Monday, July 30, 2007

Black Man

Richard K. Morgan writes gritty, no holds barred sci-fi that feels as real as a kick in the nuts, and Black Man is no exception. This novel does exactly what good sci-fi should do; start with reality, take an aspect of that to its extreme, and watch it play out to its logical conclusion, all the while telling an engaging story with believable characters and unraveling a mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A tall order perhaps, but as usual Morgan delivers on his promise.

That's what the blurb on the back of the book would have said if I were a famous sci-fi author. Instead, there's some high praise from Peter F. Hamilton, who shares quite a few traits with Morgan, as I've already pointed out. That's fine by me, although I still think my blurb is better and more to the point.

The black man referred to by the title of the novel, Carl Marsalis, turns out to be an african european who is genetically designed for war, a specimen of the thirteenth official variant of the human DNA, which emulates the hunters and gatherers of yesteryear. So called "13s" aren't known for their team building skills, but Marsalis grudgingly pairs up with female COLIN agent Sevgi Ertekin to track down a fellow 13 that has somehow escaped the Mars colony, crash landed on Earth, and is now on a seemingly random killing spree. As "out there" as this storyline may seem, it boils down to a surprisingly realistic mystery sprinkled with some social and religious commentary that is well worth considering. For some, Morgan's sci-fi may even be too realistic, since it doesn't really offer much in the way of escapism as it deals with racism, religion, politics and death. It's really more of a hardboiled novel, with sex, violence and the stereotypically cocky, uncaring male protagonist, although it will eventually surprise you again with depth of character and heart wrenching developments that had me sniveling in a crowded subway car, making a fool of myself.

I guess that's the trademark brilliance of Morgan's novels; they have everything.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Nothin' but a short time

I only bought the game yesterday, but I have now played through Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80s on both Medium and Hard. It's not as if I played it non-stop either; it took maybe four or five hours in total. There are only 30 songs in career mode, and no bonus songs. That kind of pissed me off, because I wanted to hear some 80s style rock from contemporary bands, maybe some Harmonix employees.

In contrast, Guitar Hero II had 40 songs in career mode and 24 bonus songs. Length-wise, Rocks the 80s really is a joke in comparison, and most of the in-game artwork consists of poor rehashes of content from Guitar Hero II. Calling it an expansion and peddling it as a full-priced game to wide-eyed Guitar Hero fans itching for their next fix is just mean. Is Activision hedging their bets by making the game just replayable enough that we'll be bored of it by the time they release Guitar Hero III (which will cost only €3 more than Rocks the 80s)? Is Harmonix pouring their souls into Rock Band, while just fulfilling some contractual obligation by completing Rocks the 80s? Probably a bit of both.

I have to admit though, a lot of the songs were really good, and some came as pleasant surprises since I made it a point not to read the track list beforehand. I got so much neck-button mashing action that I got a bit of a cramp in my left hand, and I think I'm getting the hang of hammer-ons and pull-offs. I finally noticed that those notes don't have a black outline. So thanks for the exercise, guys. Now where's the rest of the game?

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Wanna Rock

I got Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80s today. Can't wait to get home and play it! :)

UPDATE: Way too few songs. Remember how I said that the first two games were too short? It's like they wanted to prove me wrong and show me what a short game really is.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts, a recap

Here are a few thoughts I've had in the past, collected and summarized for your reading pleasure.


"If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?" My interpration: The tree is a symbol of life. Someone hearing it come crashing down is proof that it was alive; it's affecting its surroundings. In other words, if you live your life without changing the world, did you ever live at all?

"Your days are numbered" supposedly means that you don't have a long time left to live, but all it actually says is that each of your days has a number associated with it. So your days are countable, but so are everyone's; simply increment an integer value by 1 for each day that passes. In theory, the days don't even have to be a finite number. So if someone tells you that your days are numbered, tell them "Gee, really? Good work discovering the almanac, bozo." On the other hand, then it might turn out that your days really were a finite number.

Finally, here's a life-related saying of my own making: "Life is like a box of shit. You always know you're gonna get shit, just not which flavour."


Discrimination is inherent in democracy.

Democracy = majority rules, minority loses

No matter how much the majority might mean well, it's still a fact that whenever a majority and minority disagree, the minority is discriminated against. So "working against discrimination and towards democracy" is a contradiction in terms.


What do our pets think of lamps? Even if they don't actually think actively or cognitively or whatever, they must have some concept of lamps. When I walk into a room where my cat is sitting in the dark, and I turn on the light, what has just happened in the cat's mind?

It might think that I unblocked something. Cats and dogs understand doors pretty well, and they can grasp the fact that windows are transparent hard stuff. Maybe a lamp is a window to a light source; a window that's blockable. Now, what's a good lightsource? The sun?

So, pets might think that lamps are blockable windows to the sun. In that case, they're absolutely right. It's a great way to explain what a lamp is while using really simple terms, because all energy on the Earth originally comes from the sun.

The bigger question is whether our pets have ingeniously simple concepts for all of the unnecessarily complicated facets of our lives. I'm gonna go with "yes."

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Tony Ballantyne's Capacity has one of the best sci-fi prologues I have ever read. I bought the book solely because the first few pages read like an introductory pamphlet for people whose personality has recently been copied into processing space, a virtual reality where people from the atomic world are so accurately simulated that they garner human rights of their own as Personality Constructs. The pamphlet explains all this and more, and thus also serves as a perfect introduction for the reader, easing you into the storyline even if you do as I did and skip the first novel of the trilogy. (The first book, Recursion, wasn't available in the store so I just picked this one up.) The actual story kicks off with a cursory introduction of the main character Helen, and then her death. Suddenly the story twists around in a loop, apparently into the past, to describe a minutely different version of reality where Helen is alive, until she proceeds to meet her fate in a slightly different turn of events. This loop reiterates a few times, showing still other variations, until Judy, a kimono-clad mysterious agent of Social Care, appears out of nowhere and saves Helen.

Ballantyne's prose tickles your imagination and challenges your intellect. His vision of the future is exotic almost to the point of being completely alien, and many of his descriptions are dreamlike, almost nightmarish. There is a pervasive mood of hopelessness and inevitability, and the underlying theme seems to be that the human race cannot possibly grasp the sheer enormity of life's most important questions. The book throws a barrage of existential conundrums at the reader. The first one is on the cover: If you are copied, who is the real you? The rest are presented in dialogue and plot and elaborated upon from almost every possible angle. What does it mean to exist? Thinking? What if there are sentient robots? Identity? What if you can be copied? Reproduction? What if there are reproducing machines? The seemingly endless philosophising would get tiresome if it weren't for Ballantyne's careful pacing.

Thankfully, the book is not all about Helen and Judy's travels through Existentialism 101. Helen's story interweaves with the story of Justinian, an expert on Personality Construct psychology who has been brought to a recently colonized planet to investigate the suicides of several artificial intelligences. His dialogue with the AIs and his accompanying robot Leslie is pure genius. Sure, it contributes to shedding light on some of the existential questions raised by the parallel storyline, but it's not nearly as blatant. It lends heart to the story, and some feeling of purpose, as Justinian is the most sympathetic character in the book.

My final impression of the book was that there was no actual story, because every plot element and every piece of dialogue seemed only to present new permutations of existence and thereby elaborate upon questions of its definition, cause, effects and limits. However, a book without a story is definitely not a bad thing, especially when it's this well-written. Suffice to say that I went back and bought the other two books in the trilogy.