Gene Wolfe is a brilliant writer, there is no disputing that. He’s also a very demanding writer to read, and it’s no surprise he’s often found on both “most overrated” and “most underrated” author lists. He writes stories where most everything is mentioned for a reason, but much of the time those reasons are so literary and byzantine that they fly right past, leaving one slightly confused and feeling like they just missed something. This is not a bad thing, or at least not necessarily. It makes his books have high re-read value, for example, there usually always something more there that you missed the first time. On the other hand, it does make it a bit hard to love him as a writer, at least for me; I admire the immaculate craftsmanship that goes into his books, but they don’t always quite “click” for me.
For a Gene Wolfe book, Litany of the Long Sun is fairly straightforward stuff. Which means that on general terms, it’s a dense book filled with metaphor and stylistic flourish… but it’s still perhaps a bit less demanding as much of his other work. This is not a bad thing, I quite liked it as a whole. This book actually collects the first two books of the “Long Sun” sequence, “Nightside the Long Sun” and “Lake of the Long Sun”. It’s a continuation of the grand sequence begun in his earlier masterpiece, the four-book “Book of the New Sun” and the coda book for that, “Urth of the New Sun”. It’s been ages since I read those so I probably missed at least half of the references, but the events here take place centuries after those books so no prior knowledge is really needed.
Mankind has left the solar system, fleeing a dying sun with a vast generation starship known as the Whorl. Society has devolved somewhat; though all know they live in an artificial world, most revere the artificial intelligences who (perhaps) control things as gods. In fact, the protagonist himself is a young priest, one Patera Silk (with “Patera” being a honorific for priest, “Father”). At the beginning of the story, the fact that we’re in a giant artificial world isn’t brought forth much if at all, it reads like strange, baroque fantasy with a young and supposedly naive priest trying to operate in a poor neighborhood, with his mission in danger of being shut down. Slowly, bit by bit, the larger image is revealed.
Still, the science fiction infrastructure is very much in the background, the “feel” here owes much to Book of the New Sun. The society is recognizable, partly, with vague Mediterranean overtones, but the terminology is strange, there are robots (or androids?) walking around, known as “chems”, “chemical people”. There are gods, but those gods (it becomes clear) are not really divine and neither are they all-powerful. In fact, much of the main plot later on is driven by the factional squabbles of these “gods”.
I won’t go too much into the plot itself here, but it starts off with Patera Silk receiving news that his “manteion” (i.e. mission) has been bought, and is going to be closed down. He embarks on a foolhardy quest to convince the new crime boss owner to reconsider, and in this is joined by small-time criminal Auk and various prostitutes. Events start to snowball, and before he quite realizes it Silk is being hailed as the new potential “Caldé” (i.e. divinely supported ruler of the city). When the book ends, a quiet and dusty city has been transformed into ground zero for civil war. There are combat robots, submarines, talking crows, and flying people.
Silk is a fascinating character. Because this book is told in neutral third person instead of the first person of New Sun, you get the impression that the narrator is reliable. That’s not quite the case, since the end of the four-book series makes it clear that there is a narrator here also, and he’s not totally reliable either – there’s a suspicion that Silk has been made into a more messiah figure than he really “was”. That realization comes later, though. Wolfe is fond of his unreliable narrators, though it does make figuring out “what really happened?” somewhat tricky at times. Also, we get the fact that this world contains AI intelligences (and others) capable of possessing and controlling people, on a whim. This means that person X might really be entity Y on the next page, with little warning. You need to pay attention here, and sometimes it gets to be a bit annoying.
I liked the book(s). The world is a bizarre mix of the strange and the somewhat recognizable, the characters are largely quite interesting and stray from the stereotypes you initially presume (for example, Silk is not quite the naive and helpless priest you initially imagine). The story eases you into the background story of the Whorl without too many explicit infodumps, so it feels like an organic revelation of information. While some of Wolfe’s stylistic tendencies annoy somewhat at times, this is still largely in the “easy reading” category for a Gene Wolfe book.
Note that this is the first half of a bigger story, with “Epiphany of the Long Sun” concluding the tale. This volume ends on a cliffhanger note.
The Computer Is Your Friend is an anthology of five Paranoia short stories, forming an intro of sorts for the new Paranoia novels from Ultraviolet Books. Three of the stories are direct prequels for the novels, while two are stand-alones.
“Rule Zero” features Troubleshooters who stumble upon something mysterious (and deadly) while chasing after a helpbot and trying to assassinate each other. It ties in with the book Stay Alert, where a helpbot is also found in a critical role. “Hay Fever” tells the story of how Clarence-Y (from Traitor Hangout) found his pet mouse (or the other way around). “Data Exhaust” provides backstory on a certain coup at the Department of Threat Obfuscation, paving the way for the book Reality Optional. The other two stories are “Market Research”, where a “totally random” and “voluntary” market research survey slowly reveals a bigger conspiracy, and “Action Request”, where we learn the wisdom in never, ever requesting a Troubleshooter team to “fix your problems”.
I liked all of the stories, quite a bit. All of them work nicely as stand-alones, and the novel tie-ins expand on the stories without intruding on them. As a bonus, they aren’t quite by-the-book typical Paranoia tales (i.e. Troubleshooters shooting at each other, framed as a mission). Of course, that happens too, but the main plots mostly involve other groups with varying motives.
It’s a quick read, with a low page count – but as a nice bonus, the book is now available for free (just follow the book title link above). It’s a bundle of various ebook formats, with no DRM, so… there’s really no reason not to pick this up if you have an e-reader and want some light humorous summer reading. These tales should work nicely as an intro into Paranoia, even for people who have no idea of what the game is about.
“It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.”
I’ll have to begin here with a disclaimer: one of the writers of this one is a friend of mine. However, I only remembered that fact after I had finished the game and was watching the end credits roll. Thing is, I remember him talking about the game way back when it was first published on the XBox, but since at that point it was console-only and I don’t do consoles, I wasn’t really paying all that much attention. Now, years later when Remedy finally released Alan Wake on the PC, I’m finally paying attention. It’s a very good game.
[Here I originally had a rant about the stupidity of Remedy originally claiming that the game was console-only for “artistic reasons” and was only suitable for sofa + TV in living rooms. Well, I have since been educated that Remedy didn’t in fact make any such claims, it was Another Party. My bad, I remembered something I read when the game was originally published, and got that bit wrong. Glad to hear that Remedy isn’t the stupid party in that one. Their reasons for originally going XBox-only were only due to contract reasons with Microsoft, to the best of my knowledge.]
Anyway, now that the game actually is out on the PC, how is it? Pretty damn good, but not without its faults. I’ll talk about the good first: it mostly involves the plot and the writing. The game is a linear story about a writer who goes to a Twin Peaks -style town on vacation with his wife, and weird bad shit starts to happen. There are multiple references to Stephen King in the game, and the town even has a Log Lady analogue. Now, since I love Stephen King (when he’s good) and Twin Peaks, this made the game a fairly easy sell for me. The writing is very good here, and I played many a long night just to see what twists we get next. Sure, it’s very linear, but here that doesn’t bother (me) much – the story is king, here. In more ways than one. Most of the action happens at night, and the atmosphere is mostly very nice; you spend a lot of time in the dark with your flashlight, with fog twirling all around. The combat mechanic is interesting: the bad guys hate light, so you use your flashlight to slow them down or drive them back, and then you shoot them until they drop. It’s a nice enough mechanic, but…
… here we come to the “not so good” section. The action scenes get very repetitive as the game progresses. There are some set pieces with nicely creative solutions needed, but all too often it’s just “walk along forest path at night, wait for next predictable bunch of bad guys to appear”. Also, perhaps it’s just because I suck, but I found the combat very difficult at times, even on “normal” difficulty level. There were some scenes where I had to retry the damn battle time and time again until I got lucky. Most of these involved hordes of bad guys, and me being low on critical things like flares, so the moment they closed in I was toast.
Also, the PC port is a fairly quick port from the XBox base version, and it shows in performance at times. Playing at 1920x1200, I had to tone lots of details down before the thing became playable, and this was with a fastish video card (560 GTX). It’s plain to see that Remedy didn’t spend all that much time with performance tweaks on higher resolutions (the comparatively crappy resolution of an XBox is quite different from a modern-day gaming PC).
Getting back to the good stuff, the story is told in a style that mimics a TV series. There are “happened in the previous episode” preludes, and the game is split into a number of episodes (with end soundtracks, one of which is the brilliant song “Haunted” by Poe). It works very nicely, and helps the storytelling by embedding the game into a familiar storytelling format. The PC version also comes with two additional episodes (which I also liked a lot), where the cliffhanger end of the base game is expanded on and where things get really weird.
Another good point was the environments. Even though the game progress was totally linear, most of the environments felt lived-in and more open than then actually were.
In sum, it’s a game with an addictively good Stephen King / Twin Peaks -style story, which is punctuated by lots of annoyingly repetitive combat. I usually find myself putting up with mediocre plots to get to the interesting action in games, but here the usual situation is reversed. I’ll definitely be picking up “Alan Wake 2” when/if it comes out (and will be pissed off if it’s again some “console only” crap), and I’ll probably pick up the sort-of-but-not-quite sequel “Alan Wake’s American Nightmare” at some point.
I could bitch about some small annoyances… the game is extremely linear, some of the character animations are non-optimal, the weird thermos flasks all over the place served no useful purpose, and some plot twists are a bit redundant… but I don’t feel like it. On the whole, they didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game. It’s rare enough for me to actually play a game from start to end nowadays, and here I did.