Sunday, April 25, 2010

the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 2

Broadly speaking, there are 2 possible interpretations to the events of The Sorcerer's House.

A.  None of the supernatural events reported by Bax are true.  Bax makes everything up in order to defraud and kill his brother and seduce Millie. I shall quote from a comment by gwern (from the Urth-list archives, an online discussion board of Wolfe's work), as a possible summary of this interpretation:

  1. Bax moves into the mansion.
  2. When he tries to regularize his squatting, he goes to Martha and using his smooth wiles on a lonely old woman, cons her into letting him stay under the perfectly normal custodial arrangement.
  3. He thoroughly searches the house, and discovers the eccentric previous owners had had valuable collections. Bax didn't lie about the gold coins, but he found many more. Gold is very valuable, after all, especially collectibles. Bax has modest needs. Alternate scheme: he takes out a mortgage.
  4. He embarks on his elaborate con/murder scheme of George.
  5. Mischief managed.
  6. He forges Murrey's will - she also had the Skotos Strip. (Why not? She seems to have tons of real estate in general.) Alternate scheme: he gets her to sign that over as well / forges her signature.
  7. Murrey vanishes like George.

B.  Many (but possibly not all) of the supernatural events within The Sorcerer's House take place.  Bax actually is the son of a sorcerer and the Black House falls upon a so-called ley line which connects our reality with that of Faerie.  Bax describes these events to his brother George in order to make him jealous and lure him into a trap.  George's disappearance could mean that 1) Bax killed George, or 2) George became trapped in Faerie somehow, or 3) George decided to stay in Faerie (possibly to conquer it).

These interpretations are obviously directly contradictory to one another.  I favor (B) but am not 100% convinced.

Evidence in favor of (A).  (I shall add to these lists as necessary)
  • Bax is a liar and a con-artist.  As such, it is quite possible that there are more "realistic" explanations for how he comes by the various properties and gets rids of George.
  • Bax's letters to Shell are devoid of explicit supernatural content.  They do, however, speak to him possessing guns and wanting to prepare for the possible murder of his brother.
  • The supernatural phenomena in The Sorcerer's House do not fall within a consistent mythological tradition.  There are vampires, werewolves, and zombies - but also Japanese kitsune.  These inconsistencies may be the result of Bax's extensive education in European history and tradition, just as he draws upon his expertise in literature to periodically make parallels to stories and characters by Dickens (see "Quilp"="Quorn").

Evidence in favor of (B).
  • The text is far too complex and intricate to merely serve as a means of deceiving George and Millie.  I suspect there are many many other ways that Bax could have lured George to Medicine Man, besides fabricating a multilayered plot involving sorcerers and fairies.  Furthermore, such a fabrication suggests that George would be particularly susceptible to a fantastical story.  Why?  With Millie, there is a clearer explanation - she is gullible, naive, and believes in supernatural phenomena (hiring a psychic, for example).  George, however, might be lured into the trap if he also possessed the genes of a sorcerer and so intuitively believed some aspects of Bax's letters.  It is possible, in fact, that George has independently discovered some aspects of their family background and is incensed that Bax is attempting to claim the entirety of their inheritance.
  • A series of unexplained killings does take place in Medicine Man, and their nature is indicative of werewolves.
  • The compiler confirms the existence of the samurai sword, at least insofar as Millie was able to describe it in detail.
  • In letter #44, "George" (Bax) says he will be returning with the fox, Winkle.
  • Supernatural happenings could explain 1) why Bax is drawn to Medicine Man in the first place, after being released from prison and 2) how he comes to easily inherit both the Black House and the Skotos property. 
  • Doris's letter #42 mentions the ghost of her dead husband, werewolves, the vampire Nicholas, and the malevolent dwarf.  If we are to believe this letter is real, it is the strongest independent evidence for Bax's story.
  • In letter #21, Bax writes to Shell and says, "There are other things I could tell you about, but you would not believe a word of it."   Not specific reference to anything supernatural, but suggestive. (Another interesting aspect to this letter:  in it, Bax asks Shell if he's ever heard of Mary King - the ghostly hitchhiker who appears in letter #25, from Bax to Mrs. Pogach.  It refers to events that took place after Bax had his meeting with the lawyer, George was arrested, and the dinner-date with Dorris - described in letters 22 and 23, possibly the most important letters in the book.  Why would Bax ask Shell about Mary King?)
Furthermore, there are easy counter-arguments to most items in the (A) list.  We need not concern ourselves with "realistic" explanations for how Bax comes into easy property, since this is Gene Wolfe and this is a piece of fantasy.  We know that Wolfe "believes" in faerie, and so oughtn't we?  Also, it is hard for me to understand how Bax comes to Medicine Man in the first place and easily acquires said properties (UNLESS he has some previous relationship with Alexander Skotos, hinted at in Shell's letters but which Bax himself seems unaware of).

The inconsistency in mythologies can be explained by acknowledging that that is how Faerie works.  Faerie is a land generated by human imagination, desire, and fear.  It is a product of our id and collective unconscious.  Therefore, it will be populated by a mish-mash of archetypes and icons from various cultural traditions.  It might also be argued that the Faerie world which Bax encounters is based upon his own personal imagination - one largely steeped in European tradition, but perhaps tinged with a slight interest in the Orient.

We saw a similar mish-mash occur in Wolfe's Castleview, which is a helpful reference point for understanding some aspects of The Sorcerer's House.  Another novel in which a sleepy Midwestern town falls upon a ley-line between dimensions, into which faerie invade and cause havoc.

    the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 1

    Gene Wolfe's newest book, The Sorcerer's House (2009), is not his best work but that's an unfair assessment.  After all, Wolfe's tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, might be the best science fiction ever written - of course everything he has published since seems faded in comparison.  But like all his fiction, The Sorcerer's House is a puzzlebox that haunts you upon completion.  It's a fun and vigorous read but so much is left unsaid and unwritten, that if you want to get the most out of it, you need to re-read and spend some time analyzing. I'm going to share my thoughts on this blog as I go through my second run-through, and perhaps by writing these ideas out I'll clarify some mysteries for myself.

    First, some basic assumptions.

    1.  I am going to assume that the "compiler" is not Bax.  If the compiler is Bax, then analysis of the story almost becomes meaningless, since everything is questionable.  So...

    2.  The following people are, at the least, real:  Bax and George (twins), Millie, Orizia Pogach (the psychic), Sheldon Hawes, Martha Murrey, Zwart Black (and Alexander Skotos - may or may not be the same person).  This is based upon their mention in the final Compiler's Note.  I also assume that Dorris Griffin and Kate Finn are real.  Many other characters may or may not be real (for example, Thelma "Naber", whose last name sounds like "neighbor" could very well be a Bax fabrication, meaning that the whole Thelma & Martha twin story is a lie; similarly, "Jake Jacobs" could be another joke by Bax).

    [There are 2 more complications which make identification of "actual" people difficult:  1) the compiler states that he/she has changed some names within the text "to protect innocent persons" and 2) there is a "Significant Names" chapter at the very end of the book.  How are we, the reader, to take this final section?  Was this put together by the compiler?  Or was it put together by Wolfe (the Author, with a capital "A")?  If the latter, should this be taken as a clue that these characters indeed exist?]

    3.  Bax was well-educated (claiming to have 2 PhD's:  one in English literature, the other in ancient history) and had been convicted of fraud against his brother and some of his brother's friends/associates.  The story presented in this narrative begins soon after his release from prison.

    4.  George is very wealthy.  We know little else of his personality, background, and behavior.  If we are to believe Millie's letters to Bax, he's arrogant, demeaning, and at least somewhat abusive.  Most everything we see of George is filtered through Bax, who, presumably, hates him and is toying with him for some nefarious reason (the two most likely possibilities being money and revenge).

    5.  Letter 44 strongly suggests that Bax has somehow rid himself of his twin brother, George, and is impersonating him.  The Compiler's Note indicates that Bax was successful at this identity theft for at least several years (although I suppose it's possible that Millie saw through his disguise right away but either didn't care, or was too afraid to do anything about it).  It is quite possible that this was Bax's plan from the beginning, and indeed, something he was plotting while in prison.

    6.  Bax, following his release from prison, somehow came into possession of the "Black House," the Skotos property, and Martha Murrey's house.

    7.  Something or someone in Medicine Man killed a number of people in particularly gruesome and brutal ways.  The "Hound of Horror" is not a Bax fabrication, insofar as the local newspaper did print several stories on a series of local killings that were blamed upon a large dog or wolf.

    8.  We may assume that the most, if not all, of the content of Bax's letters to his friend, Sheldon is truthful.  It is notable that he never mentions any supernatural phenomena to Sheldon in these letters, although it is possible that he only avoid these topics because he suspects that would make him look like a "sucker" or someone who is mentally deranged.  Therefore, on this 2nd reading, it will be important to pay attention to the exact content of his letters to Sheldon, as well as Sheldon's replies.  As I recall, these letters confirm the existence of someone who is likely to be Alexander Skotos.  And that someone was actively asking about Bax.  I believe this is a major hint as to how Bax ended up with these properties in the first place.

    9.  Any letter written by Bax to either his brother, George, or to George's wife, Millie, is suspect.  As these letters contain the vast majority of the plot of The Sorcerer's House, the reader is left to determine what actually happened.  Hence, this analysis.  I will assume (although this could be dangerous) that the majority of letters written back to Bax are genuine and were not substantially altered by him (although he may have acquired a certain expertise in forgery).  Millie's letters indicate her naivety but also suggest that George is not a paragon of humanity (as might be expected in the "good twin").  Pogach's indicate that she did visit the Black House and interact with Bax.  Doris's indicate that she became emotionally involved with Bax and, later, quite confused.  It is notable that both Pogach and Doris mention supernatural phenomena in their letters.  Doris's letter "A Terrible Mistake" (#42) is particularly interesting and will require several close reads.  George writes only one letter (I believe) to Bax, and that is "The Challenge" (#37).  This letter is written in such a style that it may very well be a forgery by Bax, done so to implicate George.  However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that Bax assumes George's identity at the end.  Why would Bax try to paint George as a possible murderer out for revenge just before taking on his identity?

    [One additional issue that concerns me regarding the authenticity of these letters is the following:  once Bax assumes George's identity, he theoretically comes into possession of all the letters that he previously sent his brother.  He could, at this point, engage in a great deal of editing.  However, what would be his motivation for doing so?  He would only do so if he believed that someone would later discover these letters and read them.  For example, he might edit if he was worried that the police could eventually come into possession of these letters.  However, I don't find this line of reasoning plausible since there is a great deal of "unsavory" information in these letters.  E.g., he squats in the Black House, he shoots a wolf-thing in the face and it later becomes a human man, etc.]

    That's as far as I will go now, as you can see I'm already starting to drift away from my initial assumptions.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    small world on ipad

    Been slowing increasing in envy for FP's iPad.  To be perfectly honest, I probably won't get one for years (after they're gone through 3 generations and it's already being replaced by something cooler), but I'm starting to appreciate its versatility.  Not surprisingly, much of the power of the iPad comes from the burgeoning family of available Apps.

    I am especially enthusiastic about the possibility of playing boardgames on an iPad.  The other night, FP and I played a couple games of Small World, for 2 player on his iPad.  It was exquisite.  I mean, I love boardgames - so I sort of missed the feel of the pieces, and the process of the set-up, but the fact of the matter is that the team of engineers who ported this game over to the iPad did a fantastic job.  We scanned the Quick Rules, and decided to throw caution to the wind and just try a game.  Because the iPad enforces the movement and attack rules, we were able to learn through trial-and-error - much faster than constantly referring to a rule book to make sure we didn't do something wrong.

     We were able to whip through 2 games in under an hour.  It played without a glitch.  And they are still working on improving things - the current release is 0.91. 

    After just this brief stint, I started daydreaming about having an iPad with a vast boardgame collection on it.  Neuroshima Hex.  Memoir '44. Attika.  Carcasonne.  Drakon.  Ghost Stories (for solitaire play).  Nexus Ops.  Not everything would work, of course.  iPad boardgames should probably be solitaire or 2-player only and not require too much table space.  As much as I'd like to be able to play Arkham Horror on an iPad, I just can't see how that could happen with all the components, cards, text, tokens, etc.

    But the iPad is calling out for other relatively simple 2-player wargames.  I'd love to be able to drop my iPad in front of my brother, while on vacation, and pull up a dozen or so solid boardgames for us to play.  Days of Wonder has started the trend - here's hoping the rest of the gaming world gets on board (get it?).

    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    plain sight

    As a fan of indie games (and online competition), I recently was tempted to purchase Plain Sight, a unique take on the multiplayer "shooter" genre.  In Plain Sight, you are a suicidal robot ninja with a penchant for jumping and being slung by gravitational forces.  Sounds interesting, no?  Unfortunately, I can't strongly recommend Plain Sight - I've tried it for a solid week now and have become increasingly frustrated.  There's definitely skill involved, but the combat becomes repetitive quickly and I also found myself suffering from motion sickness and vertigo.

    As you can see, the art style is quite lovely and Plain Sight does possess an irreverent and welcome sense of humor.  There are a number of maps and gameplay modes to try, although I've found that most multiplayer games online are straight "deathmatch" (everyone for themselves).  The maps vary in quality and playability.  Perhaps it's just personal preference, but I found some of the bigger, "flimsier" maps like "Unreeled Tournament" (see screenshot below) very frustrating.  Your opponents can be quite distant and traversing the "tape" without getting killed is an exercise in annoyance.

    Briefly, the gameplay consists of the following.  You run around using the standard mouse & keyboard configuration, but jumping (via spacebar) is a near-constant necessity.  You gain a great deal more ground and are a harder target to hit.  Since all these maps take place in "space" with particular physics modeled, you can (and should) use solid objects to slingshot yourself around for better positioning.  It's certainly a clever (and somewhat novel) gameplay addition, but one that can induce vertigo and nausea quickly.  Nothing is really "up" or "down" and you'll have to constantly switch perspectives to successfully attack your opponents.  Your goal is to destroy the other robots on the map by locking onto them with your targeting reticule.  It takes a while to establish a lock, so you often have to chase a particular robot around for a while before you get the opportunity to nail them.  If you time things right, you'll dash towards them and smash them into bits, garnering whatever energy they have.

    Interestingly, this does not, by itself, gain you any points.  To score, you actually need to self-destruct (see screenshot above) - and you gain more points for having a greater amount of energy stored up at that point.  You also gain multipliers for catching other robots in your explosion.  Furthermore, the more energy that you accumulate from destroying other robots, the larger and slower you are - i.e. you become an easier target for others to destroy.  This mechanic creates a very interesting "risk vs. reward" decision:  should you save up that energy you've been gaining for a "big score"?  But you could lose it all in a flash if someone manages to destroy you before you self-destruct.  This is truly a clever and interesting aspect to Plain Sight and the designers deserve kudos for it.

    Another positive aspect to Plain Sight is the skill tree.  As you destroy more robots, you gain points to spend on various upgrades.  For example, you can buy a "warning" system that alerts you when other robots have a lock on you.  You can pair this with a "shield," activated by right-clicking, that can block a charging enemy if timed just right.  The double-jump, I've found, is great for chasing/avoiding enemies.  Unfortunately, there is a slight "runaway leader" aspect to this - the more successful players will be opening up better and better skills, making them harder and harder to kill - so if you get stuck at the bottom of the scoreboard, be prepared to die a lot.

    Plain Sight has a number of interest mechanics, as you can see, but ultimately these don't quite gel into a fully pleasurable experience.  The action is perhaps too fast and chaotic, reducing the value of tactical decisions and proper use of the environment.  It can be very satisfying to accumulate a lot of energy and get a big score before someone kills you, but all too often a multiplayer game ends up being dominated by a single player who is capable of taking anyone out who is starting to gain a little energy.  And most damning (at least for me), I find myself actually getting physically sick playing this.  The strategy of the game demands that you are constantly jumping and spinning and reorienting yourself, which combined with the speed and the need for you to focus on what the other robots are doing at all times, plays havoc with your brain's balance system.  If you don't believe me, here's an extended gameplay video - and trust me, it's worse when you're controlling the robot yourself:

    At only $10, Plain Sight isn't going to piss you off - and I certainly love supporting independent developers who come up with creative ideas - but there are better multiplayer experiences out there and after a few days with Plain Sight, I found myself loading up Team Fortress 2 and Left for Dead 2 to alleviate the nausea.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    the silent woman

    While re-reading Gene Wolfe's excellent noir tale, An Evil Guest, I was particularly intrigued by a scene taking place at an otherworldly pub (where the waiter has sharp and hairy ears) called "The Silent Woman."  Cassie remarks as they leave,

    "I saw their sign as we left... It's a woman with no head, and it ought to scare me.  Why doesn't it?"

    "Because it assures you that women should talk as long as they're able to."

    Curious, I looked up "The Silent Woman" in Google and came across this wiki entry.  The Silent Woman is a name commonly given to pubs and taverns in the UK, and the pub-sign associated with these establishments often depicts a decapitated woman holding her own head and/or serving refreshment.

    The meaning of the sign is unclear, although at first glance, seems distinctly misogynistic.  "Come gather here, ye men, and avoid the incessant nagging of your wife!"  Or perhaps, a place where men can safely objectify the bodies of women whilst ignoring the unfortunate presence of feminine mind and emotion.  A sort of Bizarro-world Boxing Helena.

    The legend on one sign says, "Since the woman is quiet, let no man breed a riot."  Implying that male-male conflict typically results from the sinister influence of women - their capacity to breed jealousy and rage, perhaps, or their evil machinations.

    The wiki piece mentions the possibility of the Silent Woman being a martyred saint, but I could find no further research on this topic.  Please post a comment if you know anything about this.