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The Empyrean Age

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Last weekend, I finally received the much-hyped Eve novel in the mail, which I had picked up largely because I wanted to know if the plotlines that had started coming to the fore in May were really as poorly thought out as I had suspected.  I admit I was predisposed not to be particularly happy with the book, especially since I had extremely strong feelings about the Caldari storyline being portrayed.  Still, I held out hope that it would end up being better than I expected and that it would help restore some of my confidence that the lapses I had seen were just one-time oversights or different, but valid, interpretations of how things have gone in the past.

If nothing else, I hoped it would be a good distraction and a decent tie-in novel, which are hardly exalted classics of the literary arts.  After all, I read and enjoy plenty of stuff that isn't exactly going to win the Pulitzer (or a Hugo or Nebula), including a number of the Dungeons and Dragons tie-ins, most of the Shadowrun novels (yes, even those not written by Tom Dowd or Nigel Findley), Sue Grafton's mysteries, David Weber's Honor Harrington series (at least the first several), the first several Tom Clancy novels (when he actually wrote books), and dozens of others.  There's nothing wrong with a good, exciting yarn that's the intellectual equivalent of comfort food.

And having read the book, what do I think?

I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone.  It suffers from a number of crippling problems (some of which I've decided to discuss behind the cut to prevent spoilers for people who really are convinced they want to read it), most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot problems I thought were going to be my biggest complaints.  I realize that this is Tony Gonzales' first novel, but even compared to other tie-in products, The Empyrean Age is simply lacking in many areas.

  • Mr. Gonzales desperately needs an editor to tell him "no" on something.  Many of the other problems I'm going to discuss probably could have been fixed if he had someone reading his book with a critical eye and telling him why certain things would or would not work.  In addition to stylistic problems and poor pacing, the book is riddled with shifts between present and past tense (usually involving infodumps -- see below for more on that), inconsistent word choice (in every Eve product not by Mr. Gonzales, the citizens of the Caldari State and Gallente Federation are Caldari and Gallente respectively -- in The Empyrean Age, they are Caldarians and Gallenteans), and other problems that could easily have been fixed by a good editor.  I suspect the fact that this is basically a marketing ploy means that CCP is paying most of the publishing costs, and therefore the publishing company had little reason to care (or even the ability to care) if the book was edited or not -- I know that very few other first-time novelists would have gotten something like this out the door without that kind of oversight.
  • The book has been way overhyped by CCP, with podcasts featuring game designers and writers gushing over how great the book is, and honestly, the way the book has been marketed is completely pretentious for what amounts to a run-of-the-mill tie-in novel.  The back of the book jacket says "These are the times that will test the human spirit," a bit of an overblown statement for what it really is, especially since none of the characters, to me, really felt like they went through a significant character arc.  The book itself is a hardcover (I don't see that a lot with tie-in novels, and it tends to only happen with authors who are already established) and everything about it is set up to raise expectations.  People who buy this book because it looks vaguely interesting and well-produced will probably be disappointed with what they find inside the elegant package.  I do not think I would have been quite as harsh on the book had it been marketed as something neat to pick up on the side, but not the greatest and most innovative new idea since sliced bread.  Tie-in novels are nothing new, even ones tied closely to a major development in an ongoing metaplot.
  • The book falls victim to that most treacherous of pitfalls in many tie-ins and SF novels, the infodump.  The first piece of advice any aspiring writer gets in a writing class or author's workshop is "show, don't tell."  Unfortunately, many authors feel like it's important to drop a bland wall of text in the middle of some other scene.  This can be done well; usually by keeping the information brief, limiting it to only the bare minimum of what the reader needs to know to understand the current situation, and trying to break it up and work it into the action somehow so that it isn't so obviously exposition.  Unfortunately, The Empyrean Age drops what is essentially an encyclopedia entry into the narrative on dozens of occasions (once right in the middle of one of a sex scene, for crying out loud) and brings the action to a grinding halt, often going on for paragraphs or pages about facts that are only tangentially related to what is going on at the time.  Most of this is regurgitated almost verbatim from background information on the Eve website.
  • One of the worst parts of this book for me -- frankly, to a level where I was often simply too disgusted to continue reading and had to take a break -- is that it is riddled with poorly written "sex" scenes, including a number of rather lurid descriptions of pedophilia and other pretty sickening stuff, which serve no purpose but to either titillate or provide some sort of hamfisted emotional manipulation to make you hate a character.  I am hardly a rabid feminist, and I would like to think I'm not a complete prude (despite what some of my coworkers would have you believe), but these sex scenes were repetitive and, to be quite honest, boring, served no purpose with regard to character or plot development, and it literally seemed at times that I could not go more than 20 or 30 pages without one.  There are few if any female characters who are not portrayed as some sort of sex object, something that maybe shouldn't come as a surprise considering the likely audience, but here's a hint: if you are baffled why women don't seem to be interested in a lot of games, it's writing like this that turns them off, folks.  Most of these scenes read like something you'd see from someone in a first or second year writing course who is trying way too hard to be "adult" or "edgy" (and boy, did I sit through a lot of those in college) and ends up coming off as fake and empty.
  • Though the female characters may get the shortest shrift, I didn't find any of the characters to be particularly three dimensional, sympathetic, or even comprehensible in many cases.  Almost every character, whether a Federation combat pilot, Caldari megacorporate CEO, Minmatar ambassador, or Amarr noble, spoke exactly the same way with one or two affectations (the Amarr throw in "my lord" every once in a while, for instance).  People change loyalties and toss away deep seated beliefs in less time than it takes me to wash my hair, apparently have no critical thinking skills, and don't show any sign that they fit in to whatever role they serve in the novel; rather than feeling like real people, the seem like actors called in to improv some lines about characters with power and responsibility they barely comprehend, then get shuffled off as quickly as they arrived.  Surprisingly (at least to me), Tibus Heth is probably one of the characters with the most depth in the novel, but that is damning with faint praise.  Many of the characters come off as "GM PCs" or Mary Sues, something I warned about in my post on metaplot earlier, with godlike abilities that seem completely out of whack with a "gritty scifi setting," as Eve's developers claim it to be.
Many of these problems are compounded by the fact that I don't think The Empyrean Age knows who its audience is.  If it is intended for hardcore Eve players, especially those most interested in the ongoing storyline, they may overlook the parts of the book that are lacking, but most of them aren't going to need the multi-page infodumps that are injected into the text at regular intervals.  If it is intended for a wider audience, people looking for an Honor Harrington-style space opera romp, they might be willing to sit through the infodumps, but the language and the trying-too-hard shock value of a good portion of the book is going to make it inaccessible.  It doesn't even have the boringly by-the-numbers appeal of a cheap romance novel or the two-fisted pulp action tale.  This is another case where an editor could have focused the book into something that would have been far better than the result.

To be fair, the book does improve somewhat in the last section, as the action kicks into high gear describing the events that transpired on 10 June.  Unfortunately, even those events suffer on the plausibility front because of the frailty of the previous 400 pages and the time in which we're expected to believe these things all happen; the complete subjugation of Caldari Prime, for instance, takes only 13 minutes from the moment the Caldari fleet enters Federation space to the minute Heth gives his ultimatum to Foirtain.  It's also riddled with the same sort of cliches and manipulative writing that haunts the rest of the book.  I'm tempted to give it some slack on this issue, as the day-long transition from peace to war was somewhat of a game requirement; still, I think that with proper planning, that could have been done at a much different and more natural pace if some more care had been taken in designing the storyline.

I have plenty of more specific notes, but I've kept them behind the cut.  If you're curious what else I have to say, proceed on....
So I've been meaning to do at least a couple short reviews on a few of the books I've read recently, but I just haven't had the time to really sit down and write out my thoughts on them.  I'm finally going to get around to this, and I apologize if they are a little vague; I left this go a bit too long and some of the details are a little fuzzy now.

Spook Country is first on the list.  William Gibson's latest, I saw it getting good reviews on RPGnet and decided to pick it up and try to figure out why I hadn't read anything by him in ages.  As I said before, Spook Country really felt like returning to a literary home for me; despite the fact that the book takes place in 2006, it is undeniably a cyberpunk book, and focuses on many of the same themes that are touched on in Neuromancer and his other books.  The writing style is very similar to what I remembered from the Sprawl trilogy, and as with everything I've read from him from Count Zero on, the book is constructed from multiple points of view that start out separate and slowly come together at the end.

While I have a harder time really describing too much what the story is about, simply because it encompasses so many themes, the one thing that seems to unify most of the plotlines in the book is the way technology, especially the internet, has intertwined with daily life in a way that is both similar and completely diferent from what Gibson envisioned in Neuromancer.  Gone are the neon cities, replaced with GPS and near-ubiquitous wireless networks that make things like locative art possible.  Buried somewhere in there is an espionage plot that touches on the kleptocracy of Iraq and the overreaching national security apparatus of the United States, but I get the feeling that is more of a medium in which Gibson is trying to use to explore these other concepts.

So, after reading Spook Country and really enjoying it, I decided to pick Virtual Light back up and try to figure out why I never really got into it when I first tried reading it (which must have been near when it was first published, back in 1993-94).  This time, I didn't have any problem getting into the book, and I am a bit baffled as to why I didn't like it when I tried before.  It didn't seem that much different, at least in style, from Neuromancer, with a much more straightforward action plot than Spook Country (though it doesn't start out that way).

I thought it was interesting that Gibson's three trilogies have been more and more contemporary as technology and society have become closer and closer to what he envisioned in his earlier works.  Virtual Light was especially interesting in the fact that when he wrote the book, it took place 12 years in the future, and when I was reading it, it took place 3 years in the past.  Gibson doesn't get the future quite right, of course, but it still rings pretty true and the book is filled with the immersively real places I've comes to expect from him -- the Bridge, the strange curio shop Berry looks into a job at, the messenger services offices, the party Chevette steals the VR glasses at, and the trailer community for the television oracle religious commune, for a few examples.

For some reason, the Bridge especially appeals to me.  In large part, I think that is because the Bridge is a community and a place built upon a historical artifact but also molded by the very people that live there, a fusion of old construction and new, one that feels very lived in and homey despite its obviously fragile and grungy state.  It's one reason that having a loft in a warehouse or some other reclaimed building appeals to me; it feels less artificial, more natural -- like a cave reclaimed from the wilderness, and certainly not sterile.

The plot of the novel also touches on this -- the hacker group that screws Berry over in the beginning of the novel and who saves him in the end is prompted to act to defend San Francisco, a place at least some of them call home and which also has that same aspect of being a new city built on the bones of the old, organically grown -- in contrast to the city that Sunshine wants to construct, which is going to be carefully sculpted from the ground up (despite the fact that it actually is going to be grown, by nanotechnology -- this is an artificial growth, not a natural process).  Once again, Gibson's plot is not nearly as gripping as the details and themes he explores.

The last book on this hit parade is Freakonomics, which I've wanted to read ever since I saw one of the authors, economist Steven Levitt, talking about it on the Daily Show a few years ago, but I never really got around to it.  My brother got it for Christmas a while back and I finally got around to borrowing it last weekend.  It's a quick (and for a book on economics, rather light) read, and it is probably one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've ever read.  I don't know that I really buy the "these are just the fact, you can take them as you will" tone that Levitt and Dubner try to set, at least entirely, but it does a good job of backing up the assertions it makes with facts and examples, so you can at least look into what they are saying if you want.

The best part of the book for me was how they tied in all sorts of anecdotes into wider studies and examples that push you to think just that much harder about the "common sense" things you pick up over your lifetime.  They also approach things very analytically, at least supposedly without any agenda or bias, which appeals to my brain (and, perhaps somewhat egotistically, it's what I think the "Caldari mindset" is), and it can lead to some seriously disturbing conclusions -- that all the innovative policing in the world matters less than legalized abortion, for instance (though the upshot of that chapter would seem to be that any method for preventing the birth of unwanted children would be beneficial).

It's not going to be the kind of book that changes the way you live your life, but it might make you think about things you wouldn't have otherwise questioned.  Well worth a read, even if you aren't that interested in economics (I found the stories about the way the KKK was undermined and the analysis of the Black Gangster Disciples business operation to be extremely interesting on their own).  And, if you want more from the authors in the same vein, they have a blog on the New York Times website.
A while back, I was having a conversation with someone about what books I would recommend for someone who was trying to break into game writing but hadn't had much experience with game design, just the writing part (not that I've really been more successful, to be quite fair).  Since I've been doing a lot of reading on the topic since I applied for a job at Obsidian Entertainment about 4 years ago.  Even though I was rejected (and quite frankly, considering how little I really knew about game design and how amateurish the example material I sent them was, I can't blame them), I got what was perhaps the best rejection letter I've ever seen.  Instead of the usual "thank you for your interest, but at this time, blah blah blah" stuff you usually get, I got about a two page letter back giving me a pretty detailed analysis of my application and example work and giving me suggestions for what to do to improve my chances of breaking into the industry, even suggesting a I try for a junior position at a couple other places.  That's a class act, and I really wish more places took the time to do that.

Anyway, one of the suggestions they made was to read more about game design and game writing, which is considerably different from writing a novel or short story; in fact, one of the common problems with game writers is "frustrated novelist syndrome."  I definitely have become a better writer since I started reading up on this stuff, especially when I think about my writing as it pertains to games, even in pen and paper stuff.  I would encourage other people with a similar interest to read up on game writing as well.

So, here's a list of a few books I've read over the last few years:

  • Creating Emotion in Games, by David Freeman.  This book does a good job of describing how to create characters that people will find compelling and really empathize with, and how you can use that to build a strong story around those characters.  The book's introduction also has a good breakdown that highlights the unique challenges of game writing (or, as Freeman suggests as a better term, "emotioneering") compared to screenwriting or other more linear narratives.  Definitely a good book for beginning writers to pick up, or for people who are trying to transition into game writing from a more traditional writing perspective.
  • Game Architecture and Design, by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris.  Especially if you've never worked in the industry, this book is a good primer for how books go from concept stage, through development, and finally to a finished product, with a heavy emphasis how to create compelling, interesting gameplay as well as keep your work manageable.  This book is less about writing and more about the overall process of game design, which it is important to understand if you want to do any sort of work in the gaming industry.
  • Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams.  Another book like the previous one, this one focuses on the basic concepts behind game design in practice and theory, as well as an overview of the game design challenges in a variety of genres.  If you're looking for a quick primer on how game design works at a higher level than the previous book, this may be the one for you.
  • Developing Online Games, by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Patrovsky.  This one is more focused on creating online games, especially MMOs.  Though perhaps a bit out of date, since it was published in 2003, it still has important lessons to teach about all sorts of design and management issues for MMOs and other online games.  The book discusses everything from the planning and budgeting for an MMO, to the design, to preparing for launch, and finally, to managing the game after it's been released.  It also includes a post-mortem of Anarchy Online, which Mulligan worked on, and some additional articles on topics such as player psychology, managing disruptive behavior, increasing player retention, and Dr. Richard Bartle's rather famous "Players Who Suit MUDs" article, which is a must read for anyone developing games with a social component.
I have a few other books, but to be honest I don't remember which I have read and which I haven't sometimes.  These are the four that I think stick out in my mind the most, and definitely a good start for anyone looking to learn more about game design.

Last week, I ordered two books from Amazon with my latest gift certificate, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Spook Country by William Gibson.  I read the PKD book first, since I have had trouble piercing a lot of Gibson's books in the past, ever since I read the sequels to Neuromancer.  It was good -- interesting at least, though it ends very abruptly and is as indecipherable as anything written by Dick.  A good effort at world building though, with a lot of interesting philosophical questions, something that I have pretty much come to expect from Dick's writing.

I started Spook Country this morning, and wow.  I haven't read anything by Gibson since I tried starting Virtual Light a long time ago and never managed to finish it.  I keep meaning to go back and reread Neuromancer again, but I haven't had the chance (and I can't find my copy -- I think I might have loaned it to someone).  However, just reading the first two chapters of Spook Country I remembered why I think he's such an amazing writer.  He has such a skill with metaphor, such an attention to detail and description, that it blows my mind just to think about.  When he describes something, he talks about it in a way that you would never think to describe it, but you can instantly picture what he means.  If he is able to do this reflexively, if that is how things just come to him, than I am supremely envious.  To me, it seems like each paragraph is perfectly crafted, like delicate etched glass, painstakingly designed and cut for hours or days.

Gibson's writing can be dense and sometimes impenetrable; like I said, I tried reading Virtual Light and I haven't managed to do so successfully yet.  His plots are sometimes so labyrinthine that you have to reread them a half dozen times before you really understand what's going on and his characters can sometimes be complete enigmas. Even so, there is no question, at least to me, that he is one of the best writers I have ever read.  Regardless of what you may say about him, you can't deny that every book he writes feels real, like he's just describing a scene that he is watching, one with infinite resolution -- you could read the fine print on every warning label, feel the ridges and cracks in every piece of grubby plastic, taste the ozone in every breath of air.  I almost feel like his current books, which are set in more or less the present day, are almost a waste of his talent.  I want to read about something new and different, completely separated from what I know and yet intimately familiar.  For me, as a writer, that is the ultimate challenge, and when someone can pull it off with such apparent ease, I have to simply sit back in awe.
A few weeks ago, I got a pair of books from Morrie, my friend from Israel, as sort of a belated birthday present.  The first was The Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next novel.  I enjoyed it immensely, despite the fact that it takes place in quite possibly the most crazy, out-there alternate history-type setting I've ever read.  I burned through it in a few days of reading on the bus as I usually do with "fun" reading.  It wasn't particular heavy reading and the plot was very fast paced.

The other book she sent me was The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I have been trying to get through this book for the last two weeks and it has been slow going.  Not because the book is bad, by any means -- frankly, it's one of the best things I've read in a long time.  No, the bad part of this book is that every page is soaked in metaphor and subtext, the characters are so well painted, the plot has so many twists it feels like some sort of MC Escher drawing, and the locations are so detailed that you can almost smell the musty tomes in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  It takes me much longer than usual to read and digest every page, and I still find myself wondering if I missed something.  This is a style of writing that I absolutely love, where everything is slowly coming together, and you just kind of drink it in, and feel the climax creeping up your spine, something that is best with this sort of novel.  I'm not sure how to classify the book, but I suppose right now I would have to say it is sort of magic realism, or gothic horror, or something sort of combination of both.

Zafon does such a perfect job of making you feel the setting of postwar Barcelona that, even though I've never been to Spain or even anywhere with Spanish architecture really, I can imagine what it looks, sounds, feels, and smells like.  Daniel's father's bookstore, the aforementioned Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Mr. Fortuny's abandoned apartment, the streetside cafes, everything seems to come alive.  The emotional content of the book just pours out and you're whipped along with the story.

Here's the problem though -- it all just seems so effortless.  The way everything just sort of flows together, it's like Zafon was divinely inspired and it just poured out onto the page.  It's hard to believe that something so deep and complex could possibly be written in any sort of conventional way.  Now, in my head, I know that can't possibly be the case, and I'm sure he spent many nights just wracking his brain for the right metaphor, writing and rewriting, but it just doesn't feel like it at all.  The book is, so far, just a masterful work of literature.

Reading books like this just seems to set such a high bar for myself, when I try to do my own writing, that it feels like everything I write is pale and lifeless, and just doesn't even come close to comparing something like that.  Part of it, I know, is just that not everyone has that same style.  Part of it is that I just haven't practiced enough, especially the last few years.  Part of it is that I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of putting that much emotion into the page, because it makes you vulnerable.  I just wonder though if I'd even notice if I wrote something with anything close to that kind of resonance though, because I pick everything apart in my mind.  Does Zafon look at the book he wrote and marvel at what he managed to put on the page, or does he just look at it and wonder what he could have done better, or what other people see in what he wrote?

It's really hard for me to take compliments about my writing, partly because I know my friends and family probably are not going to tell me to my face "this is the worst piece of crap I've ever read" but also because I think a lot of them just haven't had the exposure to really amazing works of literature that I've been lucky enough to have.  Reading even things I didn't think I would like, like Paul Auster's City of Glass, which I read only because it was required for a class, or things I didn't like at all, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, which I thought was a pretentious effort at making a completely unreadable "artsy" book (and yet still had to read three times for various classes in high school and college) exposes me to many more different types of writing that most people ever get exposed to in this day and age.  It's hard to feel happy with a compliment from someone whose library consists of Harlequin romances and Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novels -- you almost wish they would say they didn't like it.  Of course, no one I know has a reading list that is that bad, but I don't talk to too many people who have read everything from medieval literature to postmodernist novels these days.  Even when I was in school, when you are in a writing seminar and everyone there is writing another "slice of life" story about drunk or stoned college kids with crappy love lives, where you just wish everyone involved would drop dead and shut the hell up, it's hard to take them seriously when they talk about how they like what you wrote (or, on the upside, when they say they didn't like what you wrote).

I'm not going to stop reading things like The Shadow of the Wind anytime soon, but I have a real love-hate relationship with them.

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