Book Challenge #94: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

It’s reading challenge time again! This book is #94, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1953. I actually really enjoyed the introduction to this one, since it gave a whole history of Asimov’s robot novels and shone some light on the state of publishing at that time. Now on to my review!

I had read this book a very long time ago, which was enough to ruin the “whodunnit” of the mystery but left my memory of the details vague, and I enjoyed revisiting them. The story centers around Elijah, a detective who has the unenviable task of investigating a murder fraught with diplomatic hazards between Earth and the “spacers” who colonized other planets but still have an embassy of sorts back on Earth. To complicate matters, the detective is forced to partner with a robot, R. Daneel. This is problematic in a world where robots are widely disliked or distrusted due to them replacing humans in many jobs, with only a minimum social safety net for those squeezed out of work. It is also challenging because all robots on Earth are instantly recognizable as such, while R. Daneel is effectively indistinguishable from a human without close examination.

As the story progresses the relationship between the human and robot detectives slowly thaws, with many missteps along the way. I won’t completely spoil the story here since it is technically a detective novel and for me knowing the who and the why of the murder in advance did detract from the fun of the experience a little. The murder case isn’t always compelling, but the social context makes this novel interesting. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in here about how you can pack the highest density of people into a city, which by the time of this story are sprawling monstrosities the size of some states or small countries, where people never see the open sky. The density and efficiency of these massive population centers are also what make them extremely vulnerable, and yet the people who live there almost never seem to realize that. The conflicts between the people of Earth and the Spacers are partially due to things like religion but are mostly related to how they view distribution of resources.  The goal of the Spacers is to find some way to convince Earth to start colonizing new planets again, for the good of humanity as a whole. This is an interesting concept and in stark contrast to many sci-fi works that pit Earth against its colonies as they fight for resources. It was fun to see things like interplanetary relations and the Malthusian growth problem tackled from a very different perspective than the Mars books I just finished reading.

TL;DR:  There’s a reason this one is a classic. It is a fairly simple story but told well, and with some thought provoking commentary on automation, planetary carrying capacity, and effecting cultural change.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: Go read it. It’s short, sweet, and worth your time.

Next up: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Another Horizon Weekend

I don’t really want to go on and on forever about this game, and yet it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve been playing lately so that’s what you’re going to get. I’m more than 60 hours deep into this game and much farther along in the story now, so there will be spoilers in this post. Consider yourself warned.

Horizon continues to hit a lot of perfect notes for me. This far in, I’ve gotten most of the available upgraded weapons except the last 2 hunter lodge ones. Combat has become about getting better at killing machines with the tools I have, instead of learning the strengths and weaknesses of the different kinds of weapons. Now that I have more health, I’ve switched from favoring laying out elaborate trap mazes ahead of time to either just letting machines kill each other with corruption arrows, or tearing off a few key components from a distance and then running in with the blast sling. The exception is with Deathbringers, which even fully kitted out at level 50 require some smart use of elemental attacks and precision hits to do real damage. I really enjoyed the challenge.

Progressing the story has been fun, even though it feels like a slightly different game when you’re exploring ancient ruins and getting saturated with lore instead of hunting down machines in the open world. I have been pleasantly surprised that the story, while improbable, isn’t completely stupid. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised that so much of the story of the world is laid out pretty clearly for you as you progress. I was half expecting some kind of unsatisfying hand wave of “it’s lost to history” but that’s not what we get. So far I’ve seen exactly what happened to the world in the 2060s and what project Zero Dawn actually was. I’m excited to see how the last bit plays out and whether Aloy is satisfied with her answers when I get back to the Nora sacred lands.

I have come to absolutely love Aloy, to the point where she is now pretty high on the list of my all-time favorite videogame protagonists. She’s smart and capable and snarky and strong and she suffers no fools. Initially I expected that there would be some type of romance, either optional or forced by the story, but so far there’s no sign of that. Or rather, folks keep hitting on her and she keeps shutting them down. I love this. The best of these was when the sun-king found out his lover had died, and then immediately started hitting on Aloy. You get a couple response options here, and in the one I chose she basically says “do you hear yourself right now? I don’t think you’re actually interested in me.” The reason why I know this is a game and not the real world is because instead of freaking out or getting angry the sun king basically says “oh shit you’re right I’m sorry” and moves on to other things. I love this whole exchange because Aloy has plenty of empathy but doesn’t get mired down in anyone else’s emotional issues.

Anyway I said I didn’t want to ramble a ton more about this game and yet here we are another 500+ words later. I can see the finish line on this game looming pretty close now and I honestly don’t want it to end. I’m sure I’ll write even more about it here when I do though.

Horizon Weekend

I spent almost my entire weekend playing Horizon Zero Dawn. By this I mean I stayed up until completely ungodly hours of the night, and then hopped back on as soon as possible after grown-up chores the next day. I have a burning need to talk about it, and since many in my social circles got distracted by Zelda I figure I get to talk to my lovely readers instead.

For the most part I’m a PC gamer. I don’t buy a lot of console titles because of the expense and because my PS4 setup is slightly awkward. That said, if Horizon is the only game I get for PS4 this year I will still be satisfied. I cannot express how deeply I am in love with this game. Before I gush about all the great things though, I will point you to this amazing piece about the cultural appropriation in Horizon and how uncritical perpetuation of some of these stereotypes is harmful to native peoples. It is definitely worth a read and some thought. I get the sense that the developer was trying to do the right thing here, but tried to get there by seeing which things appeared “less offensive” via google search instead of actually consulting with any native people. I hope they take it into consideration moving forward, because aside from that it was truly great to see both women in positions of power, and to see actual and frequent variety in the races of main and side quest characters.

So, the game is beautiful. I get that most modern games tend to be quite pretty in their own ways, but this one speaks directly to so many things I love. The first time you see a pack of machines with their eyes glowing in the early morning fog is like a dream. The scenery feels very real and as you find more of the “vista points” you realize it is representing a real place. One of the things I spent a ton of my play time on has been crafting upgrades for all my bags and ammo pouches. It probably would have been utter torture farming so many rat bones and raccoon skins if I hadn’t found a place I loved to farm them in. It’s just a little corner of forest, outside of a bandit camp I cleared and near a river. There’s no machines around, just peace and quiet and lots of wildlife to hunt. Several times I’ve gone back to this quiet place when I needed more meat or skins not necessarily because the hunting is great there but because I just love being there.

In contrast to the quiet moments, combat can be a bit of a roller coaster. I appreciate that the game really rewards thinking ahead. Laying traps, bombs, and tripwires ahead of time can really change the flow of a fight. Once a fight is engaged the pace can get a bit frantic, especially with larger monsters or swarms of things. I love the feeling of dodging and leaping out of the way of attacks, and running to slide into cover. The various concentration skills help to slow down time and still make precision hits even mid-battle, and make the whole thing feel incredibly epic. I also love that all of the weapons feel very distinct but still useful. Sure, I gravitate to using the precision sniper-esque bow, but I also regularly use the tripcaster, the normal bow, and both of the slings. They all have different uses, and as you get access to higher-quality versions they also gain new functionality via new ammunition types. It makes saving up for those purple-quality weapons way more satisfying since it unlocks new attacks instead of simply increasing a flat damage number.

This game is very good at making you feel like a complete badass. I’m not always the most proficient at shooting things in games, but Horizon gives me enough tricks and tools to make me feel amazing. The other area where this is really noticeable is during climbing sequences. I’ve played games that suddenly try to turn into platformers and feel like they are wasting your time making you learn a series of fiddly jumps with requisite falls to your death. Horizon clearly marks climbing-accessable areas with yellow paint or ropes. Yes this feels a little like cheating but I’m not complaining. Nor am I complaining about the way Aloy gracefully hops from one handhold to the next with minimal direction from me. It just works, it looks cool, and it gets me up to high vantage points where I can enjoy the view instead of leaving me cursing and swearing about missing a jump for the 50th time.

If I want something that more closely resembles a puzzle, I’ll head for a cauldron. These are part dungeon, part exploration/puzzle, and give some insights into the world story. I absolutely adore the two that I’ve seen. If you haven’t played through one yet, maybe skip the rest of this paragraph for spoilers… The first time I went to a cauldron I didn’t know what to expect at all. I really liked the change of scenery from mostly natural or time-ravaged landscape to actively functional machine works. I liked that it gave me lots of ways to be sneaky but I could also run in and brute force my way through things if I had to. The boss fights at the end were intense, although by the second one I knew enough to take my time and lay lots of traps around the room before engaging in combat. The cauldrons were a little time consuming but completely worth it, both for the experience of seeing how the machines are made and for the reward of new overrides upon completion. I can’t wait to explore the rest of these.

Ok spoiler-ish things over. I want to touch on the story but honestly there’s not a ton for me to say yet. The game does a great job of setting up both the current pressing issue that Aloy is working on as well as the broader mystery of what happened to make the world the way it is. I don’t know how involved the main storyline is because although I’ve spent what feels like an obscene amount of time playing I have only just arrived at Meridian, the big city that’s your first lead in tracking down the cause of the big bad thing that happens at the end of the quasi-tutorial section of the game. I am completely okay with this level of progress, because I’ve enjoyed every single distraction along the way. Errand quests, bandit camps, cauldrons, tallnecks, hunt challenge courses, they all have different levels of challenge and different but satisfying rewards. The only potential downside is that I’m now level 31 and my story quests are level 17-ish. However none of the story fights have been a complete pushover even with the level discrepancy so I can’t really complain.

Sometimes open world games lose me because they don’t give me enough direction, or they drown me in choices and I feel like I’m not making any progress on any one thing. Somehow Horizon avoids this and I’m not sure what makes it work. I think it helps that I bought all the available maps as I left the starting area, so vistas and collectables are marked and I don’t have to wander aimlessly and hope that I stumble into something cool. This basically saves me from having to open an external website or something, and lets me satisfy my compulsion to collect everything and essentially clear an area of content before I move on. I do enjoy the fact that they mark an area without pinpointing the exact location, though, so I still get a little bit of exploration and sense of discovery. It feels like a good balance, and the maps are completely optional so you can discover things on your own if you prefer that route instead.

Overall I am head over heels in love with this game. The story is interesting, the world is fascinating, the combat is satisfying, and you get to ride around on awesome robot animals. I know there’s an avalanche of great games releasing right now and in the coming weeks but if you were on the fence about this one I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you’ve been playing I’m curious how far you’ve gotten and what your thoughts are, so leave a comment and let me know!

Book Challenge #95: The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson

Once again it is my reading challenge list time. This time we’re discussing #95, The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The first volume, Red Mars, was published in 1993. The subsequent two novels, Green Mars and Blue Mars were published in 1994 and 1996 respectively. This time we get two firsts for my book challenge. This is the first time I’m revisiting a book I’ve already read, and the first time I enjoyed a series entry enough to read more than the first book. I had read Red Mars a few years ago and remembered liking it, but I never read the other two. This time around I decided to give them a shot, which is why there’s been so much time since my last book post!

Since this is a series I wanted to comment on the books independently before I give my final verdict, so let’s walk through each book.

Red Mars: This is the story of the colonization of Mars. The novel actually starts off in the middle of the story with a point of crisis, then goes back to show the journey of the “first 100” colonists from their voyage from Earth through several decades of life on Mars. This is definitely a hard science fiction novel, and if you don’t recognize words like thermokarst or polyna you might be spending some quality time with a dictionary as you read. However, this novel also looks at the social interactions between the first 100 and the larger political landscape with just as much interest and detail, and that’s why the book is so engaging to me.

We get to see the landscape of this alien world, and how human activity changes it for better or worse. Some characters want to preserve Mars as much as possible, others want to terraform it completely, with various factions at different positions between these extremes. All of these intentions also get clouded by normal human things, romantic entanglements, pettiness, greed, and jealousy. In the end Mars becomes a very different place, and most of the original 100 colonists have died, but you are still left on an optimistic note because there are some groups still standing and there is still work to be done.

I remembered enjoying this book a lot when I first read it, and I enjoyed it again this time so I decided to keep reading the next in the series. Considered on its own I’d be tempted to give this one a rating of 4.5 or even 5 out of 5.

Green Mars: This one picks up a bit after Red Mars left off, starting with the hidden colony under the polar ice cap. At this point at least 2 generations have been born on Mars, and initially it seemed like the story was going to follow mainly their stories but in fact like the first book it bounces around between lots of characters. The points of view include the grandchildren of the original 100, new immigrants from Earth, and several of the first 100 who are still around.

Like the first book, there’s a lot of the science of Mars here, along with other disciplines like economics and sociology. I’ve got a firm grounding in a lot of the science so I was fascinated by it, but if for example you don’t know or care why the percentage of nitrogen in the atmosphere is important then there will probably be big chunks of this book that don’t appeal.

The story here isn’t too different from the later half of Red Mars. There’s fascinating worldbuilding (both in the literary sense and the actual terraforming of Mars sense), but it is also extremely slow paced. I’m invested in the surviving members of the first 100 but it is strange seeing them live to unnatural ages, still driving the destiny of Mars when they should be part of its history. By the time I finished I was satisfied with the story but also unsure whether I wanted to invest the time reading the last book in the series. Taken on its own I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Red Mars, more like a 3.5 out of 5 rating.

Blue Mars: This book is even more of the same. There’s a lot of long descriptions of martian scenery punctuated by the politics of Mars and the little vignettes that make up the long lives of the novel’s characters. There were a couple of moments in this one that fell flat for various reasons ranging from changes in the characters to lack of obvious narrative direction. The one that broke my suspension of disbelief the most was seeing Sax, the quintessential scientist, be amazed at the existence of a woman math genius. It felt weirdly inconsistent not just with my hope for progress, but with the novel itself, a world hundreds of years in the future where we’ve colonized Mars, where people of different genders and races seem to share life and work and politics and everything else fairly equally.

The few times where I got jolted out of the story in this book also made me think hard about what the narrative was about, and whose story it really is. There’s not much of a coherent journey in Blue Mars for any one character. Instead I suppose this book and the series as a whole are really the story of Mars itself as it gets infected with life and evolves over a few hundred years, or perhaps the story of humanity as it leaves the Earth behind. Taken on its own this was my least favorite of the three books. I would rate it 3/5.

TL;DR: Red Mars is pretty great and I’d recommend it. The other two books in the series have some interesting ideas but get bogged down by slow pacing and lots of descriptive text.

The Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: Thought-provoking hard sci-fi about colonizing another planet, and about social and political power. It is a very long, slow read but full of interesting ideas that make the journey worth it. Would especially recommend the first book of the trilogy.

Next up: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov.

March 2017 Gaming Goals

Another month, another chance to see how badly I failed to meet my gaming goals. How did I do in February?

February Goals

FFXIV: Finish the available Main Story Questline and see the new-to-me raid content.  – Check! Well, almost. I’ve done all of alexander and Dun Scaith, plus Sophia. The only thing I’m still missing is the last trial of the warring triad, and I’m hoping to see that this week.

FFXV: Pick this back up and play at least 2 chapters. – Nope! I did pick it back up. I really really tried to play. But where I left off skytroopers kept dropping in on me every few minutes and they were so much higher level than me I had no chance. Running away constantly is not super fun. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong but I’m probably going to have to restart or ask for help so I can move on.

WildStar: Keep playing once a week, and get my new esper alt to level 30.- Sadly Nope. I played a little in February but my interest tapered off as I got drawn deeper and deeper into the FFXIV abyss.

Justice Monsters V: Clear all of the quests on any difficulty. -Nope. I really thought I’d get through this but I didn’t quite make it. I’ve been playing but mostly farming crystals to upgrade my monsters instead of doing the quests.

March Goals

FFXIV: Keep up with the MSQ as it releases. I don’t want to be left behind when the expansion arrives.

Get at least one more job to 60. This should be easy since ninja is at 58 and astrologian is at 56. I just want at least one more option to mess around with in the down time before Stormblood.

Do the new Hildebrand quests. I haven’t even started the new set that came along during Heavansward. I should probably get on that.

Avoid burnout! This is a strange one, but one of my goals for March is to play FFXIV a bit LESS than I have been. I’ve been running all the raids and doing my daily roulettes and chain running palace of the dead recently. I need to dial things back a bit so I’m not burnt out before all the fun new stuff gets here.

WildStar: Keep playing every week. I’m holding on to this game by a thread and I don’t want to fall completely away from it again. I need to keep setting aside a little time for it.

FFXV: Make some headway. Either by forging ahead through the troubles I’ve been having with random encounters, or by starting over and seeing if I can get myself off to a better start. I really want to love this game but after my initial infatuation with it I’ve been bouncing off it so hard.

Horizon Zero Dawn: I was fully prepared to miss out on this one, or at least wait a while until the price came down. However the amazon prime preorder discount coupled with a forgotten gift card leftover from xmas meant that it’s actually within my budget. I started it last night and so far it’s been AMAZING so I think I’ll be pretty motivated to finish this one.

It’s a pretty FFXIV heavy month here honestly. I’m hoping I can walk the line of getting things wrapped up before the expansion and not completely burning myself out.