Boosterspice

I wrote this short story over the summer for a writing course.

Boosterspice

In the media room of their modest estate, Stephen and Jane sat watching the news.

“Another spice riot. Just what we need: poor people complaining about things that aren’t any of their business.”

“What I don’t understand is the idea that the booster treatment is a God-given right. Just imagine if we gave it to everyone: they keep copulating, but don’t die themselves. We’d be overrun!”

The TV showed a news anchor.

“The biggest discussion of the century is still ongoing in Washington: should the prohibitively expensive treatment known as boosterspice be included in the Medicaid program? Advocates are claiming that current research indicates the treatment is capable of extending a person’s life for up to forty or fifty years; some are even claiming it could let a person live forever. We have with us here a researcher from Kurzweil Technologies to explain the latest breakthroughs in his lab.”

It transitioned to a scientist.

“Well, as you know, the boosterspice treatment was designed almost eight years ago. It uses a fairly common drug, but the method of deploying the compound into patients using nanobot boosters is a radical advancement. So far, in human testing, we’ve seen powerful regenerative cycles. As far as we can tell, most cellular processes are refortified with almost 100% effectiveness. Essentially, the procedure restores the subject to the vitality they were experiencing around age forty.”

The anchor returned.

“The Medicaid inclusion movement suffered a major setback last week when the Catholic Church officially denounced boosterspice…”

The noise faded into the background when Jane spoke up, “Oh, Stephen, did you call Mark yet today?”

“Yes. He and Kathy are meeting John and us tomorrow at the hospital. I don’t know why he’s coming to the intervention. It’s not his dad. It should just be Kathy, John, and me.”

“Well, I’m coming.”

“Yes, but you aren’t bad news. I still can’t understand why Kathy married Mark of all people.”

“Just be polite to him. Remember that we’re there for your dad.”

* * *

The group of five sat in the waiting room, praying. Last week they had met and compared speeches, decided on a tone. Now an attendant came, showed them the room.

On the bed lay William Rowe, father of Stephen, Kathy, and John. A photo of Christie, their late mother, stood on the bedside table.

Kathy began. “Dad…”

Stephen stepped in, “This is an intervention. We want you to take the boosterspice treatment.”

William looked at his children, and then broke out in a wheezy laugh, which turned to a convulsive cough. He finally settled back down, but his face still glowed in amusement. “What the hell are you going to do to me if I don’t? Kill me? Stop paying for my care?” And he laughed again, this time more of a giggle to avoid straining his lungs.

Stephen looked to John, who looked down, with nothing to add. Kathy looked to Stephen. Stephen just stood there, flapping his mouth. They hadn’t really thought this through, Stephen realized. This entire venture was ill-conceived and even worse planned. Jane stepped forward, putting her hand on Stephen’s shoulder, and said to Bill, “We just want you to be happy.”

“I’ve lived a full enough life, and now I want to spend eternity with my wife. I wouldn’t blame you for taking the treatment, but as I’ve said many times before, I won’t.”

Stephen took over again. “But we haven’t lived full lives, and we want you around for as much of it as possible.”

“Sorry, son, everyone dies eventually.”

Kathy muttered, “Not anymore.” But the group turned and started shuffling out of the room. Stephen stayed behind, and heard Kathy explode at Mark in the hallway. “Why didn’t you speak up?”

“Well, I never really found a good time to intercede…”

Jane glanced at Stephen and left as well. Stephen knelt beside the bed. His eyes kept falling to the oxygen tube running into his dad’s nose.

“You won’t reconsider? Not for anything?”

“A new age is dawning, son. But I don’t want to be there for it. I belong in the past.”

Stephen put his hand on his dying father’s shoulder and left. In this day and age, nobody should have to be dying. A thought like that used to be entitled, or naive. Now it was… fact.

* * *

Later that day, Stephen was having coffee with two friends.

One of his friends said, “Those boosterspice riots are a pain in my ass. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way to get around the mob.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous for people to demand it,” agreed Stephen.

“It’s ridiculous for them to block the streets. What, like we’re gonna pay for them after they get in my way?”

The second friend butted in. “400 million treatments. I really don’t think they understand the magnitude of that order.”

“The only order they understand is a double cheeseburger with fries, am I right?” Stephen’s two friends chortled.

“Maybe they wouldn’t want it if we told them they couldn’t have kids anymore,” Stephen suggested.

“Or jobs. No, I guess they can have one: kids or jobs. But not both.”

“Well, they already don’t have jobs.” Again, the friends chuckled.

Stephen coughed after a vaguely uncomfortable pause. “So, are you guys going to get the treatment?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“It would be wasteful not to.”

Stephen nodded and followed up, “My treatment is in a few days. Actually, it’s gotten me thinking about death. Now that we’ve cured it, it’s even scarier–”

“Well… nobody is certain that the treatment ʻcuresʼ death.”

The other friend jumped in. “All they can predict now is that it extends life by forty or fifty years. Maybe it works indefinitely.”

“You can still get diabetes and blood clots from lifestyle choices after the treatment.”

“And prostate cancer. Although it’s less likely.”

“And obviously it doesn’t protect against bodily harm. It doesn’t make you invincible.”

“But even so, it’ll still stagnate the economy, et cetera, et cetera,” Stephen replied.

* * *

It was ironic, considering the state of things, that as Stephen’s car accelerated onto the freeway, time slowed down and Stephen glanced sideways out the window to see Death looking back at him. To the serenade of screeching rubber and twisting metal, Stephen’s eyes watched the sky vanish and a tractor trailer spin by, seemingly miraculous and counter to all worldly physics, passing Stephen again and again. Finally the sky ceased to be a blur and became concrete. Upside down, next to a twisted guardrail, Stephen passed out.

He awoke slowly, painfully. He was in a hospital room, a bandage across his midsection. How much time had gone by? A vague dream, or memory, of waking in Intensive Care, with a tube down his throat. Stephen’s stomach roiled. The only thing he could think about was how close to death he had come. Internal bleeding, concussion, rib fractures: the works. Miraculous that he had survived. Was it miraculous that the accident had come days before his boosterspice clinic appointment?

When Stephen arrived at his home again—after furiously protesting his being driven home on account of a newly developed fear of cars—the first thing he did was reschedule the appointment to the next open slot: the following week. For the interceding days, Stephen kept off work with sick-leave and refused to depart the house. Often he stayed in the bedroom, away from the stove and stairs. He paced the room for exercise, wary of catching pneumonia or having his muscles atrophy.

Jane tried to reason. “There’s no point in living longer if you’re just going to spend that life hiding here.”
But Stephen would have none of it. He took the bus (the safest form of transportation) to his first boosterspice treatment. He wore a surgical mask on the bus. At the appointment, Stephen sat before a desk, with a paper in front of him, and a doctor talking to him.

“The actual application of the process is fairly extensive and time consuming. We’ve performed all the necessary pre-tests. This is your point of no return. If you sign this, we will move you into our care facility and perform the treatment over the course of the next 12 days. Afterward, your natural lifespan will grow by at least 45 years with your current lifestyle. The decision lies fully in your hands at this point: do you want to receive the metabolic retro-senescence treatment?”

Stephen rocked slightly in his chair. He looked at the paper. The signature line stared back. For the first time in weeks, Stephen really thought. Stephen thought about his father. A lifetime of memories began to come to him, of good and bad times with his parents. Then Stephen thought about his wife. About the terrible car accident. About the hospital, about his job, and about his lack of children. It was his life. His life. No matter how he felt, the accumulation of events is what composed the entity known as Stephen.

In all this thinking, Stephen entered a world of imagination. A world of undying people, afraid of death. Liability was no longer the drive behind safety measures. This world had rounded corners (too easy to hurt oneself on a sharp edge), no fallible machinery. A world abandoned by the adventurous, who would escape to humanity’s frontier among the stars. Such a world would succumb to a slow death by fire, or poison. Centuries of climate change and overpopulation would slowly choke the planet to death, because the inhabitants couldn’t look farther ahead than the dangers of today. Ethics would become twisted, and humanity would become a shell of itself. There would be no war, no violence, only inevitable decay from the relentless march of entropy.

“I’ve decided to forgo.”

* * *

Stephen entered a bagel shop, accompanied by two of his buddies. He ordered and pulled a third chair up to a round table.

“Wow, it’s been a while, Stephen. What, a little over a year since your big accident? How has it been going?”

“It was rough for a while. The car crash and my dad’s death did a number on me. I was in therapy for six months, I think.”

“And then the divorce… wow. When was that?”

“Three months to the day.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Fine, you know. Jane didn’t want to be with a ‘purist’. It would get awkward real fast with her taking boosterspice. I thought I might have trouble letting her go, but she’s dead to me. Rather, I’m dead to her. In my mind, she’s already faded into the mists of the future.”

“Stephen, that’s a little messed up.”

Stephen shrugged amiably, and rose to claim his order. When he sat back down and the group started in on their food, the conversation paused for a moment. One of his friends idly asked, “So you really gave up boosterspice?”

“I’ve come to believe in purity more than anything else.”

“Think of it: last year, nobody even dreamed of purists. There were the initial rejects, but certainly no culture. Now… it’s crazy. No offense.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s the philosophy, not the culture.”

The conversation continued.

Suddenly Stephen rocked in his chair and pressed his palms to his forehead. A wooziness, cold on his insides, pulsated. He felt his sense of direction go.

His body fell to the floor; his mind seized for tense, terrifying moment, and then it seemed to drift away. For a split second, his mind was in a timeless ether. Then he returned to consciousness hours later, in his own body, in the hospital. Stephen hated hospitals. The décor always threw him back to the night of the crash.
The doctor came in eventually. He took some readings before breaking the news.

“You are suffering from kidney failure. The waiting list is too long. The only viable option is to have the boosterspice treatment applied as soon as possible. It will rejuvenate your body long enough to receive a transplant. I see you were initially slated for a dosage last year, but you rejected it. Are you morally opposed to the treatment?”

“I’ve become a purist—” the doctor wrinkled his nose at the term “—as a result of that time in my life.”

“But do you reject the treatment as a medical procedure, rather than a cosmetic, non-essential measure?”

Stephen hesitated, just a moment. It had been a long time since the belief system he had built up around himself had been questioned.

The doctor interceded before Stephen could work out a response. “I’ll check back tomorrow. You have until then to make up your mind.”

Stephen had come to accept an existence without immortality. When a person comes to terms with a reality that may scare them at first, it becomes a building block of their life. If Stephen accepted the miracle drug back into his life, it would wreck the philosophical barriers he had constructed to protect himself. Tomorrow he would deliver his answer to the doctor: no.

* * *

During visiting hours, Kathy and John showed up. Stephen eyed them. The family had fallen out of touch after Bill’s death. John, with a newly acquired air of sureness, approached Stephen.

“This little experiment of yours has come back to bite you. I told you it would never work out. That you would come back to your senses after a while. You’re a fool for not getting the procedure done earlier. If you had gone much longer, you could have died before anyone diagnosed–”

“John!” Stephen broke his brother out of it before a rant precipitated. “I’m rejecting the treatment.”
Kathy started. “Wait, what? Stephen, how can you do this to us? Also, how can you do this to yourself? If you don’t get the treatment, you’ll die!”

“Yes. I know. That’s the point. Look, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

John stepped forward, jaw high and imperious. “I know you took dad’s death hard, and that you’re somehow punishing yourself for his death, but you need to think about this.”

“I see you’ve been going to those ‘make the most of an endless life’ seminars. Too bad those don’t teach you how to use your brain. Death is a choice now, brother. You’ve decided one way, and I’ve decided the other. It’s as simple as that.”

John snorted, stood up, and walked out.

Kathy also turned and began walking out. She paused at the door.

“You are unbelievable, Stephen.”

* * *

That night, he woke up in pitch black. The lights from his bedside monitors were out. The hospital must have even lost its backup generators.

The light in his room flicked on. His father stood in the doorway, the pall of death bearing heavily on his face. “Stephen,” his dad spoke. Stephen was hanging, held upside down by the thousand tentacles of a nightmarish seatbelt. He hung above a beach of shattered safety glass. Beyond the walls of his world sat a semi and a guardrail, both clinging to the ceiling of the universe. William Rowe crouched down by one window, dressed in his finest Sunday clothes, fresh from the coffin.

He began to speak, slowly and deliberately. “When you have time, you may decide that you don’t want immortality. But when you are stuck with the hard choice between death and life, you always choose life. You think of that one lifetime activity you never got around to: swimming in bio-luminescent algae right after sunset, nobody around for miles; parachuting into the Grand Canyon; having the love and respect of all your neighbors; raising a kid who goes on to be wildly successful and happy. Procrastination turns out to be the ultimate life-saver.”

The world rotated and hardened into the topography of a hospital room. The doctor stood before Stephen. “Oh good, you’re awake. Now, have you made a decision about taking the boosterspice treatment?”

Stephen groaned a long, hard, satisfying groan into his hands. “Yes, fine, I’ll take the treatment this time.”

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Jörmungandr

Here is a story I recently wrote. It was written over the course of an afternoon, for a school assignment.

Jörmungandr

One of the first few expeditions found him. As they plunged off their boat into the icy Atlantic and slogged onto Snaeland at, as they dubbed it, Seydisfjordur, his hollow ravings echoed down from the foothills and caused much inquiry. A group of the Norsemen set out from the expedition’s shore-side camp, and hiked up towards the source of these cries. They found him living in the carcass of a busse; the ship looked like it had been washed into the mountains, its beams broken across the crevices of the hills, its oars splintered on the tall pines. The Norsemen, not a little confused, dragged the raving lunatic back to their camp and kept him in an uthu adjoining the longhouse. For the next two nights, the Norsemen argued over what to do. Some wanted to hang him as an offering to the All-Father, but most were willing to wait and hear the prisoner’s explanation before deciding. How could such a heavy ship be lifted inland as far as a day’s walk?

After a few days of food and drink, the man began to speak some sense. They found his name was Gormund. As soon as this news spread, everyone was intensely curious to hear his story. In slow strides of language, Gormund began a discourse. His clothes were ragged and his hair long and unkempt, but his tongue was as erudite as the best skald. Gormund held himself very calmly, but every word he spoke was laden with insanity. Over the course of two days Gormund disgorged an enthralling madman’s tale.

He detailed an expedition made from Volmong (after explaining that Volmong was a Norse settlement hidden away in the mountains of Iberia, which was met by much disbelief), which had raided a string of monasteries. As they found out, these monasteries housed adherents to the Societas Eruditorum. Soon they had Charlemagne breathing down their necks. Pressed, the settlement held a thing, in which they decided that Volmong was doomed. The settlement was the size of a hundred, and leaving was never really an option, though not for lack of trying. The Norseman’s place is on the sea, not in the highlands; the settlers of Volmong were folly for ignoring that. The slow caravan to the coast was cut down en masse by the underfed armies of the mainland conqueror. Only a handful of longships left the Iberian shore, and fewer navigated the Channel successfully.

On the third day of Gormund’s consciousness, his narrative was cut short when a lookout cried from the palisade. A Gaelic warship had appeared off the coast. The men, suddenly electrified by the chance of combat, began to arm themselves, and pushed off in one of their three longships, dragging Gormund along in spite of, as they found, his deathly fear of the sea. As their longship drew closer to the Gaelic craft, the Norsemen made out its shape: it had the contours, in the front, of a Roman bireme, maybe a trireme, but as it turned they saw that the back was rough and squarely built. When the ships were three thousand fot apart, the Norsemen saw why; a massive ballista was mounted on the head of the Roman warship.

Too late to reconsider tactics, and already heady from bloodlust, the Norse threw their backs into the oars and plowed towards the Gaelic ship at ramming speed. The Gaels loosed a flaming bolt from the ballista, which struck the drum beater. The weight of the shaft sheared his body in two, and the flaming oil spilled across the deck of the longship. With cadence broken, the oarsman made slower progress, but still they closed the gap between the ships. Another bolt was loosed, and it struck the side of the longship, shearing away many oars. Crippled, the Gaels lobbed flaming bales of hay onto the longship, and sat apart as the burning wreck sank into the cold Atlantic.

The Gaels dragged the two floating survivors aboard. One was conscious, and lashed out at his rescuers. They cut his throat and dumped him into the ocean. The other corpse was limp, but after some time of lying on the deck, he awoke, sputtering. The druid aboard hoisted the man up and pressed him against the forward mast, seeking fear in his prisoner’s eyes. But as the druid gazed, he saw a spark erupt within the Norseman’s eyes. Backing away in fear, he averted his gaze as the man’s face glowed an unearthly pallor. Gormund then spoke out in Gaelic, in an attempt to quell his captor’s fear. Of course, this was in his best interest; he didn’t want these Britons dumping his lifeless body in the cold Atlantic. He said, “I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. Bring me to Kaupang.” The Gaels could do nothing but obey him, and so they sailed to Kaupang. They left him on the ocean-shore of Outer Kaupang.

When he reached a fishing village on the bay-shore, the villagers took him in as a fellow Norseman. When beseeched to explain his business, he refused. When pressed, he warily recounted his passage from Seydisfjordur. The villagers, realizing he was a madman, locked him in the boathouse. The next morning they sent an envoy to Inner Kaupang to inform the herad-lord of a madman who claimed to hail from Snaeland. The herad-lord, on a whim, called for the man to be brought to his longhouse.

The next day, Gormund was brought before Þorhrafn, the herad-lord. “I am Þorhrafn, son of Harald, son of Refrbrandr, chieftain of Kaupang and contender for the throne of Skiringssal. Name yourself,” commanded Þor.

“I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. I hail from this town.”

“You say you live here, eh? You claim to have come from Snaeland.”

“I was with a landing at Seydisfjordur, when a Gaelic warship sunk the Karvi we launched. I convinced the Gaels to transport me here.”

“A Gaelic ship got you? Hah! And you convinced a ship of victorious Gaels to ferry you a hundred vei? How’d you manage that? Got an all-tongue, do you?” The chieftain guffawed.

“Yes, I have been granted such powers by the gods.” At this, the herad-lord let out a cry, and doubled over laughing.

“Qlfuss tunga! Hah!”

“I was at Volmong, where we raided Societas Eruditorum bastions. They have unlocked many secrets of the gods.”

“Bahahaha! What is Volmong? You’re a crazy ‘kilg’n!” The chieftain turned to his attendant warriors, “Give his life to the All-Father.”

Gormund spoke out again, his voice slightly modulated, “Do you want to know how I got to Snaeland?” The warriors paused. “As I was sailing home, to Kaupang, when the worst storm any of us had ever seen beset our ships. Waves like giants walked among us, and threatened to carry our busse from the sea and into the sky. One by one, we lost sight of the other boats, their calls spirited away on more powerful gales, their image divided from us by sheets of water, and their wake obliterated by the churning of the sea. The sky and water were the same color, and the water so enveloped us that there became no difference between air and water, sky and sea, light and dark. The same wet grayness surrounded us for what seemed like an eternity.

“I hope the others fared better than our lot, but since you seem to be unaware of any return, I can only assume they succumbed to the sea, their valiant defense of the ship falling to a crushing blow of water… such a fate would be better than our own.

“At one point, I became distinctly aware that a set of eyes besides our own were among us. Yet every time I would turn to face the intruder, I found nothing. But then I, and others, noticed a transient murky form beneath us. Moments passed, in which the sea seemed to calm. Then a crew member cried out; the largest wave I have ever seen, seeming to rise above the sky itself, towered above us. As I watched, two glowing eyes pierced through the gray veil of the water, followed by a hulking, coiled shadow beneath the surface. I made out two enormous wings, limbs, and a wrapping tail. A silence descended, in which only the rushing of water was heard. Somebody cried, “Jormungandr.” Then the world went dark.

Jormungandr

“The next thing I recall is being found in Snaeland by the Seydisfjordur expedition. When I regained sanity, I remembered in a rush the campaign in Iberia. The Societas Eruditorum had given me things stolen from the vaults of the gods. Loki sent the World Serpent to apprehend me, to destroy my ship and return what was taken. Jormungandr’s storm carried our ship to Snaeland, and only I survived. I suspect that Jormungandr will return; he didn’t get what he wanted. My purpose in returning to Kaupang is to raise a force to fight him off.” As Gormund finished, the throne chamber echoed emptily. Þor considered these words, rolling his tongue around in his mouth as if appraising the taste of the tale. The only noise was the crackle of the fire. Then the herad-lord snorted.

“That is quite the tale. And one I’m not particularly inclined to believe. Even if I thought you weren’t a qlfuss, your story doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the Serpent get you while in transit from Snaeland? Why not send a god to take back… whatever you stole, rather than a Loki-spawn, no less? Would not Jormungandr’s release of Midgard to attack you allow the oceans to spill over? And what was it that you stole?”

“The all-tongue, to name one.” Gormund paused, and was about to speak again but was interrupted by a courier, bursting into the chamber.

“The sea is boiling!” he cried. Everyone rushed outside. Gazing at the sea from atop the town-fort walls, they saw that indeed, the frothy waves had sheets of steam rising off them. A storm had come up, and dark clouds coated the Kaupang coast. Giant waves smashed the shore, breaking some of the boathouse piers. Then, from the water, a tower column of scales and flesh emerged, atop which sat a terrible head, with a maw lined with innumerable teeth. A horror fell upon the lord and his warriors.

Gormund muttered under his breath, “Jörmungandr.”

Tekkit Sucks

There is a set of Minecraft mod packs that includes Tekkit and Technic. You may have seen these showcased in a number of venues, including a popular Yogscast series. Let me just get this straight. Tekkit is stupid. It was obviously designed by someone who looked at Minecraft and said, “I’m going to make this the best game ever.” Unfortunately, they merely succeeded in creating a hodge-podge of mods which take away from the core of Minecraft.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.

The gluttony of blocks in Tekkit.



But what is the core of Minecraft, really? Ultimately, Minecraft is what you make it. I say that unironically, even though I’m about to tell you how it should be. Minecraft has always been a great source of surprise. Legions of Youtube videos outline hundreds of crazy contraptions and structures that use the basic mechanics of the Minecraft universe to form impressive and surprising constructions.

Nearly every feature in Minecraft has a way of being exploited to perform tasks that the creators never even fathomed. Beyond the basic mechanics such as crafting and smelting, the use of a feature is mostly left up to the user. Fluids, redstone, minecarts, TNT, signs- must I go on? But really that was the appeal to begin with. You can create completely new contraptions within a very simple set of game rules.

This is why I think many of the features Notch added in later updates- wolves, potions, dragons, the End- run contrary to the spirit of the game. It’s OK to add elements to expand the exploratory, adventuring parts of the game. But when that threatens to push the creative, inventive part of the game into the shadows, I think the developers need to re-evaluate their priorities. Minecraft was never prized for its combat, or adventure. It became popular because the game allowed players to invent their own set of rules and develop the world how they liked. When the developer takes the reigns and decides the end-goal FOR the player, something has gone awry.

For the same reasons, I absolutely despise Tekkit. I can see the good intentions behind it, but it completely fails at its mission. A group of people, perhaps, with no sense for the game, were intrigued by how much could be done in Minecraft. But they thirsted for more. So they set out and gathered mods which let them do what they wanted. Pipes let them transport items, tanks let them store fluid, pumps let them suck it up, engines and solar panels gave them electricity, quarries let them automate mining, and energy condensers let them get any material they needed. To make it more “balanced”, they added a larger set of materials needed to build these contraptions, including rubber, and tons of new ores. Furthermore, a control system was needed, so they put a programmable computer in. A computer that ran Lisp scripts. And you loaded the scripts from outside Minecraft. They needed more power, so they added uranium and a nuclear reactor.

Suddenly, it wasn’t Minecraft anymore. It was a horrifying maze of features that was no longer surprising. Sure, people could build fascinating things that were intricate and took enormous amounts of time. But it wasn’t really surprising anymore. A nerd with a computer and a huge set of physical actuators can obviously accomplish a lot, whether the computer is in a videogame or not. The appeal of Minecraft was that nobody thought building a ALU was really possible when it started out. Half the crazy contraptions were for accumulating resources: automated farms ranging from chickens to monsters to reeds to cobblestone to snow. With the energy condenser, nobody needed ice pipelines or chicken friers. Sure, you could still build them. But there was no point. Oh, you built an automated oil refinery? All it takes is pipes, pumps, and refineries. The blocks are all there. That’s the only thing a refinery is used for.

Blocks only have one purpose, even if that is a broad purpose. Engines power pipes and quarries and pumps. Fuel goes into combustion engines. Refineries make fuel. Pumps suck up liquid. Quarries dig. Seriously, you make a single block, which then automatically digs. You can also add a pump to it if you want it to suck up water and lava. But there is no design for you to modify. You can’t make it more efficient, or irregular, or spray water on lava. You can’t build a giant engine room which is twice as efficient due to interlocking designs. You can’t build a computer, since there is already one built. Want to spray some construction foam over everything to make it blast-resistant? Boom, done. Need a nuclear reactor? There’s a block for that. Want to make it bigger? Sorry, you can add on extra chambers, but only up to six. It outputs a high-voltage. You need to make a very specific set of blocks, each of which steps the voltage down one level.

Again, this violates the very essence of Minecraft. That’s why I developed a plan for a comprehensive mod that allows most of the same functionality of Tekkit, but goes much, much further. I will cover this mod in a future post, or probably multiple posts.

Failure of Fantasy

Here’s the question: what is fantasy?

1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
-Dictionary.com

That definition sounds pretty good.

“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.”
-Wikipedia

That one doesn’t. Fantasy is not about “magic” or “the supernatural” in and of themselves, although they certainly must be central to the story. Fantasy is about taking participants in the story to a universe that contradicts the participants inherent expectations about the way things work. The story told hinges on this new and unpredictable world. Participants get to explore an unfamiliar world as they follow the characters on their journey.

Using this definition, a lot of self-proclaimed “fantasy” isn’t really fantasy at all. Whenever a “fantasy” story casts its story in a world of dwarves, elves, harpies, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, wizards, etc. it is doing so because most fantasy readers will be familiar with such a setting and it allows the storyteller to cut straight to the storytelling. Yet, inherently, this is not fantasy.

These stories are still speculative fiction, but they are no longer true fantasy. I would call them speculative fiction with fantasy elements, but I certainly wouldn’t label them as real fantasy. Of course, the term fantasy can be used to refer to these works of speculative fiction, but it is an insult to the real works of fantasy that take the time to explore a completely new and unpredictable world (e.g. Discworld).

Some of these faux-fantasy universes include roleplaying games, both on the table and in games like Minecraft, and amateur “fantasy” stories. Obviously, world creation is hard and it is time consuming to think up convincing worlds that have interesting aspects.

Ultimately, this was the downfall of my Minecraft roleplaying server. The setting was not engaging, and players had difficulty getting immersed in the lore. But why is a “fantasy” setting necessary in the first place? People seem to associate roleplay with fantasy, probably because of the prevalence of roleplaying fantasy games. In addition, both RP and fantasy aim to satisfy the same itch: they are methods for an escape from reality.

But at the end of the day, you can have a fantasy Minecraft server without roleplaying, and you sure as hell don’t need a fantasy setting to have a roleplaying server. When I founded my Minecraft server, I wanted to see how much of a functional economy would emerge if I only set in place the loosest guidelines and money functionalities. Predictably, people found little need for money, since resources are, necessarily, abundant within (almost) any Minecraft world.

I am still interested in seeing how a Minecraftian universe can be reduced to a level where economic transactions become more feasible than collecting the resources yourself. On some level, this requires restraint from the players. However, people will not restrain themselves if it restricts their fun. So the parameters for my new server are slowly taking shape.

For one, people need an incentive to play, beyond just entertainment. There are a lot of competing venues of entertainment overall, and Minecraft is a particularly niche form of entertainment. But even within the realm of Minecraft, the pool of available servers is huge. And without a critical mass of players, a server cannot succeed. So, logically, the server needs to market itself in a way that pulls enough people in while still maintaining all the other parameters.

The server will be limited edition; it will only run for 50 days (7 weeks). This means that the story has a beginning and an end, and players are driven to accomplish a tangible goal within a time frame provided by an external force.

The setting of the server will be colonial. A group of colonists must set up a lucrative colony on a newly discovered land. The trading company that is sponsoring the colony will only fund it for ten years, during which it must start making money and pay back the initial investment. This means that players must collaborate both to survive and to generate revenue.

When the server first begins, players start on the ship that brought them to the uncharted land. It has a supply of food and tools. However, players will become hungry at a much faster rate than in the regular game. Any action, from crafting to using a tool to placing a block, will significantly reduce a player’s food bar. This will result in either a high death rate (because players will not be able to sustain their health and die from trivial falls, etc.) or a high food consumption rate.

Since the colony needs a much greater amount of food, a significant amount of energy needs to go into gathering supplies, which means that until farming and breeding infrastructure is established, not much effort will be put towards gathering valuables. Food scarcity will be boosted on the server, by making crops grow slower and increasing the cooldown time for animal breeding. Food is important because characters get only one life, raising the stakes considerably. Also, once a player dies he must wait until the next ship arrives from the motherland. These arrive once every six months ingame, which translates to roughly every 2.5 days real time. However, shipment arrivals are important for other reasons as well.

The colony can purchase things from its sponsor company. Of course, the prices are higher than reasonable. Some of the things the colony can trade away include gold, redstone, diamonds, magical items, sugar, and melon. In exchange for such raw materials, the colony is allotted some number of “trading points” with which it can buy guns (maybe), food, and other normal things like pistons, dispensers, lumber, stone, iron, saddles, etc. The exact trade ratios will be determined at a later time. They may also be adjusted as the game progresses.

Right now I think the difficulty will be set to peaceful, both because monsters would detract from the experience IMO, and because it means that the use of gunpowder, bonemeal, string, and slimeballs can be restricted.

To add back in some of the conflict lost from monsters, I hope to have two factions in the world. An existing faction, the natives, will already have infrastructure when the settlers arrive. The natives have farms, granaries, domesticated pets, mines, and supplies of string and bones. However, the natives don’t have guns (if they are put in) and can’t use any sort of redstone. To balance this, natives will be able to use magic freely, while settlers cannot. This means both sides have items from the regular game that the other side cannot access. Having such a dichotomy opens the door to different kinds of diplomatic relationships, depending on what the players decide to do ingame. I have no idea whether raids or trades will be more popular.

Unfortunately, I am also wary about creating two factions in the first place. Disparate groups on a server cause two problems. They isolate players from one another, essentially requiring double the players for two-faction play to feel the same as single-faction play. Groups also cause more frequent arguments, since communication is severely throttled.

I hope that with the right amount of advertising, I can attract around 6 people to start. They will all be colonists; only after the number rises to 12 can a native town be “discovered”. I am hesitant to go ahead with guns, because that would require a modded client to play, which significantly reduces the pool of available players. The server should be as accessible as possible. That being said, there is a lot of riffraff that, frankly, I didn’t keep out on the last server. Players NEED to be able to write full, coherent sentences both quickly and consistently. Even one person who cannot communicate well can ruin the experience for everyone.

If I ever get around to fixing connectivity issues and finishing the website, I am definitely going to go ahead with this server.

Snow Crash

Oh. Yes. I am going to start off this post by talking about the absolutely brilliant book by Neal Stephenson (see Cryptonomicon), Snow Crash. The book that popularized the use of the word “avatar” as it applies to the Web and gaming. The book that inspired Google Earth. And despite being 20 years old, it is more relevant than ever and uses the cyberpunk theme to hilarious and thought-provoking extents. It paints the picture of an Internet/MMO mashup, sort of like Second Life, based in a franchised world. Governments have split up and been replaced in function by companies; competing highway companies set up snipers where their road systems cross, military companies bid for retired aircraft carriers, and inflation has caused trillion dollar bills to become nigh worthless.

In the book, a katana-wielding freelance hacker named Hiro Protagonist follows a trail of mysterious clues and eventually discovers a plot to infect people with an ancient Sumerian linguistic virus. The entire book is bizarre, but it has some great concepts and is absolutely entertaining. Stephenson never fails to tell a great story; his only problem is wrapping them up. Anyways, I highly suggest you read it.

Well, I’ve been thinking about games again. I have two great ideas in the works, and one of them is “hacking” game based roughly in the Snow Crash universe. It doesn’t really use any of the unique concepts from it besides the general post-fall world setting and things like the Central Intelligence Corporation. It probably won’t even use the Metaverse, although it depends how much I choose to expand the game from the core concept. The player does play, however, as a freelance hacker who may or may not wield swords (not that it matters, since you probably won’t be doing any running around).

I’m writing up a Project Design Document which will cover all the important points of the game:
Download the whole document

Zones of Thought

I recently finished a book by Vernor Vinge called Children of the Sky. It was the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. They are part of a continuing series called the Zones of Thought series, which has overtaken the Known Space (by Larry Niven) series as my favorite series of books.

The series is based on the premise that the galaxy is divided into these so-called “Zones of Thought”. They dictate the level of automation and intelligence physically allowed in that region of space. They are an inherent property of the galaxy, but their boundaries can shift, either slowly over thousands of years or rapidly in “zone storms”. They radiate out from the center of the galaxy.

A map of the Zones of Thought

A map of the Zones of Thought

The zones are as follows:

At the center of the galaxy are the Unthinking Depths. Intelligent thought is impossible, and computers fail. Humans turn into animals.

Beyond the Depths is the Slow Zone. The speed of light is the ultimate cap on speed and hyper-intelligence is impossible. Computers cannot become sentient.

Above the Slow Zone is the Beyond. In the Beyond, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and automation becomes much more capable. The Beyond falls into layers; FTL drives increase in capability as you get “higher”. Machines built in the High Beyond will work less efficiently or fail in the Low Beyond. Most of interstellar civilization exists in the Beyond.

The highest Zone is the Transcend. The Transcend is the subject of much study in the Beyond in the field of Religion. This is because the Transcend is populated by hyper-intelligences called Powers that are essentially gods. Products manufactured in the Transcend are often sold to the Beyond, such as anti-gravity fabrics, machinery, etc. Powers sometimes interact with Upper Beyond civilizations by sending “emissary ships”.

A Fire Upon The Deep is based around a malevolent Power that is awakened from an archive in the Low Transcend that is the subject of a human expedition. The Blight, as it is called, proceeds to wipe out local civilization in the High Beyond. Only a single human ship escapes from the “High Lab” in the Low Transcend, and it carries a portion of the archive that, if reunited with the Blight, will destroy it. The Blight recognized this (it had been defeated in a similar way long in the past) and set out to destroy the Countermeasure.

Another human group figures this out and, with some help from another Power that is subsequently murdered (nobody is quite sure how Powers work) by the Blight, escapes the Blight’s invasion and travels to a world at the bottom of the Beyond where the ship carrying Countermeasure has taken refuge. The Blight pursues them, causing havoc in that part of the galaxy.

In the end, Countermeasure uses some strange Transcend technology to harness the system’s star (it actually goes dark for a little) and cause a massive Zone storm that extends the Slow Zone to engulf the world and the Blight (30 light years out from the world) and much of the Beyond in that part of the galaxy. This traps the Blight and the humans in local space, giving the humans a century or more to build up the technology of the civilization on the planet before the Blight builds ramscoops and comes to destroy its nemesis once and for all.

What really interested me about the book was the world the humans become stranded on. It is inhabited by an interesting alien race. Each alien is composed of 4-8 individual “members”, and so they are referred to as packs. Each member is a dog-like animal that communicates with the others using “mind sounds”. This raises some interesting consequences; for one, two packs cannot get extremely close to each other without losing consciousness; it is very hard for packs to work collaborate and thus it is hard for new technology to be made. Their civilization has been stuck in a medieval state for a long time. Packs also live for a very long time. They replace old members either through inbreeding (within their own pack) or by breeding with another pack. The only way for a pack to die is if all of the members die, which pretty much only happens in combat (or sickness). Packs can also split into two or merge. Also, each member contributes different aspects of personality to the pack. This means that packs can be planned, called broodkenning. Essentially, people can be “built”. Of course, when the first four humans land on the planet, all hell breaks loose.

The four humans from the High Lab are a family, with a small boy and a adolescent girl. The two parents are killed in an initial attack launched by the militaristic northern kingdom the humans set down in. A pair of traveling packs see the attack and kidnap the wounded girl, taking her back to a more understanding, peace-loving kingdom (ruled by “Woodcarver”) in the south. The boy is captured by the northern “Flenserists”. He doesn’t realize that they are malicious though, and ends up befriending a pack that was built entirely from puppies (usually such packs become autistic). The two are manipulated by Flenser and start communicating with the human rescue expedition. Woodcarver’s kingdom has a dataset from the girl, and they use it to build cannons and prepare for war with Flenser in the north. However, Flenser has the support of the rescue party (since they don’t know that Flenser is evil). Eventually Woodcarver defeats Flenser in a battle just as the rescue party arrives.

Vernor Vinge always creates interesting aliens. There are others in his series, such as the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky and the Skroderiders (sentient plants, essentially), who are space traders in A Fire Upon The Deep. I draw a lot of inspiration from his stories, both in character design and plot creation.

The Chicken or the Engine?

When designing an application that has separated functions for created and displaying data, the developer faces a dilemma. It is difficult to test the application that displays the data without an existing test set. However, it is hard to create a data set by hand, and it is difficult to know whether your data creation program is operating correctly without being able to view the product in the display program. It always ends up being a balancing game; develop a small part of the display app with a limited hand-crafted data set, then build the creation app, and then try to develop small modules in parallel until you have a robust enough codebase.

Really the problem is the development cycle itself. Say I want to create a game. So maybe I decide to use a preexisting engine so I don’t have to create my own renderer (by the way, my 3D game engine is coming along nicely, albeit slower than I expected. I need to rework a lot of the math behind it, but once I’ve built the basic graphics part I expect it will get easier). First you strip down the engine, but then what the hell do you do?

I suppose you code game mechanics, or at least the UI and then the way user controls interact with the game. Then you start to build up a set of game entities, until you have the basic game and then you can add in features. You can create test assets as you add features. Once the main meat of the game is coded, you can pass it off to the environment designers, etc. After that you can continue to polish the game and add features that don’t change asset requirements or level design needs.

But that’s only if you start with a pre-built engine. When building an engine from scratch, you need some sort of test data, such as a 3D model or XML file. You need it to be be simple enough to debug, but that may involve a lot of hand work. Often you need the display codebase to build the test data in anyways! Hmm. Not sure where this is going. I guess it was more of a complaining session than anything else.

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