Valence

This is probably my last Constellation Games post. Spoilers up through chapter 32, and hints about the ending.

Back in the mid-20 chapters, Ariel misdiagnoses Curic with ambivalence, a feared mental condition among the Farang… of ninety million years ago, and not exactly a concern to the unimaginably advanced Farang of the present day. Curic does not suffer from ambivalence, even if her crossselves operated at cross purposes. The sneaky thing about this is that of course Ariel was mistaken, he was taking medical advice from the late Cretaceous. The sneakier thing is that Curic doesn’t suffer from it, but everybody else does.

Somn is ambivalent about her whole place on the contact mission; she wasn’t expecting to find lifeforms, much less anyone she’d have to learn to talk to. She certainly wasn’t expecting her husband to hare off to another planet while she’s trying to hatch their kids. Jenny can’t decide whether she wants to make art or money, nuke Ariel or sleep in his bed. That’s the same Ariel who told one woman he loved her while he left the planet to chase another, and who’s trying to live in outer space and his old house from Texas at the same time. Bai’s ambivalence is stark: he goes to enormous effort to make his imaginary girlfriend a real person, and absolutely cannot handle it when his imaginary girlfriend starts acting like a real person. And said girlfriend herself…

Man, Dana. Because Constellation Games is written by Ariel, most of the narrative is about him feeling hard done by, but he’s got nothing on her. Smoke spins her off by jamming an Alien behavior model onto a mashup of ancient Farang cultural knowledge, a pubescent video game and Bai’s phone app save file. That save file is something to be reckoned with, actually—remember how she was driving the plot before she was even sapient?—but that’s still a pretty messy starting point from which to approximate human behavior. Add the fact that she’s an indentured servant: she gets paid for her translation work (and starts her job while two days old), but she has to live in a piece of paper in Bai’s pocket. No wonder she tried to dissolve Crispy Duck the second she was asked for business advice. Being able to multitask on phone calls isn’t the same as the freedom to leave.

That is, she can’t leave until Ariel fires her and Bai dumps her. Dana is left without a purpose or a friend, as the only being of her kind in existence, and she can’t even masturbate (the other half of her raison d’être) to feel better. That’s the kind of situation that induces suicidal depression in humans.

So how does this tie into ambivalence? Dana is a child of Smoke, and therefore fractal. She’s made of minds all the way down. Ariel’s interview with Her is the closest he sees to what’s going on inside Dana all the time: a mass of individuals adding up to something greater, with a collective voice but a lot of conflict underneath. Which Dana was the one placing that first phone call to Ariel, and which was the one simultaneously having sex with Bai? Which one tried to get them both to enter into a polyamorous relationship, and which one clearly sabotaged the whole thing? When she finally gets Ariel to agree to have sex with her on Ring City, she claims she has to hang up for a second. Which Dana calls back? Which Dana, in a subjective eternity of despair and loneliness, found the will to move forward?

Dana may not even know the answer. Constellation Games is a book about trying to deal with the strange loops in your head, all the minds that are bound to you: your crossselves. Both halves of Curic were trained from birth to deal with the person who lives in their body while they sleep, the Other that neither will ever truly meet. The other characters don’t get that training, and the best they can do is emulate the little plastic board that came with the Brain Embryo. You write down a message in a marker you can’t erase, and you hope the rest of you will see.

The time, the distance and the price

This post contains spoilers for Constellation Games up through chapter 30, but it’s not really a Constellation Games post; it’s about Starslip, and contains spoilers for its ending.

I’ve connected the work of Kris Straub and Leonard Richardson before, and not just because they both wrote serialized stories that trade heavily on the importance of artwork in space, calling things into being with poetry, and a pure-thought immortal hivemind end-stage of all life protected by a group of mortals. I could do that thing where I try to assert that they both take place in the same fictional universe, but I’m not going to, in part because the idea of hopping around between infinite possible universes is kind of the point of Starslip.

But I do think they have one thing in common, across all of those:

The One True Pairing phenomenon is real, but it’s a curse. Any two parties so affected are the Keymaster and Gatekeeper of a door that opens into stark, existential horror.”

“Wherever there is a Memnon Vanderbeam and a Princess Jovia, the former seeks the latter. And they never get together. It just. Doesn’t. Happen.

The last Starslip is bittersweet, and a lovely conclusion to a long story. The subtext of the whole conclusion arc, though, is incredibly dark. Out of all infinity, there is exactly one timeline in which Vanderbeam saves Jovia, and he has to make enormous sacrifices to do so, including his own life. The comics we saw in Starslip depict that timeline, but what happens to them in the uncountable others? Uh, this kind of thing.

That’s what I think Jenny and Ariel understand when they kiss. Ariel sees the horror, the mind-destroying vastness of possibility in which they will always be apart. Jenny sees the hilarious impossibility that maybe this is the right timeline, and Copernicus is wrong, and they are the center of the universe after all.

I think that at the beginning, Starslip’s daily punchlines masked the weight it carried in its core, but it carried it all the same. The impact of that weight landing, seven years on, was incredible. It deserves assessment, and I hope to be able to give it some as it restarts its run from the beginning as (!) a syndicated comic. Re-read Starshift Crisis.

Greenland

This is a Constellation Games post. Spoilers up through like chapter 23, I think. And a little one from later than that.

Friends, Greenland is a place where souls go to dry out
It is a vast and terrifying place of ice fields and tundra

—Andrew Bird, “Dear Old Greenland”

It’s a giant ice sheet punctuated with muddy volcanoes, it plunges into darkness for months at a time, and it has a deliberately deceptive name that imputes verdant happiness to a vast, empty, terrifying desert of cold. It’s a pretty good metaphor for divorce.

I thought the Greenland Treaty got mentioned pretty often in Part Two, but I just went digging around in the archives and I am wrong—it’s introduced only through one line of Leonard’s patented sidelong exposition in chapter 17, and not really elaborated on, except that it allows for exit and entry visas again and that it gets signed right after Ariel’s difficult meeting with Her. Leonard did give the game away a bit in his chapter 17 commentary by connecting Ariel’s flirtation with Tammy to the Constellation’s offering more technology to Earth. The exchange and the treaty represent a slight warming of relations between the UN and the Constellation after the whole “stealing Antarctica” incident, but things are still a bit chilly. Both sides are hurt and pissed, and the one who really suffers is the kid.

Ariel ends up with one room (a spartan thing without any of his clothes or toys) and one group of friends who live near the cool parent, and another back on Mother Earth, who gets full custody. He pouts about it, then throws himself into a project, up until the Constellation sneaks through a port to kidnap him for a frightening but exhilarating night of bugs and friends reunited and sexual pair bonding.

Then the BEA shows up to literally break his home.

For people born in the twenty or so years before I was, the gradual introduction of no-fault divorce throughout the US was a shattering redefinition of how families worked and failed and recombined. For people born in the twenty or so years after me, like Ariel, it became almost a passage rite: if you didn’t expect it to happen to your parents, you knew that it was at least a possibility for your friends’. Ariel’s parents are still together and happy, actually—probably a spoiler!—so to put him through an equivalent amount of emotional damage requires something at a planetary scale.

There’s this big, dark, horrible cold thing trying to destroy him, but Ariel’s just trying to make a video game about growing up. It’s actually an adaptation of a foreign game, commonly referred to as a port.

“You know how you make a port?” said Fowler. “You have to use a black hole as a lathe.”

Exit Ariel

This is a very brief Constellation Games post. Spoilers for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

In chapter 16 Save the Humans finds a vector after all, and the consequences of following it cut humanity off from space indefinitely. Ariel’s reaction is to get sad-drunk on the Internet and write about video games. The more he’s learned about Af be Hui’s career as a game designer, the more insight he’s gained into what first contact can do to a civilization, and that’s the focus of his big despairing game review. Don’t ignore the opening paragraph, though, because there’s a sneaky connection hidden in it. From July 28:

Can a video game be a work of art? Eggheads have been asking this question for twenty years, even though the answer is obviously “yes”. We live in a world in which any random shit can be art. Think of anything bad to say about video games and there’s something worse that everyone agrees is art. Torture-wince movies are art. Commercials are art. A fire extinguisher is art, if a designated artist designates it as art.

From The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1:

Ariel: My master through his art foresees the danger
That you, his friend, are in; and sends me forth—
For else his project dies—to keep them living.

JUST SAYIN’. I know this seems trivial, but the deeper we get into the book, the more the archaic use of “art” for “magic” resonates. Get ready for Part II!

Enter Ariel

This is a Constellation Games post. Spoilers for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

Let’s talk about Shakespeare.

Prospero:‘Tis time
I should inform thee farther. Lend thy hand
And pluck my magic garment from me.

There aren’t a lot of books that would give me an excuse to apply that line to a spacesuit. Of course, it isn’t Prospero laying aside his garments in chapter 15: it’s Ariel, the spirit of air, the one who traverses easily among the widely scattered groups of characters. The one who has power but no agency. The magician’s slave.

In the postcolonial-theory take on The Tempest, Prospero is the European colonist, while Caliban and Ariel are indigenous people who take sharply different strategies to deal with his arrival. Ariel, even more so in this book than in the play, is the classic collaborationist: even after hearing that a strong faction within the Constellation wants to shrug and head home to let humanity smother itself, he believes they showed up to do good. Why? In part because they gave him a Brain Embryo, which is, um, a collection of shiny beads. From chapter 2:

“This isn’t an alien invasion. They’re friendly. You think they’re pretending to be nice so they can eat us?”

“Intentions don’t matter,” said the hippie. “Read your history. Any time there’s a first contact, the contactees end up dead.”

As with most historical collaboration, the strategy goes great for Ariel in the short term (video games! trip to the moon! sex with an astronaut!) and poorly in the very-slightly-less-short term. The BEA is using his hard-won knowledge to promote a paranoid agenda. The Save the Humans overlay is having trouble finding a vector. When Curic takes him to her storm-tossed island to start revealing secrets, it’s not a coincidence that he ends up pressed flat to the ground.

Prospero: What torment I did find thee in. Thy groans
Did make the wolves howl, and penetrate the breasts
Of ever-angry bears.

Curic found Ariel on the Internet, and this is about as good a description of blogging as I’ve ever read. Here’s an interesting thing, though: none of the sections in chapter 15 are blog entries. They’re all described as “Real Life, July 2X,” yet they have distinct asides to an audience.

I think this has happened before in the book, but never quite so directly as “Shit. Shit. Shit. Okay.” This, more than the talking rat, is to me the strongest hint that Ariel is in fact a narrator and not just the star of some found-verbiage documentary. He’s organizing and presenting things to you, and he might be doing it selectively, just as he did when he was scrambling to find an Ip Shkoy game that would balance Ultimate DIY Lift-Off. He’s indentured and trying to earn his freedom; he’s a collaborator, and collaboration comes with an agenda. Why should he trust you, dear reader?

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It just feels like we fundamentally don’t understand each other. It really worries me.”

“Are you talking about us and the Constellation?” said Krakowski. “Or you and me?”

N-player co-op

This is a Constellation Games post. Spoilers for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

From late in Chapter 14:

“I don’t need to learn English,” said Ashley through her chopped-up resampled vocalizer. “The translator is a benefit embraced by the median person and shunned only by snobs who want to show off their own erudition and enlightened attitudes.”

“Wow, I guess you feel pretty strongly about it?”

“That translation went on a lot longer than it should have,” said Ashley. “That was four words in Purchtrin. I don’t know what happened.”

A couple paragraphs earlier Ashley mentions that the idle work she’s doing when Ariel shows up is “part of the History of Life overlay.” This is a subtle thing, and easy to miss amid what Leonard calls “the Gift of the Magi-esque farce about the English lessons.” When some subset of the Constellation wants to achieve something, they form a loose asynchronous working group called a fluid overlay. Where does Ashley work? In some fluid overlays. Where did Ashley’s translator come from? A fluid overlay.

The overlays aren’t an allegory, but they are a device Leonard uses to comment on leaderless organization in real life, inspired (I suspect) by his career in open-source software. Of course, the last six months have seen another set of nonviolent, leaderless organizations leap into prominence to remind us that scarcity-based power structures fuck everybody. Remember back in the commentary for Chapter 3?

“You’ve seen the anarchists in Austin. They couldn’t hold a city park.” is one of those lines that shifts connotation dramatically between the time you write it and the time it’s published.

Whether you take the correspondence as timeliness or startling prediction, the popular criticisms of Occupy reveal the flaws in the overlay idea, which the Constellation presents as a sort of labor utopia. In Chapter 13, Ariel found flyers from the Raw Materials overlay begging humans for their garbage in Human Ring, where there were… almost no humans. The Constellation can do miracles, but sometimes those miracles lack direction.

Just as often, the overlays lack accountability. In Chapter 9, Ariel tried to find somebody to thank for the English-language CDBOEGOACC; when he asked who was in charge of creating it, Curic’s response was “that’s not a real question.” So who snuck that rant about language snobbery into Ashley’s translator? Here, have an achievement graph with ten million nodes.

The translation is a throwaway gag, but it’s also foreshadowing. Sometimes overlays work at cross purposes. Sometimes they’re hard to track down. The other foreshadow in Chapter 14 is the first appearance (and disappearance) of, yes, the long-promised shipping container. Curic’s part of the Constellation Shipping overlay, yet he or she is asking a human for ideas about where it might have gone.

In doing so, Curic presents a neat alien mirror to Krakowski and Fowler at the BEA. All of them are now using this unemployed video-game blogger from Austin as an asset, overtly or otherwise. How desperate do you have to be to turn to Ariel for intelligence? We’ll find out!

TETSUO MILK

This is a Constellation Games post, just so you don’t get too deep into it without realizing that. There are spoilers, but only for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

In late 2001, I spent far too much time on the forums for my favorite webcomic, Checkerboard Nightmare. They were hosted on EZBoard, a free/paid service that allowed you to assign custom titles to forum members based on how often they’d posted. Kris Straub, the strip’s creator, innocently filled these in with names from the comic; one of the upper ranks was Doctor Hot, a gag character who had appeared in exactly one panel. I think I was the first one to hit that rank, which tells you a lot about my priorities in college.

I embraced Doctor Hot the way a defensive tackle embraces an unguarded quarterback, and so did the rest of the forumoids. There were even fan-created spinoff characters, including his nemesis Professor Cold and their lovechild Profoctor Hold, whose title I would eventually steal for Davey (did I mention the forums are where I first met Stephen Heintz?). Kris’s reactions wavered between resignation and outright fury, which was his response to everything on the forums, but still.

The point of the foregoing: this was my first encounter with what is now called a “fan favorite” character. A link on Checkerboard Nightmare also led me to crummy.com, which is how I started reading Leonard Richardson’s writing, which of course leads to Constellation Games and its breakout star, Tetsuo Milk.

Leonard likes Tetsuo Milk more than Kris liked Doctor Hot, because Tetsuo is a real character and also Constellation Games doesn’t have a forum to ruin everything, but you can still read a little exasperation into his chapter 11 commentary. Rachel put it to me the other day that Leonard likes to examine the emergence of agency in his characters; Ariel’s struggle to become an adult is the obvious Campbellian case, but we’re already seeing subtler examples, like Krakowski’s little independent assignment, or the way Dana (a friggin’ phone app) has started to assert her needs in a way that forces both Bai and Ariel to take significant action on her behalf.

But Tetsuo already has agency. Tetsuo has too much agency, which is how he’s able to (per Leonard) grab the plot and “run off in some weird direction.” He also has too much optimism, in contrast to Ariel (and uptight Jenny, and cautious Ashley, and fuck-the-system Curic); he’s the kind of person who actually does see every problem as an opportunity, which of course drives everyone around him crazy. The worst part is that he inhabits a postscarcity megacivilization with near-limitless resources, so he’s usually right.

Much as with the bad Doctor, I love Tetsuo Milk without reservation, and not just because he gets most of the good non sequiturs (“Hot!” would be a pretty good Tetsuo line). He’s the book’s mascot, and the recurring reminder that in spite of all the friction and pitfalls and broken partnerships, in the world of Constellation Games things do get better. Gifts fall from the sky. Refugees get rescued. You don’t even have to ask to walk on the moon.

Cognitive Pap Smears

Chapter 10 of Constellation Games is up. It features Curic informing Ariel that the alien whiteboard is for leaving messages to your other self, and then Ariel experiencing–and acting on–sudden sympathy for a phone app. Everything I said in my last CG post goes for it, but double.

Tennis for Two

This is a post about Constellation Games! If you don’t remember what Constellation Games is, it’s a very good book and you can read the first two chapters for free on that page. If you do remember but have not already subscribed to the book, you are wrong, and you should correct this situation immediately. Everyone else can keep reading.

Let’s talk about Gatekeeper.

One of the ways to slice up Constellation Games is as a book about partnership: Bai and his software girlfriend Dana, Agent Krakowski and Junior Agent Fowler, girl-Curic and boy-Curic, and Ariel + Jenny = Crispy Duck Games, among others. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that some of these pairings are less than functional—Fowler and Krakowski are arguing before they even get out of earshot in their first appearance, and Dana exists mostly as a strange loop in Bai’s head. When you observe the universe, to make sense of it, you need an origin from which to project your coordinates. Partnership is one way to set an origin. The obvious hitch is that when you do so, you’ve oriented yourself to an unfixed point.

You really should go back and click through to the link I posted in the last paragraph. Leonard’s mentioned that his reading on consciousness contributed to Constellation Games, and one of the most entertaining problems that comes up in the book is when people’s concepts of their partners—their internalized, emulated strange loops—fail to match that person’s actual behavior. Another is characters trying to apply their relationship to their own partner to someone else’s partner. You can see this disconnect at work when Ariel tries to wrangle everyone at his cookout into playing an impossibly foreign single-player video game, and ends up with what he considers a failure, even though everyone else has a great time. You can also see how seductive the projection is, though, in Ariel’s instant-message relationship with Curic. He treats Curic like he treats Jenny and Bai, sarcastically and demandingly, and they seem to hit it off right away. But if (as Leonard says) Curic’s account of her visit differs notably from Ariel’s, her interpretation of their chats must too. She doesn’t even realize he’s cursing when he says “fuck” all the time.

So: Gatekeeper. In Pong, a human game, two players manipulate reflective surfaces to keep a sphere moving back and forth. In Gatekeeper, the first Constellation Game Ariel plays, one player manipulates one reflective surface to keep certain spheres from crossing a forbidden line. The game loops forever until the player fails, and they will fail: you can’t keep a determined entity from crossing your arbitrary border (note that this book takes place in Texas), and you certainly can’t do it alone. Sometimes the partnership you earned will fail you. So what’s your recourse?

Curic: When one half of a person dies, the other half wants a refund. Otherwise the entire person will die in a few hours.
ABlum: who gives out the refunds?
Curic: There are no refunds. That’s the point of the game.

I had to finally write this up before the book got too much further because soon we’ll meet a new pair of characters who, quoth Leonard, “show up and run off with the whole damn book.” Look forward to that. Meanwhile, I don’t want to sound like I think all relationships are doomed or something, so consider that at the aforementioned cookout, Martin and Bizarro Kate “finally hook up” and drive off into the sunset. If there is hope for fratboys and catgirls, there is hope for you and me.