Olaf Stapledon – Star Maker

August 4, 2008

Before I start with the review itself, please let me remind you to read my book reviewing policy here.

I’m sorry that I’ve read this book now, and not later in the life of this blog, because I feel that I lack the skills as a writer to give it the review it deserves.

I confess that the reason I picked it up was a quote from Arthur C. Clarke on the cover, in which he said that Star Maker was “Probably the most powerful work of imagination ever written”. I’m a sucker for Clarke, so if he thought that this was a good book, then by Jove, it had to be! And it is.

Star Maker tells the story of one man (we never know his name) who finds himself somehow transported out of Earth and given the ability to travel freely amongst time and space. Throughout the book our hero/narrator encounters all manner of intelligent creatures, in the most amazing variety. Humanoids, plant-men, flocks of birds who are actually a single mind, living ships, and my personal favorite, a pair of symbiotic creatures, one fish like and the other crab like. Clarke’s opinion starts to make sense, doesn’t it?

The first race that the narrator encounters is humanoid in appearance, but uses taste the same way we use sight. This is one of the first things that truly fascinated me and pulled me into the story. The concept of using a different sense as the primary one sounded to me as genius, and the way Stapledon described it was amazing:

For example, our ‘brilliant’, as applied to persons or ideas, they would translate by a word whose literal meaning was ‘tasty’. For ‘lucid’ they would use a term which in primitive times was employed by hunters to signify an easily runnable taste-trail. … Complexity was “many-flavoured”.

This got me thinking of how we use so many words to describe ideas and actions that are actually derived from words used to describe things we see.

As his journey continues, our narrator becomes one part of an immense collective intelligence, made up of countless other explorers like himself. This collective has access to all his memories and all his feelings, just as he has access to the memories and feelings of each of the other members. A collective intelligence in which each member keeps his individuality is something that I find extraordinary.

The collective is witness as the whole galaxy becomes another type of collective, in which each member of each race is devoted to a special task and is in constant contact with every other single intelligence in the galaxy. This state was not reached peacefully, however, wars and destruction were part of the process. The most amazing thing for me was when it was discovered that the stars themselves were conscious beings. That was the part of the book that really clinched it for me, a truly amazing feat of imagination.

As the galaxy reached higher and higher peaks of spiritual knowledge, there was a point in which our narrator comes into contact with the Star Maker Himself. In that brief moment he sees our Universe as nothing more that another one amongst the many that the Star Maker had created in his search for something. We are not told what that something is, although the narrator does give us his suspicions. The other Universes that Stapledon describes are incredible, another testimony to the power of imagination that he had. Struggling against this apparent purposeless for the whole of creation as he knew it, our hero breaks free and finds himself once again outside his house, in which his wife is waiting for him.

My opinion is that this is truly one of the greatest works of imagination Man has created. The spiritual connotations that Stapledon peppers throughout the book may not be to everyones liking, but they give the book a richer story than that of spatial exploration alone. I’ve gained a taste for his writing and already ordered Last and First Men, another of his books. You’ll get my opinion on that one as well 🙂

There you have it, my first book review. What did you think? To big, to small, to descriptive, not descriptive enough? Help me improve so that I can give you guys a better reading experience when you come here 🙂

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Is Art useful?

July 29, 2008

This post stems from an argument I had with my sister. She starts college in September and is going to take art classes, more specifically, design classes. I’ve often teased her about it, that being an artiste she would always find a good meal at my place, seeing as she wouldn’t be able to afford one herself.

The argument in itself came from me commenting that modern art is pretty much garbage, that anyone can create this kind of “art”. As Dave Kellett points out (here and here) in his webcomic Sheldon (which you must read, it is extremely funny), “by the end of his life Picasso could’ve spit on a bar napkin and called it “art”. I agree with this sentiment exactly. And this is what I told my sister. This, inevitably, led to a discussion in which she tried to get me to define art, and I refused.

I refused because I don’t know what art is, but I know what art isn’t. Art isn’t a yellow line drawn in a white canvas, framed and put for sale for 20 000 USD as being a representation of “Happiness” (this is true by the way, I actually went to an art showing where they were trying to sell this thing). This isn’t art, as far as I am concerned. Neither is this, and I am sure that this isn’t either.

My sister retorts that we must look beyond the finished product and look at the process that the artist had to go trough in order to reach the final piece. I have to disagree with her once again. When I look at a painting or a sculpture, I don’t want to know, I don’t need to know, if the artist was a poor orphan who climbed his way to the top with his teeth or if he was a rich gazillionaire who had nothing better to do than to paint. I don’t want to know if the inspiration for this piece came from a flash of genius or from years and years of study. What I do want when I look at something is to see the beauty in it, to be inspired, confused, revolted, touched by it. When I look at modern art, all I fell is that some people have to much free time on their hands.

Most people, in regards to most subjects, react like so: “You don’t like * insert subject of choice here * ? Oh well, we can’t all like the same things, can we? Barkeep, another cold one for my friend here” And that’s the end of it. Sure they may try lure you to their side, but it is always in a friendly, semi-jokingly, manner. I love this kind of people.

However, there is one specific type of modern art lover (most people, I’m sure, are not like this, you get rotten apples in every bunch), who does not react this way. The moment you say you don’t like modern art, they look at you as though you were some kind of Neanderthal who had just unfrozen this morning. From their point of view, I must be stupid to not be able to enjoy this fine piece of art in front of me. Can’t I see the way the lines represent the modern struggle against mechanization? Or how the deconstruction of government oppression is achieved by the brilliant use of an all black canvas with a single white dot? I’m sorry, I can’t.

In conclusion, if you like modern art, excellent. More power to you and I honestly hope you enjoy it. But please don’t look at me like I’m an idiot if I don’t find anything interesting in it. Thank you.

Space Empires V: The Revenge

July 12, 2008

Sorry, but I have to make another post on SEV, I just have to. The more I play this game, the more I love it, and being the sweet guy that I am, I want to share that love with you guys (and gals… please let there be gals).

I’m still playing the game I posted about earlier, me versus 4 AI opponents. So far I’ve eliminated 3 of them, mostly without to much trouble. Now, I don’t know if it was because I set the difficulty to low, or if the AI should more correctly be called AS (Artificial Stupidity), but when your empire consists of one (1) planet and zero (0) ships, you shouldn’t go out of your way to declare war on the guy who can kill stars, mkay?

I’m fascinated by the way the game allows you to customize your ships the way you see fit. Do I make my Cruiser an armored behemoth that can’t swat a fly, or do I make him a messenger of death, brimming with Graviton Guns and Anti-Proton Beams, but so weak that a single, lowly Fighter could take him down? Do I invest in Bombardment Weapons that will let me destroy everything on a planet and then build over the ashes of my enemies, or should I train Troops to take over the planet intact, subjecting the populace to my will? Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Numbers don’t mean as much as you’d expect. One time, 3 of my Cruisers where attacked by a fleet of 30 enemy ships. Outnumbered 10 to 1, I knew I was dead, but decided to try and take at least one of the bastards with me.

The game allows two modes for combat: Tactical, in which you control every single aspect of the battle, what weapons your ships use and against what enemies, formations, launching fighters and mines, stuff like that; and Strategic, in which you pre-set a strategy and just hope for the best. The problem with Strategic battles is that you can’t predict every single variable that will affect combat. Setting a strategy with incomplete information, and over which you will have no further control is just to complicated for me.

So I went with Tactical. And discovered, to my surprise and joy, that not only where my ships faster, but they also had greater weapons range than the enemy ships. And that allowed me to finish the battle with my 3 ships intact and having destroyed 10 of the enemy ships. Victory!

And I also found out that you can bribe enemy ships to join your side. You don’t even have to know where they are, your network of spies infiltrates the enemy’s systems and bribes them away! Truly a great feature and truly a great game. I heartily recommend you get it if you can.

Hancock

July 6, 2008

Went and saw the movie a few days ago. I really enjoyed it, not in a Oh my God, this movie has changed my life! kind of way, more in the 92 minutes well spent, I think way. And I don’t mean that sarcastically, I really enjoyed this flick.

Near the end it has a complete turn around, it’s comedy for the entire movie and then there are a few minutes of full, in your face, drama that feels kinda forced. I kept waiting for something funny to happen, and when it does, it’s still funny, but not quite enough to get the taste of pathos (as Sid Plait said so very well) out of my mouth.

All in all, I liked it. (Get used to those kind of reviews, I’m the kind of audience movie studios have wet dreams about, I’ll like almost anything they throw at me. I’m easy like that)

===== Spoilers below this line =====

I’m a guy, and as a guy, I’m supposed to like certain things. Cars and cleavage, for example. Check on the second, not so much on the first. Cars aren’t really my thing. I like to drive but I don’t go all gaga about the new Mercedes Model T or whatever it’s name is.

But cleavage is another story all together. Cleavage has to have its moment in a movie. You don’t show cleavage just because (gets ready to turn in his man-card at the front desk), you have to have a reason. So when Charlize Theron goes to meet Will Smith at his trailer, did she have to wear the sluttiest thing she had in the closet? And with all that eye-liner? I’m not complaining about the outfit itself, I’m just wondering about the timing in the movie. I think they thought “here we have one of the most beautiful women on the planet, we have to show some cleavage!”. Not complaining, just saying that cleavage has to have its moment.

Space Empires V: a kinda sorta review

June 28, 2008

Recently, I came a across a copy of Space Empires V, a 4X game (4X stands for eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate).

SEV, as we shall call it from now on, came out in 2006 and was riddled with bugs. Good thing about the game, though, is that patches are really frequent (last one came out on the 11th of June and the one before that came out on the 25 of March). Modding is rampant (I mean that in a good way) in this community and one of the most popular mods, Balance Mod (BM from now on – I just love acronyms 😛 ), fixes some of the imbalances of the stock product. I’ll be “reviewing” the game using that mod.

Right of the bat, SEV is a complicated game to get started in. Sure there’s a Quick Start mode, but that just allows you to select your race, nothing more. You have no control over who your enemies are going to be, how big the galaxy is going to be, starting technology, etc etc. On the other hand, the New Game option gives you too much control (hard to please, aren’t I?). From the standard “how hard do you want to be beaten” setting to the interesting “quadrant type”, which allows you to choose the kind of galaxy (open, closed, very compact, multiple dead end systems, etc), you won’t find anything escaping from your control. (Don’t forget about the settings for how many planets you start with, the one for the quality of those planets, the type of planet and atmosphere your race of choice breathes, and many many more!)

The gameplay in itself is fun, in my opinion. Technology plays a vital part in your success and if you forget to upgrade your Research Centers you will loose the game, simple as that. You have access to a myriad of different weapon systems, that allows for quite a degree of customization in your fleets. You can have a picket of shield destroying ships followed closely by a Cruiser with nothing but a weapon that kills the crew of enemy ships and, trailing, some light Boarding Party equipped Frigates. Nothing beats stealing your opponents entire fleet from under their noses 😛

The game still has some bugs. In one attack, I decided to Plague Bomb an enemy planet and after destroying his defending fleet, I sent in my Plague Frigate. It just flew around the planet, looking stupid. I ordered it to attack time and time again, but nothing. Nothing was preventing me from attacking with Plague Bombs (some treaties you make with other races prevent you from using certain weapons, and certain strategies the ships use also have the same effect) but I still couldn’t attack the planet. Weird.

I haven’t played multiplayer yet, my only experience is against 4 computer opponents and I haven’t even finished that game yet. So far so good, I’m winning and have already wiped out one race.

In conclusion, I like the game and would recommend it heartily to any fan of the 4X genre. Just be ready to deal with a steep learning curve and the occasional very irritating bug. Remember to save your game often!

Ab hoc possum videre domun tuum

June 24, 2008

Greetings, everyone!

Nowadays, it seems everyone and their grandma has a blog. Almost all of the people I know have blogs. Almost all of the people I don’t know have blogs. That made me uncomfortable enough that I decided that I too would join in the blogosphere and force my thoughts on everything from nuclear war (bad) to belly button lint (good) on an unsuspecting world.

Why sourman? It’s a play on words that a good friend of mine made with my real name and my passion for everything Lord of the Rings related. Guess my real name and earn a cookie. Extra cookie if you can cite the book the title of this post is from.

But seriously, what will I talk about? Everything and nothing really. Sometimes I get these urges to say something about something that really is important, and sometimes the urges are to talk about stuff that is completely irrelevant. Jump in! 🙂