Book Pairings: Into the Weird

One of my favorite species of weird fiction is travel journals about improbable places. Stories about leaving home with a purpose, only to lose yourself in the strangeness of your destination. Finding yourself in a landscape that reflects the state of things (if you can believe in it at all). Places that feel like somewhere you could have been or should have been or might have dreamt you’ve been.

Book #1: Amatka, Karin Tidbeck

A place where everything must be named to keep it from disintegrating (I’m so jealous of this, it’s an idea I was using myself, but she pulled it off and gave some political weight in her story). Our protagonist is sent by the government to do research. Dystopian and strange.

Book #2: The Taiga Syndrome, Cristina Rivera Garza

I just finished this book! It’s a very small detective novel of sorts. At least, there is a missing woman and a detective. And a translator and a dark, dark forest. Noir-ish and woven with fairytales and the kind of language that gets under the skin. I’m left with more questions than I started with, which is exactly how you should feel after entering the woods.

Book #3: Tainaron, Leena Krohn 

A woman comes to a city of insects and there she stays, writing letters. The details of this city are delightful, as is trying to understand it. Not a plot-driven novel by any means, but a puzzle to ponder over and tiny world to wonder at.

Pair with the playlist at the end of The Taiga Syndrome, and a work of beautiful and disturbing interactive fiction

Saturday Morning Science

It’s a bright beautiful day, and I’m taking a break from work for poetry, picnics and working through the plethora of saved articles, papers, and books I’ve accumulated. A few interesting things:

  • Dickinsonia! Weirdest oldest animal we know, identified by its steroids. There’s a kind of hilarious quote that pretty much sums up the scientific process in the article too: “[My supervisor] Jochen [Brocks] said we could try it, but he was always sure that it was a stupid idea,” Bobrovskiy says. “Even I thought it would fail. But it didn’t.”
  • How does epigenetics help organisms adapt? A fascinating article about how changes in the expression of genes helps species respond quickly to environmental changes. Also remember learning about Lamarckian vs Darwinian evolution? I remember my high school biology class kind of laughing off Lamarck and his idea of acquired characteristics (“so if I just flap my arms I’ll eventually grow wings?”), but reality is much more subtle and complicated than that. On an epigenetics level, some traits are acquired through experience and passed on to the next generation…
  • A lovely essay: “We Should Never Have Called It Earth”
  • An actually good article about our preparedness for the next pandemic. There are a lot of factors we need to consider – leadership, hospital staffing and supplying, research, responsiveness (and technological capacity) of industry to produce vaccines and medications, education, funding of all of the above, etc. And as a side note since it caught my eye, I don’t think we can ever hope for a system to produce new vaccines in weeks.
  • A big challenge with producing good vaccines is that for some viruses, exposure to the virus (or a vaccine) results in an even more severe illness the second time you’re exposed. Dengue is one of those viruses, and so understanding the challenges of producing an effective vaccine and the potential risks is important.
  • Vision in the deep sea – fish eyes optimized to better see the faint lights of bioluminescence
  • The deformation of continents. It’s a wild thing to wrap your mind around, the fluidity of the earth, the large-scale malleability of stone.

Thoughts on Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies

One thing I did too much of over the weekend was play Sunless Skies, and having seen a lot of people disliking the game for what it isn’t, I kind of want to write about what it’s really good at. I’m really interested in exploring what it takes to make effective interactive fiction, and I think Failbetter Games does an awesome job with this, telling interesting stories that unfold organically and leave plenty of room for the reader/player to breathe. So a few things I really like about Sunless Skies (and honestly, their other games too).

Freedom of choice in character design

First off, I appreciate that there is a clear effort to make the games inclusive. You get to choose your pronouns/title, and what you choose has no impact on what you get to pick when designing your character. It’s a little detail, but makes the game feel more welcoming from the moment you begin.

The other character bit I enjoy is that there’s no set story about you, the player. You can create a story around your own character (and the game, I think works best when you do). Sunless Skies makes this even easier than Sunless Seas (which I also adore) by letting you pick Facets for your character as you level up – which each are bits of story about your past where what you choose to have done impacts who you are in the present. It’s just nice having tools to the freedom to tell your own story in the game, while still having some support.

Stories unfold at different paces by different mechanisms

One of the biggest mechanism details I appreciate is that stories unfold in different ways through all Failbetter’s games, which keeps things interesting and enhances the texture of the game. Some events are random, some are timed or by location, some events lead you across the world, some are local and short. It feels more realistic than a linear narrative and gives you choices and unpredictability.

Your actions also effect change on the world around you. This is especially nice in Sunless Skies, where the factions you associate with have an impact on their political standing and who is likely to leave you alone or do you harm. I’ve frequently had moments where I faced an quandary over whether I should stop to help an ally in a fight, or run for cover in a risky area.

No infodumping means you learn the way you would in the real world, which may be somewhat infuriating at times. There’s so much to know and so many puzzles to work through on your own. The longer you play and the deeper you dive into the world’s secrets the more things begin to make sense. There are moments of horror when you realize just what you have been part of all along.

Value on both the little and big

On the one hand, actions really do have consequences. One thing I think Sunless Seas is even better at than Sunless Skies is that it’s so much easier to die. Frustrating, but when every detail counts, it creates a lot of tension. And after working through so much story, those losses mean something – you have a fleshed out character to mourn.

On the other hand, it’s not all derring-do and grave decisions. I like a lot of the little details and opportunities that give you space between action. The beauty of open space and stars around you as you travel. The little remarks your officers make about your location. The opportunities to just explore ports and see what’s there without major plot consequences. Narratives really benefit from these moments to breathe or focus on the people. Perhaps you have a nightmare and decide to raid the pantry with your crew for a comforting midnight snack. Perhaps you find your aunt baking cookies for your crew. Perhaps you stop for a cup of tea (with a nice terror decreasing bonus) or wander around a port enjoying the sights just because.

The language!

These are narrative games, and the quality of the writing is fantastic. Plus you get wonderful wordplay and wonderful names.

If you’re going to name your vehicle the Efficiency is Our Watchword, you can’t be too surprised to find yourself wrecked in the middle of nowhere.
Another favorite wreck name: the All Shall Be Well
The Aunt is…quite a character.

Women in STEM vs the Lone Genius

I guess this is kind of a late reaction to the black hole picture, and the fallout around Katie Bouman, and several articles I’ve been reading, and general frustration with perceptions of science/female scientists.

So: black hole picture announced, a picture surfaced of Katie Bouman excitedly watching her work unfold on screen, followed by a brief burst of praise for women in STEM, followed by backlash against her and the very idea that she had made an important contribution at all.

It’s the typical rise-and-fall these days for women in STEM fields, it seems. It absolutely has to do with the fact that women are still not consistently perceived as competitive in these fields. But intertwined into the never-ending, exhausting narrative of misogyny (exhausting that women still have to work so much harder to exist), is a fatal flaw of sorts in how science is understood by the public. For some reason, we are still attached to the idea of science being done by solo, lone-wolf-type geniuses. After all, when was the last time you saw a scientist portrayed in popular culture who was part of a big team of equally-talented people?

It’s a major problem, because if scientific advancements are accomplished by one individual alone, then those who are being perceived as less capable are even more easily written out of the narrative. It limits the scope of what a scientist could be to a model that honestly doesn’t exist (and if it does, it probably looks like an established white male researcher whose fame overshadows those that assist his work). And if you don’t see yourself as the brash, brave explorer revolutionizing the world with their discoveries, then it is just that much harder to make that decision to go into a field that’s not quite yet comfortable with embracing people of all backgrounds.

So what, you say? Why do we need to see ourselves to become a thing? Can’t we all just follow our dreams? That only works if you perceive your dream as even being a possibility. If becoming a physicist seems just as wild as say, adopting a unicorn, you’re probably not going to pursue it. And we could talk about all the intersectional barriers that prevent kids from being exposed to and prepared for careers of all kinds, but that’s a vast world of discussion that deserves more than a sentence or two here.

The reality is that science is incredibly collaborative. Yes, you’ve got somebody responsible for the lab, but they’re usually not the ones doing the experiments. That work is usually done by students, and sometimes those students have students too. And then you’ve sometimes got lab techs and lab managers, and people running specialized facilities and generally keeping things moving and getting people trained in new skills. There are collaborators – some you’ve met in person, some you haven’t – potentially all around the world. Conferences where you meet other people and learn about what they’re doing. The lab next door where you go when you need to borrow something or ask advice. All people with very specialized skills in some areas, and other areas where they are still learning, and everyone is essential for things to progress.

There’s no one person doing everything. That’s not to say individuals can’t do amazing things, or don’t deserve credit for their accomplishments. It’s just that nobody works in a vacuum. What seems to have happened this time is that a single individual (who totally deserves recognition of her work and is definitely a role model for women in STEM) was presented somewhat inaccurately as the lone face of a project, which exposed her to people waiting to strike against anyone who failed to match what that face is “supposed” to look like.

I guess I think it might be easier to address the horrible bias against women and others in STEM once we’ve changed how we think science is done. It’s sort of awful, in a way that our accomplishments might not be seen until they are watered down with acknowledgement of collaborators, but it does open a door to conversation. More positively, reframing the narrative as one of collaboration welcomes everyone, because there is room for everyone to contribute what they are able. I’m not quite sure how to accomplish this, especially from a non-influential position. All I know is that we humans are storytellers and the more of us tell stories that celebrate each other’s achievements and thank those who work with us, the farther that new narrative will spread.