less plastic in his physical bearing but nicely flexible in his voice work — not for nothing is Hamill a sought-after voice actor, best known for his decades-long recurring role as The Joker. (Hamill and Ford were a compelling odd-couple comic pairing in the original films; their prickly friendship is one of the series’s best features, its transformation in the third film one of its more complex emotional lines, while their ecstatic greeting in the Yavin hangar — ‘That was one in a million!’ — is peak Star Wars.)

What troubles me a bit is that, by his own account, Hamill disagreed with ‘every choice’ that Johnson made for Luke in his script. I think I see why; Kylo/Ben is supposed to present Luke with a once-in-a-lifetime problem, but because we haven’t seen Luke since Return of the Jedi, the character is effectively reduced, in the film audience’s eyes, to having fucked off to mope for several decades. This strikes me as unfair to Luke: after all, the final turn of Return of the Jedi sees Luke proudly declaring he’s one of the Jedi, ‘like my father before me’ — it’s in the film’s title for heaven’s sake! But for the sake of plot movement, Luke has to be a problem for Rey to solve, and —

Oh, Rey.

Rey remains a problem. The character’s much more defined here than in The Force Awakens, where she was a cipher, but Daisy Ridley’s natural charm can’t protect Rey from having to carry the idiot ball at times. The character’s core identity is odd: she’s a ‘nobody’ who’s stumbled into an ongoing Oedipal saga, and Just So Happens to be the most powerful creature in the galaxy. (We, the geeks, told you she was a Mary Sue, and even if Jedi Master Rilstone says she’s not, she damn well feels like one — regardless of whether many of the people banging on about this subject are sexist morons.) This is, I think, part of the political program of the film: Rey isn’t ‘old money’ in Force-user terms, no member of the old-boy Jedi network, so she has to hustle twice as hard to get where she’s going…except she doesn’t, not at all. Never having been taught word one about lightsaber fighting, she takes on three highly trained Knights of Ren (former Jedi trainees, I assume?) and comes away with a scratch on her shoulder. Never having actually tried the lifting-rocks thing that took the son of Vader weeks to learn, she lifts an avalanche by herself. Leaving aside the ‘worldbuilding’ implications, Rey’s fast-forward developmental stuff means Rey’s more like Harry Potter than Luke Skywalker, not so much ‘refusing the (Campbellian) call’ as waiting to press the Win button.

Rey’s relationship with Luke is boring. Luke should smile more. That’s a bigger deal than you might think.

I’ll come back to this movie. Why not? It’s less depressing than talking about Trump.

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Some game reviews and recommendations for Christmas.

Christmas shopping? Some games to think about:

Dominion

Progenitor of the ‘deckbuilder’ genre and, like designer Donald Vaccarino’s even more abstract followup Kingdom Builder, essentially a kind of dynamic multiplayer puzzle. Players begin each with a barebones deck of cards, mostly providing money, and use that money to buy from an always-available common pool of more interesting ‘kingdom cards’ — which in turn grant additional money, actions (card plays), and buys per turn. Purchased cards go into the discard pile; when your draw pile is empty, your discard pile gets shuffled and replaces it. At some point you start buying victory points, which clot the deck but are the only way to win.

Yes, it can be ‘simultaneous solitaire’ at times, but that mostly manifests in groups of uneven skill.

Dominion‘s basic rules are quite simple, but each spread of ten kingdom cards presents a variety of strategic possibilities, and if you include even a couple of the many expansions, the range of kingdom spreads is for all practical purposes inexhaustible. (The expansions range from pitch-perfect to game- and mind-breaking, but every single one is worth getting.) Vaccarino’s core design takes the epochal innovation of Magic: The Gathering — streamlined tactical card play using custom decks built away from the table — and essentially ‘gamifies’ deckbuilding, making a 30-minute competitive game out of that away-from-table activity.

Dominion is a work of genius; everyone who’s ever had to sit through a game of Monopoly must try it.

Settlers of Catan

The game that kicked off the ‘eurogame’ craze and today’s boardgame renaissance is secretly a brilliant do-over of Monopoly with considerably greater strategic depth, more meaningful p2p trading, and (as a result of the trading and resource-generation mechanics) no downtime. Dead simple to learn — as with Carcassonne, the core game is streamlined enough that the kids’ version is unnecessary — it’s still one of the friendliest introductions to modern boardgames, but the random/asymmetrical setup and steadily ratcheting tension give it plenty of replay value for any but the most pedantically analytical gamers. Its ‘kingmaker’ problem, and the high likelihood of untutored players shooting themselves in the foot with a bad opening play, now mark Settlers as an imperfect game, and among boardgame nerds it gets less play than it used to. But ignore jaded gamers who say it’s no good. It deserves its reputation.

Greedy Greedy Goblins

Generally fast-paced simultaneous tile-placement for humans 6 and up, recommended for families who enjoy cartoonishly stressful play situations.

Designer Richard Garfield’s basic idea is clever: each goblin (player) draws one facedown tile at a time from a common pool, looks at it, then adds it (still facedown) to one of several mines. Repeat, as impulsively or carefully as she likes. At some point in this process, she uses coloured discs to claim up to three mines, which then no longer receive tiles. With all mines claimed, they’re scored: points for every gem tile in the mine, double points for gems matching your goblin’s colour; some tiles give special power cards to use while scoring; one stick-of-dynamite tile doubles point value of mine, two sticks triples it…and the third blows up the mine, yielding a total of -5 points. First goblin to 100 points wins.

So we’ve got bluffing, a mildly harrowing push-your-luck mechanic with incomplete information for all, some quick mental calculations to do in a rapidly changing environment… Some rounds GGG is a slow-moving game of careful moves and countermoves, sometimes it’s a frenzied free-for-all. You’ll have much more fun if you enjoy seeing plans (fail to) survive contact with the interfering dunderheads around you (cf. Space Alert, below), and you’ll do better if you keep your head a little, but there’s something to be said for bringing a little anarchy into the other goblins’ lives by spreading your tiles willy-nilly throughout everyone’s mines.

Garfield’s recent career turn has been interesting — King of Tokyo and King of New York are consistently fun little lightweight/flyweight games, respectively, aimed at kids but rewarding for adults. GGG is in the same class as King of Tokyo, but the realtime simultaneous-action approach opens it up to players with less taste for strategy while specifically testing everyone’s sang-froid during an ongoing crisis — and their visual information-processing speed.

Summoner Wars

A fun sort of customizable chess++ game with short playing time and a gorgeous core mechanic.

You’re trying to capture your opponent’s Summoner, a powerful back-row piece (card, actually), by summoning fighters to the gridded board; the fighters hit or shoot, and have special effects and hit points. Ho hum, but summoning cards takes magic, which you generate in one of two ways: killing the other guy’s cards, or discarding from your hand…which means every single turn of the game presents you with interesting, tense choices, and the more you strategize, the better you’ll get. The summoning mechanic is the game’s heart (it’s right there in the title) and the source of its reputation.

Combat is simple — roll Nd6 where N’s the unit’s attack value, each die ≥3 is a hit, run out of hit points and you’re dead — but because you can only move and attack with three units a turn (you might have six or eight on the board at once), the nearly abstract gameplay does generate some pleasant tension. And because each player’s deck is small, there’s always the looming threat of simply running out of reinforcements and needing to, say, kill your own soldiers to generate that final burst of magic.

Fans of Summoner Wars insist that the deckbuilding aspect is part of the game’s appeal, but I gotta say, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to customize my army.

My 7-year-old son and I get a kick out of this one — we were both surprised last time by how quickly it played — but Summoner Wars isn’t a top-shelf game in our household despite its streamlined elegance. On one hand, the entire ruleset fits on an index card(!); on the other, there’s a lot of pointless theme slathered on top of what’s basically an elegant abstract strategy game, setting up quite the wrong expectations. It’s not a wargame! The existence of Mage Wars, a thematically similar but totally mechanically distinct customizable card/board game, further confuses the issue, as searching online for this game will turn up unhelpful comparisons.

Best enjoyed as a featherweight abstract game with oddly representational art rather than any kind of tactical combat thing — and if you come to it with the right expectations, Summoner Wars holds some lovely surprises. This might just be a great game.

N.B. You have several ways in to Summoner Wars: starter sets, the Master Set, the Alliances edition. If you’re dipping your toe in, grab a starter set. If you like it, pick up one of the two big boxes, and some ‘second summoner’ expansions on clearance. You should be able to find secondhand copies of most of the cards online.

Magic: The Gathering

Certainly the most important and quite likely the best tabletop game idea anyone’s had since Dungeons & Dragons — dead-simple card play using homebuilt custom decks, where each card breaks the rules in ever-more-complex ways — and after a quarter-century its worldwide playerbase is still growing(!!) as the design continues to evolve healthily. At its best, Richard Garfield’s first collectible card game offers the definitive CCG experience: an all-time classic game that’s also a license to print money.

About that money, though…

…at high levels, paper/rock/scissors deck matchups and the publisher’s exploitative random-blind-boosters economic model wash away the simple pleasures of beginner play. In this age of gaming plenty, it seems to me that marketing M:TG to teenagers (kids) is unethical. And incredibly, M:TG isn’t even Garfield’s best card game — his sophomore effort Netrunner, in its ‘limited’ incarnation Android: Netrunner, is the deeper, more interesting game, even with its comparatively limited cardpool. Everyone should play Magic: The Gathering at some point, the same way everyone should hear the Rolling Stones. But I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone invest real money in it. There’s a reason they call it a ‘lifestyle game,’ after all. If you like human beings, you’re better off getting good at chess. Or Netrunner, come to that.

Carcassonne

Another classic eurogame that serves as a fine introduction to the field. Very very simple: add square tiles orthogonally to a map; add meeples (‘guys’) from your limited pool if possible to claim features like roads and castles; retrieve meeples and score when features are completed. The larger the map feature, the more you score, but the longer it takes — and unfinished features (castles left open, cloisters never surrounded by fields) are penalized at scoring time.

It’s not the deepest game, indeed it’s suitable for bright 5-year-olds, but there’s a strategic angle: knowing which features to commit to, which to steal (by joining separate castle regions, say), whether/when to pursue short-run plans or make risky longterm investments in the ‘farm stakes.’ Strong players will outclass beginners nearly every time, but there’s enough luck to keep everyone interested; our family’s games tend to be close-fought affairs. The many expansions aren’t all equally essential, and some (e.g. Princess/Dragon) destructively or chaotically alter the elegant core game.

If you’re looking for a first ‘German-style’ board game for your family, this is an evergreen choice.

Space Alert

Difficult to describe, absolutely maddening to play, Space Alert has provided some of my best gaming experiences of the last several years. It’s an extremely hectic multiplayer cooperative simultaneous role-selection puzzle which delivers randomized realtime challenges by way of sound recordings, and…

Your best bet might be to watch a video, frankly, though your actual best bet is just to buy the game (it’s wonderful) and play it without knowing what you’re doing.

Space Alert is secretly quite a short game. You place your worker in one of six rooms laid out in a rectangle, representing the compartments of a spaceship. In each room is a task to be done — a valve to periodically turn, a key to regularly punch, lasers to shoot if aliens come near. You’re dealt a set of cards with actions on them, and using those cards, you choose in advance what you’ll do during each of 12 turns: walk east or west, take the elevator up or down, perform a task in your room. A certain number of routine tasks need to be accomplished in those 12 turns.

The entire game is just this — planning 12 actions. It takes about seven minutes.

Meanwhile, your teammates are doing the same, just calmly laying out their day.

Well, not calmly. During those seven minutes, an mp3 is playing. Sometimes it plays static, during which no talking is aloud. Sometimes a voice announces that at turn X, aliens will arrive, and someone will need to shoot them, and each turn they’ll press in and damage the ship if they’re not immediately dealt with. Sometimes the voice announces a malfunction to be fixed, an infection onboard ship, a new batch of cards to be dealt to each player… And even as you plan you see your carefully laid plans unravel, slowly at first, then with a kind of nightmarish inevitability, as the web of things-to-do grows and tangles and ends up a glorious mess.

But that’s only half the game — the playing bit.

Then, when the mp3 stops playing, you execute the 12 steps you’ve laid out, and you and your friends get to see how you’ve failed — slowly, clearly, the specific moments at which your plans were undone are revealed to you. And at this point there’s nothing you can do about it.

In other words, it’s realtime Pandemic, the perfect gamification of crisis-management, and if your group has a healthy social dynamic and one natural leader you’ll be just fine

I can’t recommend Space Alert highly enough.

Star Realms

A superb little $15 deckdbuilder from the local boys at White Wizard Games, emphasizing constant player interaction (combat!) and clever card synergies. Instead of Dominion‘s ten piles of cards, there’s a row of six singletons, replenished after each purchase from a deck of 120. (This was Vaccarino’s original idea for Dominion, actually, and is the core mechanic of designer Rob Dougherty’s earlier, uglier Ascension deckbuilder.)

We have two kinds of card: ships and bases. Cards generate money or combat, thin out your deck, alter the pool of available buys, or give you additional hit points; ships produce an effect and then get discarded, while bases stick around to block attacks until destroyed. Many cards can be scrapped (removed from game) for additional effects, and crucially, each ship and base has a faction (suit), which generates ‘ally effects’ when two or more cards of a faction are played. Each faction has a distinct personality and implied playstyle; knowing whether and how to mix and match is an important skill element.

You can learn Star Realms in five minutes or less, but it’ll take months to tease out its subtleties. I’ve now played close to a thousand games, mostly online, and consider it one of the most reliably fun games I’ve ever played.

The expansions — sold on the ‘limited card game’ model at $4/pack — are almost uniformly excellent. Better yet, the Colony Wars game offers a replacement core set at $15 MSRP, adding a single mechanic and generally dialing the intensity of the game up a notch. You can easily mix the two sets, along with any combination of expansions, and no two games will be exactly alike. The original is the place to start, though: perfectly balanced, an instant-buy for anyone looking for a quick filler game.

Attention. Immersion.

Epistemic status: Unwieldy articulation of what I take to be a commonplace.

The economy of attention is zero-sum or indeed negative-sum: if you’re paying attention to me you can’t also pay attention to your work. Attention is a scarce resource, and easily damaged, which is why it commands such high prices. Moreover, it’s now widely understood that there are ‘transaction costs’ when moving attention around, so that looking at a single article for twelve seconds has infinitely more value than looking at six articles for two seconds apiece. The myth of ‘continuous partial attention’ refers to specific circumstances requiring only low-yield passive monitoring — say, checking on the stove to see if the pasta’s done (yes or no).

The economy of immersion, so to speak, is positive-sum: deep immersion in one activity generates not only a sense of fulfillment but a supply of usable energy which can be turned to other activity: more life, as the blessing goes. Sustained immersive activity (writing, biking, sex, cooking) not only generates important negative feedback — pulling you back to the activity itself — but builds excess capacity. A daylong hike can begin to restore fragmented attention, a fifteen-minute freewrite realigns your internal verbal mechanism, good sex this morning will leave you with naughty thoughts all day which seem to enliven as much as (or more than) they distract; in each case, the energetic/attentional output has a long wavelength, a gentle contour, so that you might not notice how much it has reduced the effect of local (mental) noise. But three or four such waves will effectively drown out high-frequency cognitive bother.

Immersion has a tidal or oceanic character. There’s a reason we talk about ‘flow’ states, ‘waves’ of calm, etc. Peaceful vs panicked breaths. This is obvious.

Sane people know that fifteen minutes of exercise will give you an hour of deeper creative productivity — i.e. ‘I don’t have time’ is straightforwardly false for nearly all cases. The same goes for any joyful (≠ pleasurable in many cases) immersive activity.

Immersion is generative, tourism is usually costly. Ask your Spanish teacher.

The morning bath.

Wake up, open the laptop, and if Twitter is open (or the compulsion to open it kicks in as usual before good sense takes over) you get your daily reminder that the current president of the USA is the stupidest man ever to hold that office — and strongly favoured to be, by the end of his disastrous time in office, the worst president in our nation’s history.

Every morning.

Today we find that he made this claim in an interview with pretend-journalist Sean Hannity:

The country, we took it over, the last eight years they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed More than $10 trillion. Right? We picked up $5.2 trillion just in the stock market. Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months. In terms of value. You can say in one sense, we are really increasing values and may be in the sense, we are reducing debt. We are very honored by it and very, very happy by what’s happening in Wall Street.

He can’t help but lie — and make elementary mistakes. He makes the mistakes because he’s catastrophically stupid, stupider than George W Bush; he lies because unlike Bush he has no moral compass, no sense of responsibility or service.

People don’t talk enough about his stupidity. I go on about it because it will matter long after he’s gone: he is conditioning tens of millions of gullible, scared people — many of them idiots themselves, but not all — to expect nothing from the office of the president but a kind of ongoing pro-wrestling schtick, devoid of higher thought (systemic thought, rational inquiry, self-correction). I believe this is in no small measure a resentful reaction to Obama, one of the great models of the ‘life of the mind’ in our lifetime, who for all his failings as a chief executive demonstrated the enormous moral value of debate, dialectic, curiosity.

Our current idiot president doesn’t believe in any of those things; he doesn’t think they’re possible. But while he seems to be devoid of empathy, and he’s too stupid to have any kind of rich inner life himself, he could understand his predecessor — he could understand those of us who love to think — if he had even a shred of imagination, moral or otherwise.

Have you seen the pictures of the bedroom he shared with his first wife, whom he betrayed with his second-wife-to-be? With all the money in the world, the best this idiot real-estate heir could come up with was to drape every square inch of the room in gold. That’s not a failure of taste, but of imagination: in this idiot’s mind, the best use of all that money was to see gold when he woke up, went to bed, and (according to her own sworn deposition) raped his wife.

Which is terrible — the raped-his-wife bit, I mean, I don’t care about the gold — but it all speaks to a deeper failure of imagination. He can’t comprehend systems: witness his ludicrous misunderstanding in the Hannity quote. He can’t imagine that the center of a system could be anywhere but the spot where he stands, and he definitely can’t imagine that a system might lack a center, that lawmaking in the USA might involve a public/private/secret apparatus vastly more complex than any he’s had to deal with in private life. He can’t conceive of decisions except in terms of their ‘optics,’ can’t understand history except as a just-so story about how he came to feel as he does today. His myopia is absolute, crippling, because he’s unable to know anything but what’s in front of him. Comey hurt my feelings, fire him. But that would have terrible cost. But that cost is in the future, which does not matter. (And why would it? Nothing I’ve done has ever mattered, really mattered, before.)

His moral failings, his intellectual failings, would be less crippling if he had any imagination at all — if, say, he could imagine Barack Obama as having had his own life with its own compromises and challenges and strokes of good fortune, having arrived at his position(s) honestly. Our idiot president doesn’t seem to have any principles at all; he sees the world as full of (1) people like him and (2) subjects because he can’t imagine any other world. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t study, might never have studied anything in any depth in his entire life. He just stares at the television waiting for them to talk about him, and now there’s an entire ‘news’ channel devoted not only to talking about his every utterance but to glorifying him as a world-historical agent of change, which he manifestly doesn’t understand but it must be pretty great because he keeps hearing his name over and over and over…

The USA is too vast (geographically, demographically, conceptually) for anyone to know all of it, so those charged with its care need vivid imaginations. He has none. For many reasons, this included, he is unfit to hold the office of the president.

TV ‘criticism.’

Add Rick and Morty to the list of shows for which the Iron Law of TV Criticism holds:

The amount of valuable criticism written about contemporary TV is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

I’m the real victim here, of course.

Update, 9:46am… Wait, a found the review of a well known ‘TV critic’ who…wait never mind, it’s stupid bullshit.

Not in the least.

No. Same background, same interests. Couple years apart but that’s the same.

Oh but he’s nothing like me.

Same anger.

Well but look here —

Same loneliness, but look hereSameemptinessLOOKhereThismanisnothinglike /same–ME

morning morning morning morning morning

Epistemological status: Nonsense.

freewrite to start the day. can’t be bothered with proper capitalization and punctuation. ok cheating: i’m allowed to delete a word or sentence.

science fiction is afflicted, not surprisingly, by the same disease as ‘the humanities’ in academia: pathologically lazy metaphors deployed by writers pig-ignorant of even basic math and science. sokal and bricmont had blades out for the french critique-of-power dweebs years ago. i think this is why ‘speculative fiction’ has become the label of choice: science is hard, scoring political points is easy. coming-of-age ‘genre’ stories are (comparatively) easy. partly this is a specific instance of the ‘ignorant people can’t write good literature’ complaint, but it goes deeper: SF claimed its role as the essential late-20C literature not least because great SF writers could imagine and translate and articulate complex concepts in terms other than the popular — they could talk about their time in a language that wasn’t simply of their time, if that makes sense. Tolkien the same: estrangement at the level of language yes but also conceptually, in terms of worldview. ‘heroism’ meaning something fundamentally different to Tolkien than to modern readers. i think of Ancillary Justice, which disappointed me last year, and its too-familiar handling of ‘identity’ and ‘gender.’ it needed more philosophy, more science, more alienness. ursula le guin could have worked wonders with that material.

SF’s aliens are most interesting as alien modes of thought — but writers bound to the present, to fashion, have a hard time generating that generative alienation. ‘the present’ is a metaphor-field. think too of Deadwood and its astonishing imagined language, the way David Milch’s multiply inverted verses could represent streams of self-modifying consciousness. think of Westworld‘s replicants, the depth with which that story’s writers explored specific theories of consciousness in technical language. compare those great achievements to the embarrassingly shitty ‘worldbuilding’ in Ready Player One, barely qualifying as an act of the imagination: naked contemporary wish-fulfillment without a moment’s thought for a world beyond our own. think of clarke’s Ramans, who ‘do everything in threes’ for reasons that remained inscrutable even to clarke himself (the haunting closing line was added as an afterthought), or of Roy Batty storming across the rooftops of LA after rick deckard, or of the thousand and one meanings which attach to pynchon’s Rocket. (this is one reason pynchon is our best writer: he sees his conceptual material through. allows it to flower.)

if Robert Anton Wilson’s schtick has value, it’s his combination of at times intense alienation and attraction: sex for its own sake, puns for their own sake, and then a grinding assault on pious certainty. of course RAW was a great dilettante, he was just smart and fun enough to get away with it.

china miéville deep in his political theory to write books full of SF/fantasy political theory. and then how thin his stuff gets when he’s talking on memes and squids in Kraken. i liked what i could be bothered to read of it, but Admirably Strange Images Embodying Concepts Familiar Even to Neil Gaiman’s Readers doesn’t get my dollar.

michael swanwick. john crowley. delany, man.

don’t bother writing science fiction (or criticism) unless you care about the systems that your metaphors are drawing on. please, please, please. the details are the form. it’s all details.

(Deadwood is in part a story about magic and John from Cincinnati is its direct sequel, but i’ll tell you about that some other time.)

this is why you shouldn’t post your freewrites, folks.

Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

The tower.

The tower touches the ground a couple of blocks away but we live beneath it all the same. The entire neighbourhood does. It’s like some Silicon Valley sociopath’s ‘disruption’ of the Eiffel Tower: of course they’d paint it alternating strips of red and white, of course they’d stick blinking lights every few feet. Of course it would double as communications infrastructure and tool of surveillance, transmitting the Unique Numeric ID and occasional bursts of thought or word from every area phone ‘user’ to wherever the monsters are.

‘Text messages’ are transmitted in place of dummy data that your phone would send to the tower anyway — they require no additional bandwidth, only a miniscule amount of additional processing power in the monster room. They used to charge $0.05 apiece for text messages, because they can’t live without your blood, and they want to live. Now we’re permitted to send ‘unlimited’ text messages. We’re grateful for no limits. We’re grateful for permission. We’re grateful. We’re grateful.

M. John Harrison, VIRICONIUM NIGHTS.

It seems to me that recession is one of the key features of the Viriconium cycle: the city is vivid, immersive, without ever actually being clear, and over the course of the series — particularly this maddening final ‘volume’ of short stories — it recedes entirely from view (like an eyeball drying out, or a chrysalis desiccating and collapsing onto itself) along with its citizens, its stories, any hint of clear meaning. What’s left, in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ is less than an echo; and yet the city is unbelievably rich and present even in its (or rather as an) absence. When Harrison describes a building sited in a valley ‘like a metaphor’ there’s a cruelty to it. Light seemed cruel as well, beyond the grey pitilessness which characterizes all four Viriconium books.

Empty gestures and fading memories characterize the city in this final chapter. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ takes place in our England, more or less, and while it ends with the musical acclamation which has characterized the series throughout — ‘Viriconium!’ — the weird hollowness of it is blacker than irony. But Nights is a coda; the whole series is a coda. The other short stories, especially ‘Strange Great Sins’ and ‘The Luck in the Head,’ depict a world in its Evening, reduced to reminiscence and meaningless recapitulation. I realize now that to call the mad goings-on ‘surreal’ is to dismiss them, to consign them to the aesthetic: this is a careful rendering of ugly nonsense, which after all sounds a lot like our world in our moment (or Thatcher’s, yes?).

The language of Nights varies, though it never returns (I’m glad, or relieved) to the terrible1 dense static of A Storm of Wings. After the deliberate slow movement of the two middle volumes, night comes, rest, the fog seems to recede — but there’s nothing left to see, or rather much to see and not to understand. The clocks have run down and the creative urge is gone.

It’s hard to talk about Viriconium. No: it’s easy but futile, like talking about entropy. The concept defeats you. Digging into Viriconium is like laboriously decrypting a piece of bad news. By the end it doesn’t promise anything; in the Evening even teasing is heartless.

I realized only now that I hadn’t thought of the Afternoon cultures since at least A Storm of Wings, maybe before. Harrison deals from the same deck as before — insects, horse heads, deranged artists, lightsabers, dwarves — but face-down, now. You hardly remember that any of it ever meant anything. Maybe there never was a fucking Viriconium.

I loved these stories (this story). I’m not sure I liked it in the end, though I’m sure Harrison doesn’t care; it filled me with an intense and unidentifiable emotion.

Viriconium!

and and and

I wrote that in early July, and I’m surprised at its negativity, or no, at its anger. I suppose I was angry that Viriconium had finally been taken away, though that taking was the work of the entire series, which seems to me altogether to be one of the great works of the imagination — or rather its imagination seems greater creeping up on me/mine than, oh fuck it. I adored the book and it angered me. I can’t decide whether Harrison loves or even likes Viriconium; he must, mustn’t he? but you wouldn’t know the way he lets it go. I resent his pitilessness as I’m not convinced it’s necessary, though maybe if I knew who/what/when was the butt of the joke and maybe if I also disliked him/it/then — well —

I catch myself wanting things from Viriconium that it was built (I imagine) precisely to refuse, and so catching, I get angry at the dwarf, the city, the insect, myself, and Mr Michael John Harrison, though not in that order. Me first. What a world, a world-city unlike any other, as they say in the ad-copy biz. Viriconium!


  1. ‘Terrible’ like ‘inspiring a kind of all-consuming existential dread,’ not ‘bad.’ Prosewise, Harrison is a living god. Also a darkdreaming fucker.