SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

I’m back with another book report. This time it’s SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I have to look up the proper spelling of his name every single time), which I read sometime last year. (Hey, at least I’m writing this post this year!)

In my Cryptonomicon review, I said Neal Stephenson is hit-or-miss with me, but this time he delivered a solid hit. I loved this book.

It’s about the moon breaking up and destroying the world, and the steps taken to save the human race. I have always been a sucker for “disaster” stories so it had me as soon as I heard about it. (I can’t remember where I first heard about the book.)

The reason the moon broke up isn’t really important to the story, and in fact is never fully explained. I think there were some theories (a high-speed something hitting it in just the right way), but the characters were kind of busy and didn’t have time or resources to investigate.

The book is in three parts. The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the moon breaking up and the cold realization that all life on the surface of Earth is going to end. (Apparently all of the increasing number of moon pieces falling into the atmosphere would eventually reach a point where the air superheats and cooks everything. It sounded plausible to me but I’m certainly not an expert on exploding moons.) Part one follows the efforts of launching as many people into orbit as possible, as fast as possible, to save the human race. (They had a two-year deadline.)

The second part of the book deals with events after the “white sky” event which kills everything on Earth, and the efforts of the remaining space-faring human race (numbering about 1,500 by then) to get to a stable place to survive for thousands of years in space until the Earth is habitable again. (Remaining in orbit was still not safe, due to constant bombardments from “bolides,” a term you will understand thoroughly by the end of the book.)

In addition to all the scientific, physical, and emotional obstacles to overcome, there are (of course!) political obstacles as well. It’s all woven together in a way that I found riveting from the beginning of part one to the end of part two.

There aren’t enough words to say how much I loved these first two parts of SEVENEVES. (I am rendering the name in all caps because I think it’s supposed to be that way, because of the symmetry of the word, or at least that’s how I imagine it should be.) I was glued to my Kindle screen for hours on end, which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. The characters were compelling, the drama was compelling, the action was compelling, the science was compelling, the politicking was compelling, the sociography was compelling. And there were robots!

Then there is the third part of the book. It begins 5,000 years later, and deals with returning to Earth. If I remember right, it started with a truly epic amount of exposition. I can’t say much more about it without spoiling things a bit.

The only criticism I have of SEVENEVES is the decision to include this third part. I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, because it was, but it was a bit of a letdown, because it’s an entirely different story and tone. It is essentially a sequel to parts one and two. You can probably guess that after 5000 years pass, none of the characters from parts one and two appear in part three.

I actually had to put the book down after part two and leave it for several days before I picked it up and started reading again. I had a very strong emotional connection to the characters and events happening in parts one and two, but when it came to part three, I was a lot more detached. It was still fascinating, but it was such a different narrative that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It was almost like a really long epilogue. I would have preferred to see it expanded and made into a full-blown novel on its own.

But other than that, this was a fantastic book. I rate it as … *drumroll* … great!

Note on Comment Approval

I apologize, but at some point in the last couple of weeks, WordPress decided that I needed to approve every single comment regardless of who it came from, so you may see some delays with comments showing up.

I have no idea why it’s doing this. I can only assume some random thing changed with WordPress or Akismet or Jetpack recently. I’ve fiddled with some settings again tonight to see if it helps.

Why Solo MMORPGs

Another one rescued from my Drafts folder, from February 2016…

I’m in the camp of people who primarily play MMORPGs solo, so I guess I can speak a little on this topic.

I wouldn’t say that I “demand” solo content from MMORPGs, though.* And it’s not that I’m against group content. I just prefer games where I can log in and do interesting things without having to form or join a group all the time. Because if I had to do that, I probably wouldn’t log in very often unless I had the time to idle a lot.

I don’t understand why this is a controversial topic–why it has to be one or the other. I think it’s well within an MMORPG’s capabilities to handle both styles. (It’s got to be easier than catering to PvE and PvP crowds at the same time, at least.) I can’t think of a single MMORPG I’ve played since my first one (UO) where I couldn’t do soloing or grouping depending on my mood.

The reasons that I prefer to play solo essentially boil down to two things, which I imagine are the two most common reasons anyone would give: Introvertedness and limited time.

Introvertedness

I don’t like to lean on introversion as an excuse, but the reality is that, even on a good day, it’s a lot of work for me to cultivate and maintain social relationships. Particularly right now, when I have a fairly intense amount of socializing I have to deal with at work, the idea of extending that into online games is pretty abhorrent.

You never know what kind of person you’re going to meet in an MMORPG, of course, but nine times out of ten, from the perspective of an introvert, other people are going to be an energy drain. They don’t have to be a jerk to do that, either. Sometimes the friendliest people in the world are just as draining. I hate to admit it but sometimes I find friendly people more draining to deal with because I feel like if I don’t mimic their friendliness they will receive a social cue from me that their behavior is inappropriate, which is both wrong and makes me feel tremendously guilty. So to avoid that I have to work extra hard to interact with them in a way that meets my needs but also doesn’t hurt their feelings. It’s far easier to just avoid people altogether. :)

Maybe we need some way to indicate our mood in the games we play. In real life, we can tell from expressions and body language and social cues whether it’s “okay” to approach someone to talk. But in a game, that doesn’t exist.

Time

The other big reason is time. When I log into a game, I want to start playing immediately. I don’t want to log in and wait an indeterminate amount of time while a group forms. Even with dungeon finder tools, I find it very aggravating to log in, queue for something, and then sit there staring at the screen waiting for the queue to pop. That’s one of the things I love about FFXIV–you can actually accomplish something meaningful (leveling an alternate class or crafting) while waiting for a queue. You can’t do that in most MMORPGs–you just have to stand there doing nothing.

Then there is how long the activity takes once you start it. If a game task starts to take too long, I start to feel trapped and claustrophobic and “stuck” at my computer playing what will increasingly feel like a stupid game. The upper limit of my focused concentration on one task is usually around 30 minutes, especially on a work day. (To me, a “task” is anything with a start and an end, like a dungeon, or a match, or a quest, or something like that.) After that I want to walk away for a while, or do some other computer task, or do some other game activities, or play a different game, or basically anything.

Long dungeon runs with PUGs are the absolute worst. I still vividly remember a two-hour dungeon run in Neverwinter and a two-hour dungeon run in WildStar. Both were successful by sheer force of willpower in overcoming failure after failure after failure. I should have felt great about those accomplishments but mostly I felt like I had gotten out of a two-hour tax seminar.

But solo activities in MMORPGs are usually short, finite tasks. Go to a spot, kill ten rats, hand in a quest. Boom, you’re done. Even if the task does take too long, you can always walk away and leave your character AFK for a while.

The minute you step into a group activity, you’ve lost control over your time. You have to stay there until the group finishes, and group tasks in MMORPGs are almost always time-consuming. God knows why, but they usually design group content so that it does take a long time.

Incidentally, I sometimes have more difficulty playing “sandbox”-style games solo because of the time factor, particularly if they have a harsh death penalty. It’s endlessly aggravating for me to be forced to make a “corpse run” because you have to get your stuff back before it disappears or someone else takes it. (Currently I’m experiencing this tremendous annoyance in ARK.)

* Back when I wrote this draft, there was an article or a blog post or forum post or something that talked about players demanding solo content, but I don’t know where it is now.

The Man In The High Castle, S01E01

The other night I discovered that Amazon Prime has a long list of original shows just like Netflix. I don’t know how this escaped my attention. Actually I do know: I usually find something to watch on Netflix before I click the Amazon button on my Vizio remote.

Anyway, scrolling through the Amazon Originals list I spotted The Man In The High Castle, which is a show I’ve heard about often but never realized it was an Amazon show. I don’t know where I thought it was. I just assumed it was on some channel I didn’t have, like Showtime or Starz or something.

I also never realized it was a show about an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II, based on a Philip K. Dick novel. I always thought it was some kind of generic spy show, maybe like The Americans.

The point is, I finally watched the first episode. My expectations were fairly high, but unfortunately I didn’t really get into it.

I had one big problem with it, and it’s a really nerdy, nitpicky detail that I shouldn’t have in a show that is obviously fiction and not even about this: They didn’t adequately explain to me how the Axis could possibly have won World War II and go on to invade America. I wanted to see a historically accurate, plausible explanation, with all the logistical details of how they replaced the U.S. government with a German government, but all I got was: They used the atomic bomb first, and they invaded Virginia Beach.

That’s what I was waiting for through the entire first episode: The explanation. Some explanation. Any explanation. I guess I did get “any” explanation, but it was rather disappointing.

I’m not an expert on WWII, but I know enough to know that “Germany dropped the A-bomb first” is not a good enough explanation to overcome historical facts. I mean, the Normandy beach landings across the English channel were a logistical nightmare, how did Germany pull off an invasion of Virginia Beach, across an entire ocean?? Where did Germany even get the manpower to pull off such an invasion?? Presumably they wouldn’t have dropped their A-bomb(s) until late in the war, at which time they were utterly devastated as a country and an army. The only way any of it makes sense is if they drop their A-bombs on Day 1 of the war, before they got the bright idea to invade Russia. And yet nobody had A-bomb technology on Day 1 of the war, so how do we explain that little detail? (This is why I don’t write historical fiction. Too many details to pick apart.)

That’s the kind of stuff I kept thinking about while I was watching the episode.

The things that the characters were actually doing on screen seemed unimportant to me in comparison to figuring out how they arrived at that time. As the show went on, I got the impression there is some kind of time-travel element, because that woman had tapes of the “real” outcome of World War II. That was a bit of a disappointment, too. Not only did they not give me a plausible explanation for the Axis winning, they weren’t even committing to it! They are saying that the events of this show are happening in the “wrong” timeline, and presumably our heroes will be spending the show trying to fix things. Or–even more preposterous–the war turned out the way it was supposed to, but something happened after the war to allow Germany and Japan to take over America, and it was all covered up to the point that nobody knows about it.

Given that I didn’t see anything better on Amazon, I guess I’ll watch some more to see if I can resolve some of these mysteries, but I’m probably not going to be glued to the television while the episodes play.

I rate the first episode a “meh.”

P. S. The second episode did not draw me in either. It occurred to me that Nazi bad guys are such a cliche now that seeing actual Nazi bad guys in an appropriately Nazi setting seems like more of a joke than a serious dramatic element. Especially since they are playing them up as stereotypical Nazi bad guys instead of complex characters who happen to be Nazis.

Chris Cornell and Audioslave

Today’s writing topic is: Chris Cornell, who sadly committed suicide.

I might be a smidge older than some of the other folks reminiscing on Twitter about Soundgarden and Chris Cornell in the wake of his recent death. My memory of Soundgarden is limited to exactly two songs from 90s radio: Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. I liked both songs, possibly even loved Spoonman. I remember vividly where I was the first time I heard it, actually. It’s an enthralling song.

But I was never a “fan” of Soundgarden per se, and I couldn’t name or hum a single other song they did. I never bought any Soundgarden CDs. I didn’t know Cornell by name back then.

Overall I never got into grunge music in the early 1990s. I liked the “sound” of it, particularly those heavy guitars, which I often tried and failed to replicate, but I never felt it as a social movement like others did. Looking back now, I think I held a little bit of a resentment toward grunge, because they pushed all of “my” familiar rock music from the radio.

It was also around that time that I discovered the progressive rock of Queensryche, and I had also begun to write my own music. I was also working at home trying to make an Amiga software development business work, so I was pretty busy. It wasn’t until years later that I really started to appreciate the grunge movement. (I was always partial to Stone Temple Pilots, though, particularly their second album Purple, which I still think is a masterpiece.)

Now I want to fast forward to around 2002 or 2003, when I heard a little song called Like A Stone. I cannot even tell you where I heard it. I certainly wasn’t listening to FM radio in 2002, and MTV and VH1 were long gone. Even Napster was gone. It’s possible I heard it on a Winamp “Internet radio” station, because I remember playing around with that for a while.

Regardless of how I heard it, I thought the song was amazing. It was such a simple piece with a lot of powerful, evocative, almost religious lyrics. And then the lead guitar started and it just floored me. What was this alien sound and how the holy hell did they get a guitar to make this sound?? (I still don’t know but I assume it was some kind of pitch shifter pedal, possibly that DigiTech Whammy pedal.) I made a mental note of the band named Audioslave.

Not much later, I heard another song by Audioslave called Show Me How To Live. It had a lot of the same qualities as Like A Stone, but it was more of a rocker.

(It’s weird watching those videos now… I’ve never seen them before.)

At that point I’m pretty sure I got Audioslave’s first album. I don’t remember if I heard it first, then bought it, or if I just bought it based only on those two songs. It’s sort of unusual for me to buy a whole album based on only two songs, though. At that time I was into what I think the local rock stations called “buzz rock” and Audioslave fit perfectly, although it seemed to me that it rose considerably above the median.

Every song on that first Audioslave album is amazing, if you ask me. Most every song on the second and third album is amazing, too. That was when I learned the name Chris Cornell, and found out he used to sing for Soundgarden. (I knew his voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.) I was very surprised to learn that the rest of Audioslave used to be Rage Against The Machine, whom I had heard now and then but never cared for.

That’s how I’ll remember Chris Cornell… as the frontman for Audioslave.

“I’ve been wandering sideways
I’ve stared straight into the sun
Still I don’t know why you’re dying
Long before your time has come”

- Chris Cornell, Your Time Has Come

 

Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson

I wrote this pseudo-review sometime in 2016.

I finally got around to reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson, which had been sitting in my Kindle library for years. I knew basically nothing about the book, except that it was one of those books that comes up a lot in geek circles, so I felt like I was obligated to read it.

Neil Stephenson is a hit-or-miss kind of author for me. Snow Crash is the only other book of his I’ve read. I only read that one because, again, I felt like it was one of those books that a modern nerd simply had to read. I remember almost nothing about the story now, but I remember enjoying it up to a point about two-thirds of the way through, when it took a weird turn and/or ground to a complete halt and I lost interest and put it away.

I went into Cryptonomicon expecting another cyberpunk kind of story, but it’s not a cyberpunk story at all. The book is really two stories: It follows characters in and around the field of cryptanalysis during World War II (Bletchley Park, etc.), and different-but-related characters in the 1990s starting up a telecommunications business in the Philippines. It’s one part World War II war story, and one part modern techno-drama. (Not techno-thriller, because there wasn’t any action.) Personally, I greatly preferred the World War II parts of the book and felt like most of the 1990s story was uninteresting. (Seriously, how can you possibly compare the drama of freakin’ World War II with the drama of … starting a company?)

I enjoyed some chapters, while others felt like studying for a security certification. (I have literally studied for tests that encompass cryptography material similar to some chapters of Cryptonomicon.) This is what I mean about the hit-or-miss nature of Stephenson’s writing. Sometimes I find myself riveted to the page, soaking up the text, while other times I feel like I’m reading a technical manual and wondering why I’m wasting my time. I skipped whole sections of text in this book to get past them. I don’t care how interesting cryptography is, it’s not even remotely dramatic.

My biggest criticism is that I thought the book ended rather abruptly. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, “Where is this book going? What are these characters after? What is the endgame?” That was a large driver in what kept me reading, to be honest. (Also, boredom.) I kept expecting a revelation that would tie both time periods together and allow everything to make sense, but I never got that. The book just … stopped.

In the afterword I got the impression that the author planned followup books, which I suppose explains why it didn’t have an ending. I would rate this book somewhere between “okay” and “good” in my patented overly-indifferent rating system. (The ratings are “meh”, “okay”, “good,” and then “great.”)

Destiny 2 Gameplay Reveal Event

The other day saw one of the biggest MMORPG* events on the Internet that I can recall in recent memory: Bungie’s Destiny 2 Gameplay Reveal Event. Since some of us have to work, I didn’t actually see it, but almost everyone in my timeline was watching it and commenting on it. It had the feel of an Apple event.

I never played Destiny, since I don’t have any of the new generation of consoles. (The newest console I own is a PS3, which has remained unplugged and in a box for several years. The only hope it ever has to see the light of day again is that one day I plan to buy and play Demon’s Souls.)

Furthermore, I’ve never played any version of Halo either, since I’ve never owned an Xbox of any kind. Therefore, I’ve never played a game by Bungie in my life.

So you can probably guess that my response to all this Destiny 2 hooplah is a little below the average level of hype. (The average appears to be frenzied, drooling gamers smashing pre-order buttons with mouse clicks so hard it shatters plastic, sending fragments and spittle flying in all directions.)

We’ve known there would be a PC version of Destiny 2 for a while now, but what we didn’t know is that it will be a Battle.net exclusive. That raised quite a few eyebrows. The responses ranged the full gamut from “This is the worst thing ever!” to “This is the best thing ever!” Personally I don’t really care. I’ve never had any problems with Blizzard’s launcher.

I’ll probably get it, although I have to admit at this particular moment the prospect of playing another MMORPG after playing so many single-player games in a row feels roughly like contemplating sticking a large fork in my eyeball. (A subject for another post.)

* I’m not entirely sure we can describe Destiny 2 as an “MMORPG” quite yet, but let’s just say it is for now.

Accountant, Bourne, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Last weekend I rented The Accountant on Verizon VOD. It was decent, but not quite good. I felt a pretty strong connection to Ben Afleck’s character because I can identify with many of the symptoms he reeled off about “high functioning autism.” I’ve never been diagnosed but I’ve always assumed I’m on the Asperger’s spectrum somewhere, enough to be recognizable, but not enough to be debilitating. The plot that went on around him, though, wasn’t all that interesting to me (corporate accounting woohoo). Still, there were good performances all around.

Saturday night I watched Jason Bourne on HBO. I didn’t care for it. With the exception of a 10 minute car chase near the end, it was rather boring for an action movie. I’m not a diehard fan of the Bourne movies, but I at least enjoyed the first three. This one was a whole lot of “meh.” It seemed to re-tread the exact same ground as previous movies (“Bourne is looking for something, but we need to stop him before he finds it.”) Most of the movie consisted of shots of people looking at computer screens. I think they were ultimately trying to make a movie about personal data privacy versus government law enforcement, but jammed Bourne into the middle of it.

Sunday evening I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane on Amazon Prime. It was good. Far better than I expected it to be. I had the vague impression that it hadn’t been received very well when it was released, but I thought it was a very tense psychological thriller with some really good, believable performances and more than a few surprises (and not the ones you might think, if you’ve seen it). I don’t remember Cloverfield very well but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. I think I would rate this one better. (The two movies are unrelated, though.)