Saturday, 21 May 2016

All the Books, None of the Fuss, Plus Spoilers

So I've recently finished a few books that are worth talking about, and a few that most definitely are not. 

Let's start positively, in this case with a small independently financed book called 'Empires of Eve.' 

If you don't like games then you can skip this.  Empires of Eve is a book written entirely about a game, about the political intrigue and entirely inconsequential goings on in the virtual universe imaged by the players. 

It is conceivable that you have never heard of Eve, because its player base is, frankly, small.  Only tens of thousands play the game regularly, which in the MMO space is a paltry figure.   
The giants (World of Warcraft, Runescape) aside, MMO's launch with one of two aims.  Either, they aim to gain enough subscribers to support continued development of the game, earn a little money on the side, and keep chugging along indefinitely.  Or, they try to dethrone the king.  They go for broke, cost tens, if not hundreds of millions to make, and require a million monthly subscribers just to break even.  The latter approach spawned WOW, and a host of failures.  The former approach spawned Eve, one or two others, and a host of failures. 

With this small community comes a fervour that takes all aspects of the game to illogical extremes.  Or perhaps it's not terribly illogical.  If you consider the amount of time, and money, people spend flying the ships around and building corporations, it starts to make a little more sense. 

The universe they've built is one almost entirely player driven, so humans control the vast business interests and swathes of space that end up causing wars that engulf everyone and everything.  This, without over-egging the wotsit, means Eve feuds are some of the best on the internet.  Not even celebrity hacks hold a candle to these spats. 

And this book chronicles the first half of the games history, from creation to around 2009 (if I remember correctly) in which time any number of nefarious, nonsensical acts of treason and treachery were enacted unto the (virtual) universe. 

The writing is solid, striking the right balance of facts (whatever 'facts,' there are in a virtual world) and editorialising.  The way things pan out from a neutral observers perspective (namely, mine) mirror real life to a frightening degree.  The times a player in charge of thousands of people and multiple corporations accidentally left their PC running, leaving something exposed, or vice cersa, the result of whichch is a collapsed empire, really strikes home.  The only times we find out about nefarious banking practices, corruption, or prime ministers shagging pigs, is when something goes wrong behind the scenes and someone accidentally left their laptop open in a taxi. 

Corporate espionage is more fun (and, frankly, more interesting) when giant spaceships, and not your pension scheme, are on the line. 

The one complaint I have is that of pacing.  He leaves every chapter hanging with a parting line that reads along the lines of, 'and that was just the start,' or 'this was a precursor to bigger things.'  This grows tiresome after the first few chapters, and positively obnoxious by the end.  There are other annoyances, like the book starting halfway through, jumping back to the start, chronologically speaking, then continuing on as if nothing was amiss.  This tired writing cliché might work in a novel, but this is an entertaining jaunt through actual (virtual) history.  Cheap tricks are unnecessary. 

The author is also desperate to justify his writing, reminding the reader on several occasions that the digital happenings of the game hold value just as the real world does. 

Insofar as tens of thousands of people have spent more time in this game than all the politicians on either side of the Atlantic have ever spent in their respective parliaments in the whole history of America or the U.K. it is important.  To the people who spend their times planning how to destroy 6,000USD (one of the later battles, not included in this book) worth of virtual stuff, it's obviously worth their time and, by being such, is important.  It's entirely unnecessary to keep reminding us of this, or even, to be perfectly honest, to bring it up in the first place. 

Everything is important to someone.  Just look at train spotters, who have always been at the bottom of the ladder in terms of nerd-dom and might very well remain there until the sun explodes.  They don't have to justify their hobby any more than you or I do.  Don't even open that dialogue. 

The book is great bar the mild annoyances I've mentioned, I don't recall any spelling mistakes, which for a self-funded (is it self published?  I'm too lazy to check) book is a minor miracle.  The story(ies) are great, and I love the interviews, which punctuate the diverse ways in which humans enjoy themselves, and enjoy the behind-the-scenes machinations usually reserved for millionaires and politicians born into that particular life. 

Rating:  3 that's no moon / 4 space stations 

Another book I recently read, on the recommendation of a website I frequent, was called The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. 

I'm not going to guild the lily here.  This book is not good.  This book is very not good, to the point that I've struck that particular website from my list of recommendatables (what a word). 

If you've ever seen the cult hit Firefly, you know the basic premise for this book.  It's about a crew, some weird alien/human mix that ensures plenty of 'we're all weird and special in our own way,' proselytising without a single meaningful interaction in the whole book.  There's not a single point at which I could say I was entertained, nor could I say that the message of diversity struck any meaningful chord.  It was stiff, inflexible, and dull. 

The plot is uneven.  The main plot point occurs thirty seconds before the end of the book, which makes me wonder whether the author originally intended a duology, or whether they ran out of ideas and needed to wrap it up quickly.  It reads like an introductory lesson in the lives of the crew and how their species function, while never physically moving forward.  The scenes in which the new human crewmember with a dark past (whom the reader is supposed to identify with perhaps?  I certainly didn't) learns about the various aliens and their clutures may well have been better handled in the form of brief flashbacks.  Instead we are treated to long, winding, and entirely dull sequences of no importance to man or alien. 

The scene in which the overt racist is humbled is contrived to the point of being cringeworthy.  In fact, at that point I put the book down and vowed to read no further.  Unfortunately as I was putting it down (read: closing the application on my phone) I noticed that I was near the end, and having struggled this far thought I may as well continue. 

There's a racy relationship between two of the crew which is kind of forbidden, I guess?  There's another racy relationship that has to be spelled out as being such in order to give it the spark of forbidden love.  If you have to spell it out to such a degree for the reader, I think it's fair to say that something has gone wrong in the telling.  The whole point of these things is that they stand on their own two (or four, or six, or in some cases eight) feet!  For heavens sake, if you're going to treat your reader like an imbecile then at least give them something to think about, however small it may be. 

But the author doesn't.  They just spell everything out in the most basic terms, stopping just short of supplying a set of crayons and colouring instructions. 

The writing is fine.  It's by no means the worst thing I've ever read in that department.  There were a few spelling mistakes which makes me suspect this is independently published.  The entire thing is easy to read which is good, because the whole ordeal can be dealt with in an afternoon. 

I would definitely check this author out again if someone else supplied the plot details. 

Take that for what it's worth. 

Rating: 1 canteloupe / 13 pineapples 

The star of this particular edition, for me, is a book entitled Earth Has Been Found.  It is by an author called D.F. Jones, and is one I recommend picking up for any fans of sci-fi, mystery or fantasy books.  Tonally speaking it's quite dark, so if you skew towards more light-hearted fare I might give this one a pass.  If you enjoy watching people scrabble around fighting around in the proverbial dark, this will be of interest. 

Before I continue I must address the biggest, most annoying flaw at once. 

This is an overtly Christian book. 

Moreover, this is an overtly American Christian book. 

Without spoiling too much (hopefully) the central conceit allows for the possibility of extra dimensions and other associated fluff. 

The author makes the monumental leap that this necessitates the existence of god.  That aliens may exist, in an extra dimension, and this is basically used as de facto proof of god.  If you don't see how ridiculous that statement is then I'm afraid you were probably inculcated at too young an age and are too far gone to see the priestly buggering from the trees. 

To add the cherry to this cake, they use this ridiculous assertion to ridicule and undermine an entire nation.  This is an american author writing an american book for an american audience so, you guessed it, it's the Russians.  The eternal bogeyman for the american psyche are at the pointy end of an existential dilemma brought about by the a few yankees that slept through a school philosophy class once. 

Let's stop, take a breath, and backpedal momentarily.  The book is set in the 1980's, so the red menace makes sense as the go-to big bad.  Fine.  Let's go with this conceit.  The initial disappearance of a plane and subsequent setup of a government agency is great.  There are a thousand books out there whose main premise is this kind of clandestine operation, that market themselves as being for war nuts, and that barely live up to the interest this book creates. 

I found myself drawn in during the first few pages and, not knowing anything of the plot, was utterly drawn in.  Had I known where this story was going, I would still have loved it because the pacing is just perfect.  The writing is strong, but there are a number of spelling mistakes, particularly towards the end.  I assume the author and/or editor ran past some deadlines at the beginning and was rushing by the latter stages, as up to about three quarters of the way through it's quite well edited.  It all falls apart towards the end though, which is a shame because it's the only criticism I have of the presentation. 

Having just lambasted the author for lazy ra-ra american-centric nonsense, let me say it's an excellent book.  The lives of the people are interesting, the story travels everywhere you want it to, and inept doctors aside, everything is as I imagine it would be.  Nothing pulls you out of the story (except the world shattering eye rolling I did when they talked about god, and then the universe shattering eye rolls when the russians were introduced) which is a great endorsement given the science fictional nature of things. 

In all I'd say this book is an absolute delight.  There are areas that could be improved, but none of those are in the writing department, and I suspect the author would have to be re-brainwashed in order to get the stereotypical nonsense out of his mind long enough to write something for non-americans. 

That I spent most of this time talking about the two terrible aspects of the plot, and yet still whole heartedly recommend this book is probably proof enough in my own mind that it's a great read.  I'd recommend this to almost anyone. 

Rating:  One russian beating a bear over the head with a salmon / one lazy U.S. writing stereotype 

That's about it for now.  No one reading this will buy any of the books I've written about, but I think they were worth writing about nonetheless (that last one is really good!). 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Bumper Buggy Bugger Blamers?

So it's been a long time since I last wrote something for the blog. Partly (mostly) to do with laziness, but partly due to a lack of interesting things to write about. In order to remedy this situation I spent thirty minutes on Sunday getting sunburnt in order to bring you a picture of two of interest.

Firstly, I was in the sun with my shirt off for thirty to forty minutes. Secondly, it's not full blown Summer yet, in fact it's barely what one might graciously call the end of Spring (it's absolutely heaving down at the moment, and has done since the morning). As such I thought it might be safe to stand around outside for a while, but I was completely wrong as it turned out.

I think this lot looks pretty cool to be honest. If I had any amount of land whatsoever I'd set aside a percentage of it to see what happened. In this instance a bag of compost with two 5 centimetre squares cut out of the top was left outside over Winter. When I got back to it I found this lot.

I have no idea how many species are in there, but with those strange flowers I should imagine a fair few insects would like to rummage around – assuming an area large enough to sustain an ecosystem. Of course these two small bags are not big enough by a long shot, but the amount of plant stuff going on in there with zero care is preeeeetty coooooool.

In the meantime I'd been growing up some strawberries from seed. I found out the usual method for growing strawberries was from the runners they produce (kind of like the spider plant I assume) which are coerced into a nearby pot, then snipped once the new plant is growing. This umbilical system ensures a new plant sprouts very quickly, which is great, and it means that if you get in early in the year you can have a fruiting plant the same year, which is also great. The problem is I can't find anywhere around me that sells them. I also couldn't find anyone that sells the seeds (the aforementioned method being so much preferred that no one bothers with seeds). As such, I had my mum purchase some seeds for me, which ended up coming from China of all places, which she then sent to me.

Modern sustainable sourcing of plants at its finest.

Anyway, they were up and running, and needed a new place to live.

While growing these strawberries I was also doing this:

Which is to say taking very blurred pictures. Quality aside, these are beans. Or at leas they will be in the future. Hopefully. These went into the now empty bags of compost to create this:

If my melon disaster has told me anything it's that there's no way to tell how this will turn out, even if they grow twenty feet tall like the melons did. Just as things are flowering, fruiting and so on, there's sure to be a disaster of melon ending proportions.

I really, REALLY didn't want to use chemicals to control the insects last time (not because of holistic therapeutic arm wavey pseudo scientific hippy bullshit, but because it feels like cheating) but without a surrounding ecosystem to support the animals that could predate potential pests, there's really no way of getting around their use.

With the crowded strawberries replanted into individual pots we'll see how things turn out. With the amount of rain we've had today I don't think the dozen small holes I poked into the bags will be enough to allow all the water to drain away. Then again, a ten foot diameter pipe would probably have trouble draining all that rain away.

Anyway, that's all for the flowers at the moment. The strawberries grew quickly at first but slowed down. The beans come out guns blazing, with roots and leaves absolutely everywhere within a week. We'll see which one ends up being the winner by the end of Summer, if indeed either survive.