Harry Potter And The Invisible Curriculum

It’s been a long day. Sick wife. Patreon Rewards due. Novel writing. Trying to land a more permanent day job. All (except the first one) good things, but tiring. So I’m just going to pen a short rant here:

It strikes me that the greatest feat of magic ever produced at Hogwarts was its ability to teach those kids things like grammar, composition, and basic math without ever having taught any classes in it. Harry Potter writes better than most of my juniors, and to my knowledge he was never assigned a single essay nor asked to read a single work of literature or piece of technical writing.

If I were a completely humorless scold obsessed with defending all aspects of my identity from the slightest hint of disrespect, I might scream at Rowling about this, as she obviously feels such instruction unnecessary, and I can only laugh bitterly at how wrong she is.

However, I can’t help thinking that there must be the potential for a whole treasure trove of secondary adventures at Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Misplaced Modifier. Harry Potter and the Greatest Common Factor. Harry Potter and the Supporting Paragraphs. Harry Potter and the Law of Sines. Harry Potter and the Periodic Table. And of course, that page-turner, Harry Potter and the Five-Paragraph Theme of DOOM.

I may turn these into flash fiction for my Patreon supporters someday. Mention it in the comments if you’d support me in exchange for that.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy II: A Superior God

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.

The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End  with the Overmind.  Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.

Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with  a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.

So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.

It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.

I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.

Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.

 

 

 

Retro Movie Rant: A Brief Defense of X-Men 3

I think I was one of the few people who actually had anything like good feelings for the last X-Men movie of the original trilogy, X3, The Last Stand.

And there were things that upset me about it, most notably Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ death offscreen.

But overall, I found that the complaining was without much merit. It seemed to me that mostly, the audience was upset that the screenwriters and director had chosen to make a tragedy, in which the old X-men fought, and half of them died, for their ideals.

I mean, I have some sympathy with those who get stuck with a story they didn’t want. But in many ways, I felt the movie did an excellent job of portraying the costs of war, both between humans and mutants, and between mutants and mutants. You don’t go into that and not suffer loss. You don’t go into it and not come out scarred. And the characters who survived took up roles they had never really wanted, and found that they could do what their mentors would have wanted.

It was, to turn a phrase, not the movie we wanted, but perhaps a movie that we deserved to see.

Is It Just Me, Or Is THE EXPANSE What’s Between Julie Mao’s Ears?

If you’re currently watching Seasons 1 and 2 of THE EXPANSE or plan to do so in the future, please be aware there be spoilers here.

Okay, so first off, I really do like THE EXPANSE. It’s a fine show, with great interplanetary sci-fi action, and wonderful acting. I haven’t gotten around to starting Season 3, yet, but that is a question of time, which is in very short supply right now.

But I have to ask, am I the only person who thinks that Julie Mao was a complete idiot? I mean, the character herself is understandable, and is a great example of overused-trope-done-well. She’s a spoiled child of privilege who decides that the pathway to righteousness and holiness is to wreck Evil Daddy’s stuff. She’s determined to become the White savior (Asian savior, yeah, I know, but the principle is the same, and that sort of thing seems to have shifted a bit in the intervening 200 years) of the downtrodden Belters. So far, she’s not really different from today’s trickle of rich white kids who decide to go join ISIS or a leftist terrorist group because Mommy and Daddy didn’t fulfill them enough and there’s poor people and this proves that AMERIKKKA IS TEH EVILZ!!

But Julie outguns these poor saps because she knows that her Daddy is actually screwing around with something that’s apparently a fusion of nuclear weapons, killer AI and zombie virus, so she decides to arrange to steal it. And apparently is utterly unconcerned that she might be playing with something she barely comprehends, is incapable of controlling, and might cause literally billions of deaths if she screws up.

Hmm. Is it an accident that Julie’s name is “Mao?”

And then of course, like so many in her actual situation, is shocked to discover that she and her friends are actually the low-level bottom feeders of politics rather than an unstoppable revolutionary force, and that she has been outthought and played, all of which leads to her death and the deaths of — “revolutionaries” take note — thousands of people, almost all of whom are the very “downtrodden Belters” she was trying to “save.”

I’m sure the people of Eros were very grateful to her.

In the end, Julie Mao reminds me of no one so much as Osama bin Laden. All for the cause, kumrads! And it matters not how many we kill, because our ideology is pure!

Or am I missing something?

Honestly, I can forgive Julie Mao because she does come to a pretty bad end, and the character of the detective who falls in love with her because she represents to him a willingness to fight for what he’s given up on is compelling. I’m honestly not certain whether the writers wanted us to see irony in Julie Mao or whether they were in earnest. Hell, maybe I AM missing something. Thoughts?

The Law Of Diminishing Cool Stuff

One of the great misconceptions that readers (and non-readers) have about writers is that “ideas” are valuable. “Where do you get your ideas” is to a writer, of course, that most useless of questions, much like asking an artist where he gets his canvas or where she gets her clay. It’s just there, and if it’s a mystery to you, then you need to look at the world (and possibly art, whatever your “art” is) a lot more.

So writers are never out of ideas, and in fact generally have the opposite problem. One of my great regrets is that if I were able to become a full-time author right now I could easily write for the rest of my life and never run out of “ideas.” Conservatively, I estimate that there are at least four entire novels and five short stories, apart from the novel I am actually drafting and the one I am revising that I could be working on from the ideas I have now. I will have more.

In fact, the problem I now have come face to face with is in the novel I am revising. It was pointed out to me by my editor that I had been sloppy with my portrayal of black-powder weapons. Well, guilty. I wrote them well enough to fool the average reader (and myself, and at least one other history teacher) but not well enough for this editor’s readers. Guilty as charged.

While I haven’t gone fully into this revision yet (mostly because I’m drafting that other novel, see above) a LOT of ideas — a lot of really COOL ideas — on how to solve this have been flitting around my head. The problem, and the point of this post, is that I have reached the point of what I must call The Law Of Diminishing Cool. In other words, most of the things I can do to make the guns more awesome in ONE direction are completely inconsistent with the ways the gun is already cool in ANOTHER direction. For example, I could reduce the guns’ loading time by making introducing cartridges, or making them breechloaders. But if I do that, I lose a really cool scene featuring a ramrod. Breechloaders don’t NEED ramrods. Or, as it turns out, there really was once a repeating air rifle that saw military service! Lewis and Clark took one with them on their expedition because it didn’t need gunpowder! The Austrian Army was, at about the same time, fully equipped with them! But if I make them do THAT, I lose a really cool scene that relies on the guns having a muzzle flash. Air rifles don’t HAVE muzzle flashes.

There’s no easy way around this, although I am both looking forward to and dreading the thought process I need to solve this problem.  But you can’t just ignore it. Too many famous franchises have ignored this. They can, because people will watch them anyway. But when they do, you get really stupid consequences and lack of continuity, like in Star Wars, where the original series establishes that Force use runs in families, but then the prequels decide that Jedi are essentially Space Monks who can’t have families, but on the other hand, they also want potential Jedi kids to be trained from approximately age 3, and they ALSO want to keep Jedi from falling to the Dark Side.

Now all four of those ideas, taken separately, make some sense. It’s cool to have Jedi abilities run in families, so that Luke must take down Darth Vader. It’s cool that the Jedi are enjoined against attachment, so that Anakin can’t just marry Amidala and live happily ever after. It’s cool that Jedi must be trained from a young age. And it’s sensible that you don’t want Jedi falling to the Dark Side.

Together, these ideas are a mess. If Jedi have to be trained from a young age, wouldn’t it be best if their parents started it, and had a good idea of who they were? And if you DON’T want Jedi to turn to the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” wouldn’t you HAVE to train everyone, just to avoid Sith?

The answer to this is that a writer has to practice discipline. As much as you want to, you can’t just do all the ideas at once. That way lies Star Wars. I mean madness. I confuse those these days.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

A late post is still a post.

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)

As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.

Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.

First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.

I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.

The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.

I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.

The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.

To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

Coming Apart At The Seams: Sandbox Games

Anyone who plays sandbox games knows about their “seams.” Well, maybe not. I just made up that term. But you know what I’m talking about: the places where you run into the edges of the sandbox and are pretty much forced into the realization that you are just playing a game, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

And yes, I realize that in some ways, this is inevitable. In others, it seems unimaginative, and in yet others it seems downright sloppy. I’m going to take some examples of each of these from the two games I’ve been playing the most over the past few years: Skyrim and Elite: Dangerous.

As far as the inevitable “seams,” the best example is that of borders. Eventually, you have to run out of playing field. An example of a really well-done “seam” is found in ED: the edges of the galaxy. It works because it feels natural. They even show extragalactic features such as the LMC and the GMC and M31. Why can’t you go there? Because human technology just isn’t that good. Makes perfect sense in the game universe: this is about as close as you can get to a seamless border. Skyrim is a bit less competent, but that’s the nature of the beast. Eventually, you just get to a place where your character runs into an invisible wall. You can’t leave Skyrim. I have to admit I don’t know how you’d solve that.

On the border of “inevitable” and “unimaginative” are the times in Skyrim where you run into someone who you really want to kill and discover that they are simply unkillable, or at least, unkillable yet. This has been the bane of D&D-like RPGs since they were computerized: your hero character who is supposed to be able to take down a Dragon God, and yet, cannot kill a shopkeeper and take his stuff. I’m not sure exactly how you do solve that. In the case of shopkeepers or very important plot-specific characters, especially in a magic-heavy environment, I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to the writers not to, for example, create 1) a giant alarm-spell that calls guards instantly to a scene of unjustifiable attack, coupled with 2) shopkeepers or nobles who always carry an emergency invisibility potion and sensibly use it an run the hell away when they’re attacked, leaving your character to 3) get dogpiled on by the guards, and 4) discover that they cam back as soon as you left out of boredom or being driven off by guards. Of course, once your character is up somewhere above 50th level, it still requires the game to explain why your character can’t essentially conquer the world single-handed since he is, after all, the person who is supposed to stop the Dragon God who wants to conquer the world single-handed. So there’s still a seam there (more on this later).

In the downright unimaginative corner comes a certain feature of ED that really annoyed me. Some systems in ED are permit-locked. The game won’t allow you to plot a hyperspace jump to them until you’ve accomplished something. A bit more on this in the next section.
Now, if you like thinking your way around problems like I do, you notice something: a shop in ED  really has two FTL drives. The hyperspace jump is the “fast” drive. It will take you anywhere from 8-40 light years in about ten seconds. But you get around each system using a “slow” FTL drive or “frameshift drive.” And when I say slow, it’s still really fast. Given time, it can build to speeds in excess of Star Trek‘s Warp 10. So you can’t JUMP to a permit-locked system, but given the time and patience, you could certainly just GO there…
Except you can’t. If you try, you discover that the star you have been heading for, which is a gigantic ball of hydrogen fusion and attendant planets when you jump there, is a mere point of light when you finish your hours-long flight. Sigh.
It occurred to me that a way around this would be to take a page from Zork: interstellar space is a dark place, and if you try to fly directly between stars, the odds are almost certain that You Will Be Eaten By A Space Grue. (For a really great classic SF story that uses this concept, read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Game Of Rat And Dragon.” It’s wonderful.)

And then you get to the truly sloppy stuff: Remember the permit-locks I mentioned earlier? Well, that makes perfect sense when it’s, say, the Empire saying that you can’t visit their capital system without a permit. It makes somewhat LESS sense, when its hundreds of stars out in the middle of nowhere and no one knows who has issued the permit or why. And yet there are several such regions in the galaxy. It’s pretty obvious this is the game designers saying DON’T GO THERE. SIGNED, GOD, but it looks pretty bad. Honestly, it would be better to do something like marking them all “No pilot has ever jumped to these stars and returned.” and making it an instakill if you do, with legends of the disappeared pilots in game.

So, those are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.

The LEGO Movie: How To Build A Bridge

My last post got me thinking about why I liked The LEGO Movie so much, and it occurred to me that along with the more cliche tripe the movie spouted (The Wise Child, Everyone Is Special)* there was a more subtle point that was made, which really is a good thing for children to learn, and a wise thing even for adults to consider.

In what might be considered the turning point of the film, Emmet, our putative hero, is disrespected by everyone on his own side. He doesn’t have the talents and skills they do to build whatever he imagines. If it weren’t for the prophecy, they wouldn’t even let him near them.

But then Emmet does a fascinating thing. Without ever conceding the rightness of their cause (freeing LEGOland from the tyranny and perfectionism of the evil Lord Business and stopping his plan to Krazy Glue all the sets in place), Emmet points out the inherent weaknesses of the Master Builders: Firstly, they are all such individualists that they cannot formulate and stick to a coherent plan of action as a group. Secondly, they are so dedicated to looking iconic, all their activities are easily tracked and recognized.

The strengths of Lord Business’s robot collective follow from that: he doesn’t need to rely on Master Builders (admittedly, that’s partly because he imprisons and mind-controls them) to be powerful: the instructions allow even people like Emmet to be part of building awesome things. Moreover, he can get things done consistently.

And Emmet then proceeds to use the lessons he learned following instructions to sneak through Lord Business’s security and harness the Master Builders together as an effective team. He acknowledges the strengths of his opponent, and uses them.

It is a valuable lesson to teach our children that opposing someone does not mean denying that they possess any worthwhile attributes. We must teach them that any person, any system, including themselves and including systems that they must defend to the death — like a representative democratic republic, just to name one — has its own strengths and weaknesses to be celebrated and compensated for. They have their admirable qualities, and their despicable qualities. This is a lesson for adults to bear in mind as well. Obviously, it would be a terrible thing if, within our own nation, we descended into such distrust and antipathy for one another that we started treating one another as vermin to be destroyed (ahem!)

I could go on, but I feel that my readers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions from here. He that hath an ear, and all.

*Although given the comments about “stuff you might find on cat posters” it’s a safe bet the writers knew exactly how cheesy they were being, and were more than willing to poke fun at their own theme.

Just For the Joy: The LEGO Movie

Yesterday, I got to have a lot of fun. I pooled a little of my own private blow money together with the money my son has been faithfully saving, and went on e-Bay and found a copy of Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! from the LEGO Movie. It arrived yesterday, and we spent the afternoon putting it together. What I learned from this:

1) It’s incredibly refreshing sometimes to go back and do something you really enjoyed as a kid, with your kid.
2) That’s the biggest LEGO set I ever put together.
3) Damn, but I’d forgotten how sore putting together LEGOs for hours can make your fingers.
4) Like the movie itself, this kit was more fun than I thought it would be. The designers did far more than they had to, apparently for the sheer joy of it, and including features that were not obviously included in the movie. Variable-geometry wings, pop-out concealed missile-launchers, drone robot/fighters, detachable auxiliary attack sleds, and a detailed engine room complete with something that resembles a Star Trek antimatter warp core.

The LEGO Movie goes in my personal bank of Movies That Were Better Than They Deserved To Be. I mean, usually when people make movies based on games or toys, it’s because they are out of ideas and are desperate for cash and you get the load of crap you expect: Resident Evil. Transformers. Doom. Battleship.

But then, every once in awhile, you get Clue. A script written by someone who wasn’t told and didn’t care that it was supposed to be a potboiler, who just decided to have as much fun as possible by unleashing a wicked sense of humor while no one was looking.

I would argue that The LEGO Movie fits in the same category. The writers did an amazing job of synthesizing dialogue and jokes that would entertain both kids and adults, much as LEGOs themselves can, in the finest tradition of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and folded it through a classic Hero’s Journey story that was all about rescuing the Legos from, essentially, an Empire Of No Fun. And no, it wasn’t about anticapitalism: it was about a little kid who isn’t old enough to see his father’s obsession with work as an adult necessity yet. Lord Business is evil (or evil is Lord Business) simply because Business (busyness) is what his Dad does. All he can see is that his dad has transformed even his hobbies into work. Which frankly is a reminder that adults need from time to time.  

It was fun. I had fun. Sometimes, that’s the accomplishment you need to strive for.

The Mystery Of The Turd In The Truffle

So, I’m playing Elite: Dangerous, which, I want to make clear up front, is one of my favorite sandbox games of all time. Seriously, this is the game I have dreamed of playing since I was a little kid: you can outfit your own ships, trade between the stars, fight Evil Space Pirates, BE an Evil Space Pirates, mine asteroids, the works. One of the ways you can earn money is to take on a Famous Explorer mission.

The Famous Explorer missions are a commitment, in game time. Because while there are lots of games that claim to allow you to travel around “the galaxy,” Elite: Dangerous features a playing field the size of the ACTUAL galaxy. You can take missions to the Galactic Core. (All of Human-populated space is a “Bubble” about 500 light-years in diameter in the game-year 3304.) And given that it’s 23,000 or so light-years away and your ship can do “jumps” of a maximum of about 40 light-years, that takes a LONG time.

So I took one of these Famous Explorer missions. Not sure I’d like it, I picked one that was ONLY 5,000 light-years away. It was the first time I had left the Bubble. And it was amazing how well this game was set up. First thing I noticed, suddenly, there were no other ships around. I jumped into a system, and it was deserted. Of course it was: I’d left the Human spacelanes, and the odds against seeing fellow explorer were incredible. I also noticed that signals — very common in Humans space, and indicating things like wrecks, distress signals, and convoys — those disappeared too, becoming very rare. There were no longer any Navigation Beacons around stars.

The I realized, as I continued toward the center of the galaxy, that all the things I was seeing in the big, glowing strip of the Milky Way were actual objects. I mean, they weren’t just images painted on a skybox, they were getting closer (minutely closer) with every jump, little smudges becoming enormous nebulae. I was having fun. I jumped into a system and found a strange object on my scanner and went to investigate. It was a neutron star, and do you know how I figured out it was a neutron star? Before my ship scanner told me so?  Because I could actually see the stars behind it being smeared around by the gravitational lensing! Yes, this game is that well-written!

So, by the time I reached my destination, a black hole, I was thinking of it as the climax of the trip, and rightly so. I had not seen one before, and as I got within 70 light years, I began to see it. Because the game designers had remembered that black holes form out of supernovae, so of COURSE there was a small, brightly-glowing nebula around this one, which got bigger and more ominous-looking as I approached, like the ghost of the dead star. I jumped into the system itself, and was surrounded by the bluish glow of the highly-energetic nebula. Carefully, I looked around and found the black hole. There was no brightly-glowing accretion disc around it, but you know, you can’t expect everything.

I scanned the thing, noticing that space was of course highly distorted around it, and expected that my mission would be over. Not so.

Interestingly enough, right beside the black hole itself on my navigational chart was an icon reading “Black Treasure” which was, after all, the name given to this particular black hole by the Famous Explorer currently sitting in my passenger cabin.

Very well, perhaps it was this mysterious object I needed to scan, which was, somewhat frighteningly, sitting right on top of the black hole. Okay. I locked onto it and dropped out of supralight drive.

It was a human-built tourist beacon. And there were other ships there. Several. Looking at the black hole. Just like any other tourist spot in the Bubble.

And the Hammer of Anticlimax smacked down on the whole adventure. It was like climbing K2, pulling myself up the summit after an agony of climbing, and discovering a sherpa grinning and ready to sell me an “I Summited K2 And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” T-shirt.

Which brings me to my title: The Turd In The Truffle. That’s how I felt. I felt as if I had been enjoying an incredible meal at a five-star restaurant, only to discover that there, right on top of the elegant;y arranged dish, was a dog turd. This is not the first time in my life I have felt this way as a reader/player. And my question is why — and how — writers can do this to their audiences. I mean, obviously the writers of this game were and are intelligent and thoughtful. Why, then, such a moment of careless anticlimax?

I remember feeling a similar way when I watched the film adaptation of Watchmen. A beautiful film, well-made. But then there’s the scene in which Rorschach is being pried out of his cell by a criminal Boss who wants to kill him. Rorschach manages to handcuff one of the henchmen to his cell door, blocking the Boss.

Now in the comic, the Boss has another henchman kill the guy to get him out of the way, and continues to come at Rorschach. But in the film, he has his free henchman cut the trapped man’s arms off with a power saw while he is still alive to get him out of the way. It’s an unnecessarily brutal and horrifying scene, which I could in no way believe. Underground bosses who occasionally kill their own men when necessary? Sure. Underground bosses who torture their men to death for fun, just to emphasize their own evilness? No. That’s crazy, and no henchman wants to hench for a guy like that. Again, a Turd In The Truffle: a moment of thoughtlessness in brilliance.

I really don’t have an answer for why this happens. I leave it as an open question for the reader. Why do we find Turds in Truffles. I await comments with interest.