The Fourth Sphere Pt. 3 - Troops

Like the HQ and Elites sections, the Tau Empire provides just two choices when it comes to Troops. Unlike the HQ and Elites sections, however, where there is a single, obviously superior choice, the Troops options aren't nearly so sharply divided between 'essential' and 'wasteful'. Unfortunately, that's not because the two Troops options Codex: Tau Empire provides are so good, but because they're both fairly mediocre.

I'm going to focus on the Firewarrior squad, because it's a 1+ unit and because, well, it is the Tau Empire and not the Kroot Empire. But don't think that means the Kroot carnivore squad is all that impressive, or isn't in need of no small amount of fixing come the next edition. It's just that the Firewarriors need the working-over more, and ultimately they're the more important unit.

So, what is this unit for? The obvious answer is 'holding objectives'. Two out of the three basic missions in 40K involve holding objectives, something only troops can do. And the Kroot, with their T3 and no armour save, simply cannot hold an objective for anything decent length of time; they'll just get shot off it, or worse, their large unit size will make them easier to catch in an assault. Firewarriors may have the same toughness, but a 4+ save gives them a great deal more staying power. But as it stands, the most commonly practiced tactic for holding an objective is to buy the smallest (and therefore cheapest) Firewarrior squad, buy a Devilfish troop transport that costs a third again as much, and just have them sit in it like a floating bunker all game. Aside from determining whether or not they're claiming an objective when the game ends, then, Firewarriors play no actual role in the battle. And that just seems silly.

It's not that they're bad troops. They have the best-ranged, strongest basic infantry weapon in the entire game, and with the assistance of a markerlight or two all of a sudden all those modestly impressive infantry weapons are hitting on 3's or even 2's. And as mentioned, they have a 4+ save, which is entirely respectable in this game for basic non-Marine infantry. But unfortunately, that's pretty much where their good qualities end. WS2, T3, I2 means they're pretty much guaranteed to be killed by anything that even looks like it wants to charge them, they're not especially good shots, they have the worst standard leadership it's possible to have in 40K, and their options are abysmal. They have two kinds of grenades, a markerlight for the squad leader and the option to trade their rifles for carbines, but the grenades are costly when they're not just downright counterproductive, the markerlight isn't networked and the carbines provide decidedly limited benefit given that Firewarriors on foot should be fairly terrified of being within 18" of an enemy unit. And that's it; no special or heavy weapons, no power weapons, no special rules, nothing but a very basic infantry unit that's frankly overpriced for what they provide.

But what would make them better? There are two basic options. The first is a cost drop. This doesn't make the individual Firewarrior better, but it gives them a certain utility of scale. Two squads of six are a nuisance at best, a non-event at worst, but two squads of ten or twelve? More bodies, and more importantly more guns, would go some way towards making the units in general more useful, because they could finally start to generate a meaningful number of shots. The second option is an expansion of the unit's current abilities. BS4, 15" rapid fire range and Assault 2 carbines have been floated before, as have giving Firewarriors access to decent weapon alternatives, like railrifles or heavy gun drones or networked markerlights. For myself, I favour the latter option. The Tau Empire's population is small, and they know it, so having them throw large numbers of disposable troops onto the field seems especially un-Tau-like. Having the Firewarriors who do fight have a better chance at doing it well, however, makes significantly more sense. And frankly, Codex: Tau Empire could use a bit of variety in its unit options; outside of the XV8 crisis suits, most units have maybe one or two options, many of which are total wastes.

The best thing that could be done for Firewarriors would be to allow them to bring some variety of weaponry to the field. It makes sense from a fluffy perspective, and it makes sense from a competitive, tabletop perspective.

And speaking of, I'd also like to take a moment to talk about the Devilfish, since it's almost exclusively used for Firewarriors. The Devilfish is not a terrible tank by any stretch of the imagination; it's got good front armour, and a few extremely good vehicle options, chief among them the almost-mandatory Disruption Pod. But like the troops it transports, it hasn't got much of anything in the way of weapon options, and that's a waste. As sub-optimal as Firewarriors are, a unit of them piling out of a Devilfish could still be a threat, provided they were suitable reinforced by said Devilfish. The last thing Firewarriors need are more S5 AP5 shots; why not mount a plasma rifle under the APCs nose, or a missile pod or two? Even Ork trukks come better equipped, with an identical gun with twice the range, and for a measly five points they can trade it in for a S8 AP3 rocket launcher. The way the Devilfish is currently equipped it just doesn't make any sense to field it forwards, which means that, like the Firewarriors hiding inside it, this unit ultimately ends up playing next to no role in the fight itself. And that's a waste.


You Said It, Rockwell

Blizzard doesn't like it. Facebook doesn't like it. Google doesn't like it. The US government doesn't like it, unless you're using it to overthrow someone they like even less. It seems like it's getting harder and harder these days to find anyone in a position of any kind of power or authority who does like it.

But why is online anonymity such a big deal? Why do all these powerful institutions think it's a problem that needs to be solved? And why, most importantly, are they wrong?

The arguments against online anonymity mostly come down to the idea that using their real names will make people behave better. And anyone who's ever looked at a YouTube comment section or the endless demands for pictures of tits on forums or, well, any of 4chan at all might be tempted to agree with that goal. Wouldn't it be nice, after all, if the internet were a nicer place? If people didn't think that, just because they're hidden behind a pseudonym, they have free license to let their very worst impulses run wild? If the internet were just a little more like real life?

 I'm sure he's just helping fix that boys shirt.  After all, this is real life!

Well, last time I checked, real life wasn't exactly an unrelenting parade of good manners. People are horrible to each other, in real time, in person, face to face, all the damn time. And not just in the anonymous encounters, like the young man taking up two bus seats and blasting rap from his cellphone or the customer screaming at a cashier for not having the power to change corporate policy. There are bullies in every school and work-place out there, usually known by pretty much everyone in their sphere of influence, and totally immune to any kind of social pressure to conform to standards of proper behaviour. The real world is no more or less full of rude, aggressive, insulting and bigoted people than the internet. So why is it that when a prominent US politician compares loving homosexual couples to child molesters or zoophiles it's just part of life, but when one video game player calls another 'fagtard' suddenly society has to step in?

Well, the reasons these institutions think anonymity is a problem are about as simple as can be. For the private sector, the Blizzards and Facebooks and Googles out there, anonymity is bad for business. It hinders their ability to either tailor their own advertisements, or sell selected ad spaces to others on their platform. Of course Google wants you to use your full, legal name on Google+ and invite as many of your friends to use their full, legal names as well, along with your age, sex, city of residence and interests. More than anything else, Google is in the business of selling ad space. Oh sure, they have arguably the best search engine available, but that's really just a way to entice people into viewing the ads that generate their revenue. It's not like they make any money off the search itself, after all, so they have to be getting the billions and billions of dollars they're worth somewhere. And while Blizzard isn't in quite the same boat, real-name log-ins give them an unprecedented degree of detail in their understanding of their customer base. Is the service weak in urban-dwelling female gamers aged 25-30? What's their penetration like for rural males 18-21? What races are most popular with the groups who are most active in their community, and how can they change them to get these people even more firmly enmeshed in their services? Before RealID Blizzard would have had to pay some other company to survey their player base, and they could never have been entirely sure the results were accurate. But if they can force their players to give them all that detail they can do the number crunching themselves, get more trustworthy results, and save money while they're doing it. It's win-win-win for Blizzard.

Pictured: Winning.

And of course, the reason the US government doesn't like anonymity is the same reason no government ever likes it; it makes surveillance more difficult. I'm not even trying to paint the US in a particularly unflattering light with regards to its motives here. Every country is concerned, to a greater or lesser degree, with being able to find out what its citizens are doing. Sometimes it's for noble reasons of policy feedback or public consultation, sometimes it's for gross abuses of freedom like the McCarthy 'witch hunts' or the interning of asian-descended citizens in WW2, and sometimes it's for legitimate national security concerns, like infiltrating terrorist organizations, both foreign and domestic. Mostly, though, it's just because no government has ever had enough data. There may not even be such a thing as enough data. And mostly it's perfectly harmless, records of parking tickets and applications for zoning changes and permits for a certain kind of roof shingle. And it's tossed into the metaphorical back room, with piles and piles and piles of similarly-useless-seeming data, probably never to be seen again. But governments are the ultimate packrats, and they always believe in holding on to things 'just in case'. Trying to end online anonymity is motivated by the same desire for more data. It's not really about stopping terrorists or child pornography or pedophiles; the authorities already have the tools to go after those sorts of people. It's a lack of manpower, not tools, that hampers those investigations. No, ultimately it's just about having every last scrap of data because, you never know, it might come in handy some day.

So is there a good argument in favour of doing away with online anonymity? Unless you're a business or a government, I don't think there is. Anonymity does no harm, and frankly it can be pretty necessary for a lot of the things people do online. Perfectly legal things, of course, but things which, nonetheless, they might not want the rest of the world to know about. And isn't that fair? Who says we have to live our lives with the curtains open and the blinds up? What's so bad about a little privacy, anyway?

Or, y'know, a lot.  A lot.

Doesn't Anyone Here Want to Make Money?

"You hungry?  I've been rationing protein squares."

That rather singular line comes from the 2010 Tekken film, helpfully reviewed by Spoony and Film Brain here.  The reason it's so remarkable?  It comes from protagonist Jin's mother Jun, a woman living in 'The Anvil', the sprawling and apparently lawless slums surrounding Tekken City.  The people there are poor, and there's every indication that they're going to stay that way until they die, with no apparent avenues of advancement available to them.  Which sounds pretty reasonable, right?  It's not unlike the way things are today, at least in certain areas.

Seriously, what was its last good product?  Eminem?

But here's the thing.  Tekken City is the headquarters of the Tekken corporation, one of just a handful of megacorporations that control the world.  And we're not really given any indication that circumstances in the other corporate-states are any better; if anything, the founder of Tekken at least seems to believe in doing the best he can by his people.  But, and this is a common failing among dystopian creators, economics do not work that way.

The problem is as simple as it is fundamental.  The only way to have a corporation in which the owners make ludicrous amounts of money and live lives of brobdingnagian excess is if there is real competition in the system.  The reason for that is that someone has to buy the corporation's product, and if it's not paying the workers enough to do it, then someone outside the corporation has to do it.  But in a corporatocracy, where it seems safe to assume trade and investment barriers are extremely high between the various corporate-states, all too often these massive corporations don't seem to sell anything at all, which is good, because nobody has enough money to buy anything.

"Supply and demand; if we don't do the former, they won't do the later."

This isn't an uncommon problem.  In fact, it's so common TVTropes has a pretty extensive page explicitly called You Fail Economics Forever, which has no small number of examples of just this kind of logical fallacy.  What's even worse in the case of something like Tekken, though, is that the corporation is also the state, and states have absolutely huge expenses unless they're the most minimalist institution possible.  So not only are the extensive clusters of poor people of no meaningful worth in terms of being customers, they're actually a net drain in terms of the levels of police and military spending required to keep those people, who have nothing to lose and no reason to support a system that's seemingly designed to put them on their knees forever, from running wild and destroying the goods and property of the people who actually have some.

Remember when I said the poor only make sense in a system with competition?  It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it's true.  Wal-Mart can afford to pay its workers peanuts, because there are other employers out there that pay enough to buy its higher-end stuff.  But if Wal-Mart were the only employer, and especially if it could only sell to its own customer/manufacturing base (that is, somewhere in between North American urban poor and Third World sweat shop labourers) it would fold almost immediately, because nobody in those groups actually have the kind of money necessary to keep something the size of Wal-Mart running, even taken as a collective whole.  The kind of extreme poverty you see in corporate-state dystopias simply would not work.

Of course, as often as not these systems aren't designed to work; they're designed to exaggerate the way people think and feel now.  But it's still maddening, this laziness in designing even the most rudimentary functioning economic system, because it's entirely possible to do that and still craft a searing indictment of corporate indecency and the brutal exploitation of the common man.

And his slightly less common choice of glove.

Or, y'know, whatever it was Tekken thought it was doing.


Still Beating On This Book

Generally speaking, there's no real need for a robot to look like a human. And in the commentary surrounding Robopocalypse, much of which I find bafflingly positive, this point keeps coming up; the idea is that Robopocalypse is so much better than traditional robot rebellion stories because the robots aren't just metal versions of humans. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and oooh, they seem to be influenced by other animals rather than humans.

Though not as much as would be awesome.

And that would make perfect sense, except for two points. One, a large part of the humans' survival depends on their being in areas where urban-designed robots can't move with any kind of ease. And two, the fact that the two US military humanoid robots we see are the most lethal devices in this setting.

The first shouldn't be a problem, of course, for robots that are being increasingly influenced by wild animals. While a smart car or lumpy mass-market service robot might have trouble negotiating the kinds of slippery rock faces, precarious log bridges and dense forests that humans can manage with some ease, humans would in turn be utterly outmatched by all manner of forest dwelling creatures. Taking a lesson from wolves, or mountain goats, or snakes, or termites, would increase the lethality of the robots by a tremendous margin, and that's even without getting into flying robots, which this AI seems to have some utterly irrational aversion to. But the robots built for rough terrain are ludicrous, being either tiny, individually-pitiful combatants (those aforementioned walking mines) or giant quadrupedal devices which are such non-threats that humans actually lobotomize and repurpose them for their own use. If a robot really needed to follow a human through a pathway chosen purposefully to obstruct any other shape, the most obvious shape to follow them with would be another humanoid. But time and again non-humanoid robots are deployed, in incredibly resource-inefficient masses, where a handful of humanoid robots would be more than capable of getting the job done.

Even this guy could do the job better.

And that's not anthropoligical chauvinism at work, either. Of the robots in the story, the two most individually effective are the military humanoid models, one of which kills a number of expertly-trained soldiers while the other has the lateral thinking ability to use the door of its shipping crate as a shield against gunfire until its opponent has expended all their ammunition, then dispose of it and move to engage at close range, where its greater reaction time and strength would give it an overwhelmingly decisive advantage. Not making humanoid robots, given that they are demonstrated within the universe of the book itself to be the pinnacle of robotic combatants, fails to make sense on any level.

And the most galling thing is that it's not even as if the AI would have to scratch-build these humanoid robots. Not only are the factories that produced them likely located within the US, a safe assumption given that the US is the only place that really matters in this book, but there are actual models already constructed and fully operational, just sitting in shipping crates. Sitting in their shipping crates for years, in fact, while the robots struggle to get to grips with the human survivors in their isolated, terrain-protected environments.

It didn't have to be this way, of course. Mecha-wolves stalking survivors through the forests and urban wastelands, hawk-drones spying on and strafing lone targets of opportunity, cyber-mosquitoes on bioterror missions to spread all manner of deadly contagions, burrowing streams of robo-ants and -termites, individually inconsequential but collectively capable of collapsing rear-area infrastructure from the inside, the list of non-humanoid robot combatants goes on and on. But instead, the Robopocalypse robots trade the variable utility of the human frame for ludicrously specialized roles, at which they utterly fail, while the far superior humanoid models are left unattended and unexploited, apparently just waiting for the moment at which they can rise up and destroy the AI that neglected them so.

You see what I mean about positive commentary being baffling?


Tweet Tweet - Not Just for 140 Characters Anymore

What do you think of when I say the word 'soundscapes'?

This is the first thing GIS thinks of, so you probably didn't do any worse.

Well, chances are you don't think of much of anything. If you are aware of this rather recent foray into the people management industry, however, you may well be thinking the same thing I am; soundscapes are going to be the next big thing in social control.

The effect sounds have on us is as subtle as it is powerful, and it's easily replicated by anyone in the privacy of their own home. Just put on a song, something loud and fast, with a heavy drum beat and perhaps a rapid electronic effect in there. As you listen to it, your heart starts to speed up, your blood flows faster, and you find yourself more alert and aware. There's a perfectly good evolutionary cause for this, of course. Loudness suggests a commotion which, back in the day, would've meant there was a pretty good chance something large and angry was about to charge through the undergrowth you're hiding in. It's the same reason we find birdsong particularly relaxing; it suggests that everything's okay, and there aren't any predators in the area. It's a subconscious signal that it's okay to let our guard down and take it easy.

There've been some uses of soundscapes already, the most well-known of course being the infamous efforts by certain 7-11s to shuffle loitering teens away from their front doors by playing classical music. And an airport commissioned its own internal soundscape, overlaying the hubbub of people and the roar of the jet engines with the sound of a quiet summer afternoon in the woods, complete with wind and water sounds and, of course, birdsong. But there's no reason to believe that these incidents are anything but the tip of the iceberg. As scientific human management becomes more and more all-encompassing, soundscapes will likely join uncomfortable public seating, bus shelters that don't reach the ground, impulse purchase racks, food courts in the centre of malls, staples in the centre of grocery stores and all those other elements of social control already practised by both private organizations and civil society, just one more tool in the behavioural modification toolbox.

And it won't just be institutions doing it to us, but increasingly we'll be doing it to ourselves. With the omnipresence of mp3 players, iPods and phones that play music (often at an annoyingly loud volume on public transit, but that's for another day), people are becoming ever more capable of constructing their own, private soundscapes. With even a small amount of time and technical expertise anyone can construct playlists to affect their emotional states, whether it's lifting their mood with some upbeat showtunes or helping them wallow with some ennui-drenched piano-backed soft jazz or getting them in the mood for a run with a bit of thumping electronica. This post was actually inspired by my own experience at work the other day, where a droning tech podcast, filled with people who, ah, who talked like, well, kind of like, ah, hm, well, ah, a bit like this...  And honestly, the lack of energy just dragged me down; my working pace slowed, my concentration fragmented, and it became a much more challenging task to keep doing what I'd been doing before this particular bit of sound changed my mood.  

This guy knows exactly what I'm talking about.

By the way, that sort of thing can make for an especially interesting phenomena in the future, as personal soundscapes vie with institutional soundscapes to determine who gets to shape your mood at the moment.  If the institution wants you to be relaxed and laid-back, but your own personal soundscape is fast and discordant, something will have to give.

I don't want to oversell this idea, of course. Soundscapes can encourage certain emotional states, but it's not as though teenagers will run screaming from Mozart, or the right poppy dance beat will keep sweatshop workers bright-eyed and bushy-tailed sixteen hours a day. They'll mostly just be one tool amongst so many others already deployed, by institutions both public and private, with a vested interest in making people feel a certain way while they're in a certain location.

In particular, I predict a lot of birdsong being ordered by hospital emergency waiting rooms and the DMV.


The Revolution Will Not Be Well Written

I can see exactly what Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson, was supposed to be.  It was supposed to be a World War Z-style chronicle, an epic story of lone individuals contributing to the greater whole of the destruction of a foe that threatened not just human society, but human existence itself.   It was supposed to be an imaginative look into the potential threats of an increasingly mechanised existence, and a commentary on the importance of individual efforts in an assembly line world, and an archetypal tale of good versus evil.

It was supposed to be all those things.  It's not.

Robopocalypse is not a very good book, in no small part because it's trying to actually be several different books at the same time.  As I said, the construction of the book, a narrator recounting seminal events from a global battle against a non-human threat to our species, is very World War Z.  Unfortunately, where WWZ had real scope, with tales from America and Cuba and South Africa and Russia and China and more, Robopocalypse is hamstrung by frankly inexcusable provincialism.  There's a story in Tokyo and one in London, and an American in Afghanistan, and then there're six stories set in and around the northern/north-western United States.  Heck, at one point the characters travel from the contiguous United States to Alaska, with not so much as a mention of passing through Canada.  South America and Africa might as well not exist, and as for Eurasia, well, that actually leads into the next problem.  You see, where WWZ's framing story allowed for a variety of tales to be told, from failure to surrender to doomed last stands to triumphs to ultimate victory, Robopocalypse's framing story explicitly labels these tales with a robot-generated 'heroes' tag, and the content of the stories makes it clear that they're supposed to be human heroes.  And sometimes that works; Cormac and his fellow soldiers, Lonnie Wayne Blanton, Lark Iron Cloud, Takeo Nomura and Lurker could all be classified as 'heroes' of this conflict, given their accomplishments, and I'd even be willing to extend that to Mathilda Perez and her mother, and Spc. Paul Blanton.  None of them are really capital-h Heroes, but they play important roles in terms of advancing humanity's ends.  But the scientist who invents the AI and is killed by it?  A second scientist, mad in an asylum, whom the AI kidnaps because it believes he can build more of its kind and who is never heard from again?  A team of drillers who unknowingly establish the AI's Alaskan redoubt and die there, without ever telling anyone about it?  Even worse than those included, though, are those left out, and here we come back to Eurasia.  You see, before the protagonist's army marches on Alaska another army, or perhaps several other armies, make the same attempt, without success.  But do they get any space in this 'heroes' archive?  Not so much as a word.  Their corpses are seen and largely ignored, and the narrator offers up a sentence or two of explanation in the between-story excerpts, but that's the closest the 'heroes' of several billion people and an entire continent come to getting recognition in this recounting of what is supposedly the first truly global conflict in which all men and women joined together.

But lest you think this review is just the complaints of a reader who went in expecting WWZ and got something different, just because like WWZ this book was followed by the author's how-to on surviving the exact same kind of apocalypse, don't worry; this book has a great deal of problems that are entirely its own.  The most fundamental problem is the structure of the book.  The short time frame of the individual stories rarely allow for meaningful character development, and given that most of them are third-person limited, it's difficult to get inside these people's heads.  Mostly they're ciphers, with only the vaguest of motivations and little to really differentiate them from each other.  The narration between the stories tries to flesh them out, but it's the classic 'show, don't tell' issue at work.  And even the narration falls apart a few times, as it includes incidents and actions that won't happen until well after the conclusion of the framing story from which the narrator is speaking.  The atmosphere of the book is likewise a flop, with the action set in an Indian reservation that's never really laid out, a NYC that's apparently been cleaned of every last corpse between the time of the robot uprising and the time the NYC characters venture outside, and the most bland locations in London and Tokyo possible, a houseboat on the docks, a television station, a retirement home and a factory.  For a book about a brutal war there's almost no actual evidence of violence in the world, and just on a basic level this world is a blank slate for the reader.  In terms of characters, a few humanoid robots join the story later, and they're also problematic, for technical reasons.  The newly 'Awakened' humanoid robot that serves as the viewpoint of that particular story talks of never allowing itself to be 'enslaved' again, but these machines certainly didn't seem autonomously sentient before, and it comes across as silly, like claiming that humanity is enslaving its toasters and electric toothbrushes.  It also raises the question of why an AI that can corrupt and overwhelm computer systems the world over would bother suppressing these humanoid robot's original programming, rather than just writing whole new operating systems that would happily work with the AI.

And oh, the AI.  Once more, we come to the problem of scope.  The AI, Archos, simply has none.  It's a cartoonishly two-dimensional villain, evil simply because it is evil and performing acts seemingly simply because they're evil acts.  Why does it want to kill all the humans?  Why, if it wants to kill all the humans, would it use human forced labour camps to construct its forces, rather than just retool existing robotic assembly lines to produce whatever it needs?  Why does it make tiny mobile land mines and huge quadrupedal walker-scouts, but not mass-produce the humanoid robots that would so easily meet and defeat the surviving humans on their own terms?  Why does it experiment on humans, producing grotesque cyborgs that improve on neither humanity nor the machines, for the most part?  Why does it have a single, central hub which, if its destroyed, kills it?  Why does it seem to eschew guns and bombs in favour of those aforementioned, and resource- and combat-inefficient, walking mines?  Where are the tanks and mobile gun platforms?  Why doesn't it have a single plane or helicopter or UAV at its disposal?  Where are the nuclear weapons?  Don't expect any answers from Archos, who is either schizophrenic or a compulsive liar and who seems to have no motivation beyond 'be cartoonishly evil'.  Skynet was a more developed character, and a more believable threat, than this thing.

The problem of scope comes up again and again in this critique, for very good reason.  Robopocalypse feels much too small for a chronicle of an apparently global battle against Archos the AI.  And it's not just the total absence of South America, Continental Europe, Africa and Australia, and the near-total absence of Eurasia and two-thirds of North America.  There's no scope on a personal level, either.  The NYC 'resistance' seems to be made up of two people and a handful of unnamed background characters.  Gray Horse Army, the best fighting force humanity has and one that manages to go from somewhere in the north-western United States to Alaska, appears to consist of Lark Iron Cloud, Lonnie Wayne Blanton, and Cormac's 'Bright Boy Squad' of six.  The 'freeborn' humanoid robots, despite apparently having so many of them that they're forming a city at the end, are represented by a single viewpoint character, two associated characters who have perhaps a half-dozen lines between them, and Nomura's love-doll who spends most of the book offline.  This is a tiny, empty world, which would work great if it was supposed to confront the reader with the immensity of the challenge of defeating a world conquered by technology, but the AI's arsenal seems to be tiny and empty too, as tiny and empty as its imagination and, ultimately, the threat it poses.

The bottom line is that this book fails to present either a particularly realistic look at the after-effects of a robot rebellion (nobody for a second seems interested in turning away from technology Amish-style?) or an enjoyably bombastic tale of plucky humans versus coldly calculating machines.  It's weak, it's disjointed, it has flat characters and a villain who is as evil as it is dumb, and utterly lacks any sense of scope or scale to sell the idea of a world in the grip of total war.  This thing might pass muster as the script for an 80s half-hour animated commercial, but as a serious work of literary fiction it's fit only for the recycling bin.


In a Mirror Universe, This Review Is Backwards

In the great sea that is the scifi/fantasy section of the bookstore or the local library, choosing any one particular book from the multitude can be a challenge.  Unless you're following a series or an author, it can be daunting to try and pick one story you don't know anything about from all the rest.  Sometimes the best thing a book can do is combine interesting cover art and a completely nonsensical name.  That's pretty much exactly what led me to pick up Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley, at my local library.  And boy, did that strategy pay off.

Cowboy Angels (yes, the name is explained) does what all good science fiction does; it takes the world, introduces a particular change, and extrapolates outwards from there.  In this case, the change is that in the 1970s the United States discovered 'Turing Gates', inter-dimensional portals that allowed for travel from that United States to other, parallel versions.  Some were empty of people entirely or populated only by 'apemen', but more interesting were the universes where a United States existed, but not one that any modern-day American would recognize as the home of the brave and the land of the free.  The action takes place across the contested communist-ruled America, the recently-liberated ex-fascist 'American Bund' sheaf, and a host of post-nuclear war Americas, with the promise of more Americas out there beyond what the characters interact with.  It's a fascinating universe, and one that I personally would gladly revist in the future.

But a setting is not a story, and this book has a doozy of a story.  A retired CIG agent, Jack Stone, is called in from his pioneer life on a 'wild sheaf' to try and help the authorities with a problem; his old partner, Tom Waverly, has killed six women.  The thing is, he's killed six of the same women, one woman across six different sheafs, and on the last one a note has been found indicating he'll talk to Stone and only Stone about it.  Hoping to safely bring in a man who saved his life back in the wild and woolly days of their time with the Company, Stone agrees to come back for what he imagines will be the work of a day or two.  Of course, it would hardly be an interesting book if Stone weren't fantastically wrong about that.

Cowboy Angels is a science fiction thriller, and McAuley is quite good at continually spinning the plot just beyond the reach of Stone and his allies, both in the Company and outside it.  What starts as a seemingly simple murder investigation turns out to be a story of massive corruption and conspiracy, with a disenfranchised group of ex-Company operatives plotting something Stone at first can only vaguely glimpse, but which promises to threaten everything.  Stone, led around in the dark as often as he's able to throw his own spanner into the works, finds himself with no choice but to keep pushing at the edges of the conspiracy.  

In the best thriller tradition, Stone is beat up, shot at, tortured for information and used by pretty much everyone around him, at one point or another.  As a protagonist Stone works well, with good motivation for his initial foray out of retirement and for continuing on after its apparently tragic conclusion.  For most of the book stone is assisted by Linda Waverly, Tom's daughter and a current Company agent, and while her motivations are simpler, they're no less concrete.  Too often in thrillers either the heroes of the villains will have no actual reason to do what they do; the heroes should just leave whatever the problem is to the authorities, and the villains should just ignore the heroes, or not even involve them in the first place.  Cowboy Angels does not find itself suffering from that problem, and frankly that alone would be enough for me to recommend it.  But the book does more than just establish decent motivations; it creates a vast and fascinating world, one too-faintly glimpsed in some cases, peoples it with characters who all act in reasonable, rational ways (for a given value of rational), and sets protagonist and shadowy conspiracy on a solid collision course from pretty much the word go.  As a thriller it's rock-solid, as a science fiction novel its impressively inventive, and as a combination of the two styles its a clear success.

Go out and get Cowboy Angels.  You won't be disappointed by the story, and you'll even get to find out what the title means.


So Easy a Cowboy Can Do It

Went to see Cowboys & Aliens over the weekend with some friends, all of whom had various takes on it given their own particular backgrounds. Personally, I thought the movie was enjoyable as all get out while I was watching it, and while I did think of any number of criticisms and questions afterwards, none of them had any particular influence on my appreciation of the film after the fact. There's fridge logic here, of course, and some really shockingly weak characterization, but on the whole the movie offers up exactly what the title and trailers promised, and since that's what I paid to see, I'm happy with it.

One thing I was particularly happy with, as a science fiction aficionado, was the noted absence of that great scourge of television and movie scifi, technobabble. No deflectors were modified, no pulses were inverted, there were no tachyons to be seen and nobody had to spit out a single six-syllable bit of made-up science. The reason, of course, is that it would've been completely wasted on the in-universe audience, the titular cowboys, who wouldn't know a phaser from a blaster or, come to that, a cell phone from a telegraph by the looks of it. There was only one character in the film who could possibly have spouted such lines, and they were thankfully mute on the subject, preferring just to give both the Americans (cowboys, saloon owners, preachers, cattle owners and the like) and a group of Natives the sorts of answers that would make sense. The creatures wanted gold, and no particular reason was given (though a technologically advanced civilization could have any number of uses for the material), they had flying machines and guns, and they were kidnapping people to try and figure humanity out. Nothing there that any resident of the American West wouldn't have been able to understand and appreciate, at least once they'd seen the flying machines in question in action, and nothing there that would've been improved by the addition of a half-dozen lines in the script about anti-gravitic propulsion or the desperate need for gold to make inter-stellar Whatever Drives go.

Because of course there's no way a preacher, a doc, an outlaw in love with a 
whore and their associates could ever really master advanced technology.

It's not that I don't appreciate a writer who's done his homework. I'm a great fan of Jack Campbell and David Weber, both masters of the 'fill the page with numbers' school of space fight writing, and some of the best stories from whatever Golden Age of science fiction anyone might care to name have shown that, properly used, a bit of factual infodumping not only doesn't hurt a story, but can actually help the reader's understanding of a predicament. It's one thing for the Enterprise to have to remodulate the deflector to fire an inverse tachyon pulse to stop a subspace anomaly, and quite another for the ship to be in a deteroriating geosynchronous orbit, in danger of entering the upper atmosphere and burning up when the friction of an uncontrolled re-entry heats the hull of the ship beyond human tolerances. The former is meaningless, and essentially no different from not particularly well-constructed fantasy magic systems; the heroes need to do This Thing to stop That Thing, Because. In the latter, however, the audience can start to participate with the heroes in trying to resolve a dilemma; if you need to generate X amount of thrust to push the ship into a higher, stable orbit, and you have options A, B, C and D, you can make a good guess as to what they'll try and, even better, you might even be able to come up with an entirely different answer of your own that the heroes (which is to say, the writer) didn't think of at the time.

Although it might seem to promise infinite freedom for the writer, the ability to make whatever situation they want obtain to best drive the drama of the moment, technobabble is an essentially limiting aspect of science fiction writing. It can be necessary, and it can even be interesting, of the underlying principles have been thought out and the technology has actual limits and specific abilities. But rarely is it interesting enough to warrant pages or minutes of time devoted to it, and unless the technobabble really has been concretely laid out, it's little more than a way to take the reader entirely out of the running for coming up with a solution of even understanding the proposed plan of attack.

Which, in the case of Cowboys & Aliens, was as simple as it was predictable; don't worry about what planet they're from, or what crystals their ship runs on, or what kind of energy waves their wrist-blasters project.

Just shoot the heck out of them.

 Can't argue with what works. 

And I think we can all agree that that's a strategy no amount of technobabble could improve on.


Roll Out? Rise Up? It All Works.

As a child of the 80s, I am of course absolutely riddled with nostalgia; fond memories of the twenty-two minute commercials that masqueraded as cartoons that turned every Saturday morning into a riot of primary-coloured lasers and non-fatal shootouts. But no property holds a stronger grip on me, to this day, than the Transformers.

Everybody knows the basics, of course. Two factions of robots, the good guys led by Optimus Prime and the bad guys led by Megatron, battling on Earth in semi-secret disguise. Created out of whole cloth by Marvel back in the day to give some kind of storyline and character to the toys Takara was putting out, that basic framework has gone on to be expanded, stretched, skewed, warped and downright tossed in favour of new versions. And that's the key to the longevity of the Transformers.

 And, y'know, the odd tune-up and oil change.

No franchise that I can think of has done such a good job of reinventing itself on a regular basis, without sacrificing the core idea that brought viewers and fans to it in the first place. Dr Who and the Star Trek franchise are probably the closest competitors, but the transitions in Who represent continuity, something the various Transformers iterations break away from as often as they cleave to it, and after TNG and DS9 Star Trek just didn't seem to have any good stories left in it, or at least not enough to carry seven seasons of show. From the very beginning there were options for Transformers fans; the Marvel comic and the cartoon ran concurrently, and while both told roughly the same story, subtle differences evolved over time into major digressions, with the cartoon ending up chronicling the battle between Rodimus Prime and Galvatron in 2005 while the comics hugely expanded the fight against Unicron, throwing every one of Optimus Prime's Autobots and Scorponok's Decepticons against the Chaos Bringer, and killing a fair few of them in the process. I have always believed that the success of those related, but independent, storytelling formats paved the way for the serial reinvention and rejuvenation of the Transformers franchise.

There was Beast Wars, and to a significantly lesser extent Beast Machines, which explored themes of love, betrayal, revenge, loyalty, self-sacrifice and fate vs free will, heady stuff for a kids cartoon. There was the Pat Lee/Dreamwave comics, the first to set down a solid pre-Earth storyline. There were the Michael Bay movies, derided amongst TransFans but hugely successful at bringing the Transformers to a wider mainstream audience. There was Animated, the most kid-friendly property since possibly the original 80s cartoon itself. And there are, currently, the cartoon Prime and the ongoing IDW comic series, both vastly different in terms of tone and scope, but equally compelling and equally capable of carrying the brand for years to come. And there are series I didn't mention, mostly because I either didn't watch them (the Unicron trilogy, Car Robots) or because TransFans just do not talk about them (Kiss Players, Beast Wars II/Neo). But aside from Kiss Players, all those series had their own fans, and more importantly their own toys and merchandise to keep the franchise running for another few years. Which, in the end, is what's allowed the Transformers to keep going and going, while other 80s properties have faded away or enjoyed only temporary resurgences.

Given the timing of its introduction, I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that the Transformers were one of the two most influential science fiction properties when I was a very, very young child (the other was the launch of TNG). A universe of giant robots, aliens and cyborgs, brimming with possibility, populated by strong characters you only saw just enough of to want to know more and, with Unicron's appearances in both media, an epic battle between good and evil, with actual casualties and sacrifices and heroic last stands, was more than enough to fire my little imagination and hook me for, well, apparently for life.

 Yup.  Still got it.


The Fourth Sphere Pt 2 - Elites

Next up in our tour of the Tau Empire's fighting forces, the elite section. Tau Empire cadres' elites choices are always dominated by the XV8, the workhorse of the Empire's military forces. With a wide variety of weapon loadouts, they can be tasked for anything from anti-horde (flamer/burst cannon) to anti-heavy infantry (plasma rifle/fusion blaster) to anti-light vehicle (twin-linked missile pod). The most common variant is the plasma rifle/missile pod combination, to provide long-ranged firepower that can take down light vehicles and heavy infantry, but the others do get the occasional look-in, as well. They're so vital to the proper prosecution of any cadre's campaign, in fact, that their diminutive counterparts are often forgotten about entirely.

But that's who we're here to talk about, today; the XV15 'Stealth Suit'.

The XV15 is generally ignored in favour of the XV8, and for good reason. With drones, burst cannons, railgun submunitions and pulse rifles and carbines, the Tau Empire theoretically has a wide variety of options for dealing with large numbers of lightly-armoured targets, whereas the targets the XV8 are tasked with destroying can be fruitfully engaged by them alone. In order to make the XV15 a more competitive option, then, its fundamental role needs to be explored. It seems reasonable to start the discussion off with a look at what makes them unique, which would be the stealth field. The stealth field makes any shooting at them fall under the Night Fighting rules, meaning they literally cannot be shot at from more than 36" away and that, on average, they can't reliably be shot at from more than 22"-23". It also means they count as being in cover if they're charged, giving them a good chance to do some damage to anything that's not equipped with offensive grenades.

So, what does this suggest? Well, combined with their current burst cannon loadout, it seems as though the XV15 was meant for relatively close-range anti-light infantry work. The problems with that, however, are many. The suits are too expensive to be a reasonable counter to large numbers of low-S/low-Sv models, their stats make them too fragile to survive the counter-charge even with the advantage of the stealth field, and their extremely limited weapons options (one in three can have a fusion blaster, which is completely at odds with their optimal targets, and the team leader can have a non-networked markerlight) gives them zero tactical flexibility. Unless a player knows he's going to be facing modestly-sized mobs of Ork boyz across a relatively open table, there's just no utility to them, especially compared to the utterly essential XV8s.

In order to make the XV15 a more competitive choice, then, it needs two things; a cost cut, and options. The current cost of an XV15 seems reasonable at first, but get past their 3+ save and Stealth Field, and all you've got is a Firewarrior with a tri-barrelled pulse carbine that doesn't pin. A drop in price of a third would make them a much more attractive option for bulking up often-small elites-heavy cadres, and would allow you to bring enough firepower to bear to make them worthwhile. As for their weapon options, flamers wouldn't be a terrible weapon for them, given their ability withstand a charge and the weapon's ability to ignore the only kinds of saves their optimal targets could hope for. The burst cannon isn't bad, though giving it pinning wouldn't go amiss, along with perhaps another shot. Plasma rifles, missile pods, fusion blasters and the like should be left for the XV8s, who've made them their own iconic armaments. But XV15s are also the only Tau Empire suit to benefit from the full jet pack rules, meaning they can move and fire heavy weapons, and there are two heavy infantry weapons that actually make perfect sense with these suits. The first is the markerlight, allowing for a smaller and more expensive, but hardier and more mobile, alternative to the Pathfinder squad. Allowing more than just the team leader to take this option would radically alter the purpose of an XV15 squad, and would make them significantly more competitive when it comes time to dole out the points. The other option is the rail rifle, again from the Pathfinders and more recently the Sniper Drone Team. Like the SDT the XV15 benefits from the synergy of the weapon's 36" range and the stealth field's ability to block return fire from beyond that range, but unlike the SDT the XV15s can exploit the weapon to its full potential, turning them from generic anti-light infantry to specifically outfitted MEQ-hunters, but in a way that makes them more than just a copy of the XV8 plasma rifle/missile pod combo. Given that most Tau Empire weaponry struggles to put wounds on Marines and make them stick, a squad of XV15s armed with rail rifles would be a very tempting choice, indeed.

None of these changes over-power the suit; the rail rifle comes close, but even then the Tau Empire routinely faces off against enemies who carry far greater numbers of heavy weapons among its infantry, some of whom can also move and fire with it. Opponents could hardly cry cheese, especially given the sorts of anti-horde firepower recent codices have been given access to, and more importantly, Tau Empire players would actually find themselves with a reason to field an XV15 squad.