Monthly Archives: October 2009

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

It’s still early, certainly, but none of the reviews I’ve read of this seem to understand its premise. There are acknowledgments of direct quotations in the back of the book, an unusual paratextual gesture, but a key conversation in it comes almost directly from an essay by Robin Hanson called “How to Live in A Simulation”. The paper is one of those rare cultural artifacts that instantly refutes any attempt at ideological analysis through proud transparency:

In sum, if your descendants might make simulations of lives like yours, then you might be living in a simulation. And while you probably cannot learn much detail about the specific reasons for and nature of the simulation you live in, you can draw general conclusions by making analogies to the types and reasons of simulations today. If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal it seems that you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look likely to become eventually rich, expect to and try to participate in pivotal events, be entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happy and interested in you.

Early on in the book, the apparent former child actor Chase Insteadman, who lives the virtues listed above quite well, watches an episode of Columbo that he was in with Perkus Tooth, about whom more in a bit. This episode starred John Cassavetes as an evil conductor, and, in the novel, dates from 1981, starring Insteadman and Molly Ringwald as the “spoiled teens.” When I first read the book, I was so unsure of what was identical with this world and what was not that I passed over this more-or-less in readerly silence. A quick trip to the relevant IMDB page reveals that such an episode did exist, but that it was aired in 1972 and, obviously, did not have Molly Ringwald in it nor was it directed by Paul Mazursky. Myrna Loy was in it, which is one of Tooth’s points of interest, however, as was Pat Morita. I haven’t seen the episode, but it appears from going over the cast list that there weren’t any children in the episode, at least not any who plausibly could have been teenagers. Is Steven Bochco’s presence significant? The plot device of Columbo’s imaginary wife, similar to that of Chase’s imaginary fiancée? (Since Perkus seems to want to guide Chase to this realization, this would seem somewhat plausible.)

Peter Falk is then described as being in The Gnuppet Movie, along with Marlon Brando, released around the same time. “Gnuppets” are important, and this is one of the ambiguous onomastic issues, because I suppose it’s at least somewhat possible that this is a fair-use copyright issue, or at least it intends to suggest itself that way to us. One of the major characters, Oona Lazlo, appears to be a ghost-writer, and two of her books were for a scientist named Emil Junrow, who seems to be a conflation of L. Ron Hubbard and Richard Feynman. Junrow has just died. We learn later from Laslow that Junrow was behind the idea of simulation theory, which is explained with reference to Nick Bostrom’s various notions and the Hanson paper quoted above on pp. 228-29.

Lethem seems to be interested in the overlap between the libertarian-inspired fantasy of the simulated world and the older nightmares of gnosticism. Tooth has prophetic (“ellipsistic”) insight into the true nature of things for several reasons, but one of them seems to be that he has (involuntarily) renounced the flesh. Mirrors and copulation are abominable, etc. Chaldrons, first seen in an office reproduction of a trendy acupuncturist who may be sent from beyond, blend this world with the other, a sub-simulation or a link to the simulating reality. We learn that a Second Life-like game called Yet Another Life features chaldrons as a designer-created object of priceless value in an environment where everything can be fabricated effortlessly. The designer of this game turns out to be the brother of the enigmatic Claire Carter, aide to Mayor Arnheim, whom we first meet at a banquet given by the Manhattan Reification Society. It is Claire who confirms to Perkus that the chaldrons have only a grail-significance in Yet Another Life and that Chase Insteadman’s fiancée, suffering from foot cancer in a space station rendered inaccessible by Chinese mines, is imaginary.

As Perkus, truth-haunted, begins to die, he reveals this to Chase:

“Something’s happened, Chase, there was some rupture in this city. Since then, time’s been fragmented. Might have to do with the gray fog, that or some other disaster. Whatever the cause, ever since we’ve been living in a place that’s a replica of itself, a fragile simulacrum, full of gaps and glitches. A theme park, really!. Meant to halt time’s encroachment. (389 [note that there are blank spaces in the original text, meant to signify Perkus's ellipses, I suppose, which I didn't feel like trying to reproduce])

After Chase confronts the Mayor with his suspicions, the Mayor tells him that “the secret protects itself.” He also thinks he loses a bit of his view. Janice Trumbull did exist, Chase thinks, and they were lovers in high school before she went to MIT and became an astronaut, only, Chase is sure he remembers, to lose her life along with the rest of the crew when their station hit the aforementioned Chinese mines. So the world forgets the war-related tragedies and can be manipulated into sentimentalism, a type of found or living drama. Through a type of reverse augury, birds watch the characters, or at least Chase comes to believe that they do. (Richard Abneg, a squatter-turned-fixer with a pregnant-sounding name, is eagle-haunted in the early parts of the book. Bald eagles, improbably enough, whose rapacious behavior is discussed in a nationally symbolic context.)

A few of the reviews of the book commented on its length, and, even an overly thematized tour of the major plot points such as the one offered above was surprisingly difficult to write without constant reference to the book in hand, after I had just finished reading it. The pace is exceptionally slow, and I think this is in part an attempt to show something like what might be called the “stickiness of the real,” or, in other words, that Lethem did not want to rely on the conventions of simulation narratives, particularly on the overt digitization tropes and rather tired metaphysics now reflexively associated with them. It’s really quite unusual that Chase reads Wodehouse and apparently has a good recall of other interwar British literature. (Graham Greene comes to mind for him at point.) This is so contrary to type that it seems purposeful, yet I can’t explain it. Philip K. Dick’s work, who Lethem has edited for the Library of America volumes, is the main source here, though Steve Ericsson’s Arc D’X is referenced by name (and this is outside the long bouts of list-making that Perkus engages in, mostly real figures with similar concerns).

I’m a bit worried about the tiger. It’s probably not a “juvescence of the year,” though its dual nature invites some type of religious/gnostic interpretation. As with many things I read, I would like to be able to read the editorial correspondence associated with this book. I wonder how much fact-checking went into the carefully fabricated references, for example, and I’m not entirely sure even now what to think about the Gnuppets.

Perdition’s Flames

Since my last few posts have been about interactive fiction, an enthusiasm I tend to revive around the time of the annual competition, I will write a few words about Mike Roberts’s Perdition’s Flames (1993). I had students in an introduction to literature class at Georgia Tech write a brief IF interpretation of some the things we had been reading in class, and I suppose what I had in mind as the ideal result would have been something with the same sense of humor and technical facility seen in Roberts’s Return to Ditch Day, though I did realize at the time that it was an unrealistic expectation. It was the engineering background combined with a certain wry humor that really appealed to me about that game, and you see these qualities, in a somewhat embryonic form, in Perdition’s Flames.

The premise of the game is that you are a recent arrival in Hell and have to figure out what seems to be a way to get to Heaven. It quickly becomes clear, however, that your presence there is not punitive. The afterlife is a large and random bureaucracy, and you are presented with the typical series of interlocking obstacles. I pride myself, wholly without warrant, on being able to solve puzzly games of this type without resorting to hints, and I made substantial progress in this one before turning to the walkthrough. (What eluded me turned out to be what I might blame on a failure of the parser, which is not as generous in its understanding of things as most contemporary efforts. While in a container, the command “search <container>” did not produce the same result as “search <object in container>,” which might not seem that objectionable but for the fact that the object in the container was at the time the only thing, absent myself in said container. I understand that this type of parsing issue tends to put most non-initiates completely off the playing of these game.)

The plot resolves itself into joining a club of like-minded folks, and the game also suggests that a character you encounter has created the very world that you inhabit. None of this is treated with anything other than light satire, of course, a type of humor less stark than that found in the similar Douglas Adams’s effort Bureaucracy.

At one point you’re required to solve a deduction exercise similar to those found on the former logic section of the GRE (and which I remember learning how to solve as part of my academically gifted class. Why exactly these type of logic puzzles are thought to have any cognitive benefit or psychometric validity remains one of the more puzzling questions of the 20th C.) If you can’t get the puzzle on your own, or lack the patience to set up the grid, you’re also given two multiple choice geometry questions. The mimetic break of these being part of a DMV test in hell wasn’t quite working for me, but it does give you some flavor of the arbitrariness inherent in the puzzles q.v. the brutally hard but more internally consistent puzzles in Curses!, released around the same time.)

I’m currently finishing up Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City about which I hope to have more to say, along with some words on C. S. Lewis’s Silent Planet books, one of which I’m currently teaching.

Elysium Enigma

Though I didn’t finish his Snowquest, the likely winner of this year’s Interactive Fiction competition, I did play (and finish, without hints, albeit one point shy of perfect) Eric Eve’s The Elysium Enigma recently. In fact, I mostly finished it while the Florida-LSU game was on in the background on Saturday night, though I don’t remember who won.

(The following discussion spoils the game completely.)

You play a mildly dim imperial functionary sent to raise the flag on a backwater planet. A interplanetary civil war is fomenting in the background, and you gradually discover that there was a military slaughter on the planet a few generations ago, which hardened the colonists’ luddism.

The Federation, the upstart rebels, have sent a spy to the planet, who pretends to be a hungry outcast wanting food and clothing. One of the interesting problems in IF is the difference in knowledge between the character and the player, and here I suspect that most players realize that the woman is not who she appears to be far before the character does. You have to train him by finding ever-mounting evidence. And this fellow is not a man of action either, being unable to climb trees, shoo a barncat, or swim—indeed, he is as hydrophobic as Stephen Dedalus.

The puzzles weren’t hard, I don’t think. I saw some of the competition reviews of the game which complained about the orange datatab password puzzle, and I guess that it must have been better clued in my version because it seemed really obvious. I would guess that the earlier version may not have included a description of the mirror being openable, but I’m not sure.

One puzzle-writing style that Eve’s games seem to have, based on Snowquest and this is revealed description. Items listed in a room’s paragraph description will need to be examined further before crucial information is revealed. At one point, for example, I got stuck because I had not realized that a “gap” in the forest needed to be examined more closely to determine that you could find another path. It was once conventional to include a separate paragraph for items such as this; I seem to remember Andrew Plotkin’s So Far and perhaps other works violating that principle. But, anyway, once I got past that it was easy. (Actually, I did not find the trapdoor until after I brought the woman food and clothing, and getting there without her noticing was a bit frustrating and illogical, as it seems she would notice you blundering around.)

From a sociological or political perspective, it would have been more interesting if the Federation didn’t just want the planet for slave labor, even if that more-or-less amounted to the Empire’s plans. I also wonder if the woman shouldn’t have been warier of the drik.

I’m always pleased to solve one of these games without consulting hints. I like to tell myself I’m good at them, but in actuality I tend to get frustrated too easily and immediately turn to hints. Figuring out the games is similar in many ways to literary interpretation, as you have to understand authorial patterns and style.

IF Comp ’09

I’ve now played most of the entries in this year’s interactive fiction competition. I didn’t play the windows games because I don’t use that platform anymore (and I never played them when I did, to be honest). Nor did I play the Adrift games, though they might well have worked with Spatterlight. I guess I have an unreasoning prejudice.

The first IF I played was Deadline on the Commodore 64, bought at a Kmart when I didn’t know what it was or what to expect. The Zorks, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, the Enchanter series (I almost solved Spellbreaker without Invisiclues; the only thing that stumped me was the damn outcropping/box, which I later discovered was the undoing of many others), and a few others were great sources of diversion. I would frantically make notes to myself about how to solve puzzles in class. It got to the point that I was accused of making secret notes to myself for studying by peers who saw me do this (and who apparently disapproved of the notion of notetaking and related behaviors; Atlantic Elementary was not always a school of academic distinction). Sorcerer, which I was working on the spring of seventh-grade year, which was a distressingly long time ago now that I think about it, was one which really kept me occupied. The puzzle design was quirky and full of red herrings, with the time travel bit in particular being highly incomprehensible. It now seems clear that the difficulty of these games was designed to encourage the purchase of the cluebooks, as the internet was not yet a viable source of solutions and clues.

But it was the kind of difficulty that I enjoyed. Several of the puzzles were very similar to the types of logic puzzles we were required to work in my G&T class, which I later discovered popped up in much the same form on the (now defunct) Analytic section of the GRE (also the LSAT, I think). I tried to use this to refute an argument of Mark Bauerlein’s a while ago. The games themselves were quite literate; when I discovered much later that Dave Lebling, one of the original authors of the famous Infocom games, was making perceptive remarks on a Gene Wolfe mailing list, I wasn’t surprised. When I returned to the thriving amateur community of interactive fiction at periodic points in graduate school, I would always make a somewhat masochistic effort to seek out the most difficult of the games and try to solve them without using any of the (very readily available) hints.

This never quite worked out. I probably held out the longest with Graham Nelson’s Curses. Nelson, a Cambridge mathematician who devised a programming system to create games similar to Infocom’s, defeated my puzzle-solving ability by simply making me fail to realize that pulling a string on a ship-in-a-bottle (or something similar to that), would get it out. Curses has a very non-linear structure, and I didn’t know that this was the thing holding me back, you see, but it was. Out of vanity, I’ve always remained skeptical of people who claim to have solved any of the difficult games without clues.

Entries in the competition are required to provide walkthroughs, a list of commands that, if entered, will carry you through the game. Normally, I would have tried very hard not to look at these, but since I felt guilty for spending any time at all on the games this year, I looked at them very fast, at the first moment of frustration. If I entered a game in the competition, as I might do someday, the thought that someone would do this would of course horrify me, but I suppose I should get used to it, and, more importantly, design the game with that in mind. Several of the more successful ones seemed to have taken this into consideration. I’m not sure how anyone would have made it through Earl Grey for instance, without the hints; but this could just be my failure to really pay attention. I was the most impressed with the quirky surrealism and mood of Earl Grey; the medium tends to encourage paranomastic logopoeisis.

Eric Eve’s Snowquest was well crafted, though I didn’t like it. The puzzles seemed to owe something to the revealed description school I associate with some of Andrew Plotkin’s games (Plotkin’s a master of the genre; his Delightful Wallpaper was one of my favorite recent comp entries), and I didn’t like it. The opening puzzle struck me as a bit too cagey. I didn’t want to have to “BREAK” the object to get another, and I thought that some useful verbs weren’t implemented. I even asked my wife, while mimicking the motion required to start a fire in this way, what verbs she would use to describe it, and I don’t think any of them were implemented. In any case, I would guess that this game is likely the top vote-getter, and I should play it through to the end.

A Duel in the Snow is literate, with a Russian setting. I wasn’t sure that the poetry was fully integrated into the plot, and this seemed to be a problem, though I’d say that this was the better games I played. The Duel That Spanned The Ages was one that I played through to the end, even as I consulted the walkthrough occasionally. I admired this game for its honesty about what it was and what it was trying to do. Grounded in Space and Rover’s Day Out both contained references to Heinlein, which made me quit playing. (I kid, just.)

Gatoron had serious design problems, though I have to admit that I didn’t see where it was going after looking at the walkthrough. Modern IF conventions do not allow for the arbitrariness of the crow business, I’m afraid. Eruption seemed to have an attitude problem. I gave up on Invisible, though I’m not sure why. Same thing with Beta Test. Something crucial about Byzantine I missed. Perhaps I’ll try to find out what it was. I don’t know why I moved on from Condemned after the introduction, but I did. Interface wouldn’t open with Spatterlight. Gleaming the Verb had me puzzled for a bit, then I made out the acrostic and went “eh.” That’s probably not fair. (Again, as I type these comments I’m trying to imagine how irritated I would be to read similar ones about something I had designed. Just trying to steel myself for it when the time comes, though academia has inured me to rejection.)

The other Zcode games I only played briefly or didn’t after reading the opening text. I make no claims to be comprehensive. Broken Legs I only started, but it was different enough from the usual genres that I want to continue with it. I’m also going to give Resonance more of a try. The heavy and clumsy background exposition in the beginning put me off to start, but I’m willing to overlook it.

Sartre’s War Diary

The most recent NLR has a translated excerpt:

I believe that I loved my time like others love their country with the same exclusivity, the same chauvinism, the same partiality. And I despised other epochs with the blindness that they apply to despising other nations. And my time has been defeated.

I always thought that something, in 1920-25, was almost born: Lenin, Freud, Surrealism, revolutions, jazz, silent films. All this could have come together. And then each followed its sporadic destiny. Isolated, they could all be strangled. It is only in my memory that they made up a world.