Book #40: Comet in Moominland (1946)

Comet in Moominlandaka: Kometjakten
author: Tove Jansson
language: English translated from Swedish
length: 173 pages
finished on: 23 August 2013

This was another book I’d been meaning to read for a while: apparently the second in the Moomin series, although I thought it was the first, because it introduces a lot of the main characters for the first time. I think this was the first time I’ve read it, although I’m pretty sure I read one or two of the others when I was a kid. It was interesting to get a look at one of the early stories, in the same way that it was interesting to see Moomin in comic form.

The story felt a bit piecemeal, though, like a kind of series of unconnected events. Many of the things that happened felt a bit non sequitur, and it felt like a series of short stories that had been loosely strung into one whole.

The characters were also introduced incredibly clumsily. For instance, Snufkin’s introduction basically was “Moomintroll and Sniff met Snufkin. He travelled with them” – or might as well have been. I think this is an artifact of the characters being named after their species, perhaps, so that he was actually introduced as “a Snufkin”, but it comes across as them meeting a previously unknown creature and them instantly knowing each others’ personalities. Snork Maiden follows a similar pattern, although this time Moomintroll hears about the Snork Maiden early on in the story but has already decided that she would be his girlfriend by the time he meets her. This is further confused by an introduction page at the beginning with an illustration of each character and a description (Snufkin is “Moomintroll’s best friend” and Snork Maiden is his “girlfriend” on this page) – it became clear to me later on that this description was taken from a later book once all the characters had been introduced.

It’s fun to read overall, however, but it’s over pretty quickly, which is a shame. I’d like to continue reading but I don’t know if I can justify buying all the books to myself (I’ll have to check how much they cost on kindle I guess). I like Moomin.

Game #24: Avernum: Escape from the Pit (2012)

v2avernumcreator: Jeff Vogel
language: English
finished on: 13 August 2013

Avernum is a series of role-playing video games by Spiderweb Software, an indie video game developer helmed by Jeff Vogel. They’re rather famous for being very simple graphically but very complex in the gameplay and story aspects.

“Escape from the Pit” is actually a remake of Avernum, which was released around 1999 or 2000, which is itself a remake of Exile, Vogel’s first game, which was released around 1995 or so. Vogel is very attached to his old games, and seems to like remaking them. Even with newer games, I tend to find that they bear incredible similarities to the older games, especially within the Exile and Avernum series.

I was a fan of Exile when I was a kid, especially the second sequel, Exile 3 (also remade into Avernum 3) and Blades of Exile, which came with an editor so you could create your own games and was very popular in its time (mysteriously, Blades of Avernum never really took off). Exile was played on a square grid, and the biggest update when it changed to Avernum was changing to an isometric grid. The isometric grid still persists in the latest remake, and this time most of the changes have been with the interface. The game now takes up the full screen, rather than being in a window, and uses point-and-click controls – click, and they’ll go somewhere. This sounds like a rather minor point to get worked up about, but Vogel took literally years to introduce that into the Avernum series, only actually doing so in the second Avernum trilogy (ie, the first Avernum games which were not remakes of the Exile trilogy), after trialling it in his other successful series, Geneforge. Previous games required you to click in the direction that you want to move, or to use the numerical keypad – and of course, the latest Macs don’t have a numerical keypad anymore, putting a bit of a dampener on that for me at least.

Other things that have changed since the early games are the skill system, which has been imported from Avadon, another recent game of Vogel’s, and now gives you two skill increases per level, on a tree system, so that things higher in the tree can’t be leveled up beyond those lower in the tree – this is actually different from even the most recent Avernum game, Avernum 6, which still used the old system of saving up skill points (you get about 6 per level) and spending them on skills like currency.

The graphics have also gotten a major overhaul, but they still look very retro compared to modern games. Another very convenient change is the introduction of a “junk bag” to put all your treasure to mark for selling, which takes away the problem of inventory slots entirely and just makes the game more enjoyable to play. Another is that secret doors are now opened by pressing a button near the door, which is also another change introduced in the later games but one that I felt made it too easy to find the doors, compared to the old games where you just had to walk into walls that you thought would contain secret doors. The last major change that I can think of was the addition of an extra town and a few dungeon levels – notably, the game opens with a tutorial dungeon, instead of dumping you straight in a town and getting you to talk to people straight away, which can be confusing for a first time player – the dungeon is thus a welcome change which makes the game feel more fast-paced.

This was actually the first time I’ve completed any iteration of Vogel’s first game: I never actually bought Exile or Avernum 1, and I only bought this one because it was on offer by the Humble Bundle (I think this time it was “buy all of Spiderweb Software’s games”). I’m kind of glad to have played this one now, because most of the changes that Vogel has made, drawing on his more recent experience, make the game more enjoyable for casual players. In some ways they make it feel easier, but I guess if I wanted a harder game, there are harder difficulty settings, so I’m not going to worry about that too much.

It is all too easy, though, even now, to see the remnants of Vogel’s early writing in this game. Most of the dialogue has not been updated much since the original game – the first remake introduced the player actually asking questions instead of asking “about” single words, but even then the vast majority of those “questions” take the form of “Tell me about _” or “I’d like to know more about _”. This was more obvious with some characters than others, to be fair, but it was still prominent even with some of the more important characters.

Another strange effect of the layering remakes is that Vogel’s level design has changed a lot since his original games, in which he crammed as much into the space of a level as possible, and it became really obvious when you saw a gap on the level map that there had to be a secret passage there – so in this game, when you get some of the extra levels that have been added to town basements (there’s a portal system to get around the map quickly that was added this way, for instance, and a few extra characters were also added), and half of the map isn’t used, it becomes very obvious that this was not part of the original game. One of the mayors of one of the towns is moved upstairs, which doesn’t really gel well, and it becomes obvious when you get the right quest that this was because he reacts a certain way when you talk to the wrong person.

Most of Vogel’s more recent games include the ability to take the role-playing aspects of the story seriously and decide which faction you’re going to join and how you’re going to complete the game. Perhaps as another artifact of the early games, I couldn’t find many ways to do that in this game – there is a particular faction you can join, but it’s necessary for one of the three game goals.

The game was good fun while it lasted, which was quite a long time – over the course of several weeks from start to finish. I finally got to the point one day where I had completed almost all minor quests in the game, and decided to start the major quests. Since I had a high level party, and I had set up all the quests already, this turned out to be quite easy, and I finished all three in the space of one day. It was fun, but unlike some of Spiderweb’s bigger fans, I’m not about to replay it (but I have started played Avadon). I am looking forward to seeing if Vogel will recreate Avernum 2-3, so that there’s a full series of Avernum games that are playable on modern computers with the new engine. I tried to play Avernum 2, but I could only play it on Wine, and the controls were difficult to get used to after playing with point and click for so long. So hopefully Spiderweb will make that announcement sometime soon.

Book #39: Little Brother (2008)

Little-Brotherauthor: Cory Doctorow
length: 384 pages
language: English
finished on: 12 August 2013

This was, from my impression, the flagship book of the Humble Ebook Bundle. It was written by Cory Doctorow, well known for being an activist/advocate of open source software and very much pro-privacy/civil liberties. It’s about a hacker kid in San Francisco who gets taken away and tortured by the government after he is in the wrong place at the wrong time when one of the big bridges is destroyed in a terrorist attack. Basically the book is a primer on current privacy and civil liberties issues.

I was surprised to find out it was written in 2008, to be honest, because not a lot has changed since then – except it’s now been confirmed that the NSA in America is already doing a lot of the surveillance described in the book. Not a lot else has changed, though. Some of the technology mentioned is perhaps out of date – in the story (which isn’t itself dated and seems to happen slightly in the future) the next Xbox has come out and it obviously has a different name from the real successor, but Microsoft does something I can’t believe they would do in the real world and gave the console away for free, expecting to make all the money on games. It’s more of a plot point so that every kid in the city has access to one of the consoles, to be honest; the story uses them so that the main character can develop a private unmonitored network.

The writing is very compelling. I read more than half the book in one sitting (although this was partly because I was on a long train journey and therefore had a lot of time to do so). I read the whole thing in only three days, leaving me to suffer from the existential angst of finishing a book or TV series too quickly and wondering what to do next.

The main character is fairly believable as a teenage character: petulent and obsessive, and oblivious to many of the people around him. If we take the book as his words directly, I suppose it can excuse the very dry expository passages put in about various technological plot points – although it’s clear to me that Doctorow just wants an excuse to bang on about programming and cryptography. Speaking of which, even after reading said dry expository passage about cryptography, which is meant to explain the theory of public and private keys, which I kind of get, I still don’t understand what “signing someone’s public key” means – either I missed the sentence with that explanation in it, or Doctorow just managed to explain everything else about this kind of cryptography except for what “signing” means. And I still don’t know how to use it myself. Is it a program? Is it separate from other programs or is it integrated? It wasn’t the only piece of unexplained jargon that cropped up, too: for instance, it was the first time I’ve seen the word arphid, although I guess from context it’s the little chips that you get in travel cards that can be scanned from afar, apparently made mandatory in the book’s San Francisco for both road and rail travellers so that the government can use them to track people and randomly search those whose travel patterns are unusual. I use those every day. Perhaps I should be worried that the Japanese government – or Japan Railways – is spying on me?

My other main problem with the book was that Doctorow really goes for the polemic aspects, although I guess I should expect that from what I know of him, and most of those parts kind of washed over me (I mean I basically agree with it, so it’s not like I was sitting there getting angry at the book, I just find those parts tedious). Plus a lot of the plot was predictable, even if the writing was good and individual chapters often would leave off with no clue what would happen next. I just had a general feeling about what would happen by the end which was mostly proved right.

As I mentioned, a lot of the surveillance issues discussed in said polemic style are actually known to be happening right now, which left me thinking it had been written in response to the NSA leaks, and indicates that even without the terrorist attack of the book to provoke the hyperreal levels of surveillance in the book, it’s still stuff people should read and get worried about. It’s not the best book to read, I think, but the writing style is easy and compelling and the subject matter was relatively interesting. I perhaps wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not interested in the subject matter already, although the book does take pains to include those who don’t know that much about computers.

Book #38: Machine of Death (2010)

Machine-of-Death_21editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
language: English
length: 470 pages
finished reading on: 9 August

I actually started reading this a few years ago, when it came out and the creators published it for free in pdf form. At some point I lost my place, though, because it was in pdf form. Always one to let small obstacles get in my way, I let it slide and picked it up again recently because it was available on the Humble Ebook Bundle (basically half the things I play, watch or read come from the Humble Bundles these days). And now I could read it on my kindle, which works better for me.

So Machine of Death is a collection of short stories from around 30 different authors all set in a world in which there is a machine that tells you how you’re going to die, but tends to do so in a way that’s ambiguous or outright misleading – the idea being that, for example, you could get “Old Age” and then be murdered by an old guy, or you could get “Drowning”, avoid swimming pools all your life and then still end up drowning. Ryan North came up with the idea in a Dinosaur Comics strip, and it proved to be so popular that people started writing stories for it, or something.

I found this premise quite intriguing in itself, but what made it even better was all the different authors did very different things with it – some wrote a relatively straightforward story in which the main character is perhaps crippled by some fear about their death, and some wrote a philosophical treatise on what it would mean for religion if such a machine existed (is there a god? is the machine god? etc). Indeed, there was such a breadth of material covered in the book that I think it would be difficult to read it and not find any of it interesting.

Not to say that there weren’t some duller stories in there. One thing I did find was that there was a preponderence of so called “Shaggy-Dog” stories, or ones with a non-sequitur or otherwise dissatisfying ending. I think this is a byproduct of short story writing – sometimes it would be more interesting to continue with one story than to go straight into another. For instance, there was a story set in the Himalayas in which a rebel group gets hold of a machine and plans to use it to test their suspected disloyal prisoners – if they are indeed guilty of a crime, their theory goes, the machine should reveal that they’re to be executed by firing squad in some kind of circular logic nightmare. The main character, telling the story in a pub to his friend, even goes into detail about exactly how this plan will go completely wrong, but he ends his story by saying he got out of there, so we never find out what really happens – just as the story feels like it’s actually going somewhere. It wasn’t the only story that did this, but it was one of the most frustrating.

The other main problem I found with the book was that not enough ground rules were laid down for the background of the story. A few sort of seem to be, of course – the stories tend to be set in the future, and the machine is fairly consistently described in size, but as one major example of inconsistency, there were at least two origin stories which happened differently. One other story makes it clear that the machine was invented before 2001 and everybody in the World Trade Center had been tested but nobody got “terrorism” on their prediction card, so they never realised that it would happen – yet this is definitely inconsistent with the other stories in which it always happens in the future or with fictional events.

I guess one thing the machine is consistent on, though, is that the world with this machine will be pretty dystopic – I don’t think there’s really any stories in there which don’t describe an undesirable world. The idea seems to be that it makes everyone confront their mortality, often at a young age before they’re truly ready to do so, and this causes everyone to go insane. I don’t think I myself would be ready for it, if the machine was real, but it’s very easy to get lost in the narrative and just start considering your own mortality through the eyes of the characters. Also, some of the far future stories are pretty explicitly dystopic, such as one in which nations dole out jobs and classify people strictly based on their machine results.

It was pretty fascinating stuff all round. There’s a lot of talent out there on the internet that the creators of this could draw from. I also heard that they’ve made a sequel, another collection of stories about the machine and the way it drives people crazy.