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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?”

Story Hacks: Ninth in a Series

Bear with me, because this S is about to get C, but there are times when—by sheer demographic necessity, or just to be different—you may want to write about a female protagonist. “What?” I hear you say. “But then how will I make my readers care about anything that happens to her?” I know it seems impossible! But there is a simple solution to this problem: Sexism.

It seems hilarious now, but in the misty past of yore, Sexists ruled the land and would frequently make girls feel bad for not being as good as men. To subtly indicate that this controversy will be your subject matter, have a man smack your protagonist on purpose in her butt area, then join his friends for a group smirk over cigarettes. I bet your spunky chick blows her hair out of her face and looks mad to show that she didn’t like it! This is classic Sexisy, one of the three unforgivable narrative sins. (The other two are kicking a dog and saying the “f-word”) (“fat”)

Now that we know who the bad guys are—the Sexisms—and who the good guy is—the girl—have her secretly practice being just as good as a man at something only men are good at. She wants to show everyone what she can do, of course, but how can she? She has too many female emotions!

Fortunately she will meet her savior: a bad boy with a good man inside him, who can learn that women are people too once she beats him at archery or boxing or whatever. Then, when the evil sexist goes crazy but not exactly because of our heroine because she’s really not a troublemaker, she and her new boyfriend can team up to defeat the metaphor once and for all! Now your audience has learned that females can solve almost all their problems, with help from men. No more sexistry ever! GIRL POWER!

Did I mention that she should be super hot but in a kind of tomboy-y way? That’s important.

For bonus points, make the villain a mean lady, to show that really the whole problem is chick-on-chick violence. Now that you’ve solved sex, you can do the same thing with racism! Instead of a heroine, just substitute a hero who is not white, then whoops I am being thrown from a moving car at freeway speed

Today’s Hack in a Nutshell: UNGH thudthudthudthud thud thud scraaaaape, CRACK



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!

Then God hit me with a baguette

Remember when we talked about Gatekeeper? Thanks to Kickstarter and the mighty game white hole who is Jeremy Penner, you can actually play it now, right in your browser! I bet you can’t beat my score (56) (you can totally beat my score).

Wrong on the Internet

A year ago I wrote about zero tolerance, intolerance and Antjuanece Brown, the Portland teenager who was thrown in jail and labeled a felon for texting with her girlfriend. Antjuanece is out now and things seem to be better for her and Jolene; I hope they are.

Not much has changed, though: the last week saw California and Washington come dramatically closer to marriage equality even as Oregon still lags behind. In the same week, Canadian Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that anyone opposing an Internet surveillance bill there was “siding with child pornographers.” Easy targets remain easy targets.

That’s why there’s so much value in the work my friend Ben is doing at his blog Wrong on the Internet, and particularly in his latest entry:

“This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.”

It’s difficult to read, a fact that has nothing to do with Ben’s considerable writing skill. At a certain point the mind flops down and demands that some things must be absolute, that you must be able to point at some set of Others and declare those are the bad guys. We’re wired for that behavior, deep in our instincts. The cognitive battle to remember the contrary is exhausting, and it never ends.

I’m not arguing for total moral relativity here: I’m arguing for vigilance, because the kind of dehumanization in which we regularly engage is a dangerous exploit for our brains. It’s one thing to say that some people do evil. But to strip the humanity from evildoers is to remove the horrible weight and substance of their acts. What if you were a survivor? What choices would you make if your survival had damaged you? “The answers are out there,” the man said, “but they will not improve your self-esteem.”

Straight By Fiat

I have this old favorite joke that almost no one else knows or gets, but I can’t stop thinking it’s funny, so I’m going to do my best to rid myself of it by the only method guaranteed to destroy humor: dissection.

Like many things stupid but great, and most things Devon Sawa, I would never have seen the 2002 comedy Slackers if not for its champion, my brother Ian. It’s a pretty slight movie and as teen comedies go it is not exactly shifting any paradigms, though it does feature some ringers in the cast, all of whom appear in the above clip. Yes, that’s Michael C. Maronna, Big Pete from Pete & Pete, playing a character (Jeff) whose sexuality is part of a slow-burning running gag throughout the movie. Here’s what makes it interesting: none of the jokes are homophobic. His friends know he’s gay and they’re fine with it. The target of the joke is repression, not sexual orientation, and it benefits greatly for that. (Note that this movie predates the genesis of Tobias Fünke by two years!)

Besides less-obvious targets, here are some things that I will always think are funny:

I don’t think the clip needs much context, but here it is just in case. Maronna, Sawa and Jason Segel are the scheming heroes, who have been milking the creepy Jason Schwartzman for money. Schwartzman comes to Maronna and Segel with evidence that Sawa has betrayed their confidence to his love interest (Jaime King). Upon seeing it, the guys are infuriated, and in a three-camera sitcom we would already know where this goes: they turn on Sawa together, then eventually they realize that Schwartzman is the real problem, kick him out and reunite. In fact, you can already see this playing out in Schwartzman’s head! Just before the clip begins, he sputters “he betrayed you! He stole my girl! He’s not our friend!” He’s transparency-oblivious character one.

Then Maronna starts his monologue, and it follows that scenario… for exactly five seconds, before veering off into his desperate fantasy of male bonding. He has rehearsed this speech, he has seen an opportunity, and now he siezes the moment to execute his pitch. He knows they will object–this sounds pretty gay!–but he has anticipated that, and before they can get a word in, addends that it is in fact not gay. Triumph. There is no way they can resist now.

In thirty seconds, Maronna covers all four of the humor angles listed above. The first three points are all basically about the tension between expectation and reality, which is also the root of all suffering, which in turn goes back to the old axiom that comedy is pain happening someone else. The magic of point four, commitment, is that he makes the other three completely implicit. Nobody hands him a straight line to set up the zinger. Nobody winks at the camera.* There’s a lot of trust in the audience here, and for me, at least, it pays off in a way that I’m still giggling at ten years later.

Okay, I think the frog is dead now. Mike Maronna is very talented and should get more work. This is all to explain why, whenever I express adulation bordering on the ecstatic for a male role model, I will make a sly face and add “but it’s not gay” after describing how I want to suck his cock.

* For a perfect example of how literally winking at the camera can undercut flawless commitment, see the last forty years of Dwight-and-Jim gags in The Office.


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, 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.


Governor Jan Brewer scolding President Obama with an upraised finger. She later complained of feeling threatened by him. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was ACTUALLY SHOT IN THE FACE, hugs him at the State of the Union.

I stole this juxtaposition from Racialicious.

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.

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