Soma

by Frictional Games, published 2015 Spoilers

Major spoilers ahead. It's seven years old at this point.

Soma - protagonist

Soma is a creepy survival horror game, that leans deeply into the moral and existential quandaries arising from the deterministic principle that it's possible to scan one's brain and copy the structure into some other substrate, yielding a second conscious entity, which thinks it is you. So there are deep science-fiction issues in play here, about whether we think such a scheme could ever possibly work, and about the practical, personal, and societal ramifications of it.

I loved the setup. A humdrum morning begins in your present-day Toronto apartment. A note on the fridge reminds you that today is the day of your medical appointment, a brain scan. Reaching the doctor's office by train, you find the experimental new type of brain scanner, run by some PhD in a cable-strewn side-office. Sit in the chair, don the helmet, wait for the scan to complete and- blink! Suddenly, you are elsewhere.

As the game progresses, it becomes obvious that the version of you that sat down in the seat did not experience this discontinuity. They completed the scan, removed the helmet, and continued their normal, everyday life.

You are not that copy. You open your eyes to a grim, decrepit cyberpunk future. Exploring, your only company is a menagerie of half-functional robots and drones, many of which are insane, and, in conversation, seem to be under the impression that they are human beings. It gradually becomes apparent that perceptual filters are in play, preventing them - and you - from noticing they are no longer human. At one point the ocean crashes in on you, and you drown for a little while, or at least think you are, but you still don't die. At that point you have to acknowledge the truth.

You have awoken to the year 2104, and the recorded brain scans of real humans are being used to animate drones. This is a scenario much like that told from a different perspective in the smashing short story Lena by qntm. Failing systems engaged fall-backs, resulting in your obsolete brain scan being yanked from storage to inhabit an advanced humanoid robot, in a facility deep under the ocean, some time after a comet strike has scoured all life from the planet's surface.

If that wasn't bad enough, one facilitating technology of this nightmarish scenario, a black goo that mimics and improves upon electrical and biological circuitry it comes into contact with, has run rampant, growing probing tendrils which are wrecking the facility. Among other effects, it has reanimated the corpses of the last few humans, who skulk around, not in a good way. As our protagonist asks, incredulously, "You mean they've been brought back to life?". Our reassuring AI companion replies "Yeah, let's call it that."

The game borrows the highly effective mechanics of Frictional's previous games, the Amnesia and Penumbra series, where the proximity of horrific, shambling enemies causes your character to experience debilitating symptoms, including, in this case, static-y visual distortions as your neural hardware suffers from some overload or interference. This applies even if you simply look at an enemy, an act which immediately draws their attention. So your only chance to survive encounters is to stay well out of sight, and actively avert your eyes so you can't even watch what's going on. Not being able to see exactly what your enemies are, or what they are up to, turns out to be fabulously scary and atmospheric. At one point it lead directly to my wife catching me staring intently at a blank, black screen for a prolonged period, with a peculiar expression on my face, as I hid in a dark cupboard waiting for the slithering sounds behind me to go away.

Spurring through this environment are not just threats to our immediate survival, but also the adoption of a project, to launch into space a solar-powered simulation, hosting all the last remaining brain scans of the now-defunct human race, known as the 'ARK'. This will allow the on-board sims to live a prolonged period of idyllic virtual existence, preserving at least some echo of what humanity was. Since the conceit of the game is that our character is a living and conscious entity that feels real emotion, the sims on the ARK are all presumably the same, so this seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

We are guided, motivated, and assisted by "Catherine", a simulated personality running on our hand-held omni-tool, based on the brain recording of an AI researcher, whose project during her lifetime was the ARK. Plugging her in to a wall or console socket lets her interface with our surroundings, activating power supplies and manipulating machinery. She leads us through a series of undersea facilities, linked by trains, submersibles, and the occasional disorienting trudge across the murky ocean floor, stirred up by ferocious currents and landslides, populated by organic-mechanical hybrid horrors that glide by in the darkness. I found these some of the absolute best, most atmospheric "walking simulator" moments I've experienced in a game.

The ocean floor, stirred up by currents and landslides
Is that another distant light up ahead? Good luck finding them while the currents pummel you, and hideous, deadly beasts loom out of the murk.

Along the way, we encounter a few unforgettable scenarios. We come across the failing storage system in which the last remaining copy of our own brain scan resides. I decide to flip some buttons which delete it, prompting my character to respond with something like "Let this be the last time I wake up in this godforsaken place."

At another point, we find ourselves trapped within a collapsing facility on the bottom of the ocean, with the gibbering undead hammering on the door from the next room. There is an airlock leading out into the ocean, but we would be crushed at this depth. There is no way out. Luckily, Catherine is able to guide us into assembling a more robust robot, one capable of withstanding the pressure - all we have to do is sit in the chair and activate the transfer into it. We already did this once, back in Toronto. Easy.

Except, after the transfer, we glance back across the lab at our original - the pictured chap with red LED eyes - who, we notice, is still breathing. Asking Catherine about it, she reminds us that the brain scan is not a destructive operation. He's still in there, chemically subdued for the moment, but he'll soon wake up again, wondering why the transfer didn't work. So we are left with the option of stomping out of the airlock to safety, leaving him behind to his nightmarish fate. Or flipping a switch to deactivate him before we go.

A lot of these narrative beats work better as a game than they perhaps might in a written story. They emphasize the player's complicity, your moral culpability, which is a mode that games, for all their faults, can do better than any other media. Plenty of the lesser moments along the way expose the player to decisions about unplugging some human simulation or other which declares itself to be "alive", but which is gating your progress in some way. Some of them are yourself. Some of these acts require manhandling weighty cables, which require large, insistent tugging with the mouse controls. It's not just a disembodied button press. One has to provide a determined, definitive, mechanical input to end a life. In context, the guilt feels real.

Later in the journey, we finally stumble across an honest-to-goodness real, live human being. She describes how the rest of the humans will be gathered in particular locations, while she stayed to protect the ARK. But, we tell her, we just passed through those locations, and there were no humans remaining there. We both know that the planet's surface is sterile. A beat passes before she announces "So I'm the last human being left alive." She's deathly sick, and without hope. By the end of your interactions she asks you to turn off her life-support before you leave, and stay with her for her last moments. So this is how humanity ends.

Carrying on, because what else is there to do? We finally we get the ARK loaded into the launch system that delivers it to orbit, upload our brain scans onto it just before it launches, and - we've done it! Success!

There was a moment, about five minutes before the end, when I realized what was going to happen here, even though my character had not. It was a real emotional blow. I envied and pitied him for his naive hope. For believing there was still a way out. For, of course, the ARK's launch changed nothing for us. Our simulations are aboard it, but we are still sitting here, in a broken robot corpse in a collapsing facility at the bottom of a haunted ocean on a dead planet. The dispatched copy will enjoy life on the ARK, but we - like the copy of ourselves we left behind earlier - are stuck here for good. Roll credits.

Doomsday Clock

By Geoff Johns (writer), Gary Frank (pencil) & Brad Anderson (colors). (2017-2019) Spoilers

The original Watchmen is a seminal 12-issue superhero comic by Alan Moore (writer) & Dave Gibbons (artist), published from 1986 to 1987, that transformed the comics world. A superhero tale in which all-but-one of the superheroes have no superhuman powers at all.

The decades since have spawned a number of remakes, sequels, prequels and spin-offs. Zach Snyder's movie adaptation has its adherents, and the HBO miniseries sequel was, in my opinion, excellent. But other than that they have not been very good. I initially thought the 12 issue sequel Doomsday Clock comic would fall solidly into this group, and passed it by when it came out a couple of years ago.

But on reading it last week, I really enjoyed it. It really swings for the fences, providing a smashing tale, with good arcs for both old and new characters, and a genuine attempt to advance the conversation that Watchmen started by deconstructing the superhero.

We last saw Dr Manhattan at the end of Watchmen, having been isolated from humanity by Adrien Veidt's plans, tired of his entanglement in the messy complexity of people's lives, threatening to leave the galaxy "for one less complicated".

Manhattan's departure at the end of Watchmen

In Doomsday Clock, Adrian Veidt, genius that he is, invents a means to follow Dr Manhattan, seeking his help with the re-emergence of imminent nuclear war brought about by the revelations in Rorschach's journal, and it becomes clear that the place Dr Manhattan has journeyed to is the DC universe, populated by Superman, Batman, and the whole stable of DC heroes.

Various other Watchmen characters make their way, or are transferred to, the DC universe. This has been described across the comic industry as "the crossover event nobody wanted", but personally I felt it was really well done.

Two of the most prominently deceased Watchmen characters are brought back into play, using mechanisms I thought were legitimate and, on occasion, laugh-out-loud satisfying as they reached their resolution.

Doomsday Clock Watchmen Comedian Alive

In particular, they find a way to bring back Rorschach. Or, at least, a Rorschach. Another individual picks up the mask. This seems like the most controversial of the many decisions in the book, but it's handled deftly, and there are both similarities and differences between the old and the new Rorschach, making it an interesting character in its own right. In some ways this transformation is reminiscent of HBO Watchmen's treatment of Hooded Justice - retaining everything we already knew about the character, but performing an astonishing piece of narrative ju-jitsu to utterly transform everything about what that meant.

The DC heroes slowly realize their world is being altered by Dr Manhattan's manipulations, tying this crossover into the latest of the DC universe's "crisis" events, as Manhattan experiments with this reality, in order to understand it. In doing so, he uncovers deep truths that affect the inter-relationship between all the DC time-lines and universes, establishing that historical stories, such as Superman's original appearance in Action Comics of the 1930s, represent realities that still exist, out in the multiverse, unaffected by subsequent commercial re-ploughing that forever drives Superman's origin story further forward in time over the years. All these worlds, including the various DC pre-crisis worlds, are accessible to Manhattan's powers.

Incidentally, this enables DC to undo the changes wrought by the last few years' unpopular "New 52" era. This meant nothing to me when I started reading, I know basically nothing about American comics, only being familiar with the fabulous British 2000AD. I was spurred into reading around the DC lore, and by the time I was done, I understood that the New 52 reality included things like The Justice League's alternate roster, the early death of Clark's parents, which distances Superman from humanity and changes the character dramatically, the loss of the Justice Society of America from Earth, and the loss of Wally West's Flash. All these and more are written off as the effects of Dr Manhattan's meddling, isolated and preserved in just another spun-off part of the multiverse, while being jettisoned from the privileged metaverse, the core template from which all subsequent multiversal threads are forged, as it reverts to more-or-less its former state when Manhattan's changes are undone during Doomsday Clock's story.

In doing all this, Manhattan exhibits his usual clinical detachment from the human consequences of his actions, setting himself up as the villain of the piece, an uncaring "being of inaction", in contrast to Superman, the literal "man of Action" (Action comics, that is).

Doomsday Clock: Superman & Manhattan

This forms a genuine riposte to Watchmen's criticism of the superhero genre. Yes, the DC heroes inhabit a simpler world, but there is a mythological power in what they represent as symbols. Particularly the value of hope, as personified by Superman, which - quite literally, in this tale - makes all other things possible.

I was especially pleased with the quiet, understated places Doomsday Clock goes with Mothman's, back-story. The character in Watchmen was only a punchline, a recurring throwaway reference to instability and alcoholism, telegraphing his subsequent mental breakdown. But here, we see him fully fleshed out.

Like the rest of the Watchmen heroes, he has no magical superhuman powers, but is still able to pull off entirely unexpected and superhuman-seeming stunts, merely by the virtue of his own unique kind of extreme mental and emotional resourcefulness. Flawed, but aware of his faults, and able to pull it together, he befriends the younger Rorschach II during their overlapping stays in a mental institution, becoming a beacon of warmth, kindness, and generosity to the younger man.

He acts as a symbol, if you will, that just as Watchmen's ruthless gaze influenced the wider world of comics, so the comic world gazes back. They see us, all the real-world, fully-rounded humans, trapped in the depths of our pathos, and they wonder, when will each of us learn to transcend our humdrum limitations, to act on our hopes and dreams, and fly...

Doomsday Clock: Mothman

New Laptop Time!

A laptop

My employer, Canonical, has a "bring your own hardware" policy, trusting that their engineers would rather choose and administer their own personal laptops, rather than put up with standardized remotely administered corporate hardware.

My current much loved Thinkpad 460p has served faithfully since 2015, but is showing its age, sometimes struggling under the workload. Plus, its integrated graphics chipset doesn't have the power to play modern games with my kiddo. Battlezone 98 runs fine, but Civilization VI (2016) is annoyingly choppy, at about 9 frames per second.

Civilization VI screenshot

This summer I received the three-year cash-in-hand bonus earmarked as a "hardware refresh bonus". It's been many years since I've bought a laptop with the attention to detail that comes with spending one's own money. Even the current aging Thinkpad was a gift from a former employer. So it's been a decade or more since I've seriously specced out a new laptop. This post exists as a place to scribble down reminders of a few things I learned along the way.

I have a few constraints:

  • About the same size as the current Thinkpad's 14 inches, or maybe a tiny bit bigger.
  • I work on Ubuntu Linux, so I'll need to check it plays nicely.
  • It should support modern gaming.
  • Plenty of monitor ports, and/or the grunt to daisy chain them.
  • Is it too much to ask for a headphone jack in 2022?
  • Ability for me to open it up, swap out the battery, drives, RAM.
  • 3:2 display would be nice, but these are rare.
  • A budget of $2,000 (saving a bit of my bonus for other hardware-related things.)

Reading around, I got sort-of up to speed on components.

CPU

The CPU buzz is around Intel's 12th generation (aka "Alder Lake"). These are "hybrid" CPUs, combining large high performance cores with smaller high efficiency cores on a single chip. They come in about 30 different variants, with a naming convention that looks like, for example: Intel Core i7-12700H. This consists of:

  • A brand, eg. "Intel Core"
  • A modifier specifying a market segment, one of:
    • i3 Casual use
    • i5 Multitasking, light gaming
    • i7 Gaming, content creators
    • i9 Slightly faster, more parallel cores.
  • A single or double digit generation, eg the latest is "12".
  • An SKU, eg the "700" above, a three or four digit number which roughly corresponds to the feature-set or performance - larger is better. These are only comparable within a single generation, they adopt wildly different conventions in different generations.
  • A single or double letter suffix, eg "H" for "high performance", taken from an idiotic irregular table.

The major alternative to an Intel processor is AMD. These aren't the current season's darlings of the performance benchmarks, although they do include several respectable contenders that might be great for my needs, as you can see in the following performance comparison.

Benchmarks

These laptop CPU performance benchmarks are culled from www.cpubenchmark.net, sorted by the benchmark score. I included the top 20, plus a handful of notable others that I looked up along the way. The 'bench' column measures relative performance under a variety of benchmark workloads which fully utilize all cores. The higher this number, the better.

The number of cores is given as (p)erformance + (e)fficiency, for hybrid processors.

CPU Cores Clock Cache Bench Price Laptop models & other notes
i9-12900HX 8p+8e 5.0GHz 30MB 36 $606
i7-12800HX 8p+8e 25MB 35 $457 Thinkpad P16 ($2340).
i9-12950HX 8p+8e 30MB 34 $590
i7-12850HX 8p+8e 25MB 31 $428
i9-12900HK 6p+8e 24MB 30 $635 Dell XPS 15 ($2950).
i9-12900H 6p+8e 24MB 29 $617
i7-12700H 6p+8e 24MB 27 $457 Dell XPS 17/15 ($2500), Acer Nitro 5, System76 Onyx & Gazelle.
This CPU is what I ended up getting.
AMD Ryzen 9 6900HX 8 25 Fastest AMD processor.
i7-12650H 6p+4e 24MB 25 $457
i5-12600HX 25 $284 Fastest 12th gen i5. Suspiciously cheap.
AMD Ryzen 9 PRO 6950H 24
i7-12800H 6p+8e 24MB 24 $457
AMD Ryzen 7 PRO 6850H 8 24 Thinkpad P15v.
AMD Ryzen 9 6900HS 24 ASUS ROG Zephyr G14.
AMD Ryzen 9 PRO 6950HS 24
AMD Ryzen 7 PRO 6800H 23
i9-11980HK 2.6GHz 23 $583 Fastest Intel 11th gen.
AMD Ryzen 7 6800HS CEd 23
AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX 23
i9-11950H 8 2.6GHz 24MB 22 $556
... (I skipped a bunch here)
i7-1280P 6p+8e 4.8GHz 24MB 20 $482 Best Framework.
AMD Ryzen 7 5825U 8 18 Best Dell Inspiron 15".
i7-1260P 4p+8e 18MB 17 $438 XPS 13 plus, X1 Carbon gen 10, Thinkpad P14.
i7-1250U 2p+8e 12MB 11 $426
i5-6200U 2 2.8GHz 3MB 3 My current Thinkpad T460.


Notice my current Thinkpad's processor at the very bottom of this list, which is 10x slower than the CPU I ended up getting.

Graphics

There are plenty of otherwise fantastic laptops which don't include blazing fast dedicated Nvidia or AMD graphics processors, but instead only come with relatively humdrum graphics support integrated with the CPU. Although integrated GPUs have improved massively in the last few years, this wouldn't be fast enough to run modern games well.

To compensate, I considered pairing such laptops with an external GPU enclosure (eGPU), into which a top-of-the-line desktop GPU card can be plugged. I'm still wistfully curious about this path, but in the end opted to do without this complication.

Here's a table of the top laptop GPUs, culled from gpu.userbenchmark.com. Unlike the CPU table, this isn't the top N performers, because GPUs can get crazy fast and expensive, so I'm looking for something middle-of-the-pack. It's just a selection of GPUs I looked up while researching particular laptop models.

The 'performance' column is the combined result of a variety of gaming benchmarks, the higher the better. The 'position' column compares the performance against all other benchmarked GPUs.

GPU Performance Position Laptop models & other notes
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 130 24th System76 Onyx option.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070Ti 122 27th System76 Onyx option.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 114 30th
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 87 58th Best XPS 17. System76 Gazelle. Acer Nitro 5.
This is the GPU I ended up getting.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050Ti XPS 15 option.
Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 XPS 15 option.
AMD Radeon RX 6800S 85 58th
AMD RX 6700M 79 65th
Nvidia RTX A1000 4GB GDDR6 45 114th Thinkpad P16(certified)
Nvidia T1200 42 118th Thinkpad P15v
Nvidia GTX 1050Ti 30 144th My current Windows gaming desktop.
Intel Iris Xe 17 207th Integrated. Framework. XPS 13 Plus.
Intel HD 520 4 402nd Integrated. My current Thinkpad T460.


Notice the two 'integrated' entries at the bottom of the table, one of which is my current laptop, a full 20x slower than the GPU I ended up getting. The improvement ought to speed Civilization VI up to around an entirely excessive 180 frames per second. \o/

Laptop models

With the above in mind, I read some reviews, and a few contenders emerged:

Framework

The Framework was massively tempting. It brings an entirely unprecedented - some might hopefully say revolutionary - focus on user-repair and upgradability. Rather than soldering and gluing the whole thing together, all the Framework's components, up to and including the motherboard and screen, are replaceable using a single screwdriver. This is deeply appealing for geeks, who want to be able to repair or upgrade.

The downside that gave me pause is it is only available with integrated Intel-powered graphics. If they had a model including the vastly superior Nvidia or AMD accelerated graphics, I would have just bought one months ago, instead of prevaricating. But that complication, coupled with the fact that the Framework's performance is only mid-range for a 2022 model, put me off sufficiently to look around at other options.

Dell XPS 13 plus

The Dell XPS 13 plus looks wonderful, with official Ubuntu verification, no less, but just isn't physically big enough for me, and is noticeably underpowered. And the Dell 15 inch models seem way overpriced, for the spec, easily exceeding my $2,000 budget.

HP Dev One

The HP Dev One looks like a fabulous machine, a colleague just got one and is very happy with it. But again, it only has integrated graphics.

Mac Book Pro

I considered this, repaved to run Ubuntu, of course, but to be honest, as exquisite as the hardware was at one point, it seems somewhat stagnant and directionless now, fifteen years later. Not unimpressive, but doesn't really grab me.

System76

I looked at a whole bunch of other laptops at this point, scouring the "best gaming laptops of 2022" lists at Toms Hardware and elsewhere. Eventually my attention was drawn to System76, who, on reflection, should have been folks I checked out earlier in the process.

The Oryx is just a few hundred over my budget, even with the current $300 off. But a tricked-out Gazelle seems to check all the boxes.

Gazelle 15" laptop

They have a reasonably high-ranked 12th generation Intel i7 CPU, which seems to achieve good performance without wading into the diminishing returns of pricey i9 models. Same for the reasonably-placed Nvidia 3060 graphics. And the screen is just magic (judged by my admittedly idiosyncratic personal criteria.)

They support the lightning fast open source coreboot firmware, and System76 are a leading contributor to the project. They sell with Linux-pre-installed, and produce their own Ubuntu-based Linux distribution, Pop!_OS (Although stock Ubuntu runs just fine too.).

Going with Nvidia graphics instead of AMD does yield a performance boost, but the downside is that I'll have to wrestle with the opaque proprietary drivers from the famously uncooperative Nvidia. But in a nice gesture, System76 documents this process, and lots of other stuff, such as how to replace internal components yourself, on their website.

Because it's proprietary closed source, Nvidia drivers have always lagged behind AMD's open source offerings in terms of compatibility. In particular, Nvidia graphics hasn't worked with the new Linux Wayland display server. Reading around, my impression is that it's not ready yet, but might be by 22.10 (which is next month!?), so I could stick with the older XOrg display server for now, without fearing that I'll get marooned there.

There are other downsides. The keyboard is reputedly mediocre, and I wish it didn't have a numpad. Standard layout tenkeyless for the win, every time. But I almost always use a USB mechanical keyboard anyhow. Also, with such greedy components, the battery life kinda sucks when the GPU is on and the machine is busy. But in the last 12 months, the only time I've run my current laptop not plugged in is... never? So I guess I don't care.

So thisis what I ordered, with the 15" display and the 3060 graphics.

But I did that thing where I order it with minimal RAM and SSD storage, to replace with my own parts. So I'll have some screwdriver work to do after it arrives. The payoff is that I save about $150 by paying market rates for these components. In fact I already have a tremendous SSD I can use, leftover from this year's Chia cryptocurrency farming experiments, so that part is free. This means I can stay within my $2,000 budget, with $9 to spare after shipping and taxes.

Memory

It's generally fine to just buy whatever RAM is recommended by your vendor. But the most reliable and cheapest memory will often be the slowest, or at least the one running at a clock speed which is most widely supported by different motherboards. In order to get the fastest memory for our particular laptop, we need to understand a few things.

Physical form factor

The current standard for RAM is DDR4. For laptops, the slim physical form factor is known as SoDIMM. A single circuit board of memory chips is a module. A module connects into a motherboard slot.

DDR5 is supported by Intel's 12th generation processors, and AMD's newest Ryzen 7000 series. This uses a different physical connection on the motherboard, and is rare thus far, outside of systems above my budget.

So I'm looking for DDR4 in a SoDIMM module. Got it.

Ranks & Channels

A module contains from one to eight 64-bit wide logical blocks of data storage (single, dual, quad or octal rank.) The chips on a module provide x1, x2, x4 or x8 banks.

number of chips x chip banks / 64 = module rank

eg. Using sixteen x4 chips will provide a single rank of memory on the module (16x4/64=1).

Whereas using 32 x8 chips will provide a module of 4 ranks (32x8/64=4).

This is sometimes annotated on the module using a notation like 1Rx4, as in one rank of x4 chips.

The reason this matters is that access to ranks is interleaved, so multiple ranks can provide access to data at multiples of the rate provided by a single rank. In order to take advantage of this, the motherboard must provide a commensurate number of memory access channels.

The datasheet for my Gazelle says the motherboard has two memory slots, and supports dual-channel access. This could be fully utilized by either inserting a single dual-rank module (which is more expensive), or, as in the timeworn heuristic, by inserting two half-sized single rank modules (e.g. two 16GB modules to make 32GB total.)

Clock frequencies and latency

RAM has a clock frequency, measured in thousands of MHz, but "double data rate" chips transfer data on both the clock's rising and falling edges, so the speed of transfer is better measured in mega-transfers per second (MT/s), the higher the better.

However, it takes more than one clock cycle to perform an action. These latency values are sometimes quoted as a series of four integers - the number of clock cycles to perform particular operations, e.g. 18-18-18-43. But these are often abbreviated to just the first number, representing read access time, known as "CAS Latency" (CL), eg. CL 18, which tends to be representative. The lower this number is, the better.

The actual performance of the memory is determined by the product of a clock cycle duration (eg. 1ns at 1000MHz) and the latency number (e.g. 1ns * 18 = 18ns)

Further, the motherboard needs to support the RAM's clock speed. In practice, the motherboard will negotiate with the inserted modules to find a commonly supported frequency, the same or less than the minimum of the rated memory access frequencies of the module, the motherboard, and the CPU, using an over-complicated and hard-to-predict process controlled by BIOS settings. I have no experience with this but it sounds well worth avoiding altogether by making sure we get modules with a rated frequency that exactly matches the advertised clock frequency of our motherboard.

For my new Gazelle, the manual says that is 3,200MHz.

Availability, pricing and scams.

Finding CL26 latency RAM at 3,200MHz is easy, for around $70. For lower latencies the price goes up to about $375 for CL16, but that isn't even in stock anywhere.

At one point, after much searching, I found some CL16 on newegg.com:

Memory on sale in Newegg - scam

And it is only $128! Carefully checking the specs, including those on the manufacturer's site, using the shown model number 'CMSX32GX4M2A3000C16', this is exactly what we want. 2x16GB at 3200MT/s at CL16.

While checking it out, I clicked around a bit, and at one point found:

Bad review on Newegg

This came along with a number of other negative reviews, stating customers had been sent memory modules that were fake, ie. imitations of the purported reputable manufacturer, they didn't work at the advertised clock speeds, and the seller had gone dark on them, taking weeks to respond to queries, and not sending replacements until Newegg got involved. Seems wisest to skip this.

Eventually I found an alternative:

Memory on sale in Newegg - legit

Yes! DDR4 in a SoDIMM package, 2x16GB modules at 3,200MHz and 18CL. The latency isn't quite as good, but it sounds legit, so I'll take it!

And with that, I'm done. Now just awaiting the deliveries to arrive...

Neuromancer

Neuromancer cover

by William Gibson, 1984.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So opens William Gibson's debut novel, and it is to his eternal credit that we all still remember the line now, nearly forty years later. I don't usually do audiobooks, but I made an exception for this.

The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it.

Unlike the majority of the beloved science fiction of my youth, Gibson's poetic, literary style has only increased in my estimation over the subsequent decades.

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. By children, being taught mathematical concepts. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

The consensual hallucination might seem prosaic now, but one has to remember this was written back when the internet connected less than 1,000 hosts, accessed via green screen text terminals on university campuses.

He'd made the classic mistake, the one he'd sworn he'd never make. He stole from his employers. [...] Of course he was welcome, they told him, welcome to the money. And he was going to need it. Because — still smiling — they were going to make sure he never worked again. They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin. Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours. The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective. For Case, who lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.

He introduced the world to cyberpunk, combining the fatalistic noire of Blade Runner with the relentless dehumanizing advances of a libertarian tech dystopia, to create a startlingly original warning of our possible future that looks, as the decades tumble by, increasingly on-the-nose.

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he'd still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void... The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn't there.

There are several versions of Neuromancer as an audiobook. The slightly abridged six-hour version available for free at the Internet Archive is notable for two things: it is read by William Gibson himself, and it is an extremely low quality rip from an audiocassette.

Night City wasn’t there for its inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself. Like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Biz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol.

The audio quality might make anyone immediately pass this version by. It isn't just noisy, but features discernible wow and flutter - artifacts characteristic of the stretching or uneven speed of its original tape based media.

He closed his eyes. Found the ridged face of the power stud. And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiled in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like a film compiled of random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information. Please, he prayed, now- A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky. Now- Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of the military systems, forever beyond his reach. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face.

But I'd urge you to stick with it. For the author's reedy, Virginia-inflected voice has a cadence that holds the attention. A rhythm of tone and emphasis that, for me, works considerably better than the practiced glossiness of more recent, more professional recordings.

"The moment, I mean the nanosecond, that one of those things starts figuring out ways to make itself smarter, Turing’ll wipe it. Nobody trusts those fuckers, you know that. Every AI ever built has an electromagnetic shotgun wired to its forehead."

By the end of the second chapter, I'd stopped being bothered by the audio quality, and by chapter three, it had become an intrinsic part of the experience.

It was disturbing to think of the Flatline as a construct, a hardwired ROM cassette replicating a dead man's skills, obsessions, kneejerk responses.
[...]
He slotted some ice, connected the construct, and jacked in. It was exactly the sensation of someone reading over his shoulder. He coughed.
"Dix? McCoy? That you man?' His throat was tight.
"Hey, bro," said a directionless voice.
"It's Case, man. Remember?"
"Miami, joeboy, quick study."
"What's the last thing you remember before I spoke to you, Dix?"
"Nothin'."
"Hang on." He disconnected the construct. The presence was gone. He reconnected it. "Dix? Who am I?"
"You got me hung, Jack. Who the fuck are you?"
"Remember being here, a second ago?"
"No."
"Know how a ROM personality matrix works?"
"Sure, bro, it's a firmware construct."
"So I jack it into the bank I'm using, I can give it sequential, real time memory?"
"Guess so," said the construct.
"Okay, Dix. You are a ROM construct. Got me?"
"If you say so," said the construct. "Who are you?"
"Case."
"Miami," said the voice, "joeboy, quick study."
"Right. And for starts, Dix, you and me, we're gonna sleaze over to London grid and access a little data. You game for that?"
"You gonna tell me I got a choice, boy?"

A distortion so thoroughly appropriate to the underlying material it was as though Gibson had planned it this way all along, speaking directly to me via a weak signal, projected through time by the noisy filters of this obsolete electro-mechanical recording mechanism. The words at once clear and irrevocably decayed, fuzzy sounding but still stark and unmistakable in their meaning.

"Dixie?"
"Yeah."
"You ever try to crack an AI?"
"Sure. I flatlined. First time. I was larkin', jacked up real high, out by Rio heavy commerce sector. Big biz, multinationals, Government of Brazil lit up like a Christmas tree. Just larkin' around, you know? And then I started picking up on this one cube, maybe three levels higher up. Jacked up there and made a pass."
"What did it look like, the visual?"
"White cube."
"How'd you know it was an AI?"
"How'd I know? Jesus. It was the densest ice I'd ever seen. So what else was it? The military down there don't have any thing like that. Anyway, I jacked out and told my computer to look it up."
"Yeah?"
"It was on the Turing Registry. AI. Frog company owned its Rio mainframe."
Case chewed his lower lip and gazed out across the plateaus of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority, into the infinite neuroelectronic void of the matrix. "Tessier-Ashpool, Dixie?"
"Tessier, yeah."
"And you went back?"
"Sure. I was crazy. Figured I'd try to cut it. Hit the first strata and that's all she wrote. My joeboy smelled the skin frying and pulled the trodes off me. Mean shit, that ice."
"And your EEG was flat."
"Well, that's the stuff of legend, ain't it?'

Five out of five stars. A riveting performance.


US Civics for Naturalization Quiz

I had to learn 100 questions and answers for my US Naturalization civics quiz this week, and my default way of learning something is to organize the information into an essay. Not the best work I've ever done, but it got me through the test, so good enough. Some of these assertions seem somewhat debatable, but my job here is to learn what the test tells me are the right answers. In some places I've elaborated around the edges with extra info that isn't on the test, but helps me to contextualize and remember.

History

The region now occupied by the US was originally settled by Native Americans, probably travelling from the Far East, around 15,000 years ago.

Modern Native tribes include Apache, Arawak, Blackfeet, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Choctaw, Creek, Crow, Hopi, Huron, Inuit, Iroquois, Lakota, Mohegan, Navajo, Oneida, Pueblo, Seminole, Shawnee, Sioux, and Teton.

European colonists came to America to escape persecution, in pursuit of religious and political freedom, and economic opportunity.

The Atlantic slave trade took Africans to the American colonies as slaves. This practice was widespread by the time of the American Revolution.

The colonists decided to fight for freedom from British rule because:

  • They didn't want to pay high taxes to the British government without representation.
  • They did not like the British army being quartered in their houses.
  • They wanted self-government.

By the time of the declaration of independence, there were thirteen colonies that became the initial thirteen United States:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia

These States fought the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

In 1803 (27 years after the declaration of independence), the United States bought the Louisiana territory from France.

Founding

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence declared the United States to be independent of, and free from, the rule of Great Britain. It was written by Thomas Jefferson, and adopted on July 4th, 1776.

It notes the right of all men to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The American Constitution

The supreme law of the land is the constitution. It sets up and defines the government, and also enumerates the basic rights of American citizens and residents.

The idea of self-government is represented in the constitution's first three words: "We the people...".

The constitution was written at the constitutional convention of 1787, by the Founding Fathers. Its passage was supported by the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, under the pseudonym "Publius", after Publius Valerius Poplicola, a Roman aristocrat who led the overthrow of the monarchy to found the Roman Republic in 509 BC.

Benjamin Franklin is known as:

  • Oldest member of the constitutional convention,
  • The first Postmaster General of the United States,
  • Writer of "Poor Richard's Almanac",
  • Starter of the first free libraries,
  • A US diplomat.

George Washington is known as:

  • The first President
  • The "Father of our Country"

The original text of the constitution has since been modified by twenty-seven amendments, each of which is numbered, and takes the form of an addition to the existing text.

Rights and Responsibilities

The first ten amendments are known as "the Bill of Rights".

The first amendment prohibits the government from infringing on the right of residents in the US to:

  • Establish or practice any religion, or no religion at all.
  • Free speech.
  • Freedom of the press.
  • Peaceably assemble.
  • Petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The final four items above are together known as "freedom of expression".

In addition, the constitution establishes:

  • The right to bear arms.

US citizens are granted additional rights that do not apply to all residents, including:

  • Running for federal office
  • Voting in federal elections

And US citizens are additionally assigned responsibilities:

  • Jury service
  • Voting in federal elections

Voting in federal elections is thus established as both a right and a responsibility.

The pledge of allegiance declares loyalty to the US flag and the United States.

Ways for citizens to participate in their democracy include:

  • Voting
  • Join a political party
  • Help with a political campaign
  • Join a civic or community group
  • Give opinions to elected officials, such as calling Senators or Representatives.
  • Publicly support or oppose an issue or policy.
  • Run for office
  • Write to a newspaper

When becoming a naturalized US citizen, the oath of allegiance declares one will:

  • Give up loyalty to other countries
  • Be loyal to the United States
  • Obey the laws of the United States
  • Defend the constitution and laws of the United States
  • Serve in the US military (if the law demands it)
  • Serve civil projects for the nation (if the law demands it)

All men resident in the USA must register for selective service (a list from which draftees are chosen should the need arise) between the ages of 18 and 26.

The last day to submit federal income tax forms is April 15th.

Voting rights

The enfranchisement and disenfranchisement of different groups has been a moral and political issue throughout United States history.

The original constitution did not explicitly specify who was able to vote, and states demonstrated considerable diversity in whom they did or did not grant suffrage to. In particular, most states only granted the vote to white, male, property owners - about 6% of the population.

In the 1820s, attitudes and state laws shifted, to allow all white males to vote in most states, although some laws removing the poor's right to vote continued until the 20th century, and practices that disproportionately affect the poor's ability to vote continue today.

Several constitutional amendments successively modified who can vote, notably:

  • The 15th Amendment of 1870, in the wake of the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, prevented the denial of voting rights based on a person's race. This was effectively interpreted to mean that men (not women) of any race could vote. However, states continued to prevent the majority of African Americans in the United States from voting, via Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and the like. Only later in the 20th century were these laws ruled unconstitutional.
  • The 19th Amendment of 1920 allowed women to vote. However, in practice, women — who were rarely in control of independent sources of income — were usually still prevented from voting by the same discriminatory practices that prevented voting by poor or non-white men. For example, federal laws preventing banks from denying women to hold bank accounts were not passed until 1960. (France was a trailblazer in this, passing equivalent laws in 1881, while the UK trailed, at 1975.)
  • The 24th amendment of 1964 prohibited using a poll tax to control who could vote in federal elections.
  • The 26th amendment of 1971 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. This was passed in response to Vietnam War protest, which noted that if draftees were considered old enough to be sent to fight, they should also be old enough to vote.

The following section was not part of the USCIS civics test. But I'm including it because it's clear that although the Declaration asserted "all men are created equal", subsequent laws and behavior has severely curtailed that assertion when it comes to issues such as being allowed to vote. So, who currently is, and is not, allowed to vote? Sometimes the best way to understand something is to trace its contours, by enumerating the exceptions.

Those who are currently legally denied the right to vote, for reasons that seem potentially reasonable:

  • Those aged under 18.
  • Those deemed mentally "incapacitated" or "incompetent" by a conservatorship process.
  • Illegal or undocumented immigrants (16 million people).

The following people are also legally denied the vote, for reasons that I personally find unreasonable:

  • US Citizens and nationals who reside in the United States territories that are not States, such as Puerto Rico.
  • Washington DC residents (718,000 people) have had the right to vote in presidential elections since 1961, but no congressional elections have been held there since 1801.
  • Non-citizen residents of the United States such as myself (13 million people). This includes legal aliens in good standing, such as foreign spouses, asylum claimants and refugees, who might reside within the US, paying taxes, for years or decades. Contrast this with the United Kingdom, for example, where people in the similar category "with leave to remain" are able to vote.
  • The homeless (580,000 people) are often excluded from voting by residency requirements, or by the inability to register without a mailing address or proof of identity.
  • Current prisoners, in almost all states (5.5 million people). Some states impose a lifelong denial of voting rights to anyone with a previous felony record, which affects another 5.9 million people.
  • US Citizens who have never established residence in the United States may be denied the vote by various states.

The above categories represent 28.8 million people, around 11 percent of the adult population, who currently have no legal right to vote for US government positions due to reasons I personally find controversial or wrong.

Activists

Susan B Anthony was a prominent activist for womens rights and civil rights.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, to try and provide equality for Americans of all races.

Wars

The United States has waged many wars, including:

18th Century Wars

  • American Revolutionary War to free America from British rule.
  • Cherokee-American wars
  • Northwest Indian War
  • Quasi-War (a naval war, allied with Britain, against France & Guadeloupe)

19th Century Wars

56 official wars, mostly resulting in the genocide or internment of various indigenous Native American nations. Sometimes the United States was allied with or fighting against Great Britain, and sometimes on the soil of other foes such as the Ottoman Empire and Morocco, China, Mexico, Spanish Florida, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, or Guam. Notable among these wars were:

  • The War of 1812 against Great Britain
  • The Mexican-American war, in the disputed former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico, California and regions of Mexico.
  • The American Civil War.
  • The Spanish-American war.

The Civil War

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 was fought between the United States and the Confederacy of Southern States, over the issues of whether slavery was to remain legal in the Southern States, upon which many southern white livelihoods and businesses depended. This is sometimes framed as an academic disagreement about "States Rights" to self-government, but I personally find it hard to interpret that as anything other than a disingenuous fig leaf.

Abraham Lincoln lead the Northern states to victory in the Civil War, and is praised for saving or preserving the Union. He presided over the Emancipation Proclamation which ostensibly freed the slaves, although many still suffer from ongoing repercussions and outright racism even up to the present day.

20th Century Wars

31 official wars, some against outstanding Native American nations, others in diverse locations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Russia, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, Iran & Persian Gulf, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Somalia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Haiti, and Serbia.

Notable amongst these were:

  • World War I, during which the president was Woodrow Wilson.
  • World War II, against Germany, Japan and Italy, during which the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eisenhower was a general in this war, and subsequently went on to become President.
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War
  • Persian Gulf War

During the Cold war, the main concern of the United States was, it says here, communism. I'd wonder whether 'mutually assured destruction' might be a contender, but that is not listed as a correct answer.

21st Century Wars

On 11th September 2001, terrorists attacked the United States by crashing commercial passenger airliners into the Pentagon in Virginia near Washington DC, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, destroying them and killing nearly 3,000 people.

This atrocity was used as a pretext for the USA's subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which ended disasterously. The USA has also engaged in 9 other wars thus far this century, including Libya, Somalia & Syria.

Government

The constitution grants the federal government power to:

  • Print money.
  • Declare war.
  • Raise an army.
  • Make treaties.

The states are granted power to provide:

  • Protection in the form of police.
  • Fire departments.
  • Schooling and education.
  • Driver's licenses.
  • Zoning and land use.

The government defined by the constitution is divided into three branches:

  • The executive branch is formed by the President and their administration.
  • The legislative branch is formed by Congress.
  • The judicial branch is formed by the courts.

The separation of powers between these three branches forms a system of checks and balances that prevents any one part of government from becoming too powerful.

The Executive

The President leads the executive branch. They sign bills into law, and have veto power over new laws. They are the Commander in Chief of the military. Presidents are elected for four year terms, in a vote that takes place in November.

The President appoints a Cabinet of advisors. If the President cannot serve, succession falls to the Vice President, and then to the Speaker of the House.

Other cabinet-level positions include Attorney General, and Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defence, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs.

The President is currently Joseph Robinette Biden Jr (Democratic).

The Vice President is currently Kamala Harris (Democratic).

The Speaker of the House is currently Nancy Pelosi (Democratic).

The Legislature

Congress makes federal laws. It comprises two parts:

  • The Senate.
  • The House of Representatives.

The Senate

The Senate comprises two senators from each state, yielding 100 total senators. Each senator represents the entirety of their state. Senators are elected for six year terms.

The House of Representatives

Each state is divided into a number of congressional districts, the number of which depends on the population of the state. Each district sends a single representative to the House, whose job is to represent the people of their specific district. Currently, this yields a total of 435 representatives. Representatives are elected for two year terms.

The Judicial branch

The courts review and explain laws, resolves disputes, and decides whether laws contravene the constitution.

The "rule of law" states that every individual, no matter how highly-placed, must obey the law, as must the government itself.

The highest court in the land is the Supreme Court, which comprises nine justices, lead by Chief Justice John Glover Roberts Jr.

States, Territories, and Geography

The United States of America contains 335 million people, of whom around 261 million are adults. The regions of the country comprise:

  • 50 States (the 48 contiguous States, plus Hawaii and Alaska)
  • Washington DC, the capital city and federal district (690,000 people).

Plus other territories:

  • American Samoa (43,000 people).
  • Guam (169,000 people).
  • Northern Mariana Islands (56,000 people).
  • Puerto Rico (3,286,000 people).
  • United States Virgin Islands (87,000 people).

For comparison, the least populated state, Wyoming, contains 581,000 people.

The Pacific Ocean is on the West Coast of the United States, while the Atlantic ocean is on the East Coast.

The two longest rivers within the United States are the Missouri and the Mississippi.

The Statue of Liberty is on Liberty Island, in New York Harbour, on the Hudson River near the south end of Manhattan in New York City.

States that border Canada are: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska.

States that border Mexico are: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The flag has 50 stars to represent the 50 states, and 13 stripes to represent the initial 13 colonies.

The national anthem is The Star-Spangled Banner.

Independence Day is celebrated every July 4th. Other national holidays are:

  • New Year's Day
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • Presidents' Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day
  • Veterans Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas

My State, Minnesota

The capital of Minnesota is St Paul.

The current Governor of Minnesota is Tim Waltz.

The current senators for Minnesota are:

  • Amy Klobuchar (Democratic)
  • Tina Smith (Democratic)

The current representative for my district, the first congressional district of Minnesota, is Jim Hagadorn (Republican).

Miscellanea

The economic system of the United States is a capitalist, free market economy.

The two major political parties in the US are the Democratic and Republican parties.

Journey

Released on PlayStation 3 by thatgamecompany in 2012. Played on Windows 10 in 2022.

The slow-paced opening scenes, alternately trudging up and then surfing down sunbaked desert dunes, failed to sustain Zander's interest, so I ended up playing through its short runtime by myself.

In some ways it's an indictment of videogame culture that ten years later it still feels so fresh and radical to pair players up with another internet rando, while giving them no means to communicate or interact other than helping each other out, either leading by example, or exchanging wordless shouts. It seems like a pretty limited repertoire at first. I'm half tempted to just wander off ahead, alone, into the endless desert.

Then, you realize that standing close enough together recharges each other's magical flying scarves. Suddenly, it's enough. You cling to each other for dear life through the howling storms, double back to rescue each other from prowling beasts, and then fly exuberantly above the sunlit clouds, forever curving back to seek each other's life-giving sustenance.

I don't know who the two internet randos were, with whom I shared the first and second halves of my journey. But in those minutes together, we lived a lifetime's worth.

The Expanse

The Expanse screencap

(This post rescues content from a Facebook comment I got carried away with recently.)

There's so much to write about the Expanse. It's such a relief to find a science fiction show with an ambitiously futuristic setting depicted in a way that doesn't make scientifically literate people cringe and shout at the television.

Also, it shines at taking the time for quiet moments of character work, from Miller's lonely, poignant realization in s01 that he wasn't the talented office maverick, just incompetent and unreliable, right up to the quiet, unseen payoff of Naomi's years-long efforts to save her son from his father's influence, in the final seconds of s06.

On many axes, it's the best SF on television, which is saying something, as there are so many competitors. Science fiction output is following some sort of Moore's law of endless expansion, in response to society's need for mythic stories of relevance to modern life, itself a symptom of the meaning crisis of modern society. But this is a mixed blessing, because the resulting shows & movies are often drawn to using the superficial trappings of science fiction, spaceships and lasers (pew pew!), while failing to fulfil the deeper psychological needs of mythical or symbolic significance that brought about their creation. The Expanse is perhaps the prime example of this.

My fantastic SF podcast guy defines SF as the arena in which we forge new myths of psychological meaning for modern life, which are sorely needed as traditional myths dwindle in relevance, as they are predominantly based on nature and superstition. Movements such as spiritual atheism are a reflection that even the least spiritual amongst us recognize that something is missing.

I do concede that defining SF in this way is a bit of a cheat. It's somewhat aggrandizing, claiming any great mythic work as actually being part of the SF genre, an no doubt is a somewhat defensive reaction to mainstream dismissal of science fiction as puerile. But it does provide a marvellous framework for discussion, and adopting this definition makes several previously puzzling things fall into place.

It settles the revealing, never-ending debates over which works are, and are not, science fiction. Somewhat tellingly, to me, such debates are irreconcilable precisely because of the misnomer "science fiction", which was never really about the science to begin with, as this style of fiction has existed long before science was the focus. It only gravitated towards using science as it became apparent that is now where society's power and transformation springs from - our incarnation of gods and magic - and the name "science fiction" was then applied post-facto, missing the underlying fact that this is just mythic fiction with some modern attributes.

This definition perfectly explains things like how the first half of the movie "Sunshine" could be such astonishing science-fiction, while the second half - set aboard the exact same spaceship - is just a mediocre slasher flick.

So. SF is the arena within which we construct new mythic narratives.

By this I mean that great science fiction tends to create a story that resonates because it leans on powerful mythic tropes - symbolic representations of psychological significance, character arcs mirroring Jungian archetypes, thematic elements that are told allegorically, suggesting things to the reader/watcher on a level that can be more powerful than merely stating them directly to the conscious mind.

In this way, all-time-great examples such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (the title being conscious of this mythic entanglement) leans heavily into themes such as humanity watched over by an ancient, mysterious, godlike alien influence which has literally created humanity in its present form, and observes as we now reach a second inflection point, materializing not just a tale of personal transcendence (although it is certainly that), but one of species-wide sublimation - suggesting that it is time for us all to reach spiritual adulthood, to graduate to whatever comes next, to meet and be transformed by the wise and powerful force that has shepherded humanity through our previous prehistorical transitions.

I could go on with similar examples, but will just briefly mention the original Matrix movie, which is a story which resonates because it is absolutely soaked in allegory of both religious transcendence and Jungian archetypes - which are so on-the-nose that it cannot possibly be accidental, a fact acknowledged directly by the creators in the sequels, when they depict the Architect, ultimate villain encountered at the narrative peak of the story, as a prim, middle aged, white bearded gentleman, wearing an Edwardian suit. He speaks in a precise, almost Germanic manner. This is, unmistakably, Sigmund Freud. Why is Freud the villain of the Matrix? Because Freud was a contemporaneous antagonist to Jung, resisting Jung's ideas of self actualization through reconciliation of the archetypes, just as the Architect resists Neo's progression along that same path.

It may be my own lack of imagination, but compared to examples like this, the Expanse starts to look a bit thin. I don't see any symbolism or allegory. There is some good character work but no actual arcs of transcendence. Through the unfortunate realities of converting books to screen, large chunks of what could have been the most meaningful story were simply abandoned and will apparently never be finished on the screen. In their stead, what would have been mythic elements become a series of "McGuffin of the week", as we never circle back to resolve why the protomolecule was created, why it was sent to our ancient solar system, why it turns people into nuclear-powered zombies, and what force destroyed the protomolecule creators, and why? And that's just series one's unresolved elements.

So, lacking that, what the Expanse has to offer is its superlative world-building and sane, believable depictions of a gritty interplanetary future. Which is no small feat - arguably nobody else has done it better. But, for me, it isn't enough. Maybe that's just because I'm a godless heathen who looks to get my spiritual fix through TV shows about spaceships. Or maybe it's because science fiction is where we show ourselves what we're capable of, what to aim for, and I believe we can aim higher than just exciting technological dystopias.

Contact

Contact cover

by Carl Sagan, 1985.

I put this into my library queue as it's highly regarded in some parts, and I'd never read it. But at about chapter 2, I started to realize that I actually have read it, maybe thirty years ago. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure I actually have a copy somewhere on the shelves here at home. I'm going senile.

Oh well, at least it's the sort of senile that gives me quick, pleasant things to read.


Also this month: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Once again, I wanted to like this so much. I started reading it twice, spaced about 18 months apart. But each time, I just couldn't get into it, and abandoned it about 1/3 in. It is indubitably me, not you.


The Witch's Heart

The Witch's Heart cover

by Genevieve Gornichec, 2021.

Old Norse mythology only briefly mentions the witch Angrboða, as the mother of three "monsters", fathered by the trickster god, Loki. This book explores her life, explicitly acknowledging her erasure as a woman, and resolves it, providing her a powerful story, in which she survives men, gods, and all.

Another fantastic Suze recommendation. Loved it.


Also this month: The Emperess of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. I wanted to like this sooo much, and can see so many things about that are wonderful, but for some reason I just couldn't get in the mood. The problem is indubitably me, not you.


Circe

Circe cover

by Madeline Miller, 2018.

Recommended by The Suze, after reading it for one of her book clubs, and I absolutely loved it.

Tells the life story of the mythical Circe of the ancient Greek pantheon. Daughter of Helios, mightiest of the Titans, Circe is driven from her family by their capricious cruelty. She puts her meagre supernatural talents to work in service of witchcraft, amongst mortals. Along the way she meets many well-known mythological characters, such as Odysseus, and the Cretean Minotaur.

It was the writing style that captivated me. A timeless, elegant style uses powerful turns of phrase to spin a tale of drama and high passions, soaked in the psychological resonances so typical of Greek mythology. This style, along with the setting, reminded me powerfully of another favourite couple of novels of recent years, Mary Renault's absolutely fabulous The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea.

Circe is my favorite book of the year so far, beating out even the marvellous Klara and the Sun.