Thursday, March 25, 2010

A History of Histories

In A History of Histories, British historian John Burrow sets himself a nearly impossible task in the title of the book alone. Impressively, he succeeds, describing the general form of history in the west in a single volume, and even more impressive is the fact that he makes it entirely readable.

Along the way, there are some excellent summaries, some explanations for why we know Livy and Tacitus so well, as well as some laments for the lists of lost histories. But when the book gets out of the Middle Ages to the point where the modern history genre starts to take shape is where it starts to get really interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting section is when Burrow starts discussing the underappreciated legal scholars of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment who trace the history of law through archives, only to discover that everything their societies believe about how their law is a corrupted version of "Roman law" is wrong, and it's actually a collection of compromises and creations within the context of the times, as opposed to wisdom descended from the "ancients." At this point, the book is a fascinating chronicle of the intersection of society, history, law, and perception.

If the book has a major weakness, it's that the 20th Century section seems narrowly-focused and cursory. The author freely admits that he cannot go into the entirety of 20th Century histories in the single chapter he allots to it, which is fair, but it certainly leaves the reader wanting more - perhaps a second volume on the subject? Its narrow focus on "History" as an academic discipline, as opposed to the conception of "history" within society based around that discipline is disappointing, although also understandable.

A History of Histories has a fairly narrow audience, who probably know if they would be interested simply from the title. Members of that audience likely won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obvious Influence: The Philip K. Dick Reader

American science fiction is generally divided into a Golden Age from the 1940's to the 1960's or so, when the giant names of Clarke, Bradbury, Asimov, and more wrote. The transition between their short, pulp novels or entertaining short stories to today's modern science fiction isn't always easy to grasp, but reading a set of Philip K. Dick stories all at once, such as the collection in The Philip K. Dick Reader demonstrates where that transition may have taken place.

The short stories of early SF were often more entertaining than the early novels, for the simple reason that they let the authors show off a sense of humor. They were generally based on some scientific or pseudo-scientific concept discussed and implemented by scientists, which leads to some kind of twist ending, usually ironic, occasionally horrifying. The Arthur C. Clarke short story, "The Nine Billion Names of God" exemplifies this model: A few computer engineers are called to a Himalayan monastery to help the monks there achieve their goal of writing down all nine billion mathematical combinations of letters which could spell any name for God. Having achieved this task, the engineers leave the monastery, pleased with themselves, only to notice that the stars in the night sky are starting to disappear.

The first story in the collection, "Fair Game," operates under this model. A well-respected professor of physics at a Colorado university starts noticing a giant eye observing his movements, and seems to be having surreal traps placed for him. It could be mental illness, but he and his colleagues, a little too easily, decide that it must be a race of giant aliens who take all their ideas from humans, and have chosen this professor because of his genius. After trying to run, he eventually gives in, rationalizing that he'll still be an important and respected physicist...only to discover himself being thrown into a frying pan.

The form is the same as most early SF, but it involves Dick's most characteristic attribute in his writing: the intersection of mental illness with science fiction, or more generally, the psychological argument of what is perception and what is reality? Mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, cause people to mistake their perceptions for reality. Mind-altering drugs, a characteristic common to later Dick works, also have many of the same issues. In Dick's science fiction, technologies which can alter perception or reality offers fertile ground for growing interesting stories. Dick would later write a novel called The Simulacra, which sums this up in a single word.

The second story in the collection, "The Hanging Stranger," builds on the perception theme while adding in another of Dick's focuses, totalitarianism. An ordinary man notices a hanged man on a lamppost, and determines, through logic little different than mental illness, that other people aren't noticing the hanged man because they've been taken over by alien beings. He escalates the situation - horrifyingly believing his young son has been taken over, and killing him - until the reader discovers that the main character was right all along.

The fourth story, "The Golden Man," brings in the last of Dick's major themes, fear of nuclear war and radiation-based mutations. An overwhelmingly powerful government organization dedicated to hunting down mutants discovers a man with golden skin which they try to study, then kill, only to find out that the Golden Man, who can see the near future, is also irresistible to women, which he uses to escape. The implication is both that the Golden Man, a near-animal who lives entirely in time that he can perceive, is also able to breed at will - and the mutants will end up destroying humanity.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's not just that Dick is generally influential, but may be the author who's most connected to Hollywood. The recent Nicholas Cage film Next was loosely based on "The Golden Man." When published in 1997, The Philip K. Dick Reader contained two stories which had already been turned into the movies Total Recall and Screamers. In the next decade, three more just from this collection were turned into films: Minority Report, Next, and Paycheck. These are generally some of the best stories in the collection, and they demonstrate Dick's flair for both cinematic and psychological writing. "The Minority Report" especially stands out, both for its inherent quality, and when compared to the Tom Cruise film it inspired. The original story is similar, but isn't quite so excessively twist-filled, and has a significant anti-totalitarian aspect of the storyline largely missing from the plot (though not the setting) of the film.

The story "Shell Game" brings together many of Dick's favorite themes in an entertaining satire. A small colony of humans on a distant moon are convinced that they're under constant attack from an elite group of Terran soldiers. Everything that goes wrong on the planet is sabotage, and constant military presence is necessary to fight off the soldiers. Some of the leaders, concerned as to why they never see the Terran attackers, find evidence their colony was actually a rocket of mentally ill paranoids who crashed onto their moon. How, they ask the others, can they even know if they're under attack or mentally ill? They try to find a scientific test to see if the colony is in the grips of a collective mass paranoid hallucination, but others, still-paranoid, treat them as in league with the Terrans. The story ends with the paranoids loading up the repaired rocket with H-Bombs to attack Earth. Group-think infiltrating politics with disastrous results made the story disturbing to me having seen how the media and political class did much the same thing with the Iraq War, and I'm sure the story had the same effect on people who saw Watergate or the Bay of Pigs Invasion or McCarthyism or the rise of fascism in Europe or the French Revolution. It is, quite simply, science fiction at its best.

Not every story is a winner, but with nearly 30 to choose from, that is no surprise. This is an excellent collection of stories, as well as a historically important collection of influential science fiction.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fallout 3 - Antici...PAtion

I have Fallout 3 and I'm not playing it.

This shocks me. In fact, I kind of feel physically anxious that I'm not playing it right now. There are lots of reasons that I'm not playing it, but do they really trump the reasons TO play it? The original Fallout is one of my all-time favorite games, and also one of the most important games ever. Its sequel, while creatively uninspiring, is generally an excellent extension to the classic game. I've played the hell out of both. So why am I not playing #3?

Partly because I'm downloading mods. The last Bethesda game I played, Morrowind, was almost instantly dramatically improved by adding a few mods. So, I'm doing the same with Fallout 3. But as interesting as it could be with good mods, am I really sure that it's not worth playing without? No, but it's not that alone.

Partly because I'm worried I might like it too much. It's not like I'm lacking in spare time, but I at least have a few things to do in my life. Had a programming class tonight, and graphic design tomorrow. I've also got a few writing projects I'd like to be doing more of: book reviews, movie reviews, game reviews, and a big game history project. If I started Fallout 3, well, what if it was so good that I didn't do anything else for three weeks? I had some access to the game last summer, when I was staying with someone who had it for PlayStation 3, but it was not my PS3, and not my TV it was attached to, so I didn't play it because if I had really liked it, I couldn't have played it when someone else wanted to use the PS3 or TV, which was pretty much constantly that wasn't M-F 9-5. Should I be so concerned about a game taking over my life? When it's Fallout, apparently.

Partly because, well, I just can't believe that it's real. The original Fallout came a full 10 years before its second sequel, and the first sequel was just a year later than the original. That's an odd ratio, but it gets worse when you consider the business standpoint. Fallout's original developer and publisher, Interplay, was one of the best game companies of the late 1990's, with Fallout, Sacrifice, Jagged Alliance 2, Wizardry 8, and more. Yet it still went out of business. Happily for Fallout, Bethesda Software was paying attention and decided to add it to its business, but there's still a part of me that gave up on ever seeing a third installment. It's the part of me that says "HOLY FUCKING SHIT I OWN FALLOUT 3!!!" in the bad, disbelieving way.

Partly because I missed my chance. A few years ago, I really wanted to put together a game-related portfolio to break into the industry. I decided that my careen and game interests would be best served by becoming an expert Fallout 3 modder. Then I got distracted by idealistic poverty, got new ambitions, and couldn't afford the game when it came out, and also thought it wouldn't run on my PC (turns out I was mistaken). My ambitions have been altered somewhat - more interested in writing about than writing for at this point - but my emotional investment remains, to some extent.

Partly because I have other games I want to deal with at the moment. I'm still trying to finish Okami, in addition to various other Wii games, like No More Heroes. I also just got Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. I'm worried that they'll get overwhelmed by Fallout. And that's probably okay generally speaking, a game is a game, but part of my brain says once started, games should be completed.

And partly, finally, because I'm scared not that it'll be great and take over my life, but that it'll be bad, and maybe it won't. I think the idea of merging the Fallout setting and character development with a first-person shooter is a wonderful idea. I was arguing that it was a good idea back in the '90's, when it was horrifically unpopular. I just don't know if the extraordinarily-ambitious-with-somewhat-disappointing-returns Bethesda model will work. Consciously, I think it should. There's no reason why not. Reviews and sales certainly indicate that they got it right. But I've got enough of an iconoclast in me that I'm a little bit worried.

Once the mods finish downloading, I'm going to start playing. I'm just surprised at my restraint and my chomping at the bit. It's an important series, and an important game, and one I expect to have a lot to say about. This blog is about to get post-apocalyptic.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


My rave review of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III's Promethea is up, here. I'm not posting it in full here only because Lunch's picture capacity is much better, and some of it really should be seen.