Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Books I Read In April

'A Rare Benedictine' by Ellis Peters
This was the last of the Brother Cadfael books I had to read.  It was anomalous, featuring three short stories.  The first is set in 1120 when Cadfael is an ageing soldier.  The other two are set in the mid- to late 1130s when he is established as a monk. The stories are fine.  They show Cadfael solving three crimes even when this means him going up against his employer.  They show him using his knowledge of Shrewsbury and supporting the course of true love, all elements that are the backbone of the Cadfael stories.  What seems to be missing, contrary to what Peters notes at the start, is a sense of that transformation from warrior to monk.  It would have been really beneficial to have had 2-3 other stories set in the 1120s.  This would have shown us more of the character's development rather than simply presenting simply some further examples of him behaving in the way regular readers of the series are familiar with.  It is not a bad book, but it could have been a great deal more.

'The Winds of Altair' by Ben Bova
Ben Bova was an author I first came across as a teenager and was very impressed by his 'The Dueling Machine' [sic] (1969).  However, too many of his novels appeared to be space opera which did not appeal.  'The Winds of Altair' (1984) is about colonists being sent to a remote planet, but is more about issues connected to colonisation and religious fundamentalism.  The colonisers make use of mind connection devices to use wolfcats - huge six-legged predators and white apes, to operate machinery on the hostile surface of Altair VI/Windsong to make it habitable for humans.  The story largely features those involved in this connection between the creatures and humans.  This connecting and the sympathy for the indigenous population are very reminiscent of elements of the movie 'Avatar' (2009) with a religious group instead of the military.  The book moves along briskly and handles the big issues well.  The casual racism jumps out until you realise that the religions have made Earth suffering with a population of 17 billion, a racially-segregated planet.  I enjoyed reading the book but then it ends abruptly as if Bova felt he had got his message across and there was no need for any more or the publishers said that he had reached his page limit.  The difficulties of the colonisation, the challenge of the religion and the development of the two romantic relationships are all concluded at speed, though in the case of the relationships, largely unresolved.  This abrupt end is a shame for a book which I otherwise enjoyed.  I may be tempted to find some more of Bova's books in the future, but hope they will end properly.

'The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918' by A.J.P. Taylor
This book was first published in 1941 and the revised edition I read came out in 1947.  This is important to note because people would not write a history book this way nowadays.  It is important to note that this is not really about the Austrian Empire or Austria-Hungary, but as the title indicates, about the Habsburg monarchy in this period.  It is written very much from a constitutional perspective and at times is very dry and complicated when discussing the nuances of political developments at the highest level.  The main flaw of the book is that it rushes through all of these elements very quickly with few breaks.  This leads the reader easily lost.  At times the analysis of the politics seems to be in a vacuum, detached from social and economic developments which form the context.  It improves when covering the first decade of the 20th century, but then with the First World War returns to the break-neck speed.  A slower pace and more summary would have improved the accessibility of the book greatly.

Taylor writes that he purged his misplaced wistful optimism for Austria-Hungary and what it could have been between the two editions of the book.  However, what is painful for a contemporary reader is the retention of his bigotry which too often colours what he is saying and imbalances his judgements.  He derides the Austrians and Hungarians perceiving themselves as the superior nations in the empire, with the Poles and to a lesser extent the Italians following on behind.  However, then he generally adheres to their hierarchy of the different nationalities.  He is painfully patronising when discussing the Slovaks and Ruthenes, even the Croats and Slovenes.  He presents a number of these nationalities as if they were infantile and is dismissive of any political or national perspectives they may have.  He is also explicitly dismissive of the French despite the importance of their government in successor states to Austria-Hungary.  I gather his attitude to the Italians was also shaped by the Second World War.  Yet, the problem goes beyond his own time.  His attitudes were old fashioned  even in 1947.  This is emphasised by his disparaging of the term successor states and his constant reference to 'Austria' in inverted commas, even after 1918 when it was a sovereign states.  Though Taylor writes in English in this book his perceptions are those of a German living in the late 19th century.  This handicaps him in making a fair judgement in terms of the various nationalities and distorts how he articulates what went on depending on which of the 'historic' nations was concerned.  The book is comprehensive but is best saved for reference which allows avoidance of its overly-frenetic narrative and the painfully bigoted attitudes towards many of the people being discussed.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Welcoming The Coming Of The End

As I may have noted here before, given my health conditions, I have been told by a series of doctors (I have had 16 GPs since 1988 and have met numerous specialists too) that I have a life expectancy of 51-57 years old, which means 4-10 years remaining.  I have become conscious of my departure in the next few years as my health has deteriorated.  I feel like a man probably thirty years older than my actual age.  My digestion is all over the place and it is often difficult for me to swallow.  My limbs are stiff and my eyes have trouble refocusing after I have been reading or in a dark room.  I also feel incredibly lethargic and when returning from work, which is very sedentary have no urge except to slump watching television and to sleep.  I often sleep for a couple of hours and then return later.  Feeling bloated much of the time means I have little appetite.  However, I have not lost weight, indeed my belly looks rounder than ever before, causing real problems with my trousers.

Perhaps I have been reaching this state for a number of years now but the bullying and the almost incessant problems with cars, holidays and accommodation have been a distraction.  Now things are reasonably settled, largely because I have given up on holidays and rent only a room in a shared house; car problems still persist, I am aware of how far I have deteriorated.  Of course, I have no idea when I will fall dead.  Ten years can seem a great deal, it will work out to be about an eleventh of my life.  I have a feeling I will make it to 57.  I have had more than one dream and other premonitions that I will live until late in 2024 and then will die in a car fire in Spain, during daylight.  Quite precise.  I have had quite a few premonitions in my life that have proven to be true.  Often I have ignored them, for example in the case of two of the jobs I was bullied in, much to my personal cost.

How do people react to a recognition of mortality?  I heard an interview last week with blues musician Wilko Johnson who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and was given 10 months to live.  His tumour in and around his stomach grew to be 3 Kg (6.6lbs) before it was removed, along with his pancreas, spleen and parts of his stomach and intestines.  He had done a farewell tour and album, but then last year was cured.  He has been left at a loose end now he has recovered.  However, what he had done in response to death was to rush around and do things.  Maybe I am not close enough to it yet to feel that urge.

I have been working on a number of partially completed novels that I have written over the past twenty years and have enjoyed returning to them.  I am a better writer than when I began some of them, but I have liked going back to the characters and finishing off their stories.  However, I realised, now that I am working on a full-length Braucher novel, that I simply do not care.  I do not mind if I finish it or not or whether it gets out into the public domain or remains locked up behind passwords on my laptop's C drive.  Many people facing imminent death have a 'bucket list' of things to achieve before they go.  However, reflecting on this, I could think of absolutely nowhere that I wanted to go or any activity I wanted to do.  I have no desire to see the Grand Canyon or swim with dolphins.  There certainly is no point in me learning anything new.  I know I will gain no new skills before I die and there is no point in all these adverts for language learning that I receive.  Given my digestion problems I have no desire to eat any particular foods.

I have booked to return to the hotel in Sables d'Or in France:  that I visited when I was five and apparently before that in my mother's womb.  However, that was simply because have had so many disastrous holidays I could think of nowhere else to go.  If I do not make it, I will not be fussed.  It is almost due South of where I am living at present and it seems that I can reach it without much difficulty.  I do not really need a holiday but am conscious of the censure from colleagues for not going away especially from those who insist on putting themselves into dangerous situations around the globe.  Why do amateurs keep on insisting on climbing Mount Everest?  However, having had only two weeks of successful holidays since 2005, that have not ended prematurely and costing me hundreds of pounds, I am not optimistic that even this simple holiday will work.  Yet, they do not fail sufficiently.  I have not been at risk of my life at all.  I would be more than happy to give up my place in the lifeboat for someone else who wants life, when the catamaran goes down off the Channel Islands.  I have found myself incompetent: and too cowardly:  to succeed at suicide, so it has to be something from outside that ends my life and I would be grateful if it got a move on.  I would like a heroic death, but given my luck it is bound to be humiliating, but I trust I will be on my way by then so will no longer care.

That is the one great thing about knowing you have a reasonably limited amount of time left - you no longer need to care.  Once I have gone, I will have no control over what moronic things people might say about my book.  Amazon actually bans the posthumous sale of books if you self-publish, presumably that is limited to ordinary people, not literary greats.  I have already stopped worrying about my career.  It was destroyed by the bullying of two managers who because of personal prejudices decided it was the appropriate thing to wreck my life.  I kept hoping that I could get back to the level that I had in 2009 if not beyond that and now am aware that unless this job goes bad too, this will be my last entry on my CV.  I do not have to worry about my pension as I will not be alive to collect it.  Even if I live ten more years, I will have left well before retirement.

I do care about what will happen to the UK, but these days it is the way I might care about the plastic bag island in the Pacific Ocean, I mourn it, but know I can do absolutely nothing about it.  I am throwing myself right into the current election as this may be my last or at most, the penultimate one I will witness.  However, with so much, a weariness comes over me.  I am just tired of how appallingly so many people are behaving and the energy they put into telling you how essential their nastiness is.  I am tired of how badly so many people drive.  I am tired at how every company tries to rip you off and insists that their various ways of screwing money out of you is customer service in your interest.  It tires me that they feel obliged to lie as if we are morons.

In many ways as the burden of life begins to lift but on the other hand I become ever more tired, perhaps I am becoming like the bulk of the population, walking along oblivious to everyone around me, not interested if I put myself or them in danger as I lap up the 'vital' rubbish coming through the phone.  In my case it is coming through my head rather than my phone, but maybe society has finally made me conform.  Perhaps if this does drag on for four years let alone ten, I will become tired of waiting.  I can certainly tell you now that if I died before I finished this posting, I would be more than happy to be relieved of having to live this tedious existence a moment longer.

Monday, 6 April 2015

An Atlas Of Imaginary Worlds 17: Rooksmoor's Guide To Creation Of A Fantasy World - An Easy Example

This posting is a sequel to my brief 'how to' guide about the easy creation of fantasy kingdoms which I posted in January 2013.  I cannot believe it was that long ago:  This latest iteration was prompted by a couple of things.  One was an article in 'The Guardian' about how the status of fantasy literature has been rising, especially as a result of the success of George R.R. Martin's 'A Song of Fire & Ice' series and the 'Game of Thrones' television series that came from those books, now in its 5th season.  You can read it here:  The article has a small quiz about different lands created for various fantasy series.  The other prompt was stumbling across a map of the 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet that the ESA probe landed on in August 2014. It seems made perfectly for a fantasy map especially as the regions have been name after Ancient Egyptian mythological characters.

As it is a solid, you get some repeated as we are looking at different faces of the irregular comet.  However, these could easily represent colonies of one country on another of the three continents.  Ash might be a colonial power like Britain, France or Spain, perhaps even the Netherlands or Portugal, from our history.  Nut seems to be a narrow coastal country pinned in by high mountains like Chile.  The dominant powers seem to be Imhotep on the south-western continent, Ma'at, Babi and Seth on the eastern continent.  Perhaps the people of Serqet are like the Tamils of our world split between northern Sri Lanka and southern India.  On the north-western continent maybe they were force inland by the arrival of Maftet.  

We could look at the global picture in two ways.  Perhaps the north-western continent is crowded with a range of powers fighting for territory with people looking for colonies in the much larger eastern continent.  Conversely the eastern continent might be the dominant one with countries having enclaves; the Ma'at lands on the western continent certainly seems something like Hong Kong or the German control of the Shandong peninsula in China in our history.  What is it that the people of Apis have that has allowed them to survive and not be engulfed by Ash or Imhotep?  The same could go for Hapi, perhaps important traders on what looks like comparative low-lying ground at the end of the long gulf.  Do they play off one against the other?  What is the history of Anubis?  It lacks colonies.  Is it actually a break-away from Atum which still surrounds it on three sides and itself lacks colonies.  Has there been a civil war or an ethnic one.  Could Atum be the Biafra to Anubis's Nigeria?

What about the Khepry, seemingly pushed to the periphery of two continents?  Down on these extreme southern coasts, what is the climate like - bitterly cold or very hot and humid or desert like?  What about the people of Aten in long valleys.  If these continents are on a sphere, is there travel between their two regions?  Perhaps they are undeveloped tribes left in the inaccessible regions of these continents.  Have I mistaken Maftet are the aggressors and it is they being pushed into the remote regions of their rugged land?

Starting with this map, I have adopted a very geo-political basis.  However, maybe the different regions represent different religions, with Ash as a religion of fisher people along the northern coasts and the religion of Ma'at only becoming established in a port on the north-western continent.  Perhaps Hapi is a religion only found in the most urban areas of the world.  Khepry seems ostracised no matter how you look at it.  However, perhaps controlling the trade across the Wide Sea or the Black Ocean they are far better off than they might look.

Do each of the colours represent an ethnicity, even a species?  Is there common ground between the Aten, Apis, Nut and Hatmehit or between the Ma'at and the Ash or the Aken, Bastet, Anuket and their southern cousins, the Imhotep?

The image though a scientific one can easily trigger off lots of ideas for a fantasy story.  The nature of the continents, the topography and the regions marked on them generate lots of prompts for plots.  As I have noted before, there is always a danger that you might simply transfer the British or the Chileans or the Biafrans into your fantasy world.  However, with changes and crafting you can move them away from that start point.  One you develop your story the different kingdoms or religions are likely to take on a life of their own and so will soon be unidentifiable as their Earth equivalents.

You might not want to use Egyptian names; Imhotep is well known.  However, you can use them as a start point as I noted in my previous posting on creating worlds.  Move them forward one vowel or consonant and immediately Ash becomes 'Etj' (though I might break the rule on that one and stick with Eti) or Urg, if you go back one.  Ma'at becomes 'Ne'ev' or 'Lu'us' both pronounceable.  Imhotep, perhaps the one needing most immediate change becomes 'Onjuviq' or 'Elgisan' the latter one much better than the former.  Nut probably needs to go too, 'Pav' or 'Mos' both are feasible.  Khepry sounds like it is the result of this process but could become 'Ljiqsz' or 'Jganqx' both very hard.  The system might need modification so 'h' goes on to 'i' rather than j; and r back to 'p' rather than q and p on to 'r'.  It is probably worthwhile treating y as a vowel. Thus Liirsa or Jganru are a little better.

Of course, sorting out your world is just the first stage of your fantasy novel.  While less picturesque, far more vital are the characters and you will have to turn to someone else for advice on them.  Unlike George R.R. Martin I find it hard to have amoral characters or see through the eyes of evil ones.  Like a lot of people I also hold back from killing off the nicest ones, so there would be no 'red' wedding in mine.  Perhaps you have more courage and skill than me and can succeed like George.  Remember it has taken him over twenty years to get there.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

'Total War: Attila' - Tiresome

I have been a fan of the 'Total War' games since the first 'Shogun:Total War' released back in 1999.  Being both interested in history and the possible alternatives, epic games covering decades and even centuries, combining both battlefield and strategic levels have appealed to me.  However, as the years have progress, despite the increased sophistication and the improved graphics, I have become more and more frustrated with basic flaws in the games, despite all the different settings, that never seem to be resolved.  With the advent of 'Total War: Rome II' new problems were introduced which now seem to be adding to the growing list.  See my previous posting about Rome II for what I see as these tedious problems: 

I am still excited by a new 'Total War' game and pre-ordered the latest 'Total War: Attila' back in November 2014.  A flaw in downloading meant that until an update in March 2015, despite reporting the problem to Steam, I was unable to run it.  Once it was functioning I was keen to play.  The 'Barbarian Invasion' expansion (2005) to the original 'Rome Total War' (2004) featuring the late Western and Eastern Roman Empires and the migrating barbarian tribes was always a favourite of mine and so I was keen to play this updated version of that expansion for the 'Rome II' approach.

The game is certainly visually stunning.  However, some of this causes problems.  In 'Rome II', the different troop and building types are represented by symbolic images.  This makes it easy to distinguish between them.  With 'Attila' they are represented by my realistic images.  This makes it difficult to tell at a glance between similar units.  It is particularly a difficulty telling between the range of buildings many of which look pretty much the same.  It is important to tell, because unlike with 'Rome II' each province has to have sufficient food rather than this being the case right across your empire.  It also has to have a sufficient level of sanitation.  This can be hard when you only control part of a province because the rest is held by an enemy, an ally or has been made desolate.  Desolation is a new factor cause by barbarian tribes laying waste to a region.  It can be revived by colonisation if you can spare enough money.  

The key problem is that even if you have a good level of food supplies you will typically find one or more provinces starving leading to unrest.  You will also find that disease caused by a lack of baths or reservoirs is far more prevalent than in 'Rome II'.  Thus, as with 'Rome II' you find yourself incessantly fighting uprisings and pumping money into keeping people alive, leaving little for fighting off opponents or developing your empire.  This is one problem of recent Total War games, they end up becoming 'Total Management' because unless you load up modifications provided by amateurs you will find yourself simply struggling not to lose your empire to famine or uprising, even on the Easy setting.  These things did happen, but bear in mind the Byzantine Empire, what had been the Eastern Roman Empire, lasted until 1453CE, a thousand years after this game is set.

Many problems that were seen as early as 'Medieval 2 Total War' (2006) and have never been rectified.  One is catapults that move around the battlefield as fast as heavy infantry and, even in thick fog or when firing into a forest or up a steep hill, are able to hit your soldiers more precisely than laser-guided weapons of today.  In turn, your catapult weapons will miss the opponents despite firing repeatedly even at a static line across flat terrain with perfect visibility.  Ships will always hunt you down when you move at sea, covering hundreds of miles to be in the correct place, again something even challenging with modern technology.  

Another problem which has continued from 'Rome II' is in terms of towers in towns.  In small towns these are typically wooden structures.  The strength of them varies considerable between how they impact on AI (artificial intelligence - i.e. the one controlled by the computer) soldiers and how they impact on yours.  I have lost entire units trying to knock down a single tower because of the incessant arrows which fire into them as they march up and take so long to destroy it.  In contrast, an AI unit can march up to your towers receiving only 1-2 casualties and destroy it rapidly.  Thus it is far easier for the computer faction to take a town than it is for you to take even the same settlement.  Similarly you can only place barricades in largely ridiculous places that do little if nothing to protect your settlement, they simply hamper moving your troops around.  In contrast, when the AI is in charge of the town the barricades prove to be a genuine defence.  You can win, but your casualties will be far higher than for a computer driven faction taking the same place.

Armies even from factions which are not friendly will precisely co-ordinate so your defenders will face wave after wave of attackers.  Even if good at fighting on the defence you are strained when the third army in a row, twice your strength comes down the same road to get you in a single turn.  The AI player never makes mistakes and for some reason while you can not march past its armies and constantly seem to be just that little bit short of catching them, your opponent will always have the precise amount of movement necessary; can march right through your zone of control and in 'Attila' will often even fight you and march off and attack someone else or a different town in the same turn, all things you will be unable to do.  I cannot understand how a barbarian horde, i.e. consisting of the entire population including non-combatants, can march faster and farther than a trained Roman army.  A crucial difference is that, unless you are extremely lucky, your neighbouring armies do not support each other.  In contrast, the AI ones are always in perfect balance and you find some armies supporting more than one offensive, something I have never been able to achieve despite very careful positioning.

The big mistake that was added to these flaws in 'Rome II' was limiting the number of armies.  In 'Medieval 2 Total War' one useful function was that you could strengthen garrisons without need for a general.  Now you are limited to 16 armies and if you are trying to control an empire as large as the two Roman Empires or the Sassanid you find yourself struggling to get from one end of the empire to the other with enough force, exacerbated by the blocking zone of control problems noted above.  City garrisons are utterly pathetic, no matter how much you develop the buildings in a city.  Rebels even revolting slaves turn up with far more experienced soldiers and crucially soldiers equipped with better weapons and more advanced armour than you can even recruit in your empire, despite them coming from that empire.  Thus, some towns are lost almost on a constant basis.  You have to leave armies to garrison in case an opponent by-passes you as they very often can which again means no expansion of your own empire.

Another flaw which came with 'Rome II' and continues with Attila is disappearing units.  I accept there are issues about line of sight on a bumpy or forested terrain.  However, even on flat plains for some reason units disappear even when walking towards you.  The problem is that any soldiers you have sent marching towards them stop dead once the unit fades and do not resume their march if it reappears.  Similarly missile troops and catapults stop firing at it and again simply spectate if it reappears.  Yet, your opponent keeps firing incessantly and with great accuracy.  

Since 'Rome II' the default setting for marching an entire army on the battlefield is that it fans out.  This causes many to set off away from the enemy.  Similarly trying to congregate them back when they have chased off the opponent sees them heading in random directions.  The soldiers have no sense of self-preservation to turn and face an attacker or aid their fellow soldiers right next to them.  Control of units has deteriorated severely since the days of 'Medieval 2 Total War'.

All of these flaws mean that you need to be able to see into the future and amass soldiers in precisely the right location to see off an opponent.  You will incessantly have to be fighting for the smaller towns and villages as their defence is so feeble.  At times it seems that the AI will not let you hold a particular town and even opponents with a few and poor territories are able to field vast, well-equipped armies that outstrip anything your country can produce.  Now, a new element in 'Attila' is that if you start hiring mercenaries their prices rise so it even proves difficult to bring in supplementary forces quickly or put in ones suited to a local environment, especially as all your money is going into building local farms and water supplies rather than recruitment buildings.

The key problem with so many barbarian tribes is that they are incessant and it is easy to find yourself at war with fifteen to twenty factions.  They are not as hard to destroy as they were back in 'Barbarian Invasion', but there are simply so many bent of destroying everything.  As has long been the case, the diplomacy system is largely pointless.  You struggle to find anyone to trade with you let alone ally with you.  Allies simply drag you into more wars and yet rarely assist you.  Trade partners often remain hostile and break off trade at random leading to a sudden drop in income.  I emphasise that these problems are playing at the 'Easy' level by someone with 16 years' experience on these games.

The only improvements with 'Rome II' that are also seen in 'Attila' is with the agents.  These used to be really pathetic in 'Medieval 2 Total War' and could not be kept alive.  Now they stand a decent chance and I have managed to get at least one of each - Spy, Dignitary and Champion up to the top level.  They add to the game and the armies.  Though I note that the Merchant has not made an appearance, they lived such a short time it was simply a waste of cash.

I appreciate the effort that has gone into 'Attila' in terms of getting it looking great and historically accurate.  What is infuriating is the persistence of gameplay flaws which have now been in place for a decade and seem to be worsening.  In many ways, as I have noted before, Sega and Creative Assembly seem to be leaving enhancement up to the amateur developer community rather than actually resolving these themselves.  They have been stubborn in not addressing flaws that mean it can be tiresome playing when hard work and clever strategy is defeated by the great advantages the AI had with its armies.  What is worse is that such situations are anachronistic and it is a shame to find that your wonderful Roman legions are effectively coming up against 21st century armies.