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Icon 2015: Guest of Honor Ted Chiang

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Every now and then Icon manages to acquire a major international writer as a guest of honor. It always seems like such a great opportunity, but on the other hand, I’m often only faintly familiar with the authors in question and their work. This year was an exception. Having just recently embarked on my career as a professional writer, and being that I’m still struggling with the specific demands of writing proper short stories, this year’s guest of honor events seemed too good to miss.

The festival takes place over three days during Sukkot and there are events all day long (and well into the night). Although I decided I couldn’t afford to write three full days off for writing, I was adamant that I would make the most and pre-ordered tickets to three evening events. These events were a panel on the subject of “the search for a perfect language”, a general short stories panel, and a one-on-one Q&A. Alas, I got ill on the second day and ended up missing the final event (the Q&A) which I was most looking forward to, along with the closing event where awards are announced.

The first panel was very interesting. The subject of language in science fiction is of perennial interest to me, not least because I’m myself bilingual. What I hadn’t realized (not being a linguist) is that “perfect language” is actually a quite specific piece of terminology. It describes, as best as I could understand, a language in which it is possible to perfectly express the speaker’s intent, without ambiguity. As a writer, obviously this seems like a terrible idea, because without ambiguity literature loses much of its magic. But, as a computer programmer, I’m a lot less worried.

All in all, it was very interesting and I’m very glad I got to hear it.

The second panel was a bit of a mess. I, like some others on the audience (and, I got the impression, also the panel moderator) got the feeling that the two Israeli panelists were dominating the conversation and injecting too many personal references and inner jokes. There was still a lot of interest to listen to, in between arguments about who won the most Geffen awards and short slips into Hebrew. ‘Where do you get ideas from?’ cropped up but also, more interestingly, some questions that were more about the process of transitioning the raw idea into a story-shaped concept.

I’m still sorry I missed the third event, but glad I went to the ones I did, especially the language panel. I’m even more glad that this gave me a good impetus to look up some of Ted Chiang’s short stories online and find out for myself why he’s so highly regarded. The stories I read are very high-concept based and feel like a distillation of the core process of creating science fiction. A novel scientific concept, a series of speculations, potential social implications and finally, their impact on the individual human.

A good week, despite my illness.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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Support Me on Patreon

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You can now support me on Patreon. A link has been added to the blog’s navigation strip.

I am very grateful to all my readers for their support, comments and appreciation over the years. Commenting on posts and linking to my blog were and are enormously encouraging for me. Now in addition to that you have the option to offer material support, which will allow me to continue writing full-time as I have been for the past several months.

The Katabasis of Queen Esther

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A knock came on her door.

Vashti raised her eyes from her book and glanced at the golden door, then cast them down again to look at the hound that lay at her feet.

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Tactics, Logistics and Chance: The “Game of Thrones” Board Game

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Yom Kippur is come and gone. Like every year I had grand plans of taking a serious, contemplative look at my life. Instead, I played the Game of Thrones board game.

If you play board games pretty regularly, or have friends who do, you might have heard rumor of this game. The rumor would likely be something about it being very long and very complicated to play. It’s all true. I spent almost six hours on it last night (and lost, badly).

The GOT board game struggles a little because it wants to maintain all the basic elements of a strategic territory expansion game, while still giving due to the core story elements form the books and show. It succeeds in parts, but the devotion to story elements is part of what makes the game so cumbersome to learn and play. The game’s initial set-up is still forced to stray from the story’s political dynamics, partly in order to give players freedom to form alliances and rivalries as they see fit, and partly for more obscure reasons.

Broken down, the elements of the game go something like this: each player plays one of the major houses and starts out with a roughly equal number of starting territories. Each territory adds one battle or supply action per turn. All actions on the board are revealed simultaneously, and acted out according to the order of the political power metric, which has a fixed initial setup and is periodically reshuffled.

To add an element of chance, cards are drawn at the beginning of each round to generate random events, such as Wildling attacks. The game goes on for ten rounds, or until one player conquers seven different castles. In our case, as I said, almost six hours (the full ten rounds).

Each of these elements has a few layers of added complexity. There are three different metrics for political power, which allowed each of us three players to start on top with some kind of advantage. Now and then there would be a kind of auction where players bet power tokens on each of the three, to reorder the power dynamics and hopefully gain an edge. Battle and supply actions are divided into five kinds (movement/attack, defense, support, raid and supply/recruit), and then further subdivided for increased complexity. Battles are acted out using weighted character cards to supplement troops.

Honestly, that only covers about 40% of the complexity of the game. Or convolution, I should say, because that’s an important distinction. Tactics, strategy, logistics even — those are welcome kinds of complexity, because they vary by the playing styles and experience levels of the players. Mostly, though, this games adds complexity via memory tricks and rules-lawyering, with an added luck element in drawing three random cards per turn.

Our game started auspiciously and overall went quite well, but would have been more fun and less wearying if I, as the newest player, didn’t get as confused about which stage of the turn we were in and what was supposed to happen next. I played House Lannister and almost immediately formed an alliance promising not to invade eastward past a certain point. Then I started stockpiling, while my two co-players bickered over the same bit of sea throughout most of the game. The strategic element then is brought in by the players, which is about right. From then on, the game pieces and cards restrict the player’s ability to enact their strategy, which is also, in theory, how it should go. There were just… too many nitpicky little bits getting in the way.

A good conquest game, as far as I’m concerned, should only have two phases to each round. First there is a logistical phase in which resources are recruited. Then there is a tactical phase in which attacks for the round are determined. The GOT board game has many more variable parts than that. For example, increases in supplies are not calculated immediately, and power tokens are used not just to mark territories, but also to bid for political power on a separate part of the board, and to fight a third party on another part.

When I laid out some of my criticism, a fellow player asked if I would rather the game be “boring, like Risk”. I answered that I think there’s a great deal of middle ground between the two. Part of the added complexity is supposed to add an element of political intriguing that goes beyond troop movements and conquering territory, but mostly manages to support the battle portions of the game and otherwise be wearying. Any “diplomatic” elements are brought in by the inclination of the players to form temporary alliances, or not.

All in all, I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Although parts of it were immensely frustrating, I did exit the game feeling like there was a reason I lost (other than being a first time player), and that if I played again, I might win. But I also left the game trying to figure out if there was a way I could house-rule the board and pieces to a more manageable proportion, so that future games would have the same amount of fun, but less frustration.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Hail the Hunter

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I told you I was born in the Western mountains, but this is only part of the story. I was raised in a Moon temple, you see. I know you’ve heard of them. Yes, I grew up in a small temple, one of many in that part of the world, and spend my childhood looking forward to the day when I was declared grown, and ready to serve. Of the time before I was given to the temple, I remember very little.

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On “The 100” and the Characterization of Cold Women

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I have been thinking lately on why I have such a great fondness for cold women. When I say cold women, I mean of course fictional characters. Like most people, I’m fascinated by a great many types of characters whom I would never tolerate in reality. By cold women, I mean both women who are socially chilly and reserved, as well as women who operate based on cold numbers logic, and consequently make a lot of ethically questionable choices.

The initial impetus for this was The 100. Part of the reason I love the show so dearly is exactly this. It is a show that deals with characters trapped in impossible situations and constrained by violent power dynamics, repeatedly pushing them into morally untenable situations. Unlike a lot of other “morally grey” narratives, it allows women to, on multiple occasions, occupy the role of the decision-maker. The leader, the one who makes the call that no one else could make. The one that historians will debate about for years to come.

Traditionally, women are seen as warm. In Western mass-media, and in a lot of other contexts as well. In another show with a similar premise, a bright-eyed girl would occupy a help-meet role as a moral foil to the male leader. A personal moral anchor, or a political rival who fervently — emotionally — argues for a position of interpersonal ethics, as opposed to global ethics. Because women are emotional and men are logical. That one, that’s also a repeating canard.

You get a little bit of that in The 100, too. Arguably, though, Abby serves more as a Bones to Kane’s Spock, with Chancellor Jaha caught in the middle. But the dynamics between Clarke and Bellamy are quite different. Early on there’s a contrast between them, but the main axis of disagreement centers around adherence to the old social order. Questions of cruelty and compassion, when they surface, are argued based on the merits of the way things are done versus the possibility of building a new society from the ground up.

Clarke isn’t a typical cold, calculating, tough-decision-making character. Part of the impetus behind her character growth is the struggle of being thrust into a reality where the rules she learned to follow — the rules that protected her — no longer apply. In contrast, Bellamy is habitually lawless because the rules never protected him or his family, and the society he lived in taught him that it was built for people like Clarke.

Lexa, I suppose, is a more traditional cold character. She is a leader born and bred, after all. She has the kind of skills and, more importantly, charisma that allow her to give orders to warriors twice her age and have them followed, and she was raised in the same harsh environment that Clarke and the Arc people are struggling to adapt to. Her position as a warrior gives her practice in making killing choices, even when she is face to face with her enemy. As a leader, she has also developed the kind of social aloofness and emotional containment that Clarke lacks.

I often find myself trying to write the kind of cold women characters I so enjoy in the media that I consume. It’s a constant balancing game, trying to keep them on-point while at the same time giving the reader an opening to sympathize with them, or at least comprehend their motives. Writing a character like Clarke, who takes on the role though she lacks the corresponding temperament, is a challenge that I believe is still beyond me. Still, I keep looking to media to see what new and fantastic ways I can discover to expand this particular archetype.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Go Along to Get Along on LLTQ

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If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know by now that by far my favorite game in the world is the strategic raising sim Long Live the Queen from Hanako Games. This is a fiendishly difficult game which combines a gentle parody of princess tropes, a thoughtful exploration of the skills necessary for leadership, and an unironic enthusiasm for sparkliness. Protagonist Elodie is the recently-orphaned teenage heir to the throne, trying to survive the weeks until her coming of age and coronation.

Keeping Elodie alive until the end of the game is notoriously difficult. She faces so many assassination attempts that at times it seems like everyone is out to get her. Betrayal lurks behind every corner. The game has achievements that are unlocked by discovering all the different (and gruesome) ways in which Elodie can die. This is probably how the game earned the dubious nickname ‘Sansa Stark simulator‘.

On my first playthrough, I made it through 90% of the game before getting my princess blasted to pieces. One of the first things the King-Regent says is that she may not be safe outside the castle, and so I undertook what I thought was a very sensible strategy of avoiding danger (and conflict) whenever possible. It took a number of (unsuccessful) playthroughs before I was willing to start taking a few more chances.

Success in the game is achieved by skills. Learning skills is governed by mood. Moods are determined by plot events. Depressed Elodie does not want to study court manners, afraid Elodie doesn’t do very well with intrigue, and everyone can agree that angry Elodie has no business being around the palace animals. Some skills are more difficult to learn than others, primarily because they’re more strongly affected by moods. This is true of one of my favorite skill-groups, Royal Demeanor, which allows your princess to stare down her adversaries by sheer force of will. Invaluable for a future queen dependent upon the goodwill of the nobility.

The mood governing the skills of royal demeanor is called ‘Yielding‘ (not ‘yielded’ as I’ve seen in some posts, an important distinction). That… doesn’t sound very queenly, does it? On the face of things, at least. Surely a queen can’t just yield in the face of any obstacle. But, well, that’s not really what ‘yielding’ means. It allows you to keep composure in conflict, not rise to the bait when provoked, and generally react with apparent equanimity. Without these skills your princess is prone to react before thinking, causing one character to (rightly) call her ‘violent and impulsive’.

True, there is something very egotistically satisfying about challenging your adversary to a duel to the death. It’s a heroic reaction, the reaction we would generally expect from a protagonist. Certainly from a game protagonist. ‘Fortune favors the bold‘ is a maxim that’s generally profitable in video games. LLTQ is unusual in that it rewards prudence, restraint and discretion.

Well, but the presence that convinces the nobility at the royal ball that you are not a child but a queen, surely that cannot be called yielding? The yielding mood, in addition to regal demeanor, also boosts the study of history and faith skills. Raising these skills not only allows you to pass complicated skill checks and unlock entire story-lines, it also reveals some of the back-story and sheds a lot of light on the nature of magic. Read closely, the flavor text for these lessons (see, for example, Novan History 80, World History 50, Lore 30 and 70) reveals a fraught magical history fueled by pride and recklessness.

What do these three skills have in common? What ties together history and magical lore? What does it mean to be a ruling queen? The lesson texts teach Elodie that she is merely the last in a long unbroken chain of kings and queens, of magic users, and of catastrophically fatal magical mishaps. In history, as in faith, you can choose to see yourself as a small part of something much larger. By this view the queenship and the Lumen magic are seen as an act of custodianship, rather than a source of control.

Play the game long enough in different iterations and with different choices, and you end up discovering several exciting ways in which giving the wrong orders can get your princess killed. Experimenting with the more reckless magical choices shows some of the drastic consequences of the unchecked use of power.

Elodie’s magic tutor, Julianna, is a character who knows her place in the chain of things. Not very glamorous, but it serves her well. Where the King-Regent withholds information because he wants to protect his daughter from the negative consequences of magic, Julianna is more interested in protecting Nova from its Queen. At first pass she’s an irritating killjoy who’s at least as annoying as some of the classic fantasy magical mentors. To convince her to trust your princess, you have to first unlock some of the aforementioned foreboding historical lessons, which might make the pill a little easier to swallow.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big far of the yielding mood and all the skills it governs. It provides an interesting perspective and an unusual contrast to the more usual sources of heroism in fantasy. And it brings to mind the banner words of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series: that which yields is not always weak.

I had some things to say regarding the approval of the nobles and why it’s so important to maintain it, but this blog post is already far too long as it is. I think for the moment I’ll leave things at that, and perhaps return to the subject at a later date.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth