Reading | The Dark Forest (Cixin)

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (2008)

For the first time this year, unlikely the last, I’ve shelved the previous read and moved on.

It was almost three weeks ago when I picked up The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, an alternative history novel set against the context of a pandemic that wiped out a huge piece of the European population five hundred years ago.

I have not real excuse besides it was a bit of a slog.

Grand ideas, complex characters, and a twisting narrative across multiple story-lines spanning time, space and the afterlife… meet my short attention span, I guess.

I always feel a little bad when nearly two hundred pages into a novel I pick it up, sigh, and then read. Analogously, it feels like walking down a beach, looking for a trail in the sand, while the waves wash away the footprints, while knowing that if you could just find a hint of some other traveller it would lead you to a treasure… or at least a good seafood restaurant.

It also makes me feel a bit numb because set against the backdrop of our own global pandemic, I’m mentally drained and I know if I had less anxiety about the universe I could probably find that trail in the sand and I might actually enjoy The Years of Rice and Salt.

So, perhaps saying I’m shelving it is a little extreme. I’m going to leave it on my table beside my comfy reading chair, and if I feel particularly focussed some day I’ll dig into it again (and check in here if I ever finish it.)

Instead, I pulled the second book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, a sequel to The Three Body Problem which I finished just over a month ago.

As I dive back into this story of a slow motion alien invasion of Earth, the plot has jumped ahead by a few years as humanity spins up a variety of reactions to the event.

A recap (and spoilers) in the first novel a civilization from a planet from a nearby star system is revealed to be in a bit of a pickle as their triple-sun solar system creates chaotic and cyclically destructive environs for their continued survival. It turns out that some rogue humans replied to some space spam and now the aliens know we exist and are coming to take the planet away… but in four hundred years because even a few light years is a hulluva long way to go. As an advance invasion they’ve sent ahead things called sophons which are advanced computers curled up inside the higher dimensions of elementary particles. The sophons are extremely tiny, but are able to disrupt humanity’s ability to progress technologically by ruining advanced physics experiments that would give us technology capable of defending ourselves four hundred years onward. Also they allow the aliens to snoop on our communications, so … no secrets for us. What’s a species to do!

I guess that’s what I’ll find out in part two of this trilogy.

Hopefully the characters have a longer attention span than I do.

Avoiding the Cold in a Virtual Snow-scape

I have started to realize I’m not a normal gamer. Whatever normal is anyhow.

Here’s the thing.

First, I bought a brand new PS5 (luck of the restock lottery!) and though I’ve had it for about a week, I’ve used it almost exclusively for PS4 games so far.

Then, I bought a PlayStation Plus subscription which came with a few great monthly free-to-play games, and a large collection of classic PS4 titles. Instead the game I’ve been playing the most was a title I bought on the side called Steep.

Not to mention that it’s been 20 degrees below zero outside all weekend and I’m inside on the couch playing a video game about winter sports.

Not normal.

I’ve logged roughly ten hours on Steep over the last week.

Snowboarding games and I have a long history. When I bought my original PlayStation in the ’90s, I added in two games to take home with me that day: Crash Bandicoot and Cool Boarders 2.

After picking up a PS2 half a decade later, I quickly added SSX3 to my game collection and then upgraded that with a PS3 and SSX a few years later. (Don’t ask me about the game numbering conventions here!)

It was only fitting, I suppose, that the first game I have really dug into on the PS5 (or my overkill PS4 if you’re a console purist) turned out to be a winter sports title.

The game is beautiful.

I slink through reviews and discussion boards online and the loudest, most caps-locked voices seem to be yelling and screaming about resolutions and framerates and OMG how dare this game NOT be 120 FPS in 8K, I WANT my MONEYZ baCK!!

Old gamer alert: I’m still sitting here with my HD screen, so… 1080p … I think. And if you told me it was 60fps I’d probably … dunno … shrug?

Having gone through the eras, remembering when my little teenage mind was gobsmacked blown away at Super Mario Land on my friend’s Gameboy (I mean, I went home and tried to literally draw a picture of how amazing it was for my little brother to comprehend how cool Mario… in your HANDS could be!) … I digress. I think my point was just that I’m easily impressed. And blah blah something about gameplay and fun and enjoying myself as I slide endlessly down a beautiful mountain in the virtual snow.

The old virtual snowboarding legs returned pretty quick. The folks who developed this title must have played some of the same classics that I had over the years. It took me merely half an hour before I was flipping and sliding and jumping and barely even crashing at all through the powder. I also quickly learned about the joys of ragdoll physics.

Of course there are a million new features that I’ve barely dabbled in.

I mean, I put a classy grunge outfit on my dude.

I tried a bunch of the other sports, like gliding … and jet crashing your head into a cliff something or another sport.

I unlocked a sled, yes a toboggan on a ski hill, and spent a whole evening telling my wife the same bad joke about bringing a sled on our next ski trip. (She said no, BTW.)

And I’ve ignored a whole bunch of multiplayer online people who seem to want to “group together” for some reason I can’t fathom in a sport where I can neither keep track of where I am virtually, and tend to lose people (sometimes deliberately) on the real mountain when I do this kind of thing in real life.

So it goes that as I wrap up my first week with this new PS5 console, I’ve been hiding away from the crazy-cold temperatures on the other side of the window. I’m avoiding the winter (avoiding the pandemic, avoiding the fact I can’t see anyone in real life, avoiding the lack of travel and fun and other winter joys of a normal year) by enjoying a virtual winter scape.

Chilling, as we used to say. See what I did there?

Reading | The Years of Rice and Salt (Robinson)

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

Recently, I searched up and through a variety of online books lists. The point was to get some perspective on my quest to read more this year and to add some titles to my own prospective reading plan.

“Fifty books to read before you’re fifty.”

“The 100 best books of all time.”

“The twenty best books of 2020.”

Or, where I saw mentioned my next read…

“Great books to read during a pandemic.”

A pandemic, huh?

I’ve had a paperback copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt sitting on my shelf for years. It caught my interest once, but stacks of unread books are not an uncommon sight at our house. Apparently, it was waiting for a global pandemic for it’s moment to shine. It is, after all, about a former global pandemic, one that in the fourteenth century wiped out a third of Europe’s population. But what if, Stanley proposes, the plague had wiped out ninety-nine percent of Europe’s population? Just Europe. Everywhere else had a tough time, but mostly pulled through. And thus the ascendency of Western Europe… um… never happened?

In fact, only last night I completed a very European-ascendant-type novel. Prelude to Foundation offers a far future glimpse of mid-twentieth century Western values transposed many thousands of years into the future. I don’t think it was the point of the book that pretending that the social growth from the 1950s through the 1980s stalled. Yet, Isaac Asimov was telling a light backstory to one of his more famous characters crammed in between a few of his more popular works. What emerged from my perspective was casual social commentary. That book (as I explained to my wife in my frustration between chapters) was as much a dissertation on late twentieth century counter-culture social hang-ups as it was an exploration of any of the fantastic ideas from the Foundation series itself. Prelude to Foundation wowed me as a teenager because I lived in a small city with conservative ideals during that era. The twisting story of a fortune-telling mathematician fleeing those who would use him for their own political means dabbles broadly but simplistically in tackling concepts like gender equality, social movement, and even sexual prudishness as the protagonist blunders through a diverse society. I think it blew my mind that people were questioning this stuff… and in novel form, to boot. But that was thirty years ago. Thirty years later, and having lived through and participated in a variety of social movements, I’d like to believe that I’ve questioned ideals that are far more complex… and that I still am. So, as a recommended starting point for a modern perspective, even if it is a quick, fun read, Prelude to Foundation would not be my go-to.

With my latest pick, NOVEL.2021.03, I’m continuing questioning big ideas about our place in the modern world. For insight on the events of the past that have shaped us I’ve turned to some alternate history fiction. The Years of Rice and Salt as a recommended pandemic read has some obvious parallels to living in a time of contagion-fear.

The vibe I got from the first couple chapters, though, was that fool-hearted self assurance we Westerners all take for granted of that ascendency of Western Europe. It happened, sure. But I think Robinson is going to push hard on the you do know it wasn’t inevitable angle.

Maybe in thirty years those ideas will be just as quaint and simplistic as Asimov getting hot and bothered and writing a full chapter about a secondary character taking her shirt off in public… but we did just watch an attempted (failed) fascist coup of the US government so who can say. Maybe the impacts of Western European culture go a little deeper.

Ok, a lot.

Jumping the Sharks with Maneater

It figures. The first next generation console game that would spark my interest and capture an hour or so of my precious free time would be a gore-filled fish-based role playing game about a killer shark.

Yesterday morning a large brown cardboard box landed on my doorstep. When I slit the tape and pulled the slightly smaller white box from inside, extracted the even slightly smaller and whiter box from inside that … then unpacked the contents of four or five significantly smaller white-ish boxes from inside of that … the tangle of cables and electronics left behind on my media shelf perfectly resembled the Sony PlayStation 5 gaming console that I’d seen online.

This was ideal… because a PS5 is exactly what I had paid a lot of money for just late last week.

Rewind. The story of my finally deciding to buy a PS4 about eighteen months ago (then not actually buying one when I saw the release announcement for the PS5) and the long-wait, ultimately leading to me receiving a box with the hard-to-find console on my doorstep yesterday is a long, boring, and whatever story. In fact, that was pretty much the whole thing. Yet, there a PS5 now sits. Having skipped an entire generation of console game systems, I find myself with a vast collection of new-to-me titles at my fingertips, and expectations more closely aligned with older systems.

Also, I opted to pick up a Plus subscription because (a) they were still on sale, (b) I think I’d like to try some multiplayer online, and (c) it comes with a boatload of free, eclectic and/or older games (that, again, are all new-to-me).

…including this one (first) game that I downloaded last night called Maneater.

The game cinematic starts off as if you are about to be thrown into the deep end of a video game version of Deadliest Catch with flashy introductions of the harpoon-lugging guys driving a shark-hunting boat as they trek out towards open water to take on a villainous aquatic predator…

…you will explore a large and varied open world encountering diverse enemies – both human and wildlife.

But wait!

You are the shark. You kick off your adventure by breaking through some basic control orientation, and then out into an open harbour. That’s when the fight begins. One of your first challenges is to brutally attack a happy little beach full of swimmers then defend against the angry shark hunters that (surprise!) want to hunt you down for doing just that and…

Maneater is a single player, open world action RPG (ShaRkPG) where YOU are the shark.

But wait!

Boom: you’re actually dead. Channelling some serious Moby Dick vibes, the angry Deadliest Catch captain cuts a baby shark from your limp belly, maims it for spite, then curses its name as it bites off his arm and swims away and…

But wait!

You are now the baby shark, and role playing game adventure ensues as you navigate through a swamp on a quest of…

Starting as a small shark pup you are tasked with surviving the harsh world while eating your way up the ecosystem.

So. I haven’t played much further than that.

I just downloaded this last night, remember?

As much as I have sudden access to a small library of new games, clever and quirky titles often entice me the most. See, I’ve played as many zombie shooters as I ever need to in my life. Platformers are stuffed with nostalgia, but I’ll always compare back to my childhood full of Mario games. And I’ve already queued up a snowboarding classic called Steep for some zen, downhill action, and I’m looking forward to spending some time with it on the PS5, but those kind of games just make me look longingly out the window at the real snow.

Call me a sucker for novelty, but I’m looking forward to some more shark adventures later tonight.