Monthly Archives: August 2012

The worlds of Ted Chiang

When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction. I think that there’s a very good fit between the two.

— Ted Chiang, from a 2010 interview at BoingBoing

The stories of Ted Chiang always have, at their hearts, a philosophical question: at what point do quantitative increases in intelligence give rise to a qualitatively different being? how would an artificially created sentient being arise? what if God’s presence was unambiguous and therefore religious devotion did not require faith? do we live in a deterministic world where “free will” has no meaning? To explore these questions, Chiang has created some of the most unique, interesting, and creative narratives I have encountered in science fiction.

Ted Chiang’s oeuvre is not difficult to read in its entirety – he has only published 13 short stories and novellas (to be fair, I’ve only read the first 12 – the last is in a book I haven’t read yet). His first eight stories are collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, and he has two novellas – The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Although his output may be rather small, he is critically very well-regarded – he’s won the Nebula Award four times and the Hugo Award twice, as well as other important-sounding honors.

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Little birds, little horrors

Yesterday, I finished reading a beautiful book – Birdscapes by Jeremy Mynott. This lovely read discussed the ways that people relate and respond to birds. It’s written by a devoted birder who talks about not only the desire by committed birders to go to great lengths to see rare, exotic, or out-of-place species, but also the things that ordinary people think about birds and the symbolism they carry. It it is a very engaging book, and I may have more to say about it later. One passage in particular caught my attention. Mynott recalls visiting New York in the springtime and watching North American warblers in Central Park. Last spring, some birder friends of mine took me out to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge to see the warblers. These are the species we saw:

  • Yellow warbler
  • Northern parula
  • Black-throated blue warbler
  • Yellow-rumped warbler
  • Magnolia warbler
  • Nashville warbler
  • Black-and-white warbler
  • Black-throated green warbler
  • Chestnut-sided warbler
  • American redstart

These are lovely little animals, delicate and as colorful as their names imply. They are migratory, coming to the US and Canada from their winter homes in South America and the West Indies, and like many songbirds, some of them are threatened by climate change and human activity.

This is a Kirtland’s warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii):

It is the most endangered songbird in North America and therefore highly desirable to birders. It breeds almost exclusively in Michigan, and relies on a fire ecology to renew the pine forests – it can only successfully nest in young trees. In 2010, Radiolab aired a piece on the Kirtland’s warbler (you can listen to it here, the entire episode is here). Range expansion of the brown-headed cowbird into the Kirtland’s breeding range (caused by logging activity) led to a decline in the warbler species. The brood-parasitic cowbirds fool the warblers into raising their chicks at the expense of their own offspring. In the 1970s, the Kirtland’s was down to a few hundred pairs. Culling of the cowbird population slowed the decline, but didn’t cause a recovery of the species. Continue reading

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Playing with others

I intend to review the occasional video game in this blog and to share my opinions about games and gaming in general. However, I think it important to note right off the bat that I don’t actually play all that many video games myself. I’ve played a few, but for the most part, I “play” games with my boyfriend. What this really means is that he holds the controller, and I watch. I know that to most gamers, this might invalidate much of what I have to say so I offer this little essay as a way to explain why I find pleasure in watching video games.

Most gamers will undoubtedly believe that the real pleasure of gaming comes not from the narrative of the story but from controlling the interactions with the game world. Game critic Tom Bissell writes in his book Extra Lives:

Games of any narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and typically doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined—the “fun” portions of the “played” game—and usually amounts to some frenetic reconception of getting from point A to point B.

As much pleasure as (some) gamers might take in cut scenes, the real point to the game is not watching scripted scenes unfold but in exploring, fighting, solving puzzles, and experiencing the game in other active ways. If one “plays” the game the way I do when I play with my boyfriend, the “ludonarrative” and the scripted narrative are more collapsed. The interaction I have is not with the game, but with my gaming partner, directing him towards what we should do next, or what dialogue options he should select. Sometimes this means that nothing I do has any impact on the outcome of the story or on the ease with which we get there. Even when it does, it is probably more like a chose-your-own-adventure than a truly interactive experience. Why then, a hardcore gamer might think, would a person spend so much time watching a game unfold with no control? What could she possibly take away from the experience?

The games my boyfriend and I play together are strongly narratively driven. That is, while the gameplay, fighting (if any), and puzzles (if any) are of course important, the story is central and can encompass complex character arcs. It isn’t just story that is important, though. There are types of narrative games that my boyfriend plays alone that I do not participate in. I may be happy to watch for a little while, but these are his games, not mine. Platformers (ie. the Super Mario titles) and other action-y sorts of games can be hypnotizing to watch, but don’t sustain me through the many hours needed to beat a game. Open-world games, such as most of the Rock Star (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption) and Bethesda (Fallout 3 and Skyrim) don’t work well with two people. Although they have a central storyline, they are primarily about a single person’s exploration of a world. I’m not quite sure why, but they don’t seem to have enough narrative momentum to keep a second person involved, at least not this second person. However, the games that we play together were not designed with multiple players in mind. Most people, I think, would not consider playing a 70-hour RPG with another person.

This is a sample of some of the games my boyfriend and I have played together.

So why do I do it? The first analogy that came to mind was that of an audiobook. Listening to a recorded version of a book is not the same as reading it. You surrender a certain (not small) amount of creative control and engagement with the text. The rhythm and cadence of the words no longer belongs to you. The pace is controlled by another person’s voice. The ability to re-experience passages, to flip back and forth is hindered. I find that much of my involvement with the story becomes somewhat distanced. My mind wanders more easily and I am more divorced from the words. However, I can’t deny the pleasure and value of listening to audiobooks. The story still comes through, along with much of the pleasure of the words, which can be enhanced by a good reader. Furthermore, although you deny yourself the accomplishment of actually reading a difficult book, it can allow you to experience something you might not otherwise have been able to enjoy. The diminution of one’s engagement with the book might be preferable to never having experienced it at all.

However, it occurred to me that that analogy failed in these circumstances. It isn’t just watching games that I enjoy. Many playthroughs of games are available on the internet, with and without commmentary by the player (an amusing example is here, if you have many hours to spare). However, I am never tempted to watch them, even for games that seem interesting. Playing games with my boyfriend is less like listening to an audiobook and more like being read to. I may not be fully engaging with the game, but he is, and I am engaging with him. Being read to is not a matter of passively listening, but of interacting with the person reading to you. It is intimate, to be read to; it is personal. Watching him play, not passively but actively, we turn something that is normally a solitary activity into a shared experience. We both still have our own subjective opinions of the game and its story and characters, of course, but the experience was both of ours.

Games generate many spontaneous moments that are unique to the playthrough. Sometimes these are just amusing bugs or moments when the AI creates something unexpected. Sometimes these are more complicated and add depth to the experience – either because of choices you made in the gameplay (games often have branching narratives that depend on the choices you make) or because of realizations you had about it (ie. solving a puzzle or figuring out how to beat a boss when your life is almost out). I experience these moments with my gaming partner. I also experience the frustration of being stuck at a puzzle, or at dying during a boss fight when you forgot to save, or of becoming lost in the map. Although I might have nothing to say about the controller or how the gameplay mechanics feel, I feel I have something to say about the experience of gaming, not only in the cutscenes but in the ludonarrative as well.

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4 Stars for Effort

For the past two years, for my own interest, I have recorded every book I’ve read on (here is my profile). Sometime in September, I will assemble my Books Read list for the year, but in the meantime, here’s an interesting observation I made while messing around with my Goodreads books. If you sort my read shelf by average rating, of the top 15 most highly rated books I’ve read in the past two years, 12 were comics. “Huh,” I said to myself. “That bears further investigation.”

So I investigated it, and here’s what I found:

Comics are rated significantly higher than prose fiction or nonfiction books. (p < 0.001)

As you can see, comic books overall were rated more highly than either nonfiction or prose fiction books. So, what’s going on here? Are comics really better than most prose novels? Are readers of comics more forgiving?

One thing to note before we dive into this issue: Goodreads, like all rating systems, tends to smooth out everything towards the middle.  To me, the most surprising thing that emerged was how little distinction the average Goodreads reader seems to make between works of obvious high quality (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell at 4.00 stars) and books that are really quite awful (My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, also a 4.00 star book).

Is Jodi Picoult’s creepy and sentimental drivel equal to David Mitchell’s masterpiece?

The whole list is like this — books that seem great are rated no more highly than books that left no (or no good) impression on me. Perhaps I am simply out of touch with the modern zeitgeist? Maybe everyone always gives most books 4 stars for effort?

I can think of a couple reasons why comics would be rated more highly than works of prose fiction. Maybe comics readers are more likely to like comics based on form alone and there is therefore rank-padding for comics. Maybe as they become more and more mainstream and comics readership becomes more synonymous with the general reading public, ratings will start to even out.

However, my sample is obviously nonrandom. These are books read for leisure by one person (me). Looking at my prose novels, it seems I am a pretty wide and general reader.  YA novels, nineteenth century classics, modern literary novels, sci-fi. As a random sample of prose fiction, I’d say my list is pretty good. For comics however, it’s obviously skewed. Of the 31 separate comics I’ve read, 9 belong to “The Walking Dead” series by Robert Kirkman and 5 to “The Sandman” by Neil Gaiman. These two series are highly rated (deservedly so) and generally widely praised. So the answer to my mystery is probably that I am a discerning comics reader and read only highly rated comics.

A caveat: the best comic I’ve read, maybe ever, certainly in the past year, has been “Habibi” by Craig Thompson, which comes in at a middle-of-the-road 4.04. Why?

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Looking Round


This first post is supposed to lay out my ideas for this blog and perhaps some direction about where I might be headed. I can’t be sure which direction I’m going to take yet, so perhaps I will start with a little anecdote instead. A couple years ago, I was working as a lab tech researching mouse immunology. Then, as now, I took the bus to work every day, and because I always read on the bus, I always had a book with me. I can work through books at a good clip when I want to, and my PI (primary investigator for you non-scientist types — it means my boss and the head of my lab) couldn’t help but notice the always-changing roster of novels on my desk. Once, he told me that in the past ten years, since he went to medical school, he had never read a novel or a novel-length book. He said he didn’t have the time for it. I was, I admit, a bit taken aback, as I always seem to be when I encounter non-readers. I’m not sure why he told me this. Maybe he admired me for ploughing through so many pages with no ulterior incentive. Maybe he thought I should be focusing more on my work, rehearsing procedures in my head on the bus or something. Maybe, most likely, he was trying to warn me that if I wanted to do well in grad school (I would be applying soon), I would probably need to give up this luxury and focus on my studies. What I came away with was this: there are things a person is willing to sacrifice, and things a person isn’t. For me, reading books is central to my sense of well-being. I won’t give up doing the things I love, career be damned.

Although I may be a scientist (and, yes, a second year grad student), I must admit that there are many other things that occupy large parts of my time and mind-space. Books, yes, but I can’t deny that I spend hours each week watching TV shows and movies as well as playing video games and doing other non-grad-school focused activities. I don’t consider this time wasted. (Well, most of it. I can’t admit that I have perfect quality control on what I consume.) But I think it may be time for some output to come out of all this input. This blog is a space for me to put down my thoughts on some of the things that occupy and distract my brain.

Coming soon: “So, Clare, what are you reading, anyway?” and “How to play games with others”.

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