Science Fiction Round 45: Chappie

2015/07/18 Leave a comment

Where to even begin with this film?

I really wanted to like it, but… it just wasn’t happening.

As ever, spoilers.

The robot in the picture does, in fact, show up in the movie.

The robot in the picture does, in fact, show up in the movie.  But I’m not sure what makes him humanity’s last hope.

Read more…

Categories: Clement's Game

Criticism and Theory Round 1: An Aesthetic of Play

2015/07/04 Leave a comment

I’m adding a new category, since I think we need it.  This is for all the sort of meta, literary criticism, or analysis kinds of things.

I’ll start by addressing The Aesthetic of Play, a book by Brian Upton.

You’re A Bit Verbose

I feel a need to quote Doctor Who: “That one got away from you there, didn’t it?”

Upton’s piece has some excellent insights, but I really feel that he took his sweet time in getting there.  Especially in the first section, he could have been much more succinct. He meanders quite a bit even in the parts discussing semiotics and styles of criticism, but those portions (in my opinion) do a better job of being more interesting than repetitive.

In the first portion, he wends through numerous examples and, well, repeats himself. Repetitively.

But Once You Get To The Point

Once he does get to the point, though, it’s a good one. He ties games to other forms of media, such as music and literature, and considers how this is similar to the experience of a game.

The basic framework is as follows: a person playing a game or taking in some other media is never experiencing only the present part of it, but also considering the past and predicting into the future. Puzzling over this prediction, and then (depending on medium and the item) trying to solve puzzles, or changing your assumptions about the story’s plot. This may not happen at a fully conscious level, either – whether it’s trying to figure out how to get through then next level of Mario based on what previous levels were like, or wondering what’s going to happen to Harry Potter, or listening for the surprise in the Surprise Symphony. These experiences and expectations, and the consumer’s predictions, are dependent on the consumer’s prior experiences and ideas. (Note: Yes, I am leaving out a lot of other ideas and nuances.)

This exactly hits upon one of the things I love most about reading a novel – it’s not just reading, it’s understanding standing all the characters and trying to see how well I can predict what comes next. (I note that this is also why I, personally, have an intense hatred of spoilers.) Yes, I do like to re-read good stories, but the experience just isn’t the same the second time around.

Additionally, Upton also discusses the different types of attitudes that game-players may have. They’re a little different from the stereotypes on TVTropes, so let’s see how they line up.

One group, which he labels the “gamist” group, is absolutely Munchkins. They’re in it for the game and the loot and the winning. Why play if you can’t win? He also notes that this shows up in other media as well, with mystery novels as an example. The “win” condition is correctly predicting whodunit before the reveal.

His other two main categories are the situationist and the narritivist. The situationist is someone who’s in it for the world-building – do vampires with flamethrowers make sense? Is this Civil War reenactment actually period? Is that how rockets actually work? These people are looking for self-consistency in the story, or accuracy if it’s supposedly historical or scientific. (That’s kind of the name of this blog, actually.) The narritivist is similar, except for characters. What drama will unfold next, since Bob is too shy to tell Sally anything? While playing as Sir Percival, I am too honorable to sneak up, and will confront the brigand direct. I think the TVTropes bunch would put both under the Roleplayer category.

TVTropes has one group that Upton doesn’t mention at all – the Real Man, who is in it for the power trip and the rush of I WILL KILL ALL THE THINGS AND STRANGLE THE DRAGON WITH ITS OWN TAIL RAWR. This is a bit more visceral than most of what Upton covers.

Finally, while Upton discusses it but does not elevate it to the level of a category, there’s the Loonie. This is the person who ignores the game’s official goals, and just does random stuff, because it’s fun. Like tying the sleeping dragon’s shoelaces together. (If you’re thinking, “Since when do dragons have shoelaces?”, that’s pretty much the point.)  Upton isn’t terribly supportive of this category – in a worst case, this is the kid who takes the ball and goes home. But, sometimes, a bit of levity and a reminder that this is a game, it doesn’t matter, we can do what we want, is just what everyone needs. He does also discuss cases when someone plays a game you make… but they plays it with goals other than intended, and emphasizes that this is an entirely legitimate way to enjoy and experience a game. He also says that as a designer, seeing these unexpected play modes can be a learning experience.

Of course, Upton notes that all people may play in all three of his categories – despite my Real Roleplayer leanings, I still like winning.

What About Choose-Your-Own-Adventure?

While Upton covers game-related material quite well, he repeatedly emphasizes that reading is not an interactive medium.

I would beg to differ. He’s omitting CYOA books. Those have an interactive aspect, which sometimes approaches tabletop RPGs, including random number generation (if you choose the play by the rules). Of course, if you want, you can read all of the different branches (I usually would), but this can be similar to “replay value” in a video game, where you make different choices about what to explore or who to be friends with in different runs.

Then there’s the case that someone writing a series, or more than one book, may be influenced by feedback from the audience when writing the next one.  (For instance, Sherlock Holmes was un-killed when Arthur Conan Doyle got too much fan mail.)

There is also the phenomenon of hyperlink text, where choosing what links to follow defines the story.

That Got Meta

At the end, Upton examines the basis of critical analysis of media, and considers that his analysis approach could be used to analyze methods of literary criticism, and proceeds to do so for a little while, discussing the possibilities for analysis within such criticism – what opportunities there are to play the game of deconstruction, for instance. (Wow, I’m suddenly actually glad I paid attention in English Lit back in high school.)

Thus, he ends on the thought that this framework can be used for metacriticism, and suggests that it could be applied in as many layers as desired.

Regardless (since I think too many layers of such would start getting… strange, fast), that would make this post a meta-meta-criticism. Whoa.

Mr. Spock Says

2015/06/25 Leave a comment

I’m going to be out of town on business stuff for a couple of weeks, but I figured I shouldn’t leave the Internets without a few good words.

With that (and inspired by Katie Mack), I give you this.

And also unit testing.

Categories: Doodles

Science Fiction Round 44: The Martian

2015/06/13 1 comment

The Martian is an excellent novel.  As discussed by XKCD, it’s basically Robinson Crusoe MacGyver IN SPACE!!!!

Much as I enjoyed it, however, it’s like Interstellar, except… less bad.  While the story is billed as hard sci-fi, there are a lot of blatant misses with the science.  For that reason, I’m only going to grumble about the really big ones.

(I’ll also note that when Michael skimmed the scenario summary, he was so frustrated that he decided the book would make him too mad to read it.  And, apparently, a friend of his who does Mars meteorology was unhappy about the book, too.)

Yeah, that guy in the space suit... he definitely shows up in the story at some point.

Yeah, that guy in the space suit… he definitely shows up in the story at some point.

The Initial Dust Storm

At the beginning of the story, a major dust storm with extremely high wind speeds (175 kph) slams the landing site for the Ares 3 Mars mission.  Due to danger from the high winds, the mission is scrubbed, and the crew goes from the Hab (living area) to the descent vehicle, which is nearly toppled by the winds.  Mark Watney, the unluckly maroon-ee, is left behind and presumed dead when the antenna blows off the Hab and stabs him through the life support computer.

What really galls me is how differently the first dust storm is portrayed relative to the second.

The second is actually more realistic: there’s dust, it gets blown around, and it reduces visibility.  The reduction in solar power is far more of a danger than anything involving wind speed.

Why?  The Martian atmosphere is 1% the density of Earth’s.  Or so.  So, even at a blistering 175 kph (or hurricane-scale winds, at about 108 mph, which is about a Category 2 hurricane’s speed), since it’s only 1% the density, it can only exert 1% of the force.  In other words, it feels like a 10 mph breeze.  This should be no problem for a nice hefty rocket or a well-designed Hab.  And it certainly shouldn’t be able to blow an antenna like that anywhere of note, much less stab someone through the spacesuit with it.

Finally, much of the plot is driven by the fact than the Earth-transmitting antenna on the Hab is blown off in the storm, and into Watney.  It’s a dipole antenna, which means it looks like the big wires that sticks up from older vehicles to pick up the radio.

Note that I said “old cars” there?  Yeah.  Modern cars incorporate this antenna into the body of the vehicle, which prevents having stuff like high winds blow it off.  And you know what?  NASA’s figured out this trick, too.  Have a look at the Opportunity, below:

This is Opportunity, before launch (obviously). Do you see a big spiky antenna?  I don't see a big spiky antenna.

This is Opportunity, before launch (obviously).
Do you see a big spiky antenna? I don’t see a big spiky antenna.

Here’s a diagram of what it would look like on Mars:

Big stabby antenna... still not seeing it.

Big stabby antenna… still not seeing it.

The antennas for the rovers (including Curiosity) are either too thick to be effective at stabbing, or built directly into the frame of the robot, much like they are for cars.

Any human mission would surely use a similar design, since it’s quite robust, and especially since there would be multiple satellites in orbit that can act as relay stations, so you don’t necessarily need a huge dish as your sole means of data transmission.  And you wouldn’t build such a shoddy antenna that a breeze will blow it off.

The Potatoes

I think this is the part that bothered me the most.  Even more than the initial disaster conceit.

To survive, Watney grows potatoes in dirt that he produces by mixing small samples of Earth dirt with large samples of Mars dirt and his own poop.

There are some… problems with this plan.  The most serious one being that Mars dirt has all sorts of things that will kill stuff trying to live in it.  Like perchlorate.  I don’t know what that does to plants, but it does really bad things to your thyroid gland if you consume too much of it.  Chlorine in general is good for killing things (which is why it’s used in swimming pools, to kill bacteria).  The soil is also quite basic, but the resources I find on the Internet indicate that potatoes like it acidic.  While the Wikipedia article there is quite optimistic about the possibility of growing stuff, the fact that Watney’s attempts are wildly and completely successful, without any chemical pre-processing of the soil, is hard to swallow.

Also, despite what the book says, even if it’s your own poop, it can still make you sick.  Don’t use human manure for growing stuff, people.  Even “your own” bacteria ending up somewhere they don’t belong can cause an infection.  (For example: Ordinary E. coli can cause urinary tract infections.)

The Culture

As I mentioned with Interstellar — NASA doesn’t really work this way.  The book is hit-and-miss here.

Indeed, it does get some things right.  Much of the book dedicates it commentary to how NASA’s tendency to make everything multiply-redundant keeps Watney alive until he can be rescued.  Failures are generally the result of many small things going wrong in sequence, combined with not enough testing.  There’s some work on international politicals and cooperation between different space programs (specifically, the Chinese National Space Administration).  This is all well and good.

But.

It really isn’t redundant enough.  Frankly, if I were running a sequence of missions like this, it would make sense to have even more supplies in orbit, ready to be dropped as needed — in case something went wrong with the ascent vehicle and the return launch window was missed, for instance.  If not used, they’re ready for the next Ares mission.  Piece of cake.  Instead of potatoes, have Watney go on a drive to try to retrieve supplies that just landed somewhere nearby, but not too nearby.

Similarly, it makes sense that there are lots of spare parts for everything life-critical, but it’s weird that there’s no way for Watney to send a comm signal directly to the Mars satellites, instead of needing a big dish to talk to Earth direct.  Besides — if you can hit the satellite network, you can potentially be in contact with Earth all the time, as opposed to the just part of the day when Earth is aboe the horizon.

Plus, the interaction with the Ares 3 crew is just… off.  I can’t imagine a circumstance in which NASA would deliberately lie to their crew about the status of one of it’s members.  Withhold information until a critical launch is done?  Sure, but that’s just not distracting the pilot with bad/good news until he’s not doing something potentially dangerous.  Withhold it for month, due to some stupid argument about morale???  And they didn’t even consider how the crew would react to discovering that they have been deliberately and consistently lied to, for months?  <rage>

Finally, Martinez is a jerk who harasses Johanssen.  How the hell did someone that mean get past the psych evals and put into a tin can with five other people for over a year?  I really feel for Commander Lewis.  She had to actually give a lecture to everyone else at the beginning of the mission that if anybody gave Johanssen crap, Lewis would kick their asses.  Whoever was doing crew selection maybe needed to do a better job.  And you’d think that NASA would have given some, um, sexual harassment training to its astronauts, instead of requiring Lewis to be such a tough cookie.

The Characters

That being said, I love the characters.  (Except for Martinez, as mentioned above.)  Watney’s ongoing snark and commentary really make the whole thing worth reading.  The dynamics among his fellow crewmembers are also fantastic.  (Well, except for Martinez.)

I’m a bit bothered by the Johanssen/Beck romance thing.  It’s implied that if they’d gotten back to Earth without the Watney-rescuing delay, they would have waited.  Still…

Also, seriously Lewis, disco?

Categories: Clement's Game Tags: ,

Fantasy Round 38: Throne of the Crescent Moon

2015/06/02 1 comment

This book is excellent.

And, shockingly enough, I haven’t even put in that many spoilers, so if you just want a taste before you read, this one is probably safe.

The cover is fairly accurate, although I think the ghuls need to be more creepy.

The cover is fairly accurate.  Here, we get to see three of the five main point-of-view protagonists — Adoulla in the back, Rasheed to the left, and Zamia on the right.  Ghuls included for scale.

Also, be careful about reading it while hungry.  It won’t help.

Read more…

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