Friday, 29 July 2016

House of Suns

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds, is epic science fiction. In fact, it doesn't get much more epic than this, with a story that encompasses a galaxy and runs over the course of many millions of years, there are few stories that dare to assume the scope of this novel.

The story follows three key protagonists, two are Shatterlings, clones belonging to the Gentian Line and who are millions of years old (thank you technology and relativistic space travel). The third is a machine person, a member of a civilization of machines that have attained consciousness. Circumstance forces them together, and the result of their encounter is a steadily spiraling chain of events that looms to enormous proportions. I won't say more on the plot, as it has many turns, but it is certainly exciting reading.

Many of the encounters, the post-human themes and imagery, and the technology, make for a setting that on one hand feels fantastic, but which manages to maintain a grounding in reality. The quote of Arthur C. Clarke's, that: "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." is true, but Reynolds manages to found this distant and alien future in a kernel of believability, a quintessence that permits the reader to think that such things are not mere fancy, but reasoned potential. The line between magic and possibility is blurred. The aliens, such as they are, are not aliens in the Hollywood sense, but the result of millions of years of post-human genetic and technological tinkering and evolution. The technology feels well conceived and based in science, as befitting an author who once worked on astronomy and astrophysics for the European Space Agency.

More than anything though, and a big theme in House of Suns, is the fact that while the universe is many of millions of years older, that humanity is a thousand fractured forms beyond what we are today and technology has been stretched to the point of magic (though not quite), we get the sense that our species has still not quite grown up. That we are children playing with fire. That time and an insatiable mix of our curiosities and fears has furnished us with fire of unimaginable power and ferocity, and despite the physics, the maths and technology, we are dominated ultimately by our foibles and too often ruled by our weaknesses. Humanity, for all it's power, inventiveness and technology is still immature and riddled with faults, and that this is both a weakness, and a strength.

House of Suns is not afraid to use the backdrop of a fantastic science fiction universe to pose some interesting and deep questions about the development of a species, about consciousness and about humanity. Reynolds also manages to do so in a rolling, action filled and exciting story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed House of Suns. It is an epic science fiction story, with staggering scope, that manages to maintain a strong sense of humanity through gulfs of time, space and technology. All in all a wonderful story.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Ready Player One

Recently I made the decision to read more. I've always loved reading, and in years gone by I would chew through novels, spending hour after hour walking new paths, exploring new worlds and experiencing new stories. In more recent years I have struggled, my job, kids, writing, my phone, all have been contributing factors in closing off those worlds to me. At the start of the year I proposed a goal of reading at least a novel every two months, something I would have found laughable in times past, but which seems now to be a more realistic goal. On and off I have persevered, I read and loved The Martian, enjoyed The Fifth Elephant, and read various favourites to my class.

One of the two books I have recently finished is Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. With a renewed interest in science fiction, this book came with a long list of recommendations and commendations.

Ready Player One is a near future science fiction story set in a dystopian world where global warming and environmental degradation have forced massed migrations, food shortages, and poverty on much of the world. It is a setting in which the interests of capitalism rule, but where an alternative reality exists in the simulated virtual reality of OASIS, a social media hub, game, commercial experience and more combined all into one. It is a pervasive and all encompassing alternate reality that many people in the world succumb to, choosing the prospect of a glorious life in the simulation over the life that faces them outside it. It is a bleak picture of the future that is touched on throughout the novel but never really explored in depth.

The story follows the protagonist Wade Watts and his OASIS alter ego Parzival as he seeks to find hidden easter eggs within OASIS and win a competition initiated by its creator. The winner of the challenge would gain control of the company that runs the simulation (and the hefty bank balance to go with it).

The story is an interesting one, the creator of OASIS, James Halliday, was obsessed with the 80s, and pop culture references and geek culture from that time dominate the story and are a fundamental aspect of solving the challenges. There is action, both in real life and in the simulation, and both Wade and Parzival have their opportunities to shine. The enemy of the scenario is a rival company using every means within the technical orbit of the 'rules' of the challenge to gain control of OASIS.

The themes or corporate greed, geek culture and dystopian motifs all rise and fall throughout the story. I enjoyed the ride, but felt that some of the core themes of the setting were brushed over, such as the toll on humanity taken by a life lived vicariously through an avatar. 

The relationships in the story were interesting, but ultimately the romance, friendships and animosities feel a little shallow. There is a hefty element of deus ex machina that comes into play toward the climax. It could be that the reason some of these elements are written as they are is because of the first person perspective of the book. However, these elements felt, for me, a touch superficial, a touch glib and detached.

I found the novel engaging, the setting interesting and the characters likable. However, in the afterglow of finishing the book there was some element or spark that just didn't seem to fire with me. To me, Ready Player One is a good book, but is also the shadow of a great book, fallen short of the mark.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Preparing for Infinity...

At my local club we have just kicked off a slow-grow league, playing Infinity. It's a great opportunity to get everyone at the club who's keen to learn the rules and develop their skills together. The first night of the league we had a fantastic turn-out, with 12 players turning up to take part. 

In the build up to the league I have tried to read through the rules (failed), and prepare all the bits and pieces required to play. One of my mates gave me a bunch of laser cut tokens to use, so I had to get some colour into them to make them readable on the table. I tried a variety of ways of getting the colour into the laser etching, including ink (failed), crayon (not bad), and pastel (worked well, but was messy). This was a trial and error process, but in the end I ran with using pastel rubbed over the etching with some force to apply the colour. There was a fair amount of cleaning involved, but the end result was better than any of the other systems I had tried, so I'm happy with that.

Sorting the tokens into types...

Adding some green ink with a paint brush...

Then adding the red ink...

In front of the fire in the hope the ink will dry...

It didn't dry, and when I later stacked the tokens the ink bled out all over the place. Damn capillary action!

Ink - Crayon - Pastel. Some testing to see what stands out. I was happiest with the pastel.

Washing the tokens again to remove the ink.

Sorting everything again... (Infinity has a lot of effects!)

Slowly adding the pastel through the tokens...

I am thinking of spraying the back of the tokens a white or black to help them stand out even more. We shall see.

I got some templates and silhouette markers from Jackal Designs, very nice!

All the scenarios that will be played throughout the league come from this excellent little system!

Game one for me was to pit my Yu Jing against some PanO... My Domaru was the MVP of the game, devastating a flank and allowing my Zhanshi to take and hold the central objective.
Game two, my Yu Jing came up against the Morat. Again, my Domaru was MVP. Taking the first turn, he single handedly wiped the enemy off the board.
Several blasts from a boarding shot-gun and the entire enemy force was no more. I have to admit I was rolling lucky, while my opponent was equally unlucky, but it was pretty brutal. The enemy had lost every model after the first order of the second turn... I suppose that can happen in a small points game.
One of the other tables... 
The slow-grow has kicked off with great attendance and some excellent games. I was nothing but lucky this week, and with small 100 point forces this made a big difference. Next week we'll be playing 150 points, and as the league develops and the points values of the forces grow, it should be very interesting!