Not Cool, Guys. Not Cool.

So, I was going to go to the thousand points doubles tournament at Black Knight Games today.  Had my army all set, even managed to get a couple of new battlesuits painted up; a pair of fireknives, rather than the trio of deathrains I'd wanted, but beggars can't be choosers.  Got my camera to take a whole bunch of pics for the blog, codex and rulebook, a big water bottle so I wouldn't be going for the sodas all day, and off I went.

And then, about five minutes away, my buddy called me from the store to tell me that, while the website said the tournament started at noon, in fact it'd been going on for two hours before we even got there.

Needless to say, neither of us were exactly impressed by that.


This Review Submitted via Difference Engine

Steampunk has always been a bit of a conundrum for science fiction fans.  On the one hand, it's clearly set in the past, usually pre-20th century, though there are some who come closer to the current time.  On the other hand, however, the worlds of steampunk are significantly more advanced than their historical contemporaries, often far past the point of actual possibility.  On balance, then, I'm usually inclined to consider steampunk a form of science fiction.  Which means it's appropriate for this blog, being futuristic but not necessarily the future.  Which means Steampunk II - Steampunk Reloaded is appropriate for review.

Reloaded with coal?  Wood?  Aetherium?  Who can say!

At 428 pages this may not sound like a particularly weighty tome, but the type is rather dense, and packs a surprising amount into this volume.  For the most part it's quite worthwhile, too, though there are a few stories that seem to drag rather brutally.  And there are just a few flat-out strange choices for inclusion in this work, such as a more raygun gothic/deco story and a tale of Coyote trying to help free a girl from service to Titania, which is just a flat-out fantasy tale.  The editors save the worst for last, though, closing out the book with 'A Secret History of Steampunk' by 'The Mecha-Ostrich', over forty pages of disconnected fragments of story jammed together, linked only by the most tenuous of connections.  Lacking any real, coherent narrative to carry the reader through, those last forty pages can seem frankly interminable, and certainly don't allow for the fiction section to end on a high note.  That's followed by a short non-fiction section, mostly biographies of all the contributors but with a few short essays on steampunk itself, its potential future and its personal impact.

But don't get me wrong, this is an excellent collection, with a variety of strong, compelling short stories.  From the intensely personal 'The Steam Dancer (1896)' to the lyrically aesop-like tale of 'The Mechanical Aviary of Jalad-ud-din Muhammad Akbar', from the Victoriana of 'The Strange Case of Mister Salad Monday' to the Western flavour of 'The Cast Iron Kid' to the east Asian 'O One', from the lighthearted romp of 'Balfour and Meriwether in the Adventure of the Emperor's Vengeance' to the class-conscious rabble rousing of 'The Anachronist's Cookbook', Steampunk II has something for every potential fan of the genre.  And despite being a fair connoisseur of various genre short fiction pieces, there was only a single story in this collection I'd seen anywhere else, and even that was an interesting alt-hist piece well worth re-reading.

I'm always wary of recommending an anthology for purchase; they're often quite pricey, and the stories can be pretty hit or miss in a lot of them.  But this collection, and the anthology that preceded this one, I'm happy to recommend without reservation.  Any steampunk fan, no matter what particular form of steampunk story they like, will find something here to enjoy, and enjoy greatly.


The Fourh Sphere Part 1 - HQ

Codex: Tau Empire is apparently in the offing, coming sometime towards the end of this year or the beginning of the next.  Obviously it's not exactly right around the corner, but given the codex update cycle Games Workshop operates on, it's relatively soon.  So, with that in mind, I wanted to lay out some of what I'm hoping to see.  In particular, there is one unit in each of the force organization slots that simply needs a thorough re-thinking, and on which I'm going to focus. 

HQ - The Ethereal

As every Tau Empire player knows, the Ethereal is a complete waste.  50 points gets you a statline that would be moderately impressive for a non-special character Imperial Guard HQ, no armour, no ranged weaponry, no psychic powers, and a pair of non-power weapon close combat weapons.  Compared to the other main option, the 1+ battlesuit-wearing Shas'el, there's no contest whatsoever; the Shas'el gets an almost entirely better statline across the board, plus a jetpack, the Acute Sense special rule, and a 3+ save.  Oh, and he also gets the ability to carry a gun!

So, what does the Ethereal have that the Shas'el doesn't?  Special rules.  Ethereals have two of them that really matter; Inspiring Presence, which allows Tau (not Kroot, Vespid or Drones) with line of sight to them to re-roll a Morale check.  Not a leadership test, mind, just a morale check.  And they can't do it if the Ethereal is in a transport.  And having an open line of sight to him usually means that he's out in the open to begin with, making him an exceedingly squishy target, particularly in light of special rule number two, Price of Failure.  This rule states that, when the Ethereal dies, every Tau unit, not just those with line of sight, have to take a leadership test and get Preferred Enemy.  Preferred Enemy is largely useless, since Tau are so bad in close combat that small benefits simply can't make up the difference, but the morale check is brutal.  Elite Tau Empire units have the same leadership values as basic Space Marines; they make Orks look well-disciplined!  The loss of a single model, who remember wears no armour and has a very weak statline, can theoretically send whole units running for the board edge, and given the number of jetpack-equipped units in a Tau cadre they'll run very fast, indeed.

So, it's obvious why nobody takes the Ethereal.  The question is, how do you make him viable?  And the answer basically depends on what the role of the Ethereal is.  It'd be easy enough just to stick him in a battlesuit, or even a stealth suit, and treat him like every other character in every other codex.  But the Ethereals are unique amongst the leaders of the forty-first millenia in their effect on their troops, and that should be represented on the tabletop, as well.  An Ethereal shouldn't just be a Shas'el with some CC potential and a couple special rules, it should be a unique and characterful thing in and of itself.

The most obvious fix, of course, is to give the Ethereal armour.  The only other things running around without armour in this codex are the Kroot, and you have to field them in minimum squads of 10.  And they have guns!  Sorry, I just can't get over that.  Anyway, if the Ethereal is meant to be that important, it should be reasonably well protected.  A 4+ save, or even a 5+ invulnerable, are the minimum this unit should have.  After that, if you actually want to play up the CC element (and the only weapons you can currently give Ethereals are two regular CC weapons or one weapon that gives +2 strength), then for the love of all that's holy, give them power weapons.  They're just not going to accomplish anything, otherwise.  And another point of initiative wouldn't hurt, either, since as it stands the most storied and deadly close combat warriors in the Tau Empire will hit second after just about every other unit out there. 

The special rules are the other place where this unit really needs fixing, and again, it comes down to what this unit is supposed to do.  If they're only going to be armed for CC, that means they're expected to get up close and personal to contribute.  However, as it stands now the cost-benefit ratio is hugely out of sync; Ethereals provide little real combat power, at the risk of army-wide devastation should they be killed, which they almost certainly will be if they're rushing out into the front like that.  Inspiring Presence and Price of Failure aren't bad ideas in an of themselves, but they are poorly executed.  Inspiring Presence should affect all Tau models on the board, including Drones but excluding Kroot and Vespid, and rather than just allowing re-rolled morale checks, it should allow a re-roll for all LD-based tests.  Tau leadership is weak pretty much across the board, relative to cost and comparisons with other armies' equivalent units, and this would provide a very real way to address that.  For that same reason, Price of Failure shouldn't break units when the Ethereal dies, because then you're demanding a LD test just when the army is least capable of making one.  Instead, what about something like forcing units that fail the test to go to ground for a turn, a sort of moment of shock, after which they get back up.  A single turn forced to go to ground may not sound like much, but that could be debilitating given that it's a full turn in which you do no shooting or maneuvering.  After that, give them a useful Universal Special Rule, like Counter-Attack or Fearless or Furious Charge, something that really will make a difference and show just how damned mad they are at the death of their Ethereal.  Or just don't provide a 'benefit' afterwards, and tone down the effect of Price of Failure.  Either way, the Ethereal's special rules are way out of whack, and if Games Workshop plans to sell any more of them, they'd best get around to fixing up the gulf between the model's costs and its actual value.

So, those are my suggestions for fixing the Ethereal; armour, power weapons, a better I and more balanced special rules.  It also wouldn't hurt if the Honor Guard counted as a Troops, and therefore scoring, unit, because who needs more expensive Fire Warriors who can't score?  I'm not exactly lacking St 5 AP 5 guns as-is, guys, and one better BS isn't that impressive in a codex that contains Pathfinders.

Next up, the Elites!

On Why The Market Can Never Be Truly Transformative

In an expanded 'Spark in the Summer' interview with Tim Wu the issue of the cycle of monopolization was raised.  Wu made the argument that technologically based business cycles have a reliably predictable progression, from outsider innovation to a dominant market share, to beneficial 'golden age' monopoly, and finally to the kind of suppressive, exploitative monopoly more commonly understood by the term.  The interview is quite interesting, not least for bringing a few little tidbits to the attention that people might not otherwise know about.  For instance, the reason Bell initially tried to suppress the tape recorder and the answering machine; it's not for the reason you might think.

Did they see him coming?  Listen, and find out!

But what really caught my ear were Wu's comments about the non-profit and public sectors' roles in innovation and creation.  While acknowledging that 'golden age' monopolies have a great deal of money to spend on R&D, potentially making their service faster/cheaper/more efficient/smell like new car/etc., he also points out that universities and government-funded non-profit groups can do that sort of research just as well, and that those groups aren't limited by the overarching identity of their employer.  Businesses have their own market share to worry about, and little interest in introducing transformative technologies, because those are exactly the kinds of technologies that disrupt that very market share.  If a petrochemical company researcher discovered, by accident, a way to power an engine purely on potato peelings and dryer lint that company would sit on that technology until doomsday if it could.  Not because it's nefarious, but simply because it's entirely outside the scope of their business plan.  It would be silly to expect them to want to publicize that sort of research, as silly as expecting politicians to volunteer information about the 'other women' they've been seeing or the military to start handing out pamphlets outlining the strong and weak points on their APCs.  It's just fundamentally contrary to their purpose.

Which is not to say, however, that the only other answer is to somehow abolish capitalism, Star Trek-style.  Given that some resources must always be finite, even if it's just time and interest, there simply has to be a mechanism in place to direct the most efficient possible distribution of those resources.  You can usually tell a rather lazy science fiction writer by the absence of either the private sector (in a post-scarcity utopian system) or the government (in a grim and commercialized dystopian system).  To fully function, modern human society requires both of these things; heck, anything past basic hunter-gatherer society requires both these things, and even there you might need a kind of private sector to have someone making spears and arrowheads and flint knives and the like.

The world's first entrepreneur?  Or just a really bored caveman?  You decide!

The market is a strange beast.  It's impossible to argue, with any kind of intellectual honesty, that it hasn't done an amazing job of introducing, streamlining, perfecting and then replacing all manner of technologies and services.  To have gone from a steam engine so inefficient it was only worthwhile sitting at the mouth of a coal mine to nuclear technology, from the hand-delivered 'pony express' to email and FedEx, from computers that were just people with adding machines to computers that let a single person create an entire film on their own, from horses to electric cars, all in such an unbelievably short amount of time, societally speaking, is nothing less than a tribute to the sheer power and ingenuity a free market makes available.  At the same time, however, many of the most fundamentally transformative technologies were either first invented by the non-profit sector or made possible only by government grants and guarantees, simply because nobody else would fund things with so little obvious potential pay-off.  The market has a great eye for tomorrow, as it were, but can't for the life of it see next week.


Always Dragging Practicality Into It

This is 'Fleet Commander', the work of Arthur Nishimoto, a student at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Built mostly around the RTS Star Wars: Empire at War, it's certainly a technically impressive feat, particularly the starfighters drawn in Paint and the Death Star done up in Photoshop.  The video's been making the rounds on the great nerd blog circles, but rather than gush about its awesomeness (which it has) or complain that it'll never be commercially released (which does suck), I thought I'd try and introduce a slightly broader focus to my comments.

'Fleet Commander' looks good, there's no question about it.  And with four players working simultaneously on the screen, it's clearly got the sophistication to be a satisfyingly complex and rewarding play experience.  But unlike the rest of the nerd blogosphere, I can't say I'm especially interested in actually playing this thing, and that has a great deal indeed to do with the ergonomics of the system itself.

Despite the fact that sitting is apparently killing us, I just can't see standing and holding my arms out long enough to play an even moderately detailed RTS to be that comfortable.  Such games can easily eat up an hour or two of time at any one go, and I can't imagine my arms being in any kind of non-jellied state at the end of such a time, nor can I imagine myself doing anything other than shifting from foot to foot in an attempt to get comfortable.  And of course, the screen is both extremely large and extremely close; at one point in the video, one of the players actually has to take a step back to see the full extent of a blast from the Death Star.  Going blind from sitting too close to a television may be a myth, but sitting that close isn't likely to do anything particularly good for your vision, either.

It's certainly an impressive display, don't get me wrong.  But as a game in and of itself, I don't think it's quite the barn burner the nerd community believes it to be.


A Defence of Good Writing - How Sad It Needs One

Transformers: Dark of the Moon came out recently, fulfilling two predictions I made earlier.  First, that the movie would make ludicrous amounts of money.  And second, that it would be a bad movie.

Not the most difficult of predictions, admittedly.

The Transformers franchise hasn't usually been known for its challenging and thought-provoking storytelling skills, but relative to their contemporaries the Michael Bay Transformers films are lucky to rank with the poor dub and extremely lazy animation of the Unicron Trilogy.  And frankly, its sexuality is so juvenile and shameless that they're barely more credible than that great shame of the Transformers franchise, Kiss Players.  These films are terrible from any objective standpoint, varying between the lazy but largely satisfying summer blockbuster Transformers to the utterly inexcusable Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which was so bad even the film's star, Shia LaBoeuf, and director Michael Bay admitted it after the fact.  Plot, characterization, internal and inter-film continuity, none of them appear to have been any kind of a concern for those behind these movies.  And the only thing more frustrating than that is that a large subset of the nerd community seems to have no problem whatsoever with that.

The response has often been that of course they're bad movies, they're 'turn off your brain' summer blockbusters, or they're based on a stupid cartoon from the eighties.  And while the Transformers films have been somewhat more notable for this kind of response, it's not uncommon for nerd-friendly genre properties.  Ghost Rider, Green Lantern, the Fantastic Four, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, et cetera, et cetera; all pretty poorly constructed movies from any particularly objective measure, and all possessed of fierce defenders who either downplay or excuse their lack of quality.  And while these films, and those like them, all have their own unique defenders with their own unique defenses, the more I hear the more it seems that they're all saying the same thing; sure, maybe these movies aren't great, but at least we got to see [X] on the big screen, and hey, that's great.

This man, at least, would agree with that.

Does this betray a certain sense of inferiority?  I can't help but wonder.  The argument seems to be predicated entirely on the idea that fans should be grateful for any scrap tossed their way, and that's not a mindset I can agree with.  If a nerd-friendly property has become big enough to attract the funding of a major studio, then it should be big enough to get a little respect.  And nerd properties are getting very big, indeed.  Iron Man, Thor, Batman, The Walking Dead, A Game of Thrones, The Sword of Truth, all respectful adaptations of nerd-friendly properties that went on to be both critical and commercial successes.  Marvel is building at least a six-picture deal around The Avengers, both individually and as a whole!  The Dark Knight made a billion dollars when it was released to the home market! There's literally no reason not to put the extra effort into a nerd-friendly property, given the tremendous rewards already demonstrated, and yet time and again we get, not a Dark Knight or Iron Man, but a Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, or an I, Robot, or a Jonah Hex.  Or, heck, anything ever made by Uwe Boll. 

Or Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

AKA - Transformers: It's Mostly About Humans.


Torchwood? Too busy torching everything else

Torchwood, for those who don't know, was a spin-off of the latest Dr Who.  Launched in 2006, just a year after the return of the good Doctor himself, the series was planned as a 'darkier and edgier' foray into the Dr Who universe, contrasted with the middle ground of the parent series and the children-friendly Sarah Jane Adventures.  Russel T. Davies, the driving force between the early nu-Who and Torchwood, claimed that "[w]e can be a bit more visceral, more violent, and more sexual, if we want to. Though bear in mind that it's very teenage to indulge yourself in blood and gore, and Torchwood is going to be smarter than that," and the series lived up to its promise, including heroes who slip girls alien-based mickeys, lesbian succubi, a long-term homosexual relationship and all the swearing and violence you could ask for.  It wavered between the camp of Dr Who and its own 'gritty' styling, and for me, at least, it was a pleasant enough way to spend forty-some-odd minutes, plus commercials.

So young.  So sexy.  So almost-completely dead.

The series did well enough for a few years; it didn't set the ratings world on fire, but it pulled in solid numbers week after week, eventually moving up from BBC 3 to BBC 2.  Unfortunately, it seems like someone wanted to make a bigger splash, so the third season was launched; Children of Earth.

Team's a little smaller now, isn't it?

The second season had already done away with two of the five principals, and Children of Earth ramped it up, killing off the last possible expendable character and basically making the other two hideously miserable.  I know there are plenty of people who think Children of Earth is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but frankly, I found it unwatchable.  The plot is a mess, with actions taken that can have no possible benefit relative to their cost and a dreary picture of a humanity that would fit right at home in the grimmest of dystopias.  Nobody's particularly likeable, the whole miniseries is suffused with teenage angst, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it unhappy.  Sadly, it was also a critical blockbuster for the series, bringing in not just audiences in the UK but in the States as well.  So, with the nihilistic Children of Earth proving to be such a smash, what's next?

Seriously, guys.  Put out a 'Help Wanted' sign or something!

Torchwood; Miracle Day, that's what.  And as much as I love nu-Who, and enjoyed the first two seasons of Torchwood, I can't say I'm at all excited by this.  It's set in America, focused primarily on two CIA operatives at first, meaning 'Torchwood' is something of a guest in its own show.  Not that there's much 'Torchwood' left; the series progressively killed off its characters and refused to introduce new ones, then blew up Torchwood's base and had Jack leave Earth entirely in Children of Earth.  It's hardly Torchwood anymore, now it's 'The Gwen and Jack show', at best, and between the lack of characters I still care about and the promise of more of the same I didn't like the first time around, it'll be morbid curiousity that draws me to Miracle Day.  I mean sure, it could be good; maybe, in spite of vowing to stick with arc-super-heavy miniseries', Davies will manage to inject some of the fun and energy of those first two years, and possibly get around to introducing a new bloody regular or three while he's at it.  It's not impossible, after all.

Though it may well take a miracle...


The Stars, Our (Eventual) Destination

The Economist has a rather interesting question up on its website at the moment; 'Is this the end of the space age?'  It's a reasonable question to ask, given NASA's retiring of its space shuttle fleet, with the last launch scheduled for just a few days from now, July 8th.  Governments, caught in the grip of a perfect storm of weak economic performance, high levels of public debt and a widespread conservative culture that views tax increases as fundamentally unacceptable, just don't have the capital necessary to go boldly, to un-split that popular infinitive. 

But does that mean the end of the Space Age?  If so, it would be a sad little age indeed, like asking if the Age of Sail was over before the first ship had crossed the Atlantic, or if the Computer Age was over before the bugs had been worked out of Windows 3.1.  But the difference between the Space Age and those other ages is that they showed a steady trend towards continuation.  There was no reason to assume the Age of Sail would end, because there was little evidence that the opportunities, and more importantly the rewards, of that technological revolution had yet been fully exploited.  With the Space Age, however, there are plenty of people who think that space exploration is at best abstracted science, and at worst just a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.

But I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet.  It's true that manned space exploration is no longer the driving force behind our ventures beyond the atmosphere, but that doesn't mean the Space Age itself is dead.  In a world increasingly dependent on satellites to maintain the web of connections that make every aspect of advanced Western-style society possible, the ability to launch space vehicles will continue to be a necessity; the ability won't be lost, merely redirected.  And so long as our ability exists, the potential that was the real draw of the so-called Space Age, which occupied the same spans as the Computer and Information Ages and had far less of a noticeable impact on those living through them, remains.  Perhaps governments will once more find the vision, and the funding, to venture into space.  Or perhaps corporate interests will find something in the void that calls to them; that, frankly, would be what is truly necessary to launch a meaningful Space Age.  It may be that we move outwards in only the tiniest and most incremental of steps, from the ISS to the Moon to Mars over the span of too many decades for those dreaming of setting foot on the soil of another world, but there is no compelling reason not to go to space, eventually.  And humanity has a history of doing anything there isn't a compelling reason not to do, sooner or later, and a fair few number of things there is a compelling reason not to do.

So no, I won't throw in my towel just yet.  I may still get the chance to thumb a ride on a passing starship, and if I'd already thrown my towel away, well, what kind of hitchhiker would I be?