Category: Leonard Richardson

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!


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.

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.

When I cite Stephenson I’m not even counting The Big U

Okay! Full disclosure: Leonard Richardson and I once spent roughly a hundred hours within three feet of each other. So consider that, then toss it out the metaphorical car window and fasten your metaphorical seat belt, because it’s going to be a WILD METAPHOR.

Leonard has just announced that Candlemark & Gleam will be publishing his first novel, Constellation Games, which contains–as he says–“zero-gravity sex, hive minds, terraforming, paleontology, fine art, warps in space-time, existential horror, and shipping containers… But most of all, it’s got video games.” I got to read the book early, and it’s all true! He didn’t even include the cosplay and limited nuclear exchanges.

I’ve talked to a couple other people who also beta-read it, and preceding each such conversation came a kind of cautious dance, as each of us felt the other out to see if exploding into rapturous glossolalia over a then-unpublished first novel was going to make us look silly. But then we did, and it didn’t. I’m not fucking around when I say that Constellation Games is Leonard’s markmaker: casting about for other writers who came out the gate this strong, I keep coming up with names like Neal Stephenson and Douglas Adams and Kelly Link.

In case you couldn’t be bothered to click either of the links up there, CG is going to be serialized online starting in November, then published in print afterwards. It is an indicator of my nonfuckingaroundness that I am going to create a new category on NFD just for this book, to contain posts discussing the chapters as they go up. I JUST DID IT. ZERO ROUNDFUCKING. I think you should subscribe to the book and follow along with me! You will be rewarded, and besides, you’re going to get really sick of my blog otherwise.

Not All Dreams Can Come True

From across the political spectrum (that is, from my liberal girlfriend and my conservative cousin) I have heard rumblings of disappointment about Obama’s supposed plan to end manned space exploration.

If you go read that article you’ll actually see that it’s not the case at all: they’re scrapping the rickety Space Shuttle program, which has been slated for retirement for years and basically only goes to the International Space Station, because they want to concentrate on the mission to build a Mars base–a mission proposed by Bush. Resupply missions to the ISS are being contracted out to an increasingly healthy private spaceflight industry (which development I’d think would please free marketeers). NASA’s budget is actually increasing by $2 billion next year.

But this also seems like a good time to re-link Leonard’s article from 2008 about the relative awesomeness of manned vs. unmanned space exploration. It did a lot to persuade me that, while manned spaceflight does a lot for a very small group–a few hundred people worldwide, all more genetically perfect than supermodels, mostly white, mostly male–unmanned exploration delivers a great deal more, dollar for dollar, for the rest of us.

Three things make a roundup

I am a hacker’s anus, Bob.

I worked a phone bank last night, for the second time in my life and the first time for a political candidate. (If you know me you already know which candidate. If you don’t, see if you can guess by the side-street parked car count: two Priuses, two Fits and a Yaris.)

Cold-calling is hard for anybody, but for an introvert it’s pretty awful. My stomach ached on the way home, and stories like the one about the man who told me he wasn’t voting because of the apocalypse didn’t really make it better. And I was calling people in Oregon, man! A battleground state this ain’t.

So why did I do it, and why am I going to go back? Because of a stubborn faith in Leonard’s concept of vote multipliers and a corollary syllogism of my own devising: that memory is fluid, that people are self-centered, and that therefore vote multipliers affect both the future and the perceived past.

Voting for a winner confers a perceived, and perhaps even deserved, ownership in the winner’s subsequent successes. This is why incumbents get re-elected, and why politicians who abandon campaign promises can ride them out for a while before their approval ratings begin to drop. We take credit for what we’ve done right, but don’t like believing we chose wrong.

My candidate’s going to win the election, and I think he’s going to lead us toward better things; but the more people vote for him, even in long-decided states, the more lasting support he’ll have, and the more he’ll be able to accomplish over the next eight years. It’s not just that I want to be able to look back at a positive change and say that I was part of it. It’s that I want to nudge other people from apathy into agency, and let them see that it is good.

Leonard was here for a week! It was great! I didn’t blog about it because I was too busy hanging out with Leonard. Leonard didn’t blog about it because he apparently spends two weeks out of three on airplanes, to the point that travelblogging has become passé. The world demands Leonard.

Kara and I tried to show him the good side of the city: we ate at a lot of restaurants, played a lot of games, climbed a waterfall and discovered that happiness comes in gourds. Leonard also fixed my stupid hard drive (twice!) and helped me find a new grip on a game design problem that’s been bothering me for months. I can only assume that when Sumana visits in November, she will improve my gas mileage and teach me how to get free money from the government.

By the way! Kara and I are dating, in case you care but are not on Facebook. It is also great! Dating, I mean; Facebook is mostly okay.