"OK! Hello! You Are Happy Now, I Am Sure!!!"

At the suggestion of my friend Grandy I have utterly blown off his request that I help him write a review of YET ANOTHER MMORPG that is fashionable for some reason, to play a game that was in vogue twenty years ago.

I'm speaking of Star Control II.

For our readers who WERE NOT ALIVE twenty years ago, and we have a number of you, I'm pretty damned old.

And yet old men occasionally have things to say that are worth hearing.

To be less abstruse, Star Control II was published by a now defunct publisher called Acclaim in 1992.  It was developed by a pair of dudes who went under the name Toys for Bob, a reference that none of you children will get, I AM SURE!

Taking off my old man wizard hat, Star Control II was one of the last games written before Wolfenstein 3D  came along and crystallized all games into distinct genres, in other words fucking everything up:  Star Control II is, in terms kids would use today, an amalgamation of a Sci-Fi RPG, a flight simulator, a tactical battle simulator with side advancement for goal completion, and a Larry Niven novel.  It was so far ahead of its time that it's still ahead of its time, easily, TODAY, one of the ten best computer games ever made despite the fact that the idea of a black man wielding as much power as Bill Clinton was SCIENCE FICTION on par with a Larry Niven novel back in 1992.

And it's freeware, though you have the option of paying five bucks to enjoy it in a version even more primitive than the freeware.  I play the freeware, but I bought the five buck version to give back to the guys who made this game in hopes that Electonic Arts or Activision, two other long defunct game publishers which are still around for some reason, will buy the rights for a measly million bucks and create a modern version of something that's STILL better than anything they've ever published.

Still too abstruse?

Star Control II places the player in a near future in which a space traveling humanity has encountered alien intelligence, in fact a galaxy full of alien intelligence: Humanity joined the losing side of a galactic civil war between a "libertarian" coalition of races that wish to exist in chaotic individuality, and an "authoritarian" coalition of races dominated by the Ur-Quan, who simply wish to impose ORDER on the galaxy for everyone's benefit.  While humanity almost turned the tide with our comically primitive ships (looking like space shuttles bristling with nuclear missiles and surplus SDI lasers), the freaks lost, and ORDER was imposed on the galaxy.

Until a lost human expedition to the galactic core discovers a "Precursor" starship built when all of the protagonists of the last war were using femurs as weapons against space leopards.  You are the captain of this ship.

And yet there's so much more: twists and plot turns I won't mention,  voice acting (from a console version on the sadly defunct and all but forgotten 3DO) on a par with James Earl Jones voicing Darth Vader (for the scary Ur-Quan who are the INITIAL villains), and dozens of riddles and hints for the future, like the information-trading Melnorme, who promise you secrets and mysteries about the real history of the galaxy which you can only almost afford, and the Orz, a race of friendly, smiling space-goldfish, whose speech is never QUITE accurately captured by your universal translator (the title of this post is one of the translations), who may or may not FREAK YOU OUT when you realize that they are in fact Lovecraftian horrors from another universe, who intend to merge our universe with their own in order to…

Your mouse will not work in this game.  It's all keyboard.  But you can configure the controls to familiar WASD standards in the freeware version that I therefore recommend you download, known as "The Ur-Quan Masters," which includes the wonderful voice work from the console version:

Here is is.

Don't be frightened by the less than zero version number.  I've played about twenty hours (SC II requires about a hundred hours to complete) on a Windows 7 64 bit machine without a single crash.

After you're through with it, buy the official, DOSbox version from Good Old Games, both to give the developers money, and to reward Good Old Games for republishing this and many other good, old, games. As a bonus, you'll get the original Star Control, which is an entirely tactical, non-RPG game featuring great space combat with even more varied alien ships and races.

At five bucks, it's more entertaining, and less expensive to you, than a speech by a black man who wields as much power as Bill Clinton.

Maybe The Universe Has A Sense Of Humor. And Maybe She's A Geek Who's Into British Television.

The head of the University of California at San Diego's robotics laboratory, tasked with creating a lifelike, human seeming robot, is named Javier Movellan.

The British science fiction television show Doctor Who, in the 1970s, featured a race of aliens named Movellans.   The Movellans were engaged in a galaxy-spanning war against the better known Daleks.



Here's where it gets weird.  The Daleks were a race of living creatures, cyborgs, who required robotic shells to stay alive.  Opponents of the Daleks often mistook them for robots.  Horrific, genocidal robots, but robots nonetheless.



The Movellans, on the other hand, looked and behaved like humans, so much so that they were mistaken for living creatures. But in fact they were robots, less like humans than the Daleks they fought.

Just like the machines that Dr. Javier Movellan is trying to create.

"Surrounded By Moslem Maniacs On One Side, And Christian Maniacs On The Other"…

… "the wise lord Hassan preserved his people and his cult by bringing the art of assassination to esthetic perfection.  With just a few daggers strategically placed in the right throats, he found Wisdom's alternative to war, and preserved the peoples by killing their leaders.  Truly, his was a most exemplary life of grandmotherly kindness."

I'd never have read that passage if not for Ray Bradbury, who introduced me to science fiction and made me a lifelong fan.

Sometimes science fiction, at its best, has said things to a mass audience that could not be said in respectable books and periodicals.

So I found it interesting to read that Bradbury, the last of SF's three grand old men, believes that America is ripe for revolution. Only I don't believe he means it as metaphor.  I quote the passage above in hopes that the revolution, when it comes, won't be too bloody.

Thanks to TJIC, who appreciates a good science fiction reference as much as I do, for the pointer.

If Joss Whedon Had Friends At HBO, Would We All Be Wearing Brown Coats?

The wife and I began watching Whedon's short-lived, but masterful, television series Firefly again last night.  For me it was the second time on dvd (after watching it on Fox during its original run), and for the wife it was the first.

The show holds up as well or better than it did when originally broadcast in 2002.  Though Whedon has a great sense of humor, Firefly is his most tragic work, following the crew of the spaceship Serenity about the planets as they run from the demons of their past, principal of which is that many of them were on the losing side of a stellar civil war in which the central-planet "Alliance" (forces of progressivism, nationalism, multi-planet corporations, state security, big government, or if you want to summarize it as a whole, "the East") crushed the outer-system Browncoats (so named because they couldn't afford uniforms) or "Independents" (anarcho-syndicalism, libertarianism, mom-and-pop commerce,  minarchism, "the West").

Plus a subplot about government mind control that can't be revealed because it would spoil the conclusion of the series, the somehow-produced, and somehow-profitable, science fiction film Serenity.

And of course Fox, where good television goes to be born only to suffer infanticide at the hands of executives, ruined the show, broadcasting a tragic space-opera serial out of order because some of the episodes they front-loaded were funnier than the intended earlier episodes.  So normal people watching the show had no idea what was going on.  It was cancelled before its full run was complete, due to low ratings.  Today Firefly lives only on dvd.

And it did occur to me, if HBO or Showtime, networks which aren't afraid to challenge audiences and which take the long view, had access to the show, it might have had its second or third or fourth season.  Hell, Big Love is now on its fifth season.

And which comes back round to my other point.  Firefly, as cool a piece of anti-authoritarian agitprop as was ever made, is more relevant today than ever.  In 2002 only freaks on the left or the libertarian fringe feared their government and their banks.  Today, everyone fears the Man.

If you've never seen Firefly, I strongly urge you to watch the show in the original order. And wear your brown coat with pride.

Know Where Your Towel Is!

Today is Towel Day, in honor of the late Douglas Adams:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

Support your local towel, and keep it free!

"Christ, What An Imagination I've Got"

An off-the-cuff remark in a post last week informed me that a number of our readers, who definitely include a disproportionate share of science fiction fans, have not read John Brunner's epic near-term SF novel Stand on Zanzibar.  As I think highly of this work, and am flabbergasted at how well it stands up in the fortieth year after its publication, I write in the hope that you will remedy that.

[Read more…]

The Diamond Age Coming To A Small Screen Near You?

Via Dispatches From Tjicistan, I see the welcome (and old) news that George Clooney is working with the Sci-Fi Channel on a miniseries version of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.

The news is so old that the deal has probably already gone from green light to red.  But there's still hope, and Clooney, tool that he is, is a gifted actor who would be perfect for one part in particular.  If it never happens, I blame Sci Fi.

That said, while Cryptonomicon is my favorite Stephenson work, I'm weird.  I love Tim Powers and Robert Anton Wilson, both of whom are as sci-fi as Cryptonomicon, meaning not very.  They're sci-fi mixed with John LeCarre mixed with a thousand nameless conspiracy theory authors.  As pure, hard sci-fi goes, The Diamond Age is f'ing brilliant and ranks, for me, with William Gibson's Neuromancer, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and John Scalzi's Old Man's War as the among best science fiction novels written since John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar.

Which as any fool knows, is the best science fiction novel ever written.