Thursday, March 25, 2010

Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke

In the future we'll work less and less thanks to automation which will leave us more and more time for entertainment. Most of the routine jobs will be done by machines which leaves us to do the thinking. Thanks to the machines we'll have more time to sport and we'll manage to watch three hours of TV a day. Factories will produce enough goods so that the basic necessities of life are cheap. We'll all be able to travel to any other place in the world in less than one day. It's the golden age of mankind and also the start of our childhood as we spend more and more time playing and watching games.

Arthur C. Clarke's vision from 1953 seems prophetic today. Sadly, we now watch an average of four hours of TV a day while most people don't do any sport at all. And not everyone is at our western level of prosperity. Most people can hardly pay their rent.

In Clarke's book this golden age of mankind is delivered by a species called the Overlords. One day they came and they put us at a great level of prosperity. Of course, there's always a catch. The Overlords are in control of our world and can everything they want thanks to their superior technology. The big question is of course: why are they helping us? The responses to the Overlords are mixed, they did provide us everything we need... except for freedom. Besides that there's also a great reduction in our science and art. What's the use in searching for anti-gravity devices when the Overlords have already invented it? I personally find this hard to believe, I'd imagine that this would just cause the opposite effect. If they can build it, it proves that physics allows us to do it so we can build it too! But in times where the majority of people sport and watch TV most of the time I'm not surprised to see that there's not much time left to do research.

The book follows multiple characters through the ages. It starts directly after the alien landing with the UN governor who is our only contact with the Overlords. He's curious about the Overlords goals and sets out to find these out. The second part moves us fifty years in time and follows Rupert Boyce as he and his wife are in the golden age of mankind. Yet they're not entirely happy, Rupert wants to create art, not sit in front of a TV all day. They set off to join a small community who wants to restore our science and art progress to the times before the aliens interfered. The book concludes as mankind meets its final destiny.

Reading the first part I was enjoying a great book. Sadly, the book starts to fall towards the end. Clarke excuses himself in the foreword for his use of paranormal activities which seemed acceptable at the times. It's never a good sign if an author apologizes for his book. And it's hard to believe that an alien species having superior intelligence would be interested in it. Rupert Boyce himself is convinced that no scientist should believe in it and I fully agree with him. Mankinds destination is also a tough pill to swallow. We all accept our faith without a fight? Seriously?

Maybe we have to see the book in own time. The paranormal might have been more acceptable back then. The link to colonialism also isn't far off. The British were invading the entire world bringing peace and their 'superior' lifestyle through the use of their technology and military power. Is it better to impose your culture on others providing them a better life at the cost of their freedom? The book doesn't answer it but it's giving us food for thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dragon Age: The Failure

Exciting! The new Dragon Age expansion has arrived. So I quickly went ahead and clicked install. Half a minute later I'm sitting before an "Installation Failure" screen. Five attempts later the game still isn't installed. Luckily there's Google. Apparently the game doesn't properly install on Vista Ultimate 64 bit. There's a quick fix: install it using the Windows 2000 compatibility mode. Five minutes later the game is installed. How many people will return their games to the store because it doesn't work? It's an unacceptable bug.

After installing Mass Effect 2 I spent two hours in vain trying to find my old save game. I didn't have any luck and used a pre-made character from another player. But I felt bad about loosing my character. I made sure I wouldn't have the same problem with Dragon Age. I left the game installed after finishing it because the expansion was just around the corner. And indeed, the old save-game loads flawlessly. There's just one problem, my character is completely naked except for her gloves (yes, it gives me a déjà vu)...

When I started the new campaign I immediately noticed that my character is naked. Her companion next to her is dressed in what looks like epic gear. It's a complete immersion breaker to see that she's having a conversation like nothing is wrong. Soon I'm off to my first fight. Unarmed! My sword & shield? Gone. My armor, hat, boots, rings, necklace,...? Gone. I'm a warrior fighting with a bow. So once again we google the problem. And I quickly find out the cause: none of the DLC is transferred.

Bioware makes sure that people want to obtain their DLC. They give out free Blood Dragon armor of which I used the chest until the end of the game. The Starfall sword & my warden shield are both the best items in their categories that I found in the game. And they're all gone. It makes no sense to punish those who buy DLC by deleting all their items.You give them the best gear in the game only to take it away.

I hope that Dragon Age: The Awakening will still amaze me but it has one horrible start.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ubik - Philip K. Dick

Ubik - Ubiquitous - Everywhere

Joe Chip works as a technician for a "prudence company". The company employs anti-psych people. One such talent might be the ability to block a telepathic. If you're sceptic about paranormal talents you're not the only one. At least one of the company's customers doubts their claims. Do they really do something or are they just drinking up our coffee while burning a whole in my pocket? But he's rather safe than sorry and just coughs up the money.

The book starts when the company receives a big order in times of crises. Safety bells should ring in their heads but they go ahead anyway. Arriving at the scene an explosion happens. Apparently their boss Runciter is killed. They immediately go off and bring their boss to the mortuary where he can be kept in a state of half life for a few more years. In half life he can still be asked some questions once every few years.

In a lot of books this prologue would be the offset for an action packed novel. Psychs vs non psychs, the fight! But not in this book. Instead everything gets fuzzier and fuzzier. As the book moves along their environment starts to change. Their money turns into toy money with Runciters face on. Their environment slowly degrades to the thirties. And they start seeing Ubik advertisements everywhere. Ubik promises them to restore their life and bring them back their old lives, they just have to get a bottle. How do you explain all this? Every time Joe gets one step closer to an answer something happens that puts us back two steps.

What's real? It's a concept that we can see in more of Dicks novels. Do androids dream of electric sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) is probably the most famous example. There an android hunter has to figure out who's an android and who's not, who's "real" and who's not. And the less obvious question remains unanswered, is he an android himself? How can we be sure what's real and not except through our senses? And in the end, does it matter what's real? We've only got the here and now and we have to make the best of it. Even if we all took the blue pill.