Saturday, October 27, 2007

Justifying my Dislike

I have yet to play Half-Life 2. I loved the first game although I don't consider God's greatest gift to mankind like some people do. I'm rather certain that I would greatly enjoy the sequel and many of the attached products. I've seen a bit of it played and it looks like fun. My problem is that I can't get around Steam.

Steam, for those who are not aware of it, is Valve's online service that acts as copy protection and software distributor. To play the game, even if you purchased the disk in a store, you have to connect to their service and register the game with it. This is done the first time you play and at regular often intervals after that when you want to play. This is not when you want to play multiplayer online, this is for any play through.

My problem with this is that I'm no longer purchasing a game, I'm renting it. Valve has the ability to turn off your access to their product any time they feel like it. If the Steam servers go away (as they did for an extended period several months go) then the games I've purchased might as well be frisbees. In addition if you can't connect to Steam to confirm your account you can't play the game. I know in our constantly online society its hard to believe but there are times when you won't have an internet connection. I have a friend in the Navy, for example, who can't play their games for this reason.

And this week Valve stepped far over the line. They disable the games of people who purchased legitimate copies of their games in Russia and Thailand who then played the games outside of those countries. Valve justified this by saying that copies purchased in those countries were for use in only those countries and anyone who tried to use them elsewhere was a criminal (really). Their reasoning is that they charge less for copies in those countries so they should not be used elsewhere. Never mind that Valve set the price and the people purchasing the games paid it, Valve controls access to their product even after you purchase it and they closed the gate.

This is something that people who like Steam have sworn up and down would never happen. The claim was that there was no danger of being locked out even if Valve suddenly went bankrupt or were taken over by Evil Corp (makers of fine evil since 1922) and yet there it is. Valve didn't like what some of the purchasers of their product did so they denied them access to the product that they already bought.

There is no reason why I should put control over media that I purchase in external hands. So as much as I know I would enjoy Half-Life 2 I just let it go. There's other things that I can spend my time on. I'm aware that there are people who don't mind this arrangement, who tend to think of their entertainment value as more ephemeral than I do, and as a result don't care

And I'm not getting it for the X-Box 360 since I can't stand playing first person shooters on console systems. Even if it does lack Steam.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Blashphemy or Faithful - Starship Troopers Edition

Most of you might not have been aware of just how much Starship Troopers related merchandise there is out there. Let's see how some of it stacks up:

Starship Troopers
This is an Avalon Hill created war game from the 1970's. That means it used a map marked off with hexagons, cardboard counters for tracking units, and an emphasis on simulation.

Pro: Not just two but three playable sides: mobile infantry, bugs, and the skinnies (the alien race being attacked in the first chapter of the novel). All three play radically different from each other. The mobile infantry can do orbital insertions and deal with the complications of potential scattering. A player using the bugs has a pad of second maps that they can use to mark tunnel construction under the board. Most scenarios require that the mobile infantry not leave any wounded man behind. If it was in any of the combat sequences in the novel then it's in the game. The scale allows for individual soldiers in power suits to be spread over miles.

Con: Um... ah.... I guess there's no rules for playing high school civics class lessons...

Result: About as faithful as a hex and counter war game could be. For those unfamiliar with those old Avalon Hill games I would not recommend hunting it down, though. The games require a lot of work to play (you have to track a squad of mobile infantry right down to their ammo) and anyone not familiar with hex and counter war games is probably not going to find it enjoyable.

Starship Troopers
The Paul Verhoeven movie from the late nineties.

Pro: Well, there's a war, bugs, and a co-ed shower scene (not that something that bizarre was in the book but I've got to put the only good thing about the film in somewhere).

Con: There's no powered armor and the mobile infantry isn't really mobile. In fact the military tactics used in the film make it appear that the earth's forces could easily be beaten by Napoleon. Not Napoleon given futuristic weapons mind you, just Napoleon with his early 19th century French army. Charging into massed enemy formations so that the enemy may slaughter your own forces while hardly being affected themselves went out of style in World War I (I'm giving Napoleon the benefit of the doubt to not be stupid enough to do that since he did know how to use artillery effectively). Even the equipment the "mobile" infantry were using other than the transport to alien worlds might as well have been from World War II, except the "mobile" part since the mobile infantry in World War II was actually mobile.

But why waste time complaining about little things like removing the advanced warfare and replacing it with garbage when the real problem is that the movie took Heinlein's ideas about the value of citizenship and turned it into a message that can be summed up as "Fascism bad." This simplistic theme that anyone who has even the slightest awareness of the history of the past sixty years could tell you is pounded into the viewer's skull as apparently Verhoeven thinks that only gibbering idiots would see his film. The movie could only be less subtle if it was painted fluorescent orange.

Result: The single most blasphemous transformation of a science fiction work ever. If you ever want to see nerd rage mention how much you love "Starship Troopers" to a science fiction fan and after a few minutes say how you think that Verhoeven was very clever.

Starship Troopers
This Warhammer style miniature game from Mongoose Publishing is the current Starship Troopers game.

Pro: While not included in the basic set there is powered armor available. Lacks the novel perverting philosophy of the movie.

Con: It's based more on the movie than the book. Mobile infantry units are tiny, often unarmored, tight packed, and once again not really mobile. The maps are for tight small engagements, rather than the sprawling battlefields that the novel featured.

Result: It carries the blasphemous taint of its evil parentage despite some efforts by Mongoose to add back in elements from the books.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why Civilization on Earth in Starship Troopers is Doomed to Fall and Why I Don't Care

My single biggest complaint in science fiction is poor work on the author's part at representing a civilization.

Ideally sociological science fiction should start with a "What if there was a society that did this?", then let the author prop it up if necessary to justify it, and then finally consider the implications of those structures and how they would change the world. Starship Troopers does this. The Dispossessed (which is coming up in a few weeks) does this twice.

A lot of books don't. Almost always in those cases the author creates a utopian society that is usually a thinly disguised puppet for their own political views (you can typically tell because of the scornful ways that the characters talk about how stupid real-world society is for not being them; "Can you believe that at the end of the twentieth century they actually made paper from trees? I'm glad we now execute people for daring such things!"). Little consideration is paid to the complications of such a change and the day to day life of the main characters is rarely significantly different from ours except for the fact that they comment on how great they are from time to time.

In Starship Troopers Heinlein went through a lot of trouble to justify his society and why it existed. His what if question started from "What if a society required effort from its members to allow participation in government?" and he works hard to justify its existence. Since citizenship only conveys a vote and the ability to hold public office Heinlein's idea is that it makes participation more valuable.

It's a nice idea that appeals the a sense of civic justice. And like so many other things that do it would lead to tyranny in real life.

It would work as long as the government acts in a beneficial way for everyone, but history shows that brief shining examples quickly fall into ruin. The only voter base that the government has to appeal to are those citizens and people pursuing citizenship. Heinlein's society promises open access to citizenship but barriers can be erected easily and the people would have little recourse. Even a bad government that is opposed by all of the non-citizens could not be overturned quickly as it would take two years of complete disruption of their lives before they could do anything about it. It's no good protesting that cruel war against the bugs who were just trying to communicate by writing messages on asteroids and dropping them on major cities to read when you have no voice in government.

The society in Starship Troopers continues to work mainly because of benevolence but its a recent change. The classes that Rico sits through in school are propaganda and indoctrination to this system and would be the main reason why it hasn't collapsed into corruption yet. That's also the reason why it doesn't bother me in Starship Troopers as much as others do. Heinlein's system is different and while the teacher says its the greatest ever its also transparent propaganda. So I don't care that they're functioning over the course of the book mainly since I can see it collapsing soon after the war is over.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review - Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
by Robert Heinlein
1960 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

A good way to start a fight when dealing with nerds is to mention how much you either love or hate Starship Troopers. The book tends to inspire a lot of strong emotions in people and that perhaps is the strongest recommendation I could make for reading it. Heinlein had two very good ideas that he put into one book and while I don't think that either of them would have raised eyebrows separately putting them together made people with poor reading comprehension skills angry.

The first idea and simplest is the story of a future military. Johnny Rico is a kid who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life so he joins the mobile infantry, a branch of Earth's military that has men in power armor drop from low orbit to fight their battles. The war is going badly and Rico rapidly rises in the ranks as people around him die. Heinlein paints an interesting picture of military life which follows the old adage of weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It still has quite a bit of adventure novel glossing but there's an undercurrent

The second idea is that of a society that requires some form of civil service before a person can vote or hold public office. Someone has to work for the government for two years before becoming a citizen which in the book holds only those two benefits over not being a citizen. The service just has to be some kind of government work, it is not necessarily military service. Large chunks of this book are some long winded, poorly written philosophical justifications for this system.

Perhaps the fact that those sections are so dry that Starship Troopers has been used quite a bit over the years to claim Heinlein was a fascist. I suspect people's eyes blur over when the book flashes back to Rico's civics classes and skip ahead to the good parts. The most common misunderstanding is that the civil service has to be military. In the book one of Rico's classmates does his service as scientific research but it also mentions things like construction and janitorial service. The civil service cannot reject anyone who wants to become a citizen and Heinlein makes a specific example of a blind paraplegic being able to count caterpillar fuzz for environmental surveys.

Also in Starship Troopers the difference between a citizen and a non-citizen is minimal but people latch on to the term "citizen". It's closer to the difference between citizens and non-citizens in Athens at the height of Greek civilization than citizens and non-citizens in modern societies. Rico's parents, for example, are not citizens but they are wealthy and powerful. Non-citizens appear to greatly outnumber the citizens on Earth without suffering anything other than not being able to vote.

Starship Troopers does raise questions of what obligation does an individual have to society and the value of individual participation in the government and that's exactly what science fiction should be. Even if you disagree with the concepts presented in the book (and I certainly do since such a society would be dependent on the continued benevolence of the government) it's worth thinking about.

Getting past the philosophy of Starship Troopers the book is the most influential work of military science fiction you're going to find. Just about everyone who's written military SF since owes a debt to Heinlein whether as a response to the ideas raised or an extension of them. I'm not fond of the prose or the clunky philosophy lessons but Starship Troopers is a must read for science fiction fans if only so you can see where so many of the concepts that are taken for granted today come from.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The 1950's Hugos in Review

I'm through the first decade worth of Hugo awards even though the 1950's held only five awards given for best novel. I thought now would be a nice moment to step back and look at the winners so far in a bit more context.

Between these five novels you can see the transition that science fiction was undergoing at that point. They'd Rather Be Right and Double Star represent the older, pulpier style that was starting to fade away as that early young audience was growing up while The Demolished Man, The Big Time, and A Case of Conscience pushed toward the more literary style that would mark the 1960's. Conscience is particularly notable here since you can almost see the transition in the novel; the background is pure pulp science fiction but the story that Blish chooses to tell with it is much more sophisticated than those space operas.

In the transition of styles I found Double Star, The Big Time, and A Case of Conscience were particularly character driven with different degrees of success. The quality of the narrator in Double Star elevated the weak Prisoner of Zenda plot in Double Star to something special, but I found the narrator in The Big Time to just be grating. A Case of Conscience doesn't let us be so intimately familiar with its protagonist but the exploration of his religious beliefs is the core of that novel.

Of the authors represented so far only Heinlein and Leiber win any future Hugos for novels; Heinlein had a long standing record of most awards for novel until Lois Bujold tied him a few years ago (and as of this year Vernor Vinge is in striking distance as well). With Blish I think that his best work was in the 1950's and his work from this point on isn't very remarkable (yes, including the Star Trek television series adaptations). Bester's novels after the 1950's also weren't of note but his other great novel, The Stars My Destination, would have been a strong contender for a 1957 Hugo if they had given awards for novels that year. As for Clifton and Riley, only Clifton wrote a novel after They'd Rather Be Right, Eight Keys to Eden, and I haven't read it so I won't offer any comment.

You can see the creeping cold war fears start to express themselves in the winners. The first three winners are promising: humanity is becoming something greater in The Demolished Man and They'd Rather Be Right (though I'd debate the improvement on that one) while Double Star features the humanity expanding into space with a kind of manifest destiny. Then things turn around. The Big Time has both sides in the time war as shadowy and remote while the soldiers aren't sure why they go on. A Case of Conscience has a humanity morally weakened by a long running cold war.

1959 was the first time that the entire final ballot was published. The nominees that year were:
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  • We Have Fed Our Seas by Poul Anderson
  • Who? by Algis Budrys
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein
  • Time Killer by Robert Sheckley
The only title there that even offers competition to Blish, at least from a perspective with 50 years of hindsight, is Have Spacesuit, Will Travel but I do think that A Case of Conscience is the better book.

To break down my feelings on the books so far to a simple binary scale:

3 - The Demolished Man, Double Star, A Case of Conscience

Didn't Like:
2 - They'd Rather Be Right, The Big Time

Monday, October 22, 2007

Review - A Case of Conscience

A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
1959 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

1958 brought a new pope who was determined to reform the Roman Catholic Church. He announced the Second Vatican Council and it seems like science fiction fans were struck by the idea of moving religion into the future. In the space of three years two of Hugo winners for best novel had Catholicism at their heart. Most of James Blish's A Case of Conscience was written well before these events but I can't help but think that it had a lot to do with its victory.

In the book Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest and biologist, is on a mission to a newly discovered planet where there is intelligent life. The goal of the mission is to survey the planet and determine if it should be made open to wider trade or quarantined to protect the existing culture. He comes to believe that this planet, Lithia, is a trap designed by Satan to tear down Christian institutions.

For the second time in a row this is a very talky novel. A solid third of the book is the debate whether to allow open access to Lithia or to close it. Unlike The Big Time, though, this didn't bother me since the debate was an action in itself. There's agendas and theories and arguments in there and I think that Blish's characters, especially Father Ramon, are sharply defined by them. Also I found the theology Blish used interesting and while I'm not really conversant in pre-Vatican II catholic dogma it felt right to me (perhaps a Jesuit priest might disagree and if one does I'd love to hear it).

I don't want to run through Father Ramon's arguments since I think this discussion is the best part of the book, but to keep it brief he thinks that Lithia is designed as a literal Garden of Eden (and Blish takes that metaphor and runs with it); a pastoral location with no taint of sin. Since it manages a perfect Christian ideal without being Christian he concludes that it is a creation of Satan, a concept that is itself heretical. Blish remains coy on the true nature of Lithia throughout the novel.

You might take from that and modern religious discourse that Father Ramon is a ranting fundamentalist and nothing could be further from the truth. He argues from logic and reason, albeit reason tainted from a theological perspective.

The book is a an expansion of a novella of the same name which comprises the majority of the first half of the book and a second half detailing the life of a Lithian on earth. The first half is the much stronger portion of the book since I found the events following the Lithian to be a bit hard to swallow. It pushed the Genesis metaphor a bit too far and that's about as much as I can say without spoiling the bulk of the book.

Religious themed science fiction isn't particularly common and as one of the earliest A Case of Conscience is well worth reading. Exactly how our planet's religious institutions would respond to extraterrestrial life is an interesting question and Blish's answer to one of those is interesting.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Free Game Sunday

Do you long for the fun of those 8-bit exploration games? Do you want to relive, platform jumping, weapon collecting, and highly pixelated art? I give you Doukutsu! Also known as Cave Story to use a literal translation of the name. It's a modern game but it was built to be as close to 8-bit classics like Metroid and Milton's Secret castle as possible.

Just look at those lovingly crafted, square edged graphics. Even the sound and music play like those limited channel, simplified beeps that marked the era. The game plays very smoothly even with just a keyboard but if you use a game pad then it feels even more like those classic titles.

In Doukutsu you play a guy who wakes up in a cave and saying more than that would spoil things. Besides, that's all of the information you have to start the game with and what would be the fun in an exploration game if someone hands you the info. You'll proceed to explore the cave, shoot up monsters, fight giant bosses, solve platforming based puzzles, and search for the power ups that will give you access to the next area.

Besides being a blast of complete nostalgia Doukutsu is a lot of fun. It's challenging but not so challenging that it made me frustrated. You'll encounter a tough boss fight about ever ten minutes of play which means you'll encounter a lot of variety in enemies as you get through the game. The environments are particularly large which means you'll spend quite a bit of your time player trying to find your way through them. There are plenty of bonuses hidden in the game to reward the deeper exploration, too.

The biggest problem with the game is that it is just too short. For most games that are too short it's a problem of not getting your value worth (see Heavenly Sword's 3 hours of actual gameplay for $60 for a recent example), but in Doukutsu's case I was just left wanting a lot more. A person who still has their late-80's skills will probably be able to finish it with under six hours of play. The areas may be huge but there's only about six major levels (depending how you count things) and are very linear.

There is one more issue with Doukutsu and that is the game text was originally in Japanese. There is a patch to translate the game to English that if you do not read Japanese you will want to install before you play the game. Sadly the dedication to duplicate that 8-bit gaming was not replicated by the translation team; the conversations are coherent and not filled with Engrish. Would it have killed them to tell me, "A winner is you!"?

Doukutsu may be short but it's entertaining for every bit of that game and digging into the cave is fun. The whole thing is like being transported back to 1987. It's well worth the price tag and your time.