Friday, May 17, 2024

Some Thoughts About Xenolanguage and "Story of Your Life"

A while ago (timely as ever), I got to hang out with Layla and play a session of Xenolanguage. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter, in no particular order. (Her thoughts are over here)

Xenolanguage is a roleplaying game where you take on the roles of the research team sent to investigate the Mysterious Alien Vessel. It's Arrival the storygame. You make your characters, set up your relationships, and go around the table step by step drawing prompts from the deck and playing through the various encounters.

It's Arrival: the Game. It couldn't pretend to be anything else if it tried.

It's not a puzzle game, that should definitely be said up front. I didn't know what I was getting into with this besides the pitch, but I had thought that there would be some sort of puzzle element or decipherment going on: this is not the case at all. There's no meaning to the symbols for you to discover; what you get instead is some prompts to guide players towards "what do you feel that this symbol is?"

This was fine for a while, but by the end of the (~3.5 hour) game, it felt pretty hollow. Since you're stuck on the path set by the pre-ordained plot, there's only so much forward action you can take, and when on reaching the end it felt like it didn't really matter. My character ended up spearheading a theory that the alien ship was a damaged probe spitting back junk data without any meaning to it at all, because that's kinda how I felt towards the end of the game. Maybe that means it succeeded, I don't know.

Granted, I have a pretty particular way of engaging with these topics (hard science fan with enough knowledge of linguistics to be dangerous), but I do feel that playing things so close to Arrival (in all ways except the actual linguistics) hurt it overall. It's a game about aliens and language, technically, but it is really more of a game about 4-5 characters and their relationships: the aliens are entirely incidental.

It was still fun to hang out with friends, and it certainly worked well enough as a game about characters and their relationships for the most part, but I left it feeling "that was a nice afternoon" rather than "that was a good game."


"Story of Your Life" is a short story by Ted Chiang, which I just finished reading (several months after writing the above segment). It is, as one likely already knows, the progenitor of Arrival, and thus the ancestor of Xenolanguage.


It seems appropriate that a story about language has got translation issues.

Villanueve did a great job with the visuals, and I prefer them in the film to the story. The story is better at delivering its themes, but ran into the issue of the delivery method not playing well with film as a medium. I am saddened that my copy of "Story of Your Life and Others" has ARRIVAL on the front cover, with your obligatory "now a major motion picture" slapped on it.

Now for whatever flubs the film committed in adaptation, Xenolanguage looks a whole lot worse in comparison to the segment I wrote a month and a half ago. It sacrificed having an actual central idea (the story is centered on figuring out how the Heptopods interpret time, and what that means for the character who can write in their language, interlaced with what that means for the narrator and her relationship with her daughter) for just evoking the aesthetics of the movie, and the end result is just empty. Not a revelation, I called it hollow just up the page, but in light of what was lost in the double translation of story to film to game it feels vaguely insulting and somewhat cynical. Loaded phrase but that's what my gut is calling it. Like the insides were scooped out, the chassis was put in a (much too big) box, and there wasn't any new substance added to the inside or out. Everything to make it work is put on the players, and maybe that works for the dedicated improv crowd, but in the practical world it needs more scaffolding than we got.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Bookpost 16

Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 , 7, 8, 9, 10 , 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

While the writing might slow, the reading never does.


And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Premee Mohammed

A magical realism novella about a sex worker in a fucked up future, a co-worker who comes back from death without explanation, and taking revenge against the killer. The prose is good when it hits its stride, but it has a major issue with focus: our POV character is primarily an observer of events, and so we end up with a lot of her musings while the actual revenge plot happens offscreen. Of the two climaxes of action in the book, one is off screen and both are confusingly written, where I really had very little idea of what was going on. Ultimately, very little lasting effect.

These Prisoning Hills, Christopher Rowe

A novella about people dealing with an AI that carved out a fiefdom in Tennessee and turned it into the Zone. Decent character work and interesting setting building let down by the fact that it is paced like the opening 130 pages of a much longer novel: it just stops with an extremely abrupt and overly-convenient ending for a plot that had barely started, satisfying nothing.

All the Horses of Iceland, Sarah Tolmie

A charming novella about an Icelandic man traveling to central Asia in a merchant caravan and bringing home some horses. Features Jews in Khazaria, novel solutions to ghost problems, and some very good jokes. Listened to the audiobook for this one, very good narrator. It's two hours and on Libby, no reason to not give it a listen.

A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar

One of the best fantasy books I have read in ages. Samatar writes with a care for language and a richness of prose that flows gracefully despite its density, making 300 pages feel like it contains more in less space. You know it's good because the review is short, and that is doing the book an extreme disservice. It's great. It's wonderful in that it evokes wonder, in a way that the Orientalists of long ago grasped at but could not extricate from their dreams of empire - here presented such that the narrator main character is clearly genuine in his love for fall-off places, but he's also bought into the lies woven about them. It's so, so good. I haven't even gotten to the ghost yet, there's a ghost in it and that entire plot gets wrapped up in the politics of religion and just go read the dang book.

Exordia, Seth Dickenson

DNF 174/529

In what seems to be a recurring theme in books I read, and extremely promising opening act is followed by a drastic tone and subject switch that abandons the positives of what came before for a renewed focus on weaker content that is unfortunately the rest of the book.

The opening is rock-solid - a breakneck whirlwind of bonkers high-concept sci-fi of the sort where I feel like I can pinpoint specifically what SCP wiki tale series he's got bookmarked (If Dickenson hasn't actually read There is No Antimemetics Division or Admonition, he certainly writes like he has.) It has no brakes, it throws out so much bonkers bullshit on so many plates and just keeps them spinning. Hell it pulls in narratavistics and that is an extremely hard sell for me. It's unrelentingly weird and bitter and makes itself exceedingly clear by the end of page one that the narrative voice is a particular kind of internet-hardened millennial.

And then Act 2 introduces fucking Erik and god damn Clayton. The whole thing shifts to an alphabet soup of US military garbage plate, and this is where it loses me. New characters are introduced en masse, their flashbacks interrupting any forward momentum. On page 50 there is a crashed alien machine that we know nothing about; on page 150 we still know nothing about it. The effective prose and shots of Junji Ito body horror are overwhelmed by fucking Clayton and god damn Erik, who are the most toxic codependent shitheads ever to wear spooksquad badges in the name of Uncle Sam. They are insufferable. The narration will jump between their POVs mid-paragraph, to the point where multiple times I could not actually tell where the characters were in relation to each other, and once I thought it was pulling a Fight Club on me. And then there's fucking Clayton, a US intelligence agent who has the absolute fucking gall to whine about how hard it is to make all these hard decisions he is just forced to make. He gets three fakeout deaths in the space of 20 or so pages. Dude survives a plane crash, a small nuke, and someone deciding to not shoot him in the head, which borders on "letting Kylo Ren live at the end of The Last Jedi" levels of garbage life choices.

The book uses an alien invasion to allegorize US interference in the Middle East and a set-up for loads of trolley problems, which would work a lot better if I didn't have to listen to Clayton whining about it. The other characters give him shit for it, but you still have to sit through it.

Bonus points for name-dropping Interstellar Pig, though.

There is No Antimemetics Division, qntm

Long-overdue, this one: TINAD is one of the big-name SCP story series (now including a minifilm adaptation), and, fashionably late to the party as always, I have finally read it.

If you have a basic knowledge of the gestalt setting of the SCP Wiki: go read this, it's good.

If you do not have that knowledge but are willing to learn as you go: still probably go read it.

The book itself is a collection of short stories strung together into a relatively cohesive storyline following Marion Wheeler, director of the Foundation's Antimemetics Division - an antimeme is anything that cannot be perceived or remembered without the use of drugs that rewire your brain and force you to remember. This results in a terrible patchwork where the Antimemetics Division is only occasionally even remembered to exist by their own parent organization, and deals with very important stuff that no one knows they've forgotten.

It is an excellent example of amateur web fiction; Meet it where it is, and you will probably have a decent time. The ebook is cheap and the same text is available for free on the wiki itself.

Gotta love that creative commons.

The Prince of Milk, Exurb1a

DNF 220/339

Picked this one up alongside its compatriot The Fifth Science because of the novelty of finding them at random in my local used bookstore. There are fake pullquotes on the back from the author's mother, wherein she disparages the books. That alone got me to buy them, and thus far Prince of Milk is Fine, but not fine enough to go all the way through.

Prose is decent, there are some good jokes and turns of phrase in there, but the extremely short chapters (and related swift pacing) run into issues with the sheer number of characters (with no dramatis personae) and the plot (lots of wheel spinning). By the midpoint, when the wild high concept stuff is supposed to really start kicking in, we're still stuck with mostly mundane English country village drama and there are entirely too many characters to remember when we're jumping around too fast. Some of them get decent characterization but there's no time to settle with it before you're launched to the next chapter and have to remember who these new people are again.