Radioactive Evolution Book Review

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Over the top, but less goofy than some LitRPG covers

Radioactive Evolution: A Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic Adventure
by Richard Hummel
Hummel Books (November 15, 2018)
ASIN B07KLMTZBW

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from bookpublicityservices.com

Richard Hummel’s Radioactive Evolution is now the third or fourth variant [depending on what counts] on the relatively new LitRPG category that I have reviewed. Hummel himself identifies the book as Gamelit, adventure fiction influenced by videogames. In this case, the game-like element is the omnipresence of nanites within the humans and animals who inhabit the radioactive and depopulated Earth.

Due to a chance encounter with a dragon egg in the ruins of New York City and a perhaps foolish bit of self-experimentation, Jared Cartwright discovers that the nanites can be collected from the world by killing animals [and presumably people] and then directed to produce targeted changes in his body and mind, allowing him to “level up” in a sense. I envision the process much like Scott Pilgrim collecting coins from his fallen foes.

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

Scott Pilgrim collecting nanites, I mean coins, from his fallen foes

There are even “boss fights”, which is exactly how Jared describes his encounter with a giant mutated rat after killing dozens of rodents of merely unusual size. This was fairly early in the book, and it bogged me down some. I’ve found that I don’t particularly care much for the typical LitRPG or Gamelit conceits. I am relatively more willing to tolerate this kind of thing in the trapped in the game style of book, such as Paul Bellow’s Hack. In this case, where it is just a way of describing a feature of the fictional world, I tend to find it breaks the suspension of disbelief a bit, but I think this tends to be an idiosyncratic and personal thing.

St. George cooks the dragon

St. George cooks the dragon

The second obstacle to enjoyment for me was Jared’s recruitment by the Matriarch of Dragons in an ancient war against humans. In the history she mentally communicates to him the humans who took the dragons’ side were considered traitors. Well, yeah, that is what the word means. In the third chapter, where this all goes down, all we get is the dragon’s side of it, and it isn’t even clear at this point that the humans weren’t justified in exterminating the dragons. Given the abilities of the dragons in the book, it must have been a hell of a lot of work to do it. Later in the book, we get some hints that the eventual destination of this isn’t actually Jared and the dragons against humanity, but that is exactly how it is presented in the beginning.

I rooted for this guy in  Avatar

I rooted for this guy in Avatar

Fortunately, I found that the book picked up a bit once we moved past Jared’s initial encounter with the dragon egg and him learning about his new abilities. The part of the book that followed was more conventionally post-apocalyptic, with Jared learning to navigate the complexity of a world where alliances are made of desperation and fear, much like his contract with the dragons [which was made under duress, clearly acceptable to dragonkind, but not the norm for humans].

This part of the book was pretty clearly inspired by videogames as well, but more as a theme than a mechanic, which is an improvement in my opinion. Jared gets to explore, establish a base of operations, and meet a love interest, which are the basic kinds of things you do in many RPGs. The things that happen seem more like the natural consequence of choices that Jared or other characters make, rather than, well, I need to grind some EXP by killing some rats.

Since the second act is so much stronger than the the first, I have some hope that this series will turn out well, but I think that the rest of this series is a pass for me. If you like the more explicit videogame elements, and there is a market segment that clearly does, then this is a middle of the road adventure story you may enjoy.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Pop Kult Warlord Book Review

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Heavy is the head that wears the crown….

Pop Kult Warlord: Soda Pop Soldier Book 2
by Nick Cole
Kindle edition, 318 pages
Published November 4th, 2018 by Castalia House
ASIN B07K6SRSLW

A man with decisions to make. Choices that weigh heavily on him. Heavy is the brow that wears the crown, someone once said.

I may be weird, but I found the opening chapter of Pop Kult Warlord riveting. I think I might actually watch the SuperBowl of videogames, if it existed as described. John Saxon, by now known only by his online alias PerfectQuestion, is competing in the world championship of online videogames in Havana. The game in question, WarWorld, is the ideal combination of FPS and MMO. You can LARP as a Colonial Marine in game, only communicating in scraps of dialogue from Aliens, or you can go pro like PQ did, and focus entirely on being better at putting digital bullets into digital heads than the other guy or girl in exchange for corporate sponsorship, fame, and fortune.

PerfectQuestion is a top-tier competitor, and he is in demand as a digital mercenary. In a world where e-sports pulls in billions in ad revenue, the world’s most popular and recognizable player can write his own ticket. Unfortunately for him, he is starting to feel like he is too old to be playing videogames all night, and longing for a simpler, more fulfilling life.

I’ve played a lot of videogames in my day, so I know what he means. I like videogames a lot, and I write about that frequently on my blog, but I would never trade videogames for my career and my family. The hours I’ve invested in gaming have tapered quite a bit over the years, in a natural progression of family involvement. John Saxon, alias PerfectQuestion, is on the outside looking in, and starting to wonder if the grass isn’t really greener in suburbia.

Unfortunately for him, fate has other plans. When his agent shows up with a truly sweet offer, PQ lacks any of the mundane grounding of a wife, kids, or a mortgage to effectively question whether a deal that is too-good-to-be-true really is. So he finds himself on a plane to Calistan, the Islamic Protectorate of Orange County. Once there, PQ quickly finds himself in over his head, and hilarity ensues.

Like some of my other favorite authors living [Tim Powers] and dead [Jerry Pournelle], Cole uses his favorite places in Southern California to add verisimilitude to Pop Kult Warlord. Even after the Meltdown, the rogue-AI apocalypse from the prequel CTRL ALT Revolt!, the denizens of Orange County remain much as they are now, a mishmash of different cultures jammed into some of the nicest real estate in America.

When he isn’t doing the bidding of Rashid, the Sultan’s son, PQ gets to see both the beauty and the squalor of Calistan. He can enjoy the gulls and the waves off of Rashid’s private island, drive fancy sports cars, tour slums and barrios, witness summary executions, you know, the usual. He even gets to fall for a doe-eyed Mexican beauty, who may or may not be involved with the Aztec Liberation Front [or is that Liberation Front of Azteca?]

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The Sultan has long suppressed Catholicism in his domain, but I was rather pleased to see that when PQ does finally meet up with an underground priest, he is in fact a faithful Catholic. Even in extremis, he counsels the Mexican terrorists to repent and follow the Gospel [which doesn’t rule out armed resurrection per se].

All of the intrigue and duplicity PerfectQuestion has found himself embroiled in comes to a head, and then to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, since this book really is hot off the presses, but for the most part, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. In a grand sense, justice is done, but the price is often severe. Some bear that price more than others.

Finally, I should comment on the book’s structure. This is the third book I have read in as many weeks that employs a parallel structure to tell a more complicated story than a simple narrative would allow. I don’t know whether that is a mere coincidence, or just the hot stuff for authors right now, but in this case I felt like it worked out fairly well. I wasn’t surprised when I saw how it all fit together in the end, and I liked how it tied into the last volume in the series, while pointing ahead to possible future works.

PerfectQuestion isn’t getting a white picket fence anytime soon, but I look forward to his next adventure.

My other book reviews

Other books by Nick Cole

Soda Pop Soldier book review

Other books by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach

Legionnaire: Galaxy's Edge #1 book review
Galactic Outlaws: Galaxy's Edge #2 book review
Kill Team: Galaxy's Edge #3 book review
Attack of Shadows: Galaxy's Edge #4 book review
Sword of the Legion: Galaxy's Edge #5 Book Review
Tin Man: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Prisoners of Darkness: Galaxy's Edge #6 Book Review
Imperator: Galaxy's Edge Book Review
Turning Point: Galaxy's Edge #7 Book Review
Message for the Dead: Galaxy's Edge #8 Book Review
Requiem for Medusa: Tyrus Rechs: Contracts & Terminations Book 1 Review

Hack: A LitRPG Novel Book Review

This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

This cover is ridiculous. But, I suppose lots of scifi/fantasy book covers are.

Hack: A LitRPG Novel
by Paul Bellow
348 pages
Published by LitRPG Reads (April 29, 2018)
ASIN B07CRWBPZJ

I had seen this book pop up through Amazon's recommendations several times. I hadn't been willing to take a chance on it. The cover is ridiculous. Yes, I know that pretty much every scifi/fantasy book published in the last 100 years has a ridiculous cover, but I went ahead and judged the book by its cover anyway.

I did give it a chance when Nick Cole, author of Soda Pop Soldier and co-author of the Galaxy's Edge series recommended it to me. And it was free. The first hit always is.

I messaged Nick immediately after I started reading the book, because I was already hooked. This book was just plain fun. I went in with pretty low expectations. I had heard of LitRPG before, and arguably, some books I've really liked fall into this category, it was a pretty hard sell for me. A book about kids playing a videogame? Hard pass.

Which is a funny thing to say, since I'm probably close to the target audience for this kind of thing. Both a reader of scifi and a videogamer. Fan of self-published indie works. If I'm not it, I don't know who is. But I'm also kind of picky. I've had about a 50% rate of liking new series and authors I've tried out in 2018. Paul Bellow's Hack made the cut. 

Now, to the book! Eric, our teenage protagonist, desperately wants to play the virtual reality MMORPG his dad works on. He is desperate for two reasons. First, he is paraplegic; access to the fully immersive game will give him freedom of a kind he craves. Second, his best friend Sarah agreed to help him hack into the game, and he hasn't seen her as much recently as he would like to. The problem is, Sarah invited her boyfriend Josh along.

This is a simple setup, and it gives us quite a bit of energy to help keep the plot moving along, and ample opportunities for drama, misunderstandings, jealousy, and what have you. And, of course, the game is much more than it first appears. Secrets and conspiracies abound. Oh, and you can't log out. Eric's dad wasn't just being a jerk about not letting his son play the game.

As for the videogame RPG elements that make this genre what it is, such as character selection, leveling, experience points and whatnot, I find it to be a harmless conceit. The characters are kids. They grew up playing videogames, and now they are in a super immersive videogame, so they act accordingly. I suppose it won't be to everyone's taste, but we now live in a world in which you can find a book written to match just about any taste.

If you have tastes like mine, and you are looking for an entertaining read, then Hack is worth a look. But I'm still laughing about the cover.

My other book reviews

Ghostwater Book Review

Ghostwater: Cradle Book 5
by Will Wight
Kindle Edition
Published by Hidden Gnome Publishing (May 31, 2018)
ASIN B07DFWZP9C

I bought this book the day it came out, but I ended up circling back around and re-reading the other four books in the series, then reading this one again, before I felt ready to review it. The first time I got to the end of Ghostwater, I felt like a lot of things that had been set up back in Unsouled had been at least partially fulfilled, so I decided to go back and check.

Upon completing the cycle again, I have now verified that initial vague impression to be correct. I won't spoil the fun, but I appreciate a few lines in the early books better now. As a coming-of-age type story, it was quite satisfying to look back and see how far Lindon had truly come.

Orthos nodded as though he'd expected nothing different. “Once, you were weak. That boy is long dead, but his Remnant still haunts you.” He turned to drink from the Life Well. “Your weakness, Lindon, is thinking you are weaker than you are.”

I will also steal a line I saw in one of the first day Amazon reviews: this book is like an RPG dungeon crawl. I have to think this was entirely intentional. Any kid who grew up playing Final Fantasy or Dungeon Warrior will immediately grok what is going on here. With the help of luck, a powerful patron or two, and a hell of a lot of grinding, Lindon has leveled up far beyond his wildest dreams. But there is still a long way to go. 

In Ghostwater, we finally get to see some details of the vision Suriel showed Lindon in Unsouled when she saved his life and set him on his quest. In a technique that I greatly admire, Wight can answer questions raised in earlier volumes, and simultaneously manage to create even deeper questions by means of the same revelation. We still don't know what Eithan truly wants, or what he is truly capable of, but my estimation of his power and knowledge only grows with each volume. Lindon, unschooled and green as he is, repeatedly defeats sacred artists several levels higher than him. I shudder to think what Eithan could do if he truly pulled out all the stops. 

I am also glad to see that Eithan knows how to properly launch a secret technique:

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Linkfest 2017-09-09

Posting has been light of late, my home PC needs a new power supply. The replacement should be here by Tuesday.

When Correlation Is Not Causation, But Something Much More Screwy

UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman explains how easy it is to fool yourself with the way you collect your data.

Toyota’s Research Institute head says full autonomous driving is “not even close”

I'm a bit of a skeptic about how easy it really is to completely automate driving.

The Tater Tot Is American Ingenuity at Its Finest

The Tater Tot was made out of french fry waste products.

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis

This is a fancy term for the idea that the closeness of a goal can influence our motivation. This is the idea Uber uses to get drivers to work longer, and how video games are made more addictive to play. Something that doesn't get discussed here is risk. For example, a big difference between the cited example of getting $12,000 at the end of the year as a bonus, or $1,000 at the end of the month, is that bonuses are dependent on financial performance. In the real world, you might get more money from the monthly option, which chops up the risk of the company not making enough money into smaller bits.

A Simple Design Flaw Makes It Astoundingly Easy To Hack Siri And Alexa

I imagine it was easier not to take frequency into account when designing these apps. This seems easy to fix, in principle.

Voynich manuscript: the solution

This turned to a be a thick problem. You needed a lot of the right knowledge in the right head to solve it.

My shelf [and a half] of Jerry Pournelle books

My shelf [and a half] of Jerry Pournelle books

Passings.....

Jerry Pournelle, one of my all-time favorite authors, died yesterday. I followed Jerry's website and writings for 16 or 17 years. Jerry was an early adopter of the Patreon method of earning a living, as he was an early adopter of so many things. I supported him for the last eight years or so. Jerry outlasted a stroke and brain cancer, and while those slowed him down a lot, he was actively writing and blogging until the end. 

Jerry led a long and interesting life. I would have loved to read his memoirs, which he never got around to writing. Hopefully someone else will fill the gap.

 

Half-Life 2 Episode 3

Ben with a very different haircut, standing by Gordon Freeman at Valve

Ben with a very different haircut, standing by Gordon Freeman at Valve

Marc Laidlaw posted a plot synopsis for Half-Life 2 Episode 3 on his personal blog. He has a simple substitution cipher for all the names, perhaps since he no longer works for Valve.

Reading it was very bittersweet. It is pretty clear by now that Episode 3 will never be made. So this is likely to be the only closure we get for Gordon Freeman. The story felt like something that fit well with the rest of the games, which it should, since Laidlaw worked on all of them.

halflife3.4.jpg

The Long View 2005-08-05: Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

Not the Assassins of Alamut

Not the Assassins of Alamut

The Aga Khan reportedly protested that the Assassin's Creed series falsified the history of his sect, the Nizaris. I am entirely sympathetic. But falsification may be more than the series is truly capable of, since it features an unusually insipid storyline.

I am also sympathetic to John's take on Intelligent Design. It is wrong, but not for the reason most of its opponents imagine, which is that it is religiously inspired and claims that God created the world. It is wrong because it doesn't give God enough credit.


Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

 

The case for treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem was made in a recent article in the Times of London:

Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.

So what purpose was served last week by police crying, --They're still out there and trying to get you--? What good are daily briefings on --the inevitability-- of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.

There is something to be said for the policy of "pay no attention to them; that's just what they want." In this context, though, that attitude is lethally inapposite. There are three reasons:

The official response must differ in kind with the size of the threat: If the police suspect you are storing pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter book in your basement, then they call you "sir" when they knock on your door, and if you insist, they show you a warrant. In contrast, if your neighborhood is burning down and the only way to stop it is to make a firebreak, the police may kick down your door and blow up the building without so much as an "excuse me." It is true that society can get along with high levels of street crime. What it cannot live with is crimes that close down the transportation system or put the lights out. The rule has always been that such situations are not handled as ordinary criminal matters. There is no reason why terrorism should be an exception now.

Popular participation is needed to address the threat: The police by themselves can deal with the problems posed by a criminal gang that seeks to commit crime in secret. Only public vigilance can control a social underground that seeks to commit public outrages.

Multiculturalism is one of the underlying causes: Both official and popular response must take into account the possibility that cultural differences, which multiculturalism exists to preserve, might make a difference in the proclivity to commit terrorist acts.

It would be a disaster for Britain if everyone of South Asian ancestry were just deported, or ghettoized, or if Islam were simply proscribed, but draconian policies like that are false alternatives. It is entirely possible for liberal societies, in the old sense of "liberal," to defend themselves against threats like that posed by early 21st-century terrorism, quite without ceasing to be liberal. Before they can do that, however, they must recognize that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

* * *

The archetype of holy terrorism is, if course, the sect of the Assassins, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in the 12th century. Time Magazine records a visit by one of its reporters to Alamut, Sabbah's base in what is now Iran. Legend has it that Assassin recruits were drugged unconscious and brought to a pleasure palace at Alamut, which they were told was paradise. Then they were drugged again and returned to the world. A permanent return to paradise was promised them when they completed their mission of assassination, which generally entailed their own deaths. The reporter spoke to one of the keepers of the site:

"Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?" I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

"Of course not," he replies angrily. "Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck."

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself.

I am inclined to agree with the guard, at least to the extent that it seems unlikely to me that the story about the artificial paradise is true. It is the sort of explanation for other people's behavior that requires they be much, much stupider than the person giving the stupid explanation.

* * *

President Bush, in contrast, favors intelligent design. At any rate, he is on record with the opinion that Intelligent Design (ID, to its friends) should be taught in the schools along with evolution.

The institutional home of ID is The Discovery Institute. Visitors may be reminded of, say, The Heritage Foundation, or of the other partisan think tanks. I have used material from Heritage myself, and even consulted its experts. They will give you a plausible argument; just don't expect a disinterested opinion.

The chief vehicle of ID evangelization these days seems to be The Privileged Planet, which is the title of a book and a related film. There have been confused reports that The Privileged Planet not only questions the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the development of life, but also the reality of the Big Bang. This assertion is apparently quite untrue. What Intelligent Design does question is any cosmology that invokes a Multiverse, either of quantum mechanical timelines or of parallel time-space continua.

This is becoming hilarious. What we have here is an extreme form of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand correctly, ID posits not only the fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants to make life possible, but also some version of the "Rare Earth" argument, which has it that Earth's history and astrophysical characteristics make it the only possible home of intelligent life in the universe. Unlike the Creationists, the ID people understand that the Big Bang is prima-facie evidence for theism; part of the reason the Multiverse was conceived was to disembarrass cosmology of a Creation story. (There are Multiverse Theologies, however.) As for the Rare Earth hypothesis, that was essentially what Stephen J. Gould was going on about all those years when he was proclaiming the randomness and unrepeatability of evolution, in the mistaken belief that he was exorcising religion from biology. Gould was probably wrong about the randomness of evolution. One great irony is that his arguments are now being used as evidence of the miraculous.

The greatest irony of all is that, while the supporters of ID are not, for the most part, interested in the objective pursuit of knowledge, they do at least have the merit of supporting a theory that is falsifiable in the Popperian sense, something which Darwinism is not. Does that mean that ID should be given equal time in the schools? By no means, not unless ID passes the usual tests of scientific utility. Should that happen (and it's possible, if unlikely), it would be a supplement to evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

* * *

Danny Yee is back from Leng, or at least from Mongolia, which is one of those places I did not know that you could go to as an ordinary tourist. A travelog and archive of images are going online here.

Mongolia, apparently, looks a great deal like Ray Bradbury's idea of Mars, down to the architecture.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-06-30

Interstate Highway System

Interstate Highway System

Minimum wage fight may heat up after new study finds jobs and hours fell in Seattle

This minimum wage study in Seattle is fascinating. It is controversial, because many studies before it have found that minimum wage increases don't affect employment. However, this study has much better data that almost all previous studies, wages and hours worked by individuals, instead of proxies for those things.

That Seattle minimum wage study has some curious results.

A problem with the Seattle minimum wage study is that it only has data on employers with a site in the city. Employers with sites inside and outside Seattle are excluded, which is most of them. I included a data table from the study above so you can see for yourself what the results were, without a model applied.

Young Men Are Playing Video Games Instead of Getting Jobs. That's OK. (For Now.)

The author of the piece points out why I don't play MMOs, despite their popularity: they are work simulators. I play games for fun. While it is true that games in general can be described in similar ways, progress in an MMO is described by an illustrative term: grinding. You have to grind out a repetitive task to move on in the game. A well designed game in another genre never seems repetitive, even when it is. The author is probably about the same age as me, since he references playing Counter-Strike in college in 1999.

How Bad Intellectual Property Laws Hurt Classic Video Game Consumers

This is a reasonable take on why videogames perhaps should have a different term of copyright than books. Alternatively, owners could charge less for older games than they do now.

The Boy Who Loved Transit

I understand how this happened, but in a just world he would have been allowed to exercise his hobby without harm.

Why did Greenland’s Vikings disappear?

A re-investigation of the archeology of Greenland. I love archeology in part because it changes every few years. Very dramatic.

NASA ‘sting’ operation against 74-year-old widow of Apollo engineer draws court rebuke

I feel like I may have linked to this already, but it is so shameful it deserves a second link.

That Time the TSA Found a Scientist’s 3-D-Printed Mouse Penis

Science doesn't easily fit into airline security categories. 

 

Linkfest 2017-04-14

Brazil, like many Latin American countries, has a color spectrum instead a color line, the result of not having anything like a one-drop rule defining who is black and who is not. This has interesting implications if you also want to have a binary white/black affirmative action program.

Noah Smith looks at the failures of macroeconomic models.

This is the kind of thing Razib Khan calls being a 'star-man', the result of genetic success. I am a bit non-plussed by the assertion in the article that Lindbergh was being untrue to his eugenic principles by fathering children with women who had difficulty walking due to a childhood illness. Susceptibility to infectious disease has some genetic component, but it is largely random, and so often has little impact on genetic fitness. I wouldn't be surprised if this kind of thing was more obvious to Lindbergh. On the other hand, maybe he was just a horndog.

The Library of Congress has a list of books that helped shape American culture. This is a pretty good list, and it seems about right to me. It is also much, much funnier if you read the list annotated with intersectional Pokemon points by Steve Sailer. Intersectionality is largely about status, which is also about class, which proponents would like you not to think about.

Joel Kotkin looks at the disenfranchisement and poverty of rural California.

A recent look at the research on whether videogames cause violence. [short answer, still no.]

A very clever bit of work in making a localizable font for displaying characters in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages.

Michael Anton AKA Publius Decius Mus makes an argument for a Trumpian foreign policy [one that arguably better instantiates Trump's campaign rhetoric than his actual behavior as President].

You need to be a well-educated Westerner to be surprised by this. Almost everyone else in the world is massively ethnocentric, and only cares about people like them. Notable exception, Nelson Mandela, fellow recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who blew people up and spent years in prison for it, negotiated a political compromise that preserved the power of whites in South Africa.

Tyler Cowen riffs on Shashi Tharoor's book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. Some of the claims of Tharoor's book are a little odd, like that deindustrialization was a British policy in eighteenth-century India. I'm not sure traditional artisans count as "industry".

Starcraft: Evolution Book Review

Starcraft: Evolution
By Timothy Zahn
Del Rey Books, 2016
$28.00; 354 pages
ISBN 9780425284735

In general, I don't read videogame books for the same reason I don't watch videogame movies. With a few exceptions, they all suck. I picked this volume up because Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors, and I wanted to see if he could pull off a novel about the real-time strategy (RTS) game Starcraft.

To my pleasant and mild surprise, he did. I say mild, because I figured if anyone could do it, Zahn could. When I saw the book on the shelf, I imagined a pitch:

He could do for Starcraft now what he did for Star Wars in the early 1990s.

I don't have any reason to think anything remotely like this actually occurred, but it was a funny thought. I say pleasant, because I found that I was actually having a hard time putting this book down. 

Even though I am a fan of Starcraft the game, I always found the story a bit confusing and hard to remember. Since most of the dialogue in-game happens in briefing sessions introducing the next mission, this isn't really surprising. Zahn managed to tie everything together into a satisfying narrative, and there was even a handy timeline in the endpapers that cleared some events up for me.

I would be surprised if anyone who wasn't already a fan of either Zahn or Starcraft would pick up this volume. Especially if you hadn't played Starcraft, a lot of context would likely be missing, although I feel that Zahn did a good job salting in backstory. But to miss this book would be a shame, since it was fun to read. This is a solid military sci-fi novel by a good author. Anyone who likes those things should have a decent chance at enjoying this book, even if you don't know what a Firebat is.

My other book reviews

LinkFest 2016-12-31

Last link roundup of 2016. Happy New Year!

Stun guns and male crew: Korean Air to get tough on unruly passengers

This article is interesting for all kinds of reasons. The proffered explanation that "Asian carriers including us [Korean Air] have not imposed tough standards because of Asian culture", the claim that the offending passenger had two and a half shots of whiskey and then claimed to be blackout drunk [possible for a Korean, but not plausible in my mind], and the recent increase in violent incidents on Korean airlines.

Nine charts that show how white women are drinking themselves to death

Part of my sad, continuing series on how American women are having increasing problems with alcohol.

What Made 2016's Doom Great

I'm less and less comfortable with graphic violence in videogames, but I appreciate this review of the new Doom.

Farewell

Thomas Sowell was a formative influence on me. I read a number of his books in high school, and while I haven't read his column in a very long time, I think of him very fondly. Enjoy your retirement, Dr. Sowell.

Varieties of Religious Experience

Ross Douthat explores the mysteries of human life.

The volatile history of Star Wars videogames

A bit of history on LucasArts, Lucasfilm's in-house videogame studio.

The desert that revealed the ultimate ice age

A short piece about the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

A Call for a New Strenuous Age

Brett McKay at the Art of Manliness argues that we need to rediscover healthy challenges to restore our masculinity to balance.

Accounting for Thanksgiving’s Ghosts

Jacobin Mag entertains a counter-factual about what the United States would be like if disease hadn't killed most of the inhabitants of the Americas post-Columbus.

Soda Pop Soldier Book Review

Soda Pop Soldier
by Nick Cole
Harper Voyager, 2014
$4.99; 368 pages
ISBN 978-006-221022-7

Nick Cole describes this book as "Ready Player One meets Call of Duty". I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. I would also recommend this book, at least to anyone with the same kind of nerdy interests I have. War, politics, videogames, and applied psychology all can be found here, along with a droll sense of humor and a passel of pop-culture references.

I had been looking for this book for months. I know I could  have bought it anytime on Amazon, but I like trolling bookstores. The day I picked this up I also found two other books I had been looking for. It is really about the thrill of the chase, and the joy of an unexpected find. Plus, I do love the smell of slowly oxidizing paper.

Perhaps that kind of anachronism is what endears this novel to me. PerfectQuestion, the online alias of John Saxon, also has an unusual fondness for things that came from an entirely different world than the one he lives in. Given how grim that world is, I can't say that I blame him. His world is full of many clever things, but few beautiful ones.

That link to the past also grounds him. For a guy with not a whole lot going for him, Saxon has a lot of integrity. Someone better adapted to his dark future would likely be a worse man for it. Sure, he has the typical weaknesses of men who like to fight for a living, wine and women, but as Chesterton said, those are at least the sins of men instead of the sins of devils.

That moral realism is part of what I enjoy so much about Soda Pop Soldier. There are other books that explore a similar universe, but this one has a special flavor all its own.

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Salvage and Demolition Book Review

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Salvage and Demolition
by Tim Powers
Subterranean Books, 2013
$30.00; 155 pages
ISBN 978-1-59606-515-4

Tim Powers has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade, and this novella is full of the reasons why. 

A good time travel book is hard to write, but I think Powers has nailed it. Again. Powers' most popular book, the Anubis Gates, is the best time-travel story ever written. If you take the premise of time travel seriously, then severe logical constraints are imposed on your storytelling. One way to avoid these constraints is to posit something like the Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the route Powers selected in Three Days to Never. The other route, the one selected here and in the Anubis Gates, is to embrace the implied determinism of time travel, everything you are going to do already happened and cannot be changed, and just deal with it. Powers does this in a way that follows those logical implications, and yet still produces a satisfying story. Somehow, he makes free will and determinism lie down together.

I think Powers may be even better in short stories and novellas than he is in novels. At the very least, I get a different vibe from his short stories than I do from his novels. I find Powers' short stories bittersweet and poignant, while his novels often find their way to a truly happy ending, although oftentimes though great suffering. Salvage and Demolition is a love story, but a love that can never live happily ever after.

I also have to give Powers recognition for a storyline that borrows elements of eldritch horror, while managing not to be horrific. The premise of Salvage and Demolition is reminiscent of that of one of my favorite videogames, Eternal Darkness. I have never read in an interview that Tim plays videogames, although it is certainly possible that he does. Nevertheless, Salvage and Demolition has elements far more light-hearted and whimsical than Eternal Darkness, or anything like it. I believe the key difference is that Tim believes in Providence, and most authors in the eldritch horror genre don't. 

H. P. Lovecraft's visions are so terrifying because everything he ever wrote was suffused with the idea that the monsters are not only real, they are the ultimate reality, and they will eventually destroy us. Tim Powers is far too Catholic to think anything of the sort, and you can tell. If you take Christianity seriously, then the end of history is already known. In the end, the monsters will be thrown down, and the mourners' tears will be wiped away. What happens in the meanwhile is the stuff from which stories are made.

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The Long View: A Culture of Conspiracy

The world of conspiracy theories is a strange one. If anything, a lack of proof, or even disproof, only makes them more popular. There are a lot of durable memes that came out of the 1990s, things like the New World Order, or the Men in Black. Hollywood helped, and so did videogames. [in case you forgot, videogames are a bigger industry than movies]

This book is a scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, how mass media propagates, and even encourages ideas that lots of people, especially well-educated journalists, think are stupid and wrong. This was of course written before the rise of clickbait, but perhaps a new edition could be issued.

There is probably a hook here for the alt-right too, but that in itself is clickbait. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs are just as common on the left as the right, because they are human nature. Hell, sometimes the specific ideas are the same on both fringes of the American political spectrum. For example, opposition to GMOs and vaccination have homes on both left and right. 

The real story here is that we aren't smart enough to do conspiracy properly. The people in charge don't really know what they are doing much better than anyone else. Sometimes, much worse.


 A Culture of Conspiracy:
Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America
By Michael Barkun
University of California Press, 2003
243 Pages, US$17.47
ISBN 0-520-23805-2

 

Why did Timothy McVeigh visit Area 51, the alleged flying-saucer test range, and view the film "Contact" on death row? Why did the harmless-looking phrase, "New World Order," take on a sinister connotation as soon as the first President Bush uttered it? Why does the acronym FEMA send chills down the spines of a substantial number of Americans? We cannot dismiss these facts as unrelated coincidences. No: they are all evidences of a strange mutation that occurred in American popular culture in the 1990s, when formerly obscure forms of esotericism and conspiracy theory fused with traditional millennialism and popular pseudo-science. The result was not a movement, but a worldview that threatens to undermine trust in public institutions, and maybe even consensus reality.

Such is the argument of this useful book by political scientist Michael Barkun of Syracuse University, one of the leading authorities on the political implications of contemporary millennialism. The literature of conspiracy theory is vast and rarely a pleasure to read, so there is something to be said for any survey that shrinks the Illuminati, the Men in Black, and the Hollow Earth itself to manageable dimensions. The chief merit of this book, though, is the description of a dynamic in contemporary conspiracy theory, one that turns ordinary popular culture into a venue for the propagation of ideas that the consensus culture has not just dismissed, but condemned. This model may exaggerate certain features of the popular mind, but it clearly does have some applications.

The chief sources of the culture of conspiracy are the tradition of conspiracy theory, conventional millennialism, and what must be called “ufology,” or the belief in the existence and importance of Unidentified Flying Objects and other extraterrestrial influences. The place where these sources meet is the realm of "stigmatized knowledge."

Some stigmatized knowledge is just obsolete knowledge, like alchemy or astrology, that the academic establishment no longer takes seriously on its own terms. Some of it is folklore and urban legends. Some of it is political ideas that have lost their bid for dominance in the wide world, but survive in niches and sects. The stigmatization of knowledge does not necessarily mean it is worthless: acupuncture, for instance, has risen from subcultural disrepute to the status of a recognized treatment. Whatever the merits of stigmatized ideas, people who accept stigmatized knowledge about one subject are likely to be more open to entertaining it in others. This leads to an attitude that views esoteric and unpopular ideas favorably, simply because they are stigmatized. Any official or consensus explanation is viewed with suspicion.

If you think that what most people believe about important aspects of the world is consistently wrong, the most economical hypothesis is that those people are being systematically deceived. This implies a deceiver, who must have confederates. The larger the conspiracy, the more a theory about it can explain: hence the attractiveness of conspiracy theories. "A Culture of Conspiracy" does not address the question of whether there is a perennial Western tradition of conspiracy theories, one that might include the legends about Rosicrucians, witches, Brethren of the Free Spirit, and similar shady characters. Rather, the book focuses on the well-known tradition of secular conspiracy theories, whose best-known originator is the Abbé Barruel. This tradition began in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Barruel's account sought to explain the Revolution as the work of groups of a generally Masonic character, of whom the most famous were the Illuminati of late 18th-century Bavaria.

There were indeed Illuminati, and the revolutionary phase of the Enlightenment was often organized through lodges and secret societies. However, conspiracy theorists tend to view secret and underground societies, not as vehicles for political activity, but as its cause. They see the public acts of statesmen and political groups as a mere smokescreen. For conspiracists, is it not necessary that the puppet-masters be altogether secret. Financial institutions and private associations will do nicely, as they did in conspiratorial accounts of politics that appeared as the 19th century progressed. (Barkun mentions Ignatius Donnelly for his popularization of Atlantis, by the way, but Donnelly also had the Jewish-Corporate Government connection down pat as early as the 1880s.) Around 1900, the Czarist secret police produced the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which ascribed a plot for world domination to the early Zionist movement. By about 1920, there was a standard superconspiracy model. The model linked international bankers, the central banks, the Masons, the Jews, and other groups in a long-running project, always almost complete, to establish a worldwide atheist tyranny.

In one form or another, this model has been remarkably durable. People with all kinds of perspectives can adapt it to fit any historical circumstance and any set of characters. Theorists with little interest in Jewish conspiracies, for instance, might read "Illuminist" in the “Protocols” wherever the text reads "Jew." So great is the explanatory power of superconspiracies, however, that they threaten to engulf in despair those who believe in them. Conspiracy theorists often think that little stands between them and an intolerable future, brought about by forces that are invisible to the general public and yet nearly omnipotent.

The forces of evil are happily less omnipotent in millennialism, which is the general term that “A Culture of Conspiracy” uses for endtime belief. One of the chief factors in conspiracy thinking in the early 21st century comes from the revival of premillennialism in the first half of the 19th century. Premillennialists generally often believe the advent of the Millennium to be near, but expect it to be preceded by “apocalypse” proper, the period when God's wrath will be poured out on the world. During this time, the world will be ruled by Antichrist. Identifying the Antichrist, and more important, his future collaborators, is an activity very close to what secular conspiracy theorists do. Premillennialists with an interest in current events borrowed the Illuminati and the cabal of international bankers, often adding their own traditional villains, such as the Vatican. Versions of eschatological conspiracy became widespread during the 20th century, but did not begin to join the general popular culture until the 1970s.

The bridge between the land of stigmatized knowledge and the world at large was the UFO phenomenon. UFOs made their way into millennialism as part of the great deception of the endtime; the aliens became demons who pretended to be angels of light. There was also some tendency for premillennialists to reinterpret their eschatology in physicalist terms, so that the pretribulation rapture sometimes becomes a rescue by spaceship. Michael Barkun has coined the term "improvisational millennialism" to describe this syncretism of motifs. Secular superconspiracists, for their part, had no trouble adding UFOs to their list of things that the powers-that-be were covering up. In some versions, the Great Conspiracy is in league with the aliens. In others, there were no aliens, but UFOs were being faked to cow the public.

In the 1980s, some quite new motifs appeared. There were the black helicopters, which served the conspiracy in a way that varied from theorist to theorist. There were the concentration camps that were said to be being prepared for dissident citizens for when the Day came. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to lead the effort to impose martial law. When disaster struck, either real or staged, FEMA would become the government. Then there was mind control, which government agencies were alleged to have perfected in the 1950s and '60s.

As is often the way with urban legends, there were sometimes thin threads of fact in these Persian carpets of fantasy. Yes, police tactical helicopters sometimes are black. The CIA really did experiment with mind-altering drugs. For that matter, there were even contingency plans around 1970 to create temporary camps if civil disorders got out of hand. However, the structures that placed these fragments in a greater whole could never be verified, or even tested.

There were also fascinating adaptations of older ideas. For instance, the notion that the Earth might be hollow, and the seat of one or more advanced civilizations, has an old pedigree. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, it sometimes figured in fiction. When UFOs entered the popular consciousness, these subterranean realms became alternative or supplementary points of origin for these vessels. Admirers of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith will be interested to learn that many of their story devices reappeared as bald assertions of fact in later conspiracist literature. (I might mention H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," not specifically cited in the book. That novella has as many subterranean aliens as a reasonable man could ask for, as well as an Antarctic locale, which is also important in many conspiracy theories.) The malevolent reptile-people who play such a key role in the conspiracy theories of David Icke seem to have slithered right out of the stories of Robert Howard, the creator of "Conan the Barbarian."

Much of 19th-century theosophy came straight from popular fiction, so the 20th-century adaptations simply continue the tradition. A tongue-in-cheek British documentary broadcast in 1977, "Alternative 3," described a conspiracy of elites to flee Earth before ecological catastrophe struck the planet. As happened in other contexts, some people immediately interpreted the fiction as an encoded account of the facts. And, of course, conspiracy theories form the basis for later fiction, such as the once fashionable "X-Files" television series. I would also note John Carpenter's film from 1988, They Live. In that story, certain people are enabled to see our reptile overlords as they really are, consorting with ordinary upper-class humans who know the aliens' identity. ("They Live" should not be confused with "Them," an older and much better film about giant ants.)

The culture of stigmatized knowledge has facilitated other revivals. The channeling of extraterrestrials by New Agers looks like nothing so much as communication with the Ascended Masters whom Madame Blavatsky used to consult. Similarly, the allegations that the conspiracy sometimes captures people for sexual slavery bear more than a few points of resemblance to the 19th century stories that purported to expose what really goes on in Catholic nunneries.

Historical and technological developments gave a boost to the culture of conspiracy. Conspiracy theory had been an activity conducted through small newsletters and pamphlets before the assassination of John F. Kennedy; within a decade, it was an industry. Just as important was the growth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which made even the most obscure materials available to virtually anyone, virtually anywhere. Accessibility was not the only important factor; so was the lack of authoritative criticism. For that matter, "authority" was increasingly in short supply offline, too. The academy, during the postmodernist episode, undermined the assumption that consensus reality was more than a mere construct. The distinction between stigmatized and consensus knowledge did not quite collapse, but it became far more porous.

Michael Barkun is not happy about these developments. He notes that antisemitic motifs had formerly been wholly excluded from popular culture. Now they are reemerging, often in scarcely altered form, as elements of widely disseminated superconspiracies. He also points out that the culture of conspiracy responds badly to emergencies. Conspiracists reacted to 911 by demonstrating how it fit into their preexisting explanation for what is wrong with the world. The same might also be said of other people, perhaps, but the conspiracists' explanations made them suspicious of collective efforts to deal with the situation.

For my part, I think that any discussion of conspiracism should acknowledge those contexts where the conspiracists are onto something. When evangelical Christians perceive a New Age conspiracy to extirpate Christianity, they often are quite right about the biases of some elements of the academy and the media. When opponents of the New World Order say that international organizations are plotting to subvert the sovereignty of the United States, they are sometimes just citing the law journals. About the gay agenda we need not speak. Conspiracists are not delusional when they say that important people often collaborate to bring about appalling results. The Great Conspiracy has two weaknesses, however. First: no cabal small enough to be hidden could have the leverage to control the world, or even to guide the public life of a single nation. Second: no cabal at all could survive with its agenda unchanged for generation after generation. Real conspirators are people just like you and me. They don't have a clue, either.   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Terms of Play Book Review

Terms of Play: Essays on Words that Matter in Videogame Theory
by Zach Waggoner, editor
McFarland Books, 2013
$40.00; 244 pages
ISBN 978-0-7864-9670-3

I received this book for free as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

I have been sitting on this book for two years, so that finally became the basis for my review. I just can't read this book. I picked it up and put it down several times during the past two years, and I am now willing to consider the book unreadable and move on.

I have a confession to make. At one point, during a slough of despond, I actually considered doing something like this book as a career. I looked into graduate programs, went to a conference, I even did some thesis work. Thankfully, nothing ever came of it, and I regained my senses. Seeing this book, I was fortunate indeed. There are interesting things to say about videogames, but I don't think you will find them here.

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Live, Die, Repeat Movie and Book Review

Directed by Doug Liman

Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterwork, and Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and Bill Paxton

All You Need is Kill

by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Haikasoru 2009

$7.99; 203 pages

ISBN 978-421560878

Continue_Screen.jpg

Continue?This is one story with three titles. The original Japanese light novel is All You Need is Kill. The theatrical release starring Tom Cruise was called Edge of Tomorrow, and the version released on DVD, Blue-ray, and streaming was Live, Die, Repeat.

My interest in the movie was initially piqued because of the D-Day inspired trailer, and because I had greatly enjoyed Tom Cruise's competent performance in his previous sci-fi movie, Oblivion. I didn't get a chance to see the movie in theatres, so I picked it up on Blu-ray when it came out.

By that time, the title of the movie had changed. The re-branding of the movie with the tagline from the theatrical release did not dampen my enjoyment of what turned out to be a war movie blended with the essence of almost all videogames: infinite lives. It is really the combination that makes this movie interesting. Matching up with the trailer, this is a grunt's eye view of war. Confusion, regret, and death barely kept in check with black humor. The idea that war is hell has been done better elsewhere; what is really horrifying is the idea that you have to live out that last, awful day of your life, over, and over, and over.

At least, until you figure out that death is never final [although it is inevitable], and you can do whatever you want with no repercussions. Much like Bill Murray's cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day, Cruise's dilettantish REMF Major Cage travels through disbelief to despair to acceptance to something like grace. Dying seems to have been the best thing that ever happened to Major Cage. Cruise does a good everyman performance, saying and doing the things most of us fear we would do if trapped in a horrible situation, but ultimately turning into something like the best version of himself after getting unlimited chances to rectify all his mistakes.

The movie was well-done, the central conceit turned out to be thought-provoking [at least for me], and I found the characterization plausible. Not bad for a movie that seemed to be inspired by videogames. It has long been true that all movies based on videogames are bad. It is also true that most videogames based on movies are bad. The kinds of stories you tell in the two forms of entertainment differ markedly, particularly in that videogames are supposed to be repetitive. If the hero fails in his quest, you just respawn and try again. Finding a way to turn this into an interesting narrative was quite an achievement. Even more so, when I discovered the movie was based on a light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

Thus, it is even more remarkable that this game mechanic turned story mechanism survived the transition to the screen, because novels and movies also are forced to tell their stories in different ways. To successfully blend the novel and the videogame, and to then successfully adapt that to the kind of story that Hollywood does best, deserves praise.

Despite pulling in as much money as blockbuster movies do, videogames have almost no effect on the wider society. This has been changing, slowly. Wreck-It Ralph is the best videogame movie ever made, but to say that risks damning the movie with faint praise. I'm starting to see more videogame references in other kinds of media, but perhaps this is just a Kuhnian revolution where all the old guard are dying off, and the new content producers just find videogames a natural part of their life.

Perhaps another reason for all this is popular entertainment is converging in on a common point. Many big movies now have a novelization [sometimes a new one is created even when it was based on a novel!], and if it is an action or sci-fi movie, also a videogame tie-in. If you can market some toys and other merchandise too, all the better. From a production point of view, it makes sense to tell stories in a way that makes it easier to generate all that valuable ancillary content.

Sakurazaka's novel fits into that paradigm in a very Japanese way. Light novels, as the name implies, are disposable popular entertainment marketed to young adults. Popular light novels are illustrated or animated, serving as the farm team for content generation in the Japanese market. This one was popular enough to be optioned by Hollywood, and it gives us a good case study for how different media and different markets produce subtle differences.

The basic story in the novel is much the same as the movie. Unstoppable alien monsters. A hopeless war. Mechanized infantry are the last hope for humanity. A soldier trapped endlessly in a fight against unstoppable hordes. Sakurazaka's book was very traditional military sci-fi. Lots of salt of the earth soldiering, and no visibility to the grand schemes of the brass. Unlike Cruise's Major Cage, Sakurazaka'a protagonist was a plain old grunt, Private Kiriya, fresh out of boot. Even in translation, the book is very Japanese. The idioms, the expectations of the soldiers, even the kinds of women they dream about, different from an American, or even a western novel of the same type.

Also, the ending is different. My editorial policy is to discuss the ending of any story without warning, but here is your spoiler warning regardless. While I think the ending has much of the same spirit in the American movie as in the Japanese book, the critical difference is that the book goes for the tragic ending while the movie goes for the happy one. What they have in common is that each ending upends the idea of infinite lives in a videogame, where the enemies keep doing the same thing over and over while you learn more and more, and posits an enemy that has exactly the same experience you do, and learns with every iteration.

The whole thing almost ends up where it began, with everything coming down to one climactic battle, much like it would in a world were you couldn't rewind time back to before you died. The crucial difference between book and movie is how this all plays out for the protagonist and his friends. Up until the very end, I liked the book better than the movie. It was harder sci-fi, with better military know-how and better science. But at the end, Hollywood demonstrated why it makes so much money worldwide. They know the human heart better, and that made all the difference.

Tragedy has its place, but it takes greater strength of character to insist that it really will turn out well in the end.

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The Long View: The Black Sun

Raiders of the Lost ArkThe idea that the Nazis were into the occult has become a widely popular idea. When Indiana Jones battles Nazis for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, no one needs any backstory to make this plausible. We just all accept it and move on.

What is perhaps more interesting is how the ideas that animated the Nazis have evolved. In the last seventy years, fascism and the occult have merged to produce something that potentially will again have popular appeal.

In this review, John was surprised to discover a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial music. I'm not surprised, but then John was a lot older than me and probably never listened to that kind of music. Perhaps he had better taste than me.

Something that did come as a bit of a surprise to me is the relationship between fascism and the German counter-culture. Nazism flourished in the same circles that were fond of nudism and vegetariansim, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but in their time included a signifcant nationalist element.

I usually assume that any American espousing New Age beliefs is on the Left, but this isn't necessarily so. You need to be an American in the early twenty-first century to assume that nationalism is a right-wing phenomenon.

This is particularly important because most Americans probably view fascists, occultists, and occult fascists as losers on the wrong side of history, and therefore not worth our attention. Fascists in popular culture are perceived as objects of parody.

When I think of Nazis, this scene from the Blues Brothers is what I see in my head:

All of this might have gone nowhere, except that neo-fascists have been willing to openly state the widely felt anxieties occasioned by demographic change. Ths has propelled them to a fame that vastly exceeds their numbers. However, it worth noting that this kind of neo-fascist does not represent the kind of right of center party that actually wins elections in Europe, even if some of their concerns are the same, their motivations are entirely different.

What makes the occult fascists interesting is that they are natural allies of the anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, and anti-Western movements. Right now, this is prevented by the Right/Left dichotomy. We can only hope that this prejudice prevails.

Black Sun:
Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity
By Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
New York University Press, 2002
371 Pages, US$24.97
ISBN 0-8147-3124-4

 

 

Nazi Germany has become Atlantis. The historical Nazi regime was peculiar enough, of course. In some ways, it was more like a cult in power than a state controlled by a totalitarian party. After it was over, however, the regime was increasingly portrayed as an empire of dark magic. The belief spread that its rise and fall were not just uncanny but historically inexplicable. Its end was sudden and complete, so complete that the shards of evidence on the surface seemed less significant than the excavation of the occult underground. In some circles, the mythology has progressed even further: Nazi Germany became not just a vanished civilization, but also an ideal civilization, destined to rise again.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke is perhaps the foremost serious scholar of the relationship between the Third Reich and the occult. (The Occult Roots of Nazism, which he published in 1985, is not the only good book on the subject, but it is still a good place to start.) In Black Sun, he is chiefly concerned with the development of postwar esoteric fascism, which includes but is not limited to novel forms of magical Nazism. He is particularly concerned with its inflection into both terrorist politics and the mainstream New Age movement since the 1970s. He also argues that the social changes in Middle Europe that helped to plant the underground seeds of Nazi Germany 100 years ago now obtain to a greater or lesser degree throughout the West and Russia. The author draws dark inferences about what today's underground could produce by 2030.

Most of the information in Black Sun has appeared elsewhere, but even people familiar with the literature will get a few surprises. I had never heard of the pro-Nazi science fiction of Wilhelm Landig, for instance. For that matter, I had been only vaguely aware that there was a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial Music. Also, though the author had to take the principals at their word, the book has the first coherent account I have seen of the origins of the Order of the Nine Angles.

As for the rest, it is very useful to have something like the whole story between two covers. There are the key figures of the immediate postwar period, the American renegade Francis Parker Yockey, and Baron Julius Evola, who helped transform Nazi racism into a kind of aristocratic snobbery. There are the people who deified Hitler, or at least turned him into a Messianic figure, notably Savitri Devi and the former Chilean diplomat, Miguel Serrano. There are the early American neo-Nazis, such as James Madole, who combined Nazism and Theosophy to create a vision of America as the New Atlantis. There are the greater and lesser Satanists, whose ideas have tended to become more political and metahistorical with the passage of time. There is also a review of the Christian Identity movement, a largely independent phenomenon that nonetheless parallels esoteric fascism in its ontological rejection of the Jews and its expectation of a racial apocalypse in the future.

The role that the occult played in the foundation and policies of the Nazi regime is a matter of continuing research. Certainly the party grew out of völkish circles, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but with a nationalist tilt. Important influences included the "Ariosophy" of the Viennese mystics Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, whose notions about the need for a knightly "Order" to advance pan-Germanism clearly affected Heinrich Himmler's model for the SS. The Nazi Party used ideas and symbols long familiar in occult circles, notably the swastika itself. Alfred Rosenberg's Myth of the 20th Century, which was at least nominally the party's ideological guide, invoked the familiar esoteric idea that the Aryan race originated in Atlantis. This essentially Theosophical model of history saw the past as a progression of ages that each had own master race, and that each age was separated by a transitional disaster. Generically, that is also the way that some of the Nazi leadership looked at the 20th century. However, this does not mean that the occult is necessarily the key to the study of the Nazi phenomenon.

As Goodrick-Clarke points out, the evidence that any of the Nazi leaders ever performed black magic is quite thin. Himmler did subsidize research into occult subjects. This included at least one SS man, an Otto Rahn, who hunted across Europe for information about the Holy Grail. I might note that Rahn does seem to have been a Satanist, in the sense of sympathizing with Lucifer and agreeing with the Cathar rejection of the God of the Old Testament. Still, even he was probably engaged in folkloric research rather than looking for an actual artifact. In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself made fun of völkish groups, with their rune-magic and their attempts to revive Nordic paganism. Hitler in some ways was intensely superstitious. He was arguably a millenarian of sorts. However, there is no reason to think he was playing out a specific esoteric agenda.

Esoteric agendas did exist, especially in the SS. The problem was that there was more than one. Should the Nazi regime simply promote German power, or should it seek to unify all Aryans everywhere, including in Russia? What attitude should the Nazi government take to anti-colonial movements, particularly in India and the Middle East? Was the future to be secular or religious? Was Christianity compatible with fascism? The German leadership deferred deciding these issues right up to the point when the working language in Hitler's bunker changed from German to Russian. After 1945, however, fascist ideology was freed of the compromises necessary for government. Black Sun describes the trajectory it took thereafter.

Postwar esoteric fascism falls into two periods, joined by a phase of startling mutation in the 1970s. The first period was backward looking, essentially a salvage operation from the wreck of the Reich. The pan-European orientation of the Waffen-SS finally won out over that of the German-chauvinist Black SS, if for no other reason than that Germans were a distinct minority in the early postwar networks. Oswald Spengler's model of history was adopted in various hermetic forms, often involving the identification of the terminal crisis of modernity with the Kali Yuga. There was an increasing tendency to call in the Russians to counterbalance America, now wholly identified with the Jews. Hitler was literally deified in some circles, thus carrying to its logical conclusion a line of speculation started by C.G. Jung himself. The fascists whispered about Hitler's survival, in this world or another. They also traded stories about secret Nazi bases surviving in the Arctic and Antarctic, where wonder-weapons were still under development. They quickly seized on the advent of flying-saucer reports in the late 1940s as confirmation of their hopes.

Though political fascism in the1950s and '60s could still display a lethal edge, particularly in Italy, in most places it was a sad affair. American neo-Nazis marched in Nazi finery and invited attack from passersby, in the mistaken belief that this would excite public sympathy. Nothing was behind such "movements" but perverse historical nostalgia.

Two trends were underway by the 1970s that would make esoteric fascism relevant. The first was the New Age Movement and the concurrent general increase in mysticism. Books began to appear in great numbers that depicted the Second World War as essentially a war of wizards. Jean-Michel Angebert's Morning of the Magicians got the trend fairly underway in 1960. The genre peaked in the '70s; the best-known book of this type is probably Trevor Ravenscroft's Spear of Destiny (1973). Some of the information that continues to circulate in this literature is wholly spurious, some of it relies on sensationalist accounts from the 1930s, and some of it is strange but true. The effect of the new mythology was to give the evil of the Nazi regime a metaphysical dimension.

It was this spiritualization of Nazi wickedness that attracted the attention of Satanist groups, which were starting to expand at just that time. Modern Satanism usually means the rejection of Christianity and the idea of natural order, rather than the worship of a literal Satan. Still, the budding diabolists were intrigued by the notion that there had been a "Satanic" government in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, in the sense of a regime that was the adversary of everything that had traditionally been thought good. For followers of the Left Hand Path, people who choose to pursue liberation through nihilism, it made sense to adopt the real or imagined rituals of the Third Reich, and to make its memorials places of pilgrimage. Additionally, many of the postwar esoteric fascists were also noted writers on Tantra, Jungian depth psychology, or ritual magic. Essentially magical techniques thus became central to some new forms of Nazism.

There had been some fantasy literature during the Nazi years about the life of the Aryans in Hyperborea and Atlantis. (As a matter of fact, I might note that there was quite a lot of it in English, from writers like Robert Howard.) In the 1970s, a form of pro-Nazi science fiction began to appear. This chronicled the adventures of Germans who escaped the downfall of the Third Reich by fleeing to secret bases in the Arctic or Antarctic. (The names to remember for the Arctic are Point 103, the Blue Island, and Midnight Mountain; for Antarctica, the venue was usually Neuschwabenland, an actual territory explored by Germany before the war.) As part of a secret international society engaged in defending the world against Jewish domination, the refugees abandoned the swastika and conventional German insignia. The symbol of the society was the Black Sun.

The Black Sun design can consist of a black or deep-violet disk with a lightening bolt striking it, or a disk alone. This symbol perhaps came originally from the alchemical shorthand for the lowest point the Great Work. It had some currency in Germany in the 1930s; Himmler had may have had it worked into the floor of the SS castle at Wewelsberg, though it is not certain that is what the design there is supposed to mean. The Black Sun is also related to the Theosophical notion of the Invisible Sun around which the universe is supposed to revolve. This seems to have been what Himmler's wizard, Karl Maria Wiligut, had in mind when he described an extinguished star that had once shone on Hyperborea, and whose rays still energized the Aryan soul. In any case, this symbol of the low point of history has become the preferred symbol for esoteric Nazism.

All of this imaginative fiction and pseudo-history might have done little harm, had it not appeared at just the point when demographic changes were giving ideas like this some popular traction. Low birthrates and massive immigration began to manifest themselves throughout the West in the 1970s. The author asserts that the situation in German-speaking Europe in the late 19th century was similar, when an influx of Slavs and Jews from eastern Europe occasioned resentment and anxiety, particularly in Austria.

In previous books, Goodrick-Clarke has made a good case for the argument that this immigration sparked the mystical racism that resulted in the Nazi Party a generation later. One may, of course, question how strongly the analogy holds for 21st century Europe, much less for the United States. Demographic changes are not sufficient to explain the outbreak of violent extremism. In the US, for instance, there was a severe agricultural depression in the Midwest in the 1980s that spread alienation and populist radicalization.

Nonetheless, large-scale immigration is always disruptive, especially in societies that have no experience of dealing with it. Certainly the conviction has spread in many nations that the homeland is becoming unrecognizable, and that the elites are complicit in the process. Black Sun summarizes the violent reaction that appeared almost everywhere in the '80s and '90s, from the incipient guerilla war of the Order in the United States to the arson campaign against Norwegian churches by neo-pagans. In these events, there was usually some connection with the new fascism, whether by ideology or organization. There is in fact a Nazi international today.

Reading about these events in retrospect, one cannot help but be struck by the small numbers of activists actually involved. Were there ever more than a few thousand British skinheads? The Oklahoma City bombing seems to have been carried out by just two or three people. Organizations that seemed powerfully ominous online turn out to have had no more than a few dozen members. One might also note that this brand of neo-fascism is unrelated to the right-of-center parties in Europe that actually receive measurable numbers of votes in elections. It has nothing at all to do with American conservatism, which somehow manages to be simultaneously evangelical Christian, libertarian, and pro-Israel.

Still, Goodrick-Clarke is probably onto something when he notes that esoteric racism is essentially a multicultural phenomenon. In a world in which one's ethnic group can determine what benefits one is eligible for, people tend to find an ethnic identity and cling to it for dear life. Today, people in pursuit of ancient wisdom are more likely to hunt for it among their own ancestors than in the habits and beliefs of distant or alien peoples. The past is a different culture, particularly when it is imaginary. Some neo-pagan groups, notably those associated with the Nordic cult of Ásatrú, have replicated almost exactly the mixture of beliefs entertained by the proto-Nazi völkish groups that appeared before the First World War.

Beyond this, though, is the "perfect storm" that coalesced after September 11, 2001, against the liberal West. The continuing attacks on Israel and the United States must be counted as a success for postwar fascist underground, which began aiding radical Muslim interests even before the Second World War ended. The anti-globalization movement constitutes just the sort of international anti-capitalist and anti-Western alliance of which some leading Nazis dreamed. Environmentalists who think of themselves as good liberals have in fact adopted the biological mysticism that was a notable feature of the Nazi regime. Almost unnoticed, eugenics has progressed from an aspiration to a roaring success: few children with genetic abnormalities are allowed to come to term in advanced countries.

In the Chancellery bunker in 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels exhorted his colleagues to make a courageous end. He asked them to imagine a color motion picture, made in the year 2050, about what they said and did in the final days of the Reich. The question they each had to answer, he told them, was whether they wanted to appear as a hero or a villain in that film. Even today, I think we can be pretty sure that the identities of the good guys and the bad guys will not have changed much from the Allied point of view in 1945. Still, Black Sun is a useful reminder that some people have different ideas for the scenario.


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Beat the Reaper Book Review

Another book review that disappeared. I really love the tagline for this review: "Like Scrubs on crack."

Beat the Reaper
by Josh Bazell
Little, Brown, and Company, 2009
ISBN 0316032220; $9.99

Every time I look at this book, I think of the song by Blue Öyster Cult, "The Reaper". This really has nothing to do with the book, but I think it nonetheless. I'm not normally a fan of mafia books, for the reason that mafiosi are so evil that reading about them depresses me. I did like this book, but I was always struggling against the horror that any semi-realistic portrayal of gangster life elicts.

My favorite part of the book is the random medical facts scattered throughout the book, either in the body or in cute little footnotes. Lest anyone think that the medical mayhem of Manhattan Catholic is entirely fictional, I was recounting to my Mother the episode near the beginning of the book where Dr. Peter Brown comes in for rounds and discovers one of this patients is dead, despite the notation on the chart that claims the patient's temperature is 98.6º with blood pressure 120/80 mmHg. My Mom blurted out, "ooh, that happened to me!" My Mother has a great deal of experience as a nurse, and this exact incident happened to her, with the change that it was the aide who did it to the nurse instead of the nurse to the doctor.

I have worked in hospitals myself, and currently am a designer of medical devices, so everything about Manhattan Catholic rang true, even though that much misery is not usually concentrated in one place. I can indeed confirm the typical surgeon's potty mouth. I've never heard such astounding things as you can hear in an operating room. I also appreciate Dr. Brown's gallows humor. When you work with death, you need something to help you stay sane. You can't go and cry in your beer every time something goes wrong. The most common method is black humor to provide emotional distance. Less common is sanctification, as practiced by chaplains and religious. I never hear gallows humor out of Sr. Elizabeth. Of course, maybe she just isn't sharing.

The denoument of the book reminded of the Hitman series by Eidos. Anyone who has played through Hitman: Blood Money will find some similarities. Not huge ones, just reminiscent. The ending was imaginative. Perhaps I should say, strains credulity, but I'm not sure I could do it better. The medical facts do at least make it possible, if not plausible. If you enjoy gangster books, go for this one. If you want to know what hospitals are really like, read this too. No hospital is this bad, but they definitely share a family resemblance. This book is like Scrubs on crack.

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Bioshock Infinite videogame review

Its for the children

When I told the Magistra I had played Bioshock Infinite, and I was shocked by its graphic violence, she was surprised. "I didn't think you would play another Bioshock game." After the review I gave Bioshock, I suppose I'm not surprised my wife would say that. I called the game disturbing, and I felt afterward that it might have scarred my soul a little bit. When I was younger, I didn't think much of the the argument of Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret.) that we have learned how to overcome our innate resistance to killing another person, but now I am starting to see his point. Especially now that I am a father myself, graphic violence in games, and the FPS genre, seem to hold less and less appeal for me. After the very first fight in Bioshock Infinite, I felt disturbed. I think it was the sense that I had violated the peace of Columbia that made me feel this so acutely. Until the first fight, every scene in Columbia was visually and musically idyllic and peaceful, even if there were a few subtle hints that all was not well.

It was the Beast of America trailer that convinced me I might want to play Bioshock Infinite. It is a pretty damn good trailer, and it hinted at a lot of the better elements of the game. Well done, whoever designed that trailer. Of course, I waited to pick the game up until the Steam summer sale, since I won't pay full price for a game anymore, but I was really interested.

After playing the game, I decided to write a review because I didn't see a lot of reviews that address what this game is about: The End of the World. Bioshock Infinite, like Bioshock before it, is about the apocalypse. Literally, it means ‘disclosure’ or ‘revelation,’ particularly of the circumstances
attending the end of the world. In the narrowest sense, it is simply an ancient literary genre. It also refers to a dramatic event, which marks off a different type of time.Apocalypse

Everyone wants to talk about the ending, but I'm not that interested in the ending. I liked the ending. I was underwhelmed by the game until the ending, which catapulted the game in my estimation from just another FPS game to a classic. I am just tired of amateur philosophy hour and amateur physics hour. You all don't know what you are talking about.

I am much more interested in how we are all fascinated by the apocalypse, and kind of embarrassed by it at the same time. Richard Landes, a scholar of the apocalyptic, has a theory that I am sympathetic to. Millennial movements are major players in history, and millennialism is inherently interesting to all people. However, millennial predictions are usually [although not always] falsified in the lifetime of the believers, which leads to a persistent bias in the telling of history that minimizes the influence of the repeatedly discredited prophets of doom. Especially when some of the writers of history used to be believers.

Millennialism is not just a Christian thing, or a Western thing either. It is a universal human phenomenon, found in all cultures and religions. The Mahdist uprising in the Sudan, the Ghost Dance, and the Taiping Rebellion are all nineteenth century examples of millennial movements that are neither Western nor Christian, although the Taiping Rebellion did have some weird syncretistic elements. The millennium is a future paradisiacal state or stage of history, where constraints of human experience such as war, death, and poverty will no longer exist. It is the attempt to achieve this state that makes a movement millennial. Just so, both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite are millennial through and through.

Columbia in its gloryBioshock had an obvious hint in the name of Andrew Ryan's underwater city, Rapture. Even though Ryan himself was thoroughly areligious, his attempt to build a perfect city apart from the rest of mankind and bring about paradise is clear enough. Columbia follows this same blueprint, although we get to see Columbia at a different stage in its history. Booker DeWitt joins Columbia during its halcyon days. We get to see Columbia in all its glory. Whereas when Jack descends into Rapture, the introductory apocalypse has already occurred, which has reduced the wicked city to ruins. Jack serves as the agent to bring about Rapture's terminal apocalypse. As an aside, this is why I never played Bioshock 2. Ken Levine wasn't involved, so it was clearly not going to be as good, but also the story was done. A terminal apocalypse is the end. Period. There was clearly nothing more to be said about Rapture, although there was equally clearly more money to be made.

Booker DeWitt is the introductory apocalypse for Columbia, and fittingly, he is also the terminal apocalypse for Columbia, although not precisely in the way one might think. The way in which this plays out is why I enjoyed the ending so much, and also why I will forgo my usual practice of discussing the ending of whatever I am reviewing. It is just too much fun, and it also fits the template I am discussing here so well, yet simultaneously so imaginatively, that I have to leave it it be.

Thematic continuity between Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite is not limited to the millennium, we also return to the struggle of the poor against the rich. Some have drawn links between the Occupy Wall Street protests and Bioshock Infinite, but I think this is mostly coincidence. The same theme was present in Bioshock, and the dehumanization and brutality of labor relations is an accurate reflection of America, and the world, in 1912. While Bioshock was set in 1960, it always seemed to me to belong in the 1930s, both because of the style of Rapture, and the way in which the working man in Rapture had no hope.

America by the 1950s and 1960s had figured out a pretty good solution for the working man. That was a time of unprecedented social mobility and economic growth. The economic pie was more evenly distributed then than any time before or since, and that was the fruit of the lessons learned by the ruling class in fin de siècle America.

Booker's Medal of HonorColumbia represents America, and it exaggerates both its virtues and its sins. There really was something magical about Western Civilization just before the Great War. That sense is captured perfectly in Bioshock Infinite. There were also many things deeply wrong, and you can see all them on display in this game as you progress. Columbia celebrates the Massacre at Wounded Knee as a pivotal event in its history [because it is], but America at the time of the Massacre was far more ambivalent. 20 Medals of Honor were awarded to men involved in the Massacre, but at the same time General Nelson A. Miles described it as, "Wholesale massacre, and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than at Wounded Knee." One of the recipients of the Medal of Honor, Lt. Harry L. Hawthorne, was posted to MIT as a professor of military science while he was recovering from his wounds, and was mocked so severely by the students that he gave up his posting at the school. We Americans did a lot wrong, but Columbia represents an America that never was.

Unequal bargainingThe plight of the underclass in Columbia that is particularly stark. In the shantytown surrounding the factories that supply Columbia, you see workers bidding hours of pay to perform the same work, in one of the ugliest illustrations of unequal bargaining I have seen. Labor relations in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were bad. This was the era when Communism was on the rise, papal encyclicals were searching for a viable middle between socialism and laissez faire capitalism, and strikes were something the public feared. The biggest conflict between labor and management in America was the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1920. It was the culmination of a struggle over coal mining in West Virginia, and nearly 10,000 men took up arms to fight their corporate oppressors.

Yet, America didn't burn in the fires of revolution. Most of those 10,000 miners just went home. Starting in the 1920s, America started on a remarkable equalization of income that finally bore fruit in the 1950s. Racial inequality was not included in the settlement, but it seems that class war in America was averted by a conscious choice by the haves to give more to the have nots. It was a stable solution for a while, but it seems to be breaking down again as income inequality rises in America.

Not liberationYet for all its sins, I wept for Columbia. I did not rejoice in its destruction, and I don't think we are meant to. All great cities are built on great injustice, including ours. That is what St. Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. We owe allegiance to the imperfect polities in which we find ourselves, but in and of themselves they cannot truly deserve it. And the alternatives are usually much, much worse. The revolution Booker and Elizabeth unleash upon Columbia is not a liberation, but an orgy of vengeance and destruction. 

Columbia deserved to be destroyed, but in the same way, all of our homes, great and small, bear the weight of similar sins. Perhaps this is the reason why we find the apocalypse so mesmerizing: we know we deserve it.

 


*In all of the foregoing discussion of millennialism and the apocalypse, I am greatly indebted to my late friend, John J. Reilly. Especially his book, The Perennial Apocaplyse, which provides most of the analytical elements in this post. You are missed John, requiescat in pace.

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The Video Games Guide Book Review

by Matt Fox
$55.00; 376 pages

I received this book for free as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

I think this is one of my favorite books I've received for review. I end up with a lot of stinkers, but this book is pure joy for me. For a videogame nerd, this is an outstanding reference work. I can easily open it up to a random page and lose myself in memories by reading the brief description of one of my favorite games. I find lots of reviews by Fox that I disagree with, but that is all part of the fun. Unlike a fan-contributed sites like MobyGames, which is probably more comprehensive, every review here is the work of one mind, with a particular and interesting point of view. You just don't get as much out of a collection of disparate reviews. Even if there is some kind of wiki-style crowd-editing process, it cannot produce a work as interesting as this one.

The book is primarily composed of short reviews of videogames. The middle of the book contains color images of the best and most popular games. There are several appendices listing other interesting information: a chronology of videogames including many not reviewed in this volume, a capsule history of consoles, a listing of prominent videogame designers, and a glossary. This is the best one-volume videogame reference work I have ever seen. It is also the only one-volume videogame reference work I have ever seen. Don't let that deter you, this is a fine work.

The most complete and comprehensive history of consoles that I know of is Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames by Leonard Herman. This work focuses on the games themselves. The sheer quantity of games the author has played staggers my mind. I thought I played a lot! What really impresses is the overall quality of the work. Sure, you can find a mistake here and there, but there are hundreds of reviews, and I appreciate the yeoman's work done here to collate all this information into one handy volume. I know I'll be leafing through this often.

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