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Category: reviews

The X-Files, ep. 4×17 and 4×18: ‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Max.’

Note: I normally post these over at Medium, where the rest of my X-Files writeups are. But I’m feeling self-conscious about this site’s barrenness, so here you go.


Max Fenig returns.


In light of our present fallen condition, two bits of dialogue from ‘Tempus Fugit,’ one of the highlights of the strong but uneven fourth season. First, Mulder and Scully walk’n’talking while investigating a downed airplane which seems to’ve been the site of a (botched?) Grey abduction:

SCULLY: Mulder, why can’t you just accept the facts?

MULDER: Because there are no facts, Scully. What they’re telling you, what they’re going to report, they’re the opposite of the facts. A claim to ignorance of the facts. Claimed steadfastly, ignorance becomes as acceptable as the truth.

Second, the frightened Air Force air traffic controller and Scully talk in her apartment after he confesses to his role in downing a civilian airliner:

FRISH: You think I’ll be prosecuted?

SCULLY: For what?

FRISH: I gave the coordinates.

SCULL: You didn’t bring that plane down, Louis.

FRISH: I lied. I misled a federal investigator, I misled you. A hundred and thirty-four people, Sgt Gonzales…they’re all dead.

SCULLY: It wasn’t your fault.

FRISH: But I’ll have to live with it. I watched that plane fall out of the sky. It was just a dot on the screen, just a…set of numbers. The wreckage… I can’t get that out of my mind. How those people died — how easy it is to lie, just to say it was a dot on the screen…until you see it.


One of the strongest running themes of the show was the ongoing betrayal of America’s veterans, not by ungrateful citizens (one of several dangerous reactionary myths of Vietnam), but by the government. The ‘super soldiers’ storyline of later years is sometimes derided for coming out of nowhere, but haunted and betrayed vets were all over the show from the beginning — and of course federal employees Mulder and Scully are cast out and trod upon by the government.

This goes to a point that I’m sure I’ve made several times already: Spotnitz said ‘Every episode is a mythology episode,’ and critics do well to take that claim seriously. The show’s parade of scarred and damaged veterans (Deputy Director Skinner among them; ‘Tempus Fugit’ followed on the heels of the Vietnam fable ‘Unrequited’) is a metaphor for the same culture-wide alienation, the same pervasive dissatisfaction with received narratives, the same distrust of ‘rational’ authority, the same horror of demythologization which animates the show’s other narrative threads. I write this only days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as President. In this dangerously fallen era, the authentically subversive message of The X-Files — Trust no one but one another, and while we’re at it fuck the US government — feels like a strong tonic, a genuine curative. Maybe Chris Carter believes ‘alien abductions’ really do involve grey-skinned extraterrestrial dwarves, but his show argues something deeper and more upsetting: we’ll never know (much of anything) for certain, and the systems of authority which supposedly protect us are mechanisms of control and subversion…so the only authentic life left is a visionary journey to outer/inner space. And to take that journey, to assume the mantle of holy fool, of seeker, is to abjure ordinary living and become in a sense ‘uncivilized.’ It is to resist colonization (of mind and spirit, of social order) by avatars of control.

Perhaps this sounds silly. No: this definitely sounds silly. Even the parts that sound sensible sound silly.

But.

Aliens almost certainly aren’t real, there’s almost certainly no such thing as the ‘astral plane,’ and only a proper epistemological humility keeps us from dismissing these somewhat silly possibilities out of hand. But as Uncle Joe (Campbell) tried over and over to remind us, the meaning of all myth is the journey from suffering and self-deception toward authentic being-in-the-world. The X-Files was explicitly mythological, not just in the ‘mythology==backstory’ sense of today’s fan/critics, but in the way it recurred endlessly to ancient narratives of visionary transformation. Visionary experience is real, the transformations it generates are real, even if the content of the vision is culturally contingent fantasy (fiction).

That was one of the undercurrents of Couliano’s generous, far-ranging Out of This World, a comparative study of ‘otherworldly journeys’ in myth, fiction, and firsthand testimony. Couliano correctly hedged his bets about the sources of mythic content, but he was clear on the continuity of visionary narratives from Gilgamesh to Dante. Visions come from the same place as gods: the eternal desire to escape the ‘human condition’ (need, struggle, death). They’re imaginative tools for social/emotional problem-solving, generated under more or less conscious control. The desire remains the same, and mythic figures and structures have proven remarkably effective at addressing that desire. The genetic algorithm which sorts and selects narratives over millennia has produced our assortment of distinct but thematically and typologically related mythoi. And The X-Files, from the very first episode, was a documentary rendition of the darkest American dreams, which is why it’s both silly and serious, political and wigged-out, superstitious and skeptical.

That said, it’s also a mess.

Much of the time, I don’t think The X-Files holds up as drama; in terms of scene construction, narrative interconnection, and ‘mytharc’ construction, it now feels primitive — even inferior successor shows like Lost (cripplingly indebted to The X-Files) assumed a level of audience sophistication which Chris Carter and his writers, in that time after the VCR transformed film editing but before the DVD permanently changed expectations about information density, couldn’t yet assume. ‘Tempus Fugit’ is, I think, a good strong draught of X-Files weirdness, but it’s a clunky hour of television. And of course Chris Carter’s dialogue is simply embarrassing. Look again at the quoted exchanges above: Mulder’s ‘claimed steadfastly’ line sounds like a bad machine translation. In terms of screen craft, The X-Files remains impressive compared to its contemporaries, but it does feel like a prototype rather than a finished thing.

Yet it still strikes me as one of the only mature visions of our hallucinatory premillennium culture ever presented onscreen in America. The content of its myth was balderdash, but you and I aren’t stupid enough to take mythic content literally, are we? Leave that to the critic-dilettantes, the cultural-politics bloggers, the quick-take thinkpiece club. Even Freud knew the difference between manifest and latent dreamstuff.

The latent content of the dream/vision/hallucination called The X-Files is: the secret history of 20th-century America, a crime story in which every citizen is the victim.


I think of the end of Whedon/Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods — the Virgin and the Fool refusing to propitiate the gods who demand their suffering, refusing to trade their tiny lives for Life in the unseen abstract, and incidentally sharing a well-deserved joint while the bad guys’ base burns down — and perceive a subtle continuity with the endless deferrals and digressions of The X-Files‘s evolving narrative…and with Chris Carter’s sweetly empathetic vision of a nationwide meshwork of loners and outcasts, scholars and kooks, dishevelled angels and prophets with honour. The hell with ending the story on their terms, right? Trust no happy ending. Trust no one but each other.

Not for nothing do Mulder and Scully look an awful lot like Men in Black.


Mulder’s moment with Max’s body in the hangar — that spasm of grief. I’m not convinced that Duchovny’s any sort of great actor, but that moment…


A lazy critic can find a way to say something about CSI. They shouldn’t — laziness is a mistake at best, keep it to yourself — but CSI demands nothing of you and gives nothing back, and the obvious criticisms, while insufficient, must nonetheless be delivered. It really is magical thinking in a box; it really does steal wisdom from its viewers. Calling out its emptiness is easy, but it’s a service.

We shouldn’t be lazy talking about The X-Files, I think. It’s up to something that can’t be understood without at least a little effort. Not a years-long project of Talmudic interpretation, no, and not the kind of fannish nitpicking that comes so easily to young poorly socialized obsessives. I’m just asking you to watch the show, if you’re watching, without recourse to the boring and banal and imagination-deadening interpretive frames which Cultural Critics deploy in order to score Experience Points in the Standard Discourse. Please consider the possibility that it wasn’t playing the usual game. Consider the possibility that entertainment isn’t the only goal of a TV show — even a monster-of-the-week anthology show about two crimefighting feds and their wacky ideas. I’m not saying it’s scripture, for God’s sake. I’m saying we can get more out of it by taking a long weird look inside.

4×18 Max

The second half of a two-parter — keep your expectations low.

It’s good that Chris Carter runs shows and tells his great big scary stories, but he shouldn’t be allowed to write scripts. His monologues are embarrassing, and his infodump ‘dialogue’ is artless, tedious masturbation.

That said, it was nice to see Max again.

The Third Man speech barely touches me because I’ve long assumed that half of Washington thinks in exactly those terms, and that’s all I’ve got to say about this flaccid hour of TV.

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THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE (GRR Martin et al., 2014)

N.B. Didn’t actually read this recently, but I figured I’d write it up — I think I’ve drained the whole book sip by sip, anyhow. –wgh.

I expected nothing out of this tie-in gazetteer/history when I got it as a Christmas gift shortly after it came out in 2014. But it’s excellent: a pure hit of Martin’s expert ‘worldbuilding,’ digging into questions suggested but unaddressed by the novels (who paid for the great tourney at Harrenhall? what’s with all those black stone structures? what was Valyria like at the end?) and suggesting entirely new ones (why are there no children in Asshai?). The history of the Targaryens and gazetteer fly by — this is one of the best D&D setting books yet written — but it’s obvious that extraordinary pains have been taken to ‘make sense’ of the world. Martin clearly relished his chance to place the deep history of Westeros and Essos front and center, and he’s done much more than dump his campaign notes here; by his own account, he contributed about a quarter-million words to the manuscript, and obviously put enormous energy into the work.

The story of Aerys and Tywin is perhaps the most affecting part of TWOIAF — there are hints in the novels that Tywin was once a happier, less cruel man, and the tragedy of his failed partnership with Aerys (later ‘The Mad King’) is one of the axes on which the entire series turns. Martin’s recounting of that tale, like several portions of this ‘tie-in’ book, feels like a necessary part of the Westerosi saga; the novels are in retrospect incomplete without the ‘backstory’ related here.

I’ve long felt that ASOIAF’s historical consciousness is its most impressive attribute: it seems simply correct to me in its depiction of political transition, cultural reaction, and generational turnover, and unusually broad in its cultural perspective. Martin has joked that the origins of the saga lie in the question How Did Aragorn Set Tax Rates? Indeed, ASOIAF has often been called ‘realpolitik Tolkien.’ But I’m less concerned here with the ‘realism’ of the books than with their scale and scope, the way they take in every aspect of Westerosi life: the politics of mercantile exchange, sex roles and knighthood, and — yes — taxes/levies and the ‘smallfolk.’ The center of the novels isn’t the present-time action, exactly, it’s Robert’s rapidly mythologizing Rebellion, the event which ends the Targaryen dynasty and, as it metastasizes into the rule of the almost accidental king Robert Baratheon, sets the stage for the destructive War of Five Kings a generation later. At every turn, Martin depicts major fantasy-world-shaking events as messily connected to everyday Westerosi lives, explicitly rejecting (say) the Tolkienesque frame in which victory in a war of wizards and gods magically and instantly transforms the land. Westerosi magic doesn’t work at the setting-level, so to speak, minus of course the hyperextended magical winters — peasants and kings are bound up in the Big Magical Plot Events, but they react to them continuously, day by day.

(I’ll note here that Tolkien was smarter than his critics gave him credit for, in this regard among others: his hobbits represent the mundane-historical, connected to, but also insulated from, the mythic-magical world beyond the borders of the Shire. The ‘anticlimactic’ Scouring of the Shire reconnects the transhistorical events of the War of the Ring to the mere physicality and historicity of northwest Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s conception was far more sophisticated than checklist-‘critics’ are permitted to admit in public.)

The World of Ice and Fire foregrounds the ‘backstory,’ the historical texture, which elevates the novels’ present-time shenanigans. When I say the novels aren’t complete without this additional text, I don’t mean you can’t pleasurably read them without knowing all this extra material — of course you can, decades of readers have. (The first three volumes of the series are unimpeachable.) But TWOIAF makes it clear that the slow-rolling historical transformation of Westeros, the complex interplay of historical forces over decades and centuries rather than the few years of the novels’ plot, is where the real action is, in Martin’s conception. You’re supposed to maintain that historical awareness as you read, not because GRR Martin has all this backstory to share, but because the argument of the novels is about history rather than destiny or species-character or the buried mythic character of a nation. Characters move through the story like figures in an historical narrative rather than Protagonists, for the most part, and their own historical awareness reflects the way real people relate to history.

Martin aims, in other words, to be ‘true to life’ with these stories in a crucial sense, and TWOIAF furthers that aim. It’s not as purely entertaining as the novels, but it makes the Song considerably richer.

(And of course, TWOIAF’s formal conceit — a maester’s history and gazetteer — allows Martin to play a Borgesian game of imaginary scholarship, with various dead masters’ competing theories building to a mutually contradictory polyphony. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m programmed to love, and Martin’s good at it. Indeed, he’s good at nearly every aspect of his job, except making his weekly pagecount…)

Some lately-reads.

‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ (Fritz Leiber)

Pure pleasure — and surprise at the (scattered) moments of heightened emotional intelligence that this boys’-own-adventure unexpectedly displays. The easy fellowship between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is the point: they deal with the creeping sickness of Newhon by striking a devil-may-care attitude, which (along with their swords) is their primary problem-solving tool. Satisfying, and clarifying for the D&D-curious. Not exactly ‘progressive,’ if that’s a useful metric for you.

Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin)

An hour’s intense, unsettling read. I spent the last 30 (very sparse) pages leaning forward over the book as if doing so would bring me more quickly to the end — desperate for both revelation and escape; it’s no spoiler to say this little fairy tale offers just one of those things.

The ‘point,’ if good books need or indeed have a point, seems to be tonal rather than didactic: parallel strands of parental, ecological, psychological, and paranormal (not to mention literary-formal, which is to say epistemological) unease, expertly woven together. The word ‘hallucinated,’ casually dropped into the story toward its end, hits like a fist.

I must say, I’d’ve overlooked or misunderstood its darkest hues before my son was born. But that’s my limitation, not the story’s.

Yes, there are plenty of ‘genre’ novels that engage in similar exercises — I was reminded of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach right at the beginning and throughout — but this book has a dark beauty all its own. Expertly done and highly recommended…especially to the parents of young children, who’ll enjoy an extra helping of anxiety. (xposted to Amazon)

Four Quartets (T.S. Eliot)

I hope I’ll be rereading these poems for the rest of my life.

Faust, Part One (tr. Randall Jarrell)

Faust, like Dante’s Inferno, seems like one of those things I’ll just never connect with — though Walpurgisnacht, even in Jarrell’s weird translation, attained a vivid strangeness from time to time. (Recommend a better translation?)

Beneath the Underdog (Charles Mingus)

Furiously devotional and profane, like Mingus’s music, but also much less interesting, especially past page ~150, as it sinks in firstly that this really is a curious beat novel about a sex-addled pimp rather than a memoir in any but the loosest sense, and secondly that Mingus was a compellingly weird writer rather than a great one — whereas he was both and more on bass and as bandleader. Took me a long time to get through the middle because I was waiting for the real story to start, not realizing that furious devotion and profanity was an essential story for a black genius in the 1970s. I don’t want to reread it, but I want to want to. Maybe I might. Meantime there’s his imperishable musical art, which I’ve spent 20 years learning from and will never stop.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

Unsettling. Over the last 100 pages the mood of oppressive loneliness, distrust, and intimate estrangement became both unbearable and achingly familiar. Jerusalem’s Lot reminds me in so many ways of the village where I grew up; King makes up for his sentence-to-sentence shortcomings with an uncanny knack for depicting small-town life down to its tiniest details. This is an excellent novel in some senses. Execrable dialogue from the leads (better from the day players, who don’t need to bear Dracula parallels), but the ‘plot’ is fascinating: a bitterly cynical, almost satirical take on what it’d be like if Dracula camed to Shittown USA. (King’s answer: The town would die a little faster than it already was.)

I liked it. It creeped me the hell out. King has got something.

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. That’s the film’s relationship to the mythos in a nutshell.

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 national 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 second and third acts.

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.

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.

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. 

Lion, wolf, whatever.

The differences between George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (ASOIAF) and the Games of Thrones TV show have been endlessly hashed out. I went on about them last week. I’ll just point out one more thing here, which I realized after watching the Season Seven finale, ‘The Wolf and the Dragon.’

The novels themselves are quite good, as you may have heard. But Martin’s tie-in hardcover, The World of Ice and Fire, punches way above its weight class. When I talk about the books as a kind of fantasy-historical documentary that follows a couple dozen main characters because it must, I do so partly because the World book shows where Martin’s heart is: his main character is Westerosi society, the families and communities and ‘smallfolk’ who populate a continent. TWOIAF is largely about noble houses and royal families, but its purpose is to connect those houses, to ground the present-time shenanigans of the novels in a sense of deep cultural history.

So. In the novels, one of the key events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion was the great tournament at Harrenhal, where Rhaegar Targaryen spurned his wife Elia Martell and presented blue roses to Robert Baratheon’s fiancée, Lyanna Stark. A year later, Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, they say, and the Rebellion was on. Meanwhile the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ (Howland Reed?) got into some mysterious business in the background as well, and Jaime Lannister was inducted into the Kingsguard — arguably a revenge play by Aerys Targaryen against his former beloved friend and Hand, Tywin Lannister.

What fascinates me, though, is the question of who funded the tournament.

This detail does not matter even a tiny little bit to the show, which actually mentions this detail in the early-season DVD infodumps (to which Martin’s subtle ‘worldbuilding’ has been relegated), but never does anything with it. Now, the novels don’t need to do anything with (‘foreground’) a detail like that: Martin can just mention in passing that perhaps Rhaegar was conspiring to remove his mad father from the throne, and that suggestion will resonate more or less strongly depending on the pace of your reading, the depth of your immersion. In the books, the world of Westeros/Essos is rich enough, the last several decades of history detailed enough, that those echoes remain audible at all times. The minor ‘historical’ question — what was Rhaegar’s purpose at the tourney? — makes the Rebellion something more than it was, regardless of the truth/resolution of the Rhaegar/Lyanna story (i.e. the plotwise mystery).

In the show, there’s no time or imaginative overhead for that kind of subtle shading. Every moment of the series needs to service a vast ensemble of well paid actors performing in expensive European locations, and at any rate TV audiences (even in the dwindling ‘golden age’) have no attention spans. Most importantly, moving images work fundamentally differently from the vivid continuous dream of written fiction in terms of how you distribute your attention. You determine a book’s playback rate and focus by your reading, but film presents an attentional agenda, deciding for you, in a sense, how much (or little) it has on its mind. Game of Thrones on TV is all foreground, so to speak, never moreso than now, as conspiracies collapse to action and historical flashbacks come to have served their point. (The idea of history having a ‘point’ is an essential dramatic distortion, a trick of the human mind.)

ASOIAF has always been interested in how its entire world fits together — carefully balanced cosmic/historical scope as such is part of its point — but the show for a variety of reasons never has, and now it simply feels small. Having nearly all the main characters in one place might excite some viewers, but it irritates me, not least because of the stupid spacetime-distortions it took to get them there.1 And without Martin’s originating vision guiding Benioff and Weiss through the changes, we’ve had to settle for simplistic ambiguity (multiple episodes of the Arya/Sansa ‘standoff’) in a story that once reveled in ambivalence. As far as I’m concerned, Season Seven was an incoherent waste of time.

But it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because the show’s limitations have always been both obvious (even at its peak in Seasons 3-4). Benioff and Weiss didn’t adapt ASOIAF because they share Martin’s fantastic-historical vision, they just thought it would make a great TV show. They were right; kudos to them, I guess? But if Jon Snow’s parentage matters, then who funded the tourney at Harrenhal matters — history matters not because it moves the plot but because human beings survive it. That’s one of the lessons of the book which the TV show has discarded outright, and if that observation implies a criticism then I can now retreat in good order.


  1. ‘But you have no problem accepting dragons and magic in the show! Now you’re complaining about how its ravens are unrealistically fast flyers?‘ Imaginary complainant, you’re stupid. Dragons and magic are part of the contract of the series, and so is a certain physical realism. The showrunners/writers have shown themselves willing to abandon parts of the contract because the other bits are what sells — the criticism is that the maximum airspeed velocity of a lightly laden raven has just increased immeasurably in TV-Westeros because that’s the only way the writers could see to get out of a corner, and this speaks poorly of them. See? 

Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY.

Twice-yearly lectures delivered to student-poets at Ruefle’s institution, evolving over time from perfectly pitched discursive wanderings to loose affiliations of fragment and aphorism. Ruefle’s voice is neurotically welcoming, warm, brittle; her anxieties and maladaptations are key subjects here, and she’s found the perfect musical register for exploring them. But the chronological arrangement presents the traditional lecture-lectures up front — and they’re much the strongest material in the book — while a hell of a lot of Ruefle’s pagecount is spent on aphoristic mini-‘lectures’ which are (in the manner of off-hours poetspeak everywhere) witty rather than funny, and suggestive rather than beautiful. Which is to say: the book ends somewhat less compellingly than it begins, as far as (only) I’m concerned.

The sublime peak is a lecture about ‘My Emily Dickinson,’ which takes in Emily, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank. Piercingly beautiful and sad, it’s the perfect midpoint between the longer early pieces and the more I don’t wanna say ‘mature’ later entries. ‘Mature’ definitely isn’t the word; Ruefle is playful and exploratory and interested throughout, generous with her students, and never settles for handing down pronunciamenti in the old-lecturer standard manner.

In other words, Ruefle’s lectures are intellectually and emotionally alive and utterly compelling. I’m grateful for this book.

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.