Monthly Archives: April 2008

What’s been in the ol’ game console lately?

Here are some of the games of a sci-fi nature I’ve played lately, along with my thoughts.

Bioshock is, overall, THE best game I’ve played since I first bought my Xbox 360 back in December. It has received very positive reviews, and deservedly so; its strengths are apparent in every aspect of the game. This is a shooter with a philosophical storyline, set in an amazing environment, with a very user-friendly interface and an intriguing combat system with some interesting weapons and abilities.

You begin aboard an airliner that crashes in the ocean in 1960. The only survivor, you find an entrance to an incredible underground city called Rapture, built by a rich and eccentric industrialist who wanted to start his own society based more or less on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Well, that didn’t work out too well; by the time you arrive the city is in chaos and falling apart, leaving you with the task of trying to stay alive long enough to make it out. But along the way you get to enjoy the soothing and mesmerizing underwater scenery and the beautiful art-deco architecture of the city itself. The engineering problems of an underwater city are swept under the rug; it is assumed that it’s just a matter of applying enough money. The real sci-fi element comes in the realm of biology. Some kind of deep-water organism is discovered which has very special genetic properties that can be applied to humans, resulting in what you might call “superpowers” — the ability to emit electric shocks, for example, or throw fire. As you progress in the game you gain these abilities, and they sure do come in handy (as well as being pretty fun!).

But it isn’t all shooting and killing. As you go on, you slowly uncover the story of what happened to this city. And you are presented with different moral paths in the way you wish to pursue your goals. It’s not going to change your worldview or make you a wiser person, but it’s nice to see a game every now and then that makes you think at least a little bit.

Mass Effect is a role-playing team-combat game in a similar vein to the Knights of the Old Republic games, and no wonder since it comes from the same creators. I liked this one, but I’m also critical of it in some ways. It’s a strange mixture of admirable strengths and annoying flaws.

Let me cover the flaws first. The biggest one is probably the repetitiveness. While the scale of the game is epic and you can visit dozens of star systems and explore numerous planets, you quickly realize the each planet is nearly a carbon copy of the others — the same terrain with a different color or texture. So that gets a bit boring. Also, the combat system is somewhat on the annoying side, not nearly as intuitive or easy to use as it could have been. Furthermore, as in Bioshock, you have certain superpower-like abilities, (although the basis for these is some sort of implants embedded in the brain which allow you to control electromagnetism); the problem is, the abilities are of limited variety and not really very interesting.

The real strength of this game is the sci-fi storyline, a very decent space opera that draws inspiration from numerous SF movies and tv shows. Also in the plus column, the characters are strong and interesting to interact with. Overall, it was a good experience.

Not so with Time Shift; it was just sort of “there.” This was a game that took a fascinating and well-known SF concept — time travel — and completely wasted it.

Plot summary: the government has a time travel program; lead scientist goes back to a previous century and recreates modern technology to create his own empire (a Nazi-like totalitarian state); someone is sent back to take him out, fighting through his armies along the way.

The basic idea had potential, but no use was made of it. In the end it was just a generic shooter, with the addition of some minor time-manipulation powers (which were also rather generic, the same powers you can find in the Prince of Persia games). The combat was average, the story was poor, and the whole experience left a lot to be desired (I played on the Elite difficulty level, and it still wasn’t very challenging). Not recommended.

What is Science Fiction anyway?

Tom Dillon over at Pawnstorm has a post on the purpose of science fiction in which he makes this worthwhile point:

[...] only one of Science Fiction’s jobs is to deal with the future. Another is to take situations that we see today and look at them in a different light, from different perspectives, stripped of all the glit that is placed on them by tradition, the media, and society in general.

That strikes me as a very accurate description. It recognizes that SF can serve multiple purposes, not all of them strictly having to do with science or the future. That second purpose, the “different perspectives” one, is certainly characteristic of much of the SF I like to read, and seems especially relevant to that branch of the genre known as “soft” science fiction.

Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of what SF is, from both fans and critics, and it seems everybody has their own slightly different ideas on the subject. And maybe that’s fine. In fact, it’s probably a mistake to look for one single definitive expression for a genre that is so wide-open and flexible. Brunner calls it “the literature of the open mind,” and I think that’s the single best description I’ve ever found.

A while back I was perusing this page containing definitions of sci-fi by the authors themselves. It’s where I found that Brunner quote; and here are some others that demonstrate my own feelings about SF:

Isaac Asimov:

Modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions.

Gregory Benford:

Anything that turns you and your social context, the social you, inside out. Nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible.

Damon Knight:

What we get from science fiction—what keeps us reading it, in spite of our doubts and occasional disgust—is not different from the thing that makes mainstream stories rewarding, but only expressed differently. We live on a minute island of known things. Our undiminished wonder at the mystery which surrounds us is what makes us human. In science fiction we can approach that mystery, not in small, everyday symbols, but in bigger ones of space and time.

Alexei Panshin:

… its [science fiction's] attraction lies … in the unique opportunity it offers for placing familiar things in unfamiliar contexts, and unfamiliar things in familiar contexts, thereby yielding fresh insights and perspective.

Frederick Pohl:

That’s really what SF is all about, you know: the big reality that pervades the real world we live in: the reality of change. Science fiction is the very literature of change. In fact, it is the only such literature we have.

Brian Stableford:

Science fiction is essentially a kind of fiction in which people learn more about how to live in the real world, visiting imaginary worlds unlike our own, in order to investigate by way of pleasurable thought-experiments how things might be done differently.

Alvin Toffler:

By challenging anthropocentricism and temporal provincialism, science fiction throws open the whole of civilization and its premises to constructive criticism.

That last one from Toffler is one of my favorites. But all these authors are making very similar points, of course. Taken together, this collection of quotes does a good job of expressing what science fiction means to me.

A partial eclipse of Brunner’s talent

I just finished up with Total Eclipse (1974), the fourth of Brunner’s novels I’ve read so far, the others being Children of the Thunder (1988 ), The Crucible of Time (1983), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968 ). So far I’ve been fairly impressed with Brunner’s work (enough to keep reading his books, obviously), but this time around his normal brightness seems somewhat dimmer. In some ways this novel is very well done, but in others….. well, not so much.

In 2020 humans discover the ruins of an alien civilization on another planet. The evidence suggests that they rose from a Neolithic stage to the beginnings of space flight in a mere 3,000 years (half the time it took humanity) and then mysteriously went extinct. A team of about 30 scientists is dispatched and sets up camp for an ongoing investigation to discover the how and why. Meanwhile, things on Earth are touchy, and there is barely enough world support to maintain the costly spaceflights to and from the alien planet to periodically exchange personnel and ferry home artifacts and reports. The story follows these scientists (archaeologists, linguists, biologists, engineers) as they try to unravel a seemingly impenetrable enigma.

I liked the presentation of a profound mystery, and the ongoing endeavor to solve it. I’ve read very few sci-fi books in which archaeology plays any significant role, and it’s nice to see a discipline that’s not one of the “hard” sciences get some time in the spotlight. I also really liked the big picture, the overall theme: the attempt by one intelligent species to understand the demise of another in order to learn from it and hopefully not repeat it — although that hope later gets dashed. Eventually, it is discovered that the alien species met its end through its own actions, because it was unable or unwilling to change its nature. This fact is obviously meant as a mirror in which to examine our own nature and its shortcomings. By the end of the book, the research team is stranded, presumably because Earth collapses in war and chaos and is unable to send a ship for their scientists. Although the ending is extremely pessimistic (and what happens to the scientists is not pretty), there is a structure there that is convincing, a symmetry between the two species and their inability to get past their own flaws. It is unclear whether Brunner is suggesting this is an inevitable fate for any intelligent lifeform, or if he believes it can be avoided. At any rate, the basic message seems to be that our own worst enemy is always ourselves.

All that being said, the novel has some serious flaws.

Foremost among them is the overuse of that familiar didactic device whereby one character asks questions so that another character may answer them in order to inform the reader. We’re all familiar with this tool, and a certain amount of it is fine, but it’s a bit annoying when it’s so obvious, and there’s no attempt to disguise it at all. In this case, the person asking the questions should already know the answers; they are somewhat related to her field, and, after all, these are supposed to be some of the most brilliant people around — that’s why they were chosen for the mission. The questioner comes off sounding like a moron, and the reader is fully aware of being lectured to.

Compounding that problem, some of these lectures themselves leave something to be desired. Several times I was bothered by what I viewed as garbled explanations or even downright errors (in particular relating to both linguistics and to evolution) which were supposedly coming from a character who is a genius. That kind of thing tends to distract me from a story.

Furthermore, often the characters engaged in discussions and debates about their discoveries and theories, and some particular idea they put forth would carry some implication that seems obvious to the reader (at least to me), but the characters don’t pick up on it until pages (minutes or days) later. Again, these are supposed to be Earth’s best and brightest, but sometimes they don’t live up to their reputation.

This book was written during what some call Brunner’s heyday, the late 60′s and the 70′s, when he was writing his most important novels. But I get the feeling he didn’t put his full effort into this one. It was worth reading, and the basic concept was a good one, but the craftsmanship just wasn’t up to Brunner’s usual standards (as I know them thus far). It wasn’t a total eclipse; but it was less than he’s capable of.

Sci-fi in music: Star One

I’ll be posting from time to time about some noteworthy appearances of science fiction in music. For my first entry, I can think of no more worthy example than Star One’s Space Metal.

Star One is a side project of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, who is better known for his band Ayreon, a Dutch progressive rock outfit which also draws heavily from sci-fi and fantasy. Star One is like a heavier, more metal version of Ayreon. And as usual for Lucassen, he has a group of guest vocalists from other bands to help him out. Space Metal showcases the voices of Russell Allen (Symphony X), Damian Wilson (Threshold), Dan Swano (Nightingale), and to balance all the guys with some beautiful female vocals, Floor Jansen (After Forever).

This album is Lucassen’s way of paying tribute to science fiction. Most of the songs are based on various movies and tv shows (although somewhat loosely at times). Here’s the tracklist, along with each song’s inspiration:

  1. Lift Off
  2. Set Your Controls
  3. High Moon (Outland)
  4. Songs of the Ocean (Star Trek IV)
  5. Master of Darkness (Star Wars/ESB)
  6. The Eye of Ra (Stargate)
  7. Sandrider (Dune)
  8. Perfect Survivor (Alien)
  9. Intergalactic Space Crusaders (Blake’s 7)
  10. Starchild (2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact)

My favorite song is “Master of Darkness” with its dark brooding sound and blistering Hammond organ. However, my favorite lyrics come from “Songs of the Ocean”:

We shape light, we travel space,
but we don’t know the words to the songs of the ocean.
We survive, the human race,
But we don’t know the words to the songs of the ocean.

But enough words; you really just wanna know what it sounds like, right? Here are some YouTube clips of some live Star One performances:

High Moon:

Songs of the Ocean:

The Eye of Ra:

Telling it like it is, Le Guin style

The Telling (2005) is yet another installment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, and another example of her brand of soft, social, anthropological science fiction. It’s not her best work, and not her worst, but rather in the middle; comfortably average Le Guin, certainly a decent read.

Sutty, an Ekumen Observer, is sent to Aka, a planet ruled by the Corporate State, a materialistic, modern, progress-driven government which has outlawed the “old ways” — old literature, old traditions, and particularly the Telling, an ancient social phenomenon that is not quite a religion, not quite a philosophy, but more like a “system for living” and a way to remember the past. Anything not serving the modern fixation on progress, science, economic expansion, and the “March to the Stars” was made illegal and punishable. And not only did the Corporation outlaw these things, it used force to rid the world of them — blew up the old libraries, put violators in “rehabilitation” work camps, etc.

So is this a cautionary tale about materialistic, secular governments that use heavy-handed tactics and censorship? Not so fast….

It turns out Sutty comes from an Earth which, during much of her lifetime, had pretty much the opposite problem: it was ruled by a fanatical religious group, the Unists, which was anti-progress, anti-science, and against anything that didn’t fit in with their traditionalist religious viewpoint. And like the Akans, the Unists were all too willing to use violence, punishment, and censorship in futherance of their goals.

So what’s the point of all this? Le Guin dishes out plenty of criticism of both the Akan Corporate State (for their blind pursuit of progress at the expense of their heritage) and the Terran Unists (for doing pretty much the opposite). I think what Le Guin is saying is that almost any kind of belief system (be it religious, political, or whatever), if in a position to gather power, can be used to oppress others in order to advance itself as the best or only allowable choice. At one point she speaks of it in terms of balance:

From an active homeostatic balance they had turned it to an active forward-thrusting imbalance.

Both Aka and Earth fall into this imbalance, with one particular belief pushing itself forward to the exclusion of all others and becoming the basis for a totalitarian regime. But as Le Guin reminds us, just because a belief is strongly or widely held, that doesn’t mean it’s the right belief, and beliefs, once examined, often turn out to be flawed or not as well-supported as we think. My favorite line of the whole book was:

But belief is the wound that knowledge heals….

Encyclopedias: gotta love ‘em!

Science Fiction: the Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute. I recently found this at a used book shop and had to have it (along with a stack of other books, of course!). I’ve been browsing through it for the last few days, in between my other readings, and I love it. There’s so much info in here about the history of the genre, how it developed decade by decade, its major themes, its major authors, and so on. This will be a great addition to my SF library, and a frequent source of pleasure, I’m sure.