This would have been a much better lead-in had I actually won this game. I came close. So close. Fourteen hours and I was there. On the cusp. But someone of a different stripe — one of the countries who lambasted me for seeking a harmony ending (specifically Transcendence) beat me instead to their own, human purity-driven ending.
Which is as good a lead-in as I’m going to get to all three space stories I just finished around the same time: Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, and Mass Effect 3. All three of which question the primacy of humanity in fictional worlds where we are understood not to be the only — to use the terms in Leckie’s books — not sentient, but significant species out there.
All three stories come to question the tired old deification of humanity as the good old boys of space by questioning whether it is acceptable to change humanity. In the Imperial Radch books and Mass Effect, this comes up through the blending of AI and human elements; in Beyond Earth it’s a question of the gradual merging of two organic lifeforms, human and the alien species found on the planet you land on. But in all three stories there is a strong, pronounced faction screaming “this is human and that over there, that isn’t human, so I don’t have to care about its welfare like I do my own.”
I thought the flavor text in the Beyond Earth screenshot above was a bit overkill, traipsing as it does right down the road that so angers people in fantasy game character creation screens that dub differences in species differences in races. But given the end of the Leckie books, its obliqueness isn’t without relevance. If we are going to point to the brutalities we commit upon other humans and call them just what they are — brutalities — is it any less brutal when we act that way toward non-humans? Organic, synthetic or entirely alien? At what point is that atrocity okay, because oh well, they’re not human so, you know. “They don’t feel it the way we do?”
Again, I’d be really curious to see who makes room for that kind of compassion, as alternative life forms arise or are discovered. Because so very much of the progressive narrative of human advancement extols the virtues of the human race, the human condition, etc. etc. It is easy to think that this was only done to try and bring everyone together and place everyone’s experience on equal footing; that it’s just a turn of phrase that could be tweaked to embrace other sentient lifeforms should they come into our realm of awareness. But…I’m not entirely certain we are compassionate enough as a species to make that leap. We don’t have the market cornered on empathy, surely — the AI Breq’s lone voice speaking for the downtrodden peoples of the galaxy as the decaying empire sweeps whole murdered swathes of them thoughtlessly under a rug comments baldly upon that. We have shown ourselves to be eminently capable of a dearth of empathy, not just in the ages of catapults and battering rams but up to and including today. Asserting, as large percentages of humankind does in every space story, that we are the ultimate heroes, the number-one species deserving to keep on keeping on, solely because we are human and we can do great things (when we aren’t killing each other, that is) is a terribly myopic mentality.
But if we could change the entirety of humanity at the drop of a hat, merging them with organic or inorganic elements to become something else, it becomes problematic, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t put the entire population on heavy doses of lithium to end conflict, right? Putting an implant in everyone’s brain to discourage the more sinister side of human nature doesn’t sound good, either. But if changing the genetic fabric of every human everywhere (itself, let us be honest, a much more magical proposition than scifi is willing to admit, that mass flip of a switch) were both possible and advisable, in order to ensure the continuation of every other species everywhere, wouldn’t it…make sense? Wouldn’t the definition of what is human simply have to change?
If I had been able to choose the merge option — if I’d spent the time to earn the points to get it (I was so close!) — I would have done it. Because Joker and EDI. Because Legion. Because anchoring our definition of self in our physical bodies seems woefully inadequate. I am pro-cremation, am I not? Because my selfhood isn’t bound up in these bones and tissues and the sinews that hold them together. If some of those sinews were synthetic, or introduced from some other species, it is popular, I know, to then claim that I wouldn’t be me anymore.
But I’ve seen people not themselves anymore — people ravaged by chemicals or by disease (so, chemicals, on a micro-level) into no longer knowing who you are. Would the ability to breathe in a carbon dioxide-only atmosphere, or to fly, or to send text messages merely by thinking of them, be damage to the self on the same level as that which occurs in the throes of dementia, or addiction, or psychosis?
I don’t think so. We’d still be us. Maybe better, maybe worse, but still us. For whatever we’re worth.
In an effort to keep myself on top of all things DA:I in preparation for the campaign I am going to run*, I thought I should roll a new Inquisitor. Just, you know, for a refresher. And this brought to my attention the fact that I have 5.4 gigs of DA:I screenshots on my hard drive. Which necessitated clearing some of them out. So before I lose [the images of] them forever, here are my inquisitors, in order of playthrough:
To be fair, I abandoned the dwarf fairly early on because…all right, so when you’ve been in battle you get blood spatters, right? Dark fantasy, I get it. But on the female dwarf (and maybe the male too for all I know), the blood pools in uh…awkward places. And with the camera placed as it is, you’re forced to stare at it. A lot. And since the dwarf was the first one for whom I turned on all the trials, including Rub Some Dirt On It, which makes every health potion only restore a single health point…I was never at full health. Which meant bloodstains. All. The. Time. It got old.
Soooo rerolled a qunari mage, whom I’m currently playing. Of all of them she’s the only one from whom I can tolerate the American accent. Husband feels the same about his characters, all males — it only sounds right from the qunari. Avouched others and not hailing from a terribly gentle or forgiving culture, either. Feels like home…
Also, for the record, I’ve only gone all the way through Trespasser with the third inquisitor. For obvious reasons. Namely, my heart.
*I realize that the only thing my mother’s otherwise unblemished geekery quailed before was the idea of me playing D&D and “getting lost in it,” becoming one of what I’m sure was only a handful of kids (or um, none?) who ended up prowling sewers with plastic swords, adrift in a fantasy-skewed reality. When I evinced no interest in that (because no one I knew was interested in it), the next big worry was online games. Was it just other people that worried her? Fantasy in lonely isolation — hours and hours spent in front of point-and-click adventures or RPGs — was okay, but a group of friends pursuing a goal was…what? Too liable to become permanent? Who knows. It was odd. But I’m greatly looking forward to GMing this campaign. I really hope I don’t disappoint or bore people. I have a great Orlesian hat.
Surely that will help. Surely.
I love watching stand-up comedians work.
I don’t mean the specials on Netflix, HBO, etc. Those are entertaining, but with all the different camera angles (and maybe also the confidence that comes from getting far enough in one’s career to be so exposed?) you can’t always see the process going on in their heads. I mean live stand-up, smashed up close to the comedian in a basement somewhere.
You can see their eyes tracking the people closest to them (the only people visible up there in that blazing light) but also questing off into the distance as a side-effect of straining to hear in that direction as they throw off test jokes. Not always because they’re testing out new material, but because they’re testing the audience. Is this too risque for them? Are they with me? Are they willing to come down this road any further or no? Do I have to detour or risk totally flaming out? Is it a lost cause?
At the basest level these tests are oblique: “Are there any married people in the house? Who here is a vegetarian?” But they get more subtle as you go along — you don’t want to keep asking such initializing questions deep into your gig, after all. You want there to be a pace, and to have pulled people along far enough where they’re buying into your stories as comedic truths, one after the other. You can’t stop in the middle of that to check. (Though admittedly, one great way to do this is to jump from addressing the audience to addressing one of the poor saps in the front row, as though you’re only interested in the weird expressions they’re making or in how your jokes are affecting their lives — and in the larger audience’s reaction to this interaction you can gauge the room without it seeming gauche.)
It’s like they have a comedy meter that they want to keep continuing to fill, joke after joke — room after room, NESW — and they have to check the meter each time they enter a new room. Do I have enough to go East up the Diabolical Tower of Debauchery? Or are they a little divided on that last political joke, and should I detour down Ridiculously Relatable Road? Or do I need to take a quick jab at myself to get that meter back up and reassure them that they don’t even need to relate to me, by careening south down the Street of Self-Deprecation? Am I performing for an audience of grue?
I couldn’t do comedy because I’d take the setbacks way too hard. I pay a ton of attention to how people react, both vocally and visibly, and the learning curve to actual funny (if “actual funny” is even an option for me) would wreck me. But I love love love watching other people do it. It’s so technical. There are so many factors you’re trying to keep track of — not the least of which is remembering all your options. If this joke didn’t work, what do you fall back on? Have you already mentioned that one? (Have you already been to that location?) If so, then what? That pressure is enticing — it’s like the race I ran through too-crowded orchards; the track was muddy and people walking and running were all mooshed together; clawing my way out of that mess was immensely fun — but I’m not built to handle the spectacular failures that are inevitable in live standup the way I can handle a faceful of mud if I trip and fall in a race.*
But dang do I enjoy watching others take that on.
*Totally did that, by the way. Second grade. Was in first place, then tripped and came in last. Our Russian exchange student devotedly (and erroneously) claimed I’d been sabotaged by a competing relay team. From Russia With Love.
Elder Scrolls Online is going to launch its Thieves Guild this quarter!
I always roll a thief. Always always. It’s not because I have any great penchant for purloining things, either. I’ve stolen exactly one thing in my life, when I was four, because I misinterpreted as fact my mother’s “well I guess it must be free then!” quip about a keychain without a price tag in a toy store. She hauled me back to the store, intending to teach me a lesson, but (she later said) it backfired on her: the manager lit into me, saying I was a good-for-nothing little cheat and a future scab on society’s backside, etc. etc. There was a lot of sobbing on my part. That was the first and last time I ever stole something. Mom may have regretted the degree of rancor that manager unleashed on me, but you can’t argue that it wasn’t effective.
Still, though, I always roll a thief or rogue or other stealthy class on my first playthrough if it’s at all an option. The first time I remember doing this was in the first game I ever played through on my own — the Quest for Glory I reboot, indulged in when I was seven and had to stay home with the chickenpox. The Thief was hands-down the hardest class to play, and I wasn’t very good at it: too weak to stand up to bullies and too mystically incompetent to whisk myself away magically to safety, I died time and time again. But I refused to start another character, beloved as the Thief was to me. The snicking open of locked doors (and the endless parade of death screens where you failed the roll, inserted the lockpick up your nose instead, and killed yourself by piercing your brain), the secret cross-eyed tongue-out belly-rubbing head-patting handshake (you’re damn right I remember it), the studied disdain of the fence you sold your stolen goods to…I loved all of it. The only explanation I can conjure is that I affixed the idea of a Thieves Guild firmly to the notion of “outcasts” that I so very much latched onto as a kid, moving as I did from a town I loved to a city and culture I very much did not. I wasn’t smart enough to get into the fancy STEM technical school, and I wasn’t buff enough for anyone to want me on their sports team, so clearly the Thieves Guild had to step in to fill that void of belonging.
I, like legions of others, have been waiting for the Thieves Guild update to ESO from day one. Unlike legions of others, I haven’t been particularly vitriolic about the wait. For good or ill, I cut ESO a lot of slack. The Bethesda team has made one kind of game for years and has made it really well. Trying to please the people who loved that format and bring them into an online environment must have been (and must remain) a huge pain. People in zone chat, like people in zone chat in every MMO ever, love to hate on the showrunners — on Bethesda and ZeniMax and anyone who defends the game, but…eh. Haters gonna hate. It’s not like there’s been nothing to do in-game pre-Thieves Guild, after all.
But that’s not to say I’m not really excited about its arrival! I am. I’m also pleased to see the new zone is sun- and sand-centric. In the gray grim months of November-March, sun and sand are most definitely appreciated. The only question that remains is whether I progress my Vet 4 Templar into those quests, or stick the the headcanon-y lore I attached to my characters and send my Vet 2 Nightblade in instead. On the one hand, getting my main toward Vet 14 is always a goal. On the other hand…lore. Lore! We shall see.
In the meantime I shall congratulate myself on having bought that Princess Jasmine-esque number that popped up in ESO’s Crown Store this month. I knew a barely-there purple pantaloons ensemble would come in handy one day! To the desert (again)! With double-sided tape! To…keep my pants from sliding off at the first pop of a strand of pearls…
There’s a willingness to interrogate the past in fantasy that is lacking in most science fiction — not because it has to, but because writers let it. They assume “well, people are living in the present, and the present is this scifi world’s past, so I don’t have to cover it, do I?” Which in turn makes this grand assumption about shared experience that, yes, ignores the very fractured nature of existence on a humanitarian level, but on a storytelling level, just makes for a lame, fake, more unified past that didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Admittedly, fantasy can get this wrong, too, especially high fantasy whose roots go deep into a tradition of bored landed white guys making up languages in their private clubs. They, too, entrench their stories in a one-sided idea of history: of course there were no hobbits who chafed at the Stepford-esque nature of their society; of course everyone agreed to ride to help this or that kingdom in their hour of need. Grandiosity is not served, the authors seem to believe, by noting the exceptions to the narrative of unflinching valor, altruistic selflessness, etc. etc. When people talk about becoming jaded with fantasy as a genre, and when this is why, I understand.
But the fact is not everyone is doing this. With its tendency toward up-by-their-bootstraps rises to power, the genre ends up detailing (intentionally or not) a great deal of dissonance between the official narrative distributed by those in power, and the lived experience of those far, far, beneath those hallowed halls. How often do you hear someone in a fantasy story say, in response to a hero’s strident call to arms for justice, that the commonfolk don’t much care whether it’s one person in charge or the other, because it’s going to go badly for them either way? Granted, such admissions often occur as mere sidenotes to the grander, heroic narrative, but they are there.
Sometimes they’re not even sidenotes. Sometimes that dissonance is front-and-center in a story. Consider Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen, where the hero’s lovely much-foretold rise to power is rather brutally sullied by the fact that his trusted confidante and lover has to has his eyes carved out for seeing his naked face. Because that rise to power means an increase in status that wretchedly calls for the pseudo-deification of the newly-risen.*
Or look at — I know, surprise surprise — the deliciously contrasting views of the pre-history of Thedas vis-a-vis Andraste and the rise of the religion built up around her. “This is ‘delicious’ to you just because it bears a resemblance to actual historical fracturing of church narrative,” you’ll say, but that’s not quite true, no matter how much I love Name of the Rose. (An aside: In DA:I you can overhear some NPCs in the Chantry talking about whether or not Andraste ever laughed, or whether the Maker approves of laughter. I hoisted an invisible glass to William of Baskerville.) It isn’t the fact that such schisms did happen that makes these issues riveting. It’s that disagreement does happen. Everyone is so damn sure their version of an event is right, but there is no one right rendering of it. (Solas knows this, by the way.)
In their quest to build a solid base for their stories, builders of fantasy worlds often end up acknowledging this plurality of experience, if only to add depth and color to their world and the characters that populate it. This is a good thing. Even if it occurs by accident, it is a good thing. It isn’t that the creators of science fiction worlds cannot do this. They just tend not to. They let the past slide by under the assumption that we all know what it was (is) and agree that it was (is) the same thing, and then they start in on overly-involved descriptions of FTL travel and the science behind it — forgetting all the while that the people making these FTL journeys do not come from a unified, singularly understood past. Making it seem as though they do makes the characters, and they world(s) they inhabit, that much more shallow.
Of course, I freely acknowledge that I may just not be reading the right books. Or enough of them. On the one hand, if they were better written I might read more of them. On the other hand…without consulting a list, I’m hard-pressed to name many scifi books I’ve read, ever. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, M. John Harrison’s Light, the Pern series (which eventually caved and went much more SF than fantasy, ugh), Elizabeth Moon’s books, um. What else? The Leckie series I’m finishing right now, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (god how I hate cyberpunk), the original Dune books, half of The Windup Girl which I then quit in disgust at it being yet another hyper-exoticized tale of a gritty government white guy falling in love with almond-shaped eyes…**
That’s not a lot. Certainly not compared to the mountain of fantasy books I’ve read, and will continue to read. If I’m missing out on something that would make me reconsider my position on scifi as a genre, by all means let me know. And if I could put in a tiny note about dystopian futures — they often run up into the same problem more space-obsessed scifi books do: they ignore the faults of the present and attribute any human failings to actions, politics or technology that have not yet come to dominate our cultural landscape. That’s ridiculous. We right now are perfectly capable of ruining everything. We don’t need help. Delve into the way people break now, and the people and civilizations they take down with them. Don’t act as though we’re so perfect we’d need hyper-sexualized humanlike robots, or many-fanged, mind-reading space crabs, to shatter into little tiny pieces. Technology shouldn’t replace human error as the vehicle for drama. Magic doesn’t, in good fantasy novels (and games). Emotions and human frailty always lie beneath it.
Creators of science fiction should take notes on what their less astrally-minded peers are doing.
*Maybe the rest of this series plays down this fact (I don’t know; I haven’t read the others), but the first book at least gouges out your insides with this scene, so whether it’s front and center of the plot or not, it’s certainly central to your memory of the book. At least, it was to mine.
**You’ll notice I try to stick to women writers as much as possible here. The kind of stereotypical BS guys pull in scifi is just so much worse than in fantasy. I don’t know why. Again, it’s probably just that I avoid the worst of it. “How much exposed boob am I looking at on the cover?” is a crude but sadly effective test, for fantasy. The tittier the cover, the shittier the book…and I don’t have a whole lot of boobs on my fantasy shelves, it turns out.
A decade ago I was late for work and peddling frantically up a hill to get there. I came to a cross street, and saw the jeep coming, but he had a stop sign so I went on ahead. He ran his sign and hit me, but I threw myself off the bike so only my leg was trapped between the bike and the grille. The rest of me landed hard on the arm I’d flung back behind me to catch myself (no helmet, like a fool), and my shoulder popped briefly out of its socket before popping back in when I hit the pavement. At least, that’s what the ER people surmised.
A year ago I was riding the bus home, standing and clinging to the overhead bar when the driver slammed on the breaks, sending all of us flying forward. Same arm as before, and with my weight plus the weight of the person who flew into me yanking on it, the muscles attached to that shoulder screamed bloody murder, and I couldn’t do much with that arm for months.
After these events I decided running wasn’t enough, and that I needed to strengthen my upper body, as much to keep more harm from coming to it as to be a badass (always a selling point). I have to be really careful with that arm, so as not to tax it too hard too fast again (hence the light weights you see here), but I’m tired of the same three moves and have started doing all of these instead.
Actual fitness bloggers have much more to say on the issue of women lifting than I do, and all of it is more informed and eloquent than anything I could bring to the table. So I’ll skip all that, save for the obvious note that if you want strength you should seek it, other people’s complexes be damned. But! I’m going to make it a little easier for you by providing that MF workout on one page (they sign up for terrible ads that take over the page and blare noise at you and are terrible to navigate out of on mobile, ugh), and by providing you with a soundtrack** to boot! Because I’m used to only lifting for like 10 minutes at a time. If I’m going to be doing it for half an hour, I want to listen to something inspiring while I do.
Qunari MF Dumbbell Workout
Sets: 3 Reps: 10
One-Arm Bentover Row
Sets: 3 Reps: 15 (each side)
Get Up Sit Up
Sets: 2 Reps: 5 (each side)
Renegade Row (? who names these?)
Sets: 3 Reps: 10 (each side)
*Note: I just use a hand flat on the floor instead of trying to push off a parked dumbbell. It kills my palm, driving the damn bar into it.
Sets: 3 Reps: 15
One-Arm Push Press
Sets: 3 Reps: 15 (each side)
Sets: 3 Reps: 8 (each side)
Sets: 3-5 Reps: 15-20 (each side)
As to the title? Well, the qunari are, generally speaking, ripped. Hell, even their mages are ripped.* Look at this character I just rolled:
That lady can light the fire with a flick of her fingers, and haul the ram carcass over for roasting. So yeah. Lift like a qunari! And if you feel like you’re missing some soft fluffy pink things in your life as you work on those muscles, do it in this shirt if you must:
Or, you know. This one:
If that is more your thing. (Did I finish ME3 this weekend? Yes I did. Will I write about it? Yes I will. But not right now.)
*Not that qunari mages are alone in this regard. I’m looking at you, Master Pavus:
**In, um, another post. Sunday enjoyment must be maximized. Sitting through YouTube ads to make sure the song I’m linking is legit does not equate to maximal enjoyment…