I’ve been a fan of Thomas Ligotti for some time. My friend Michael Lotus (of America 3.0 fame) first recommended I read him when I checked out Songs of a Dead Dreamer from the college library. Teatro Grottesco and The Nightmare Factory are Ligotti at his intellectual best, while My Work Is Not Yet Done is laugh-out loud hilarious.
But my appreciation for Ligotti dramatically increased after reading The Thomas Ligotti Reader. Like the book H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houllebecq or the documentary, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, The Thomas Ligotti Reader provides a context for stories, emphasizing their themes and ideas, and making the body of work seem like an organic whole.
I was particularly surprised at the central role The Shadow at the Bottom of the World plays in Ligotti’s writings. Before reading the Reader, I know of Ligotti’s philosophical horror and non-fiction work (both Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and David Benatar’s Better Never To Have Been) which are non-fictional expression’s of Ligotti’s nihilophilia. But several piecesin the Reader emphasize unusual aspects of Shadow, including its final position in Grimscribe, its use of the first-person plural “We” as narrator, and the text and symbolism in the story to argue it a high water mark of a gnostic writer.
To me, this last element made Ligotti’s writing more sensible. Ligotti has long struck me as someone who is accurately describing what a Godless universe, by philosophical necessity, would be like. A pandemonium he describes in The Cult of the Idol is a more cynical, and perhaps more wise, view of the pantheism much appreciated by intellectually lazy hippies. But Ligotti’s view is not just that the universe is indifferent, but actively hostile. Thus, atheism ends not in indifference, but in Catharism.
I read The Thomas Ligotti Reader in dead-tree edition.
There’s a chapter of my life, that began when I played Gabriel Knight 3 and read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that ended when I read this book. That game — and from that game, that book — were gateways too so much. My love of Dark Ages history (including great books of real history, like Before France and Germany, Mohammad and Charlemagne, and The Long-Haired Kings, an affection for the idea of the Mediterranean (I stayed in Italy for several weeks after high school), a consideration of how a conspiracy would actually have to be structured (my dream of secret war and a a book, and so on.
The part of my life ended with reading The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau.
But that’s the end. Here’s the beginning.
The facts as we know them: Around a hundred years ago, Father Berenger Sauniere in rural southern France became suspiciously wealthy, with a cumulative lifetime income estimated at a few million dollars (after accounting for inflation). He had a number of visitors at his house, was investigated by the local Bishop, and eventually lost his power to lead Mass at the local Church. He died before the ecclesiastical trial reached a resolution.
The story is much more interesting, because its also inarguable that there’s an actual conspiracy with actual forged documents, layered on topÂ of this. Whether or not there is a treasure, there are documents that contain cyphers, references to ancient societies, and bizarre false clues and dead-ends.
What the world knows about Rennes le Chateau was primarily filtered thru Henry Lincoln, who encountered a real group (albeiet with a fraudulent history) that called itself the “Priory of Sion,” and which has an unusual fixation on the Merovingian Dynasty and King St. Dagobert II (feast day December 23) — a sainted boy king
Henry Lincoln also added a new layer to the mystery, much (apparently) to the bemusement of the actual conspiracy he nearly uncovered. Dusting off his early French, he translates “Sangraal” not as “San Graal” (Holy Grail) but “Sang Raal” (Royal Blood), and from there reconstructs an improbable chronology where the Dagobert II was a blood-descendent of Jesus Chrst, and that secrets to this extent were buried in southern rural France — the discovery of which by Priest Berenger Sauniere led to his millions. Lincoln also added some geometric interpretations, which lead themselves to a reconstruction of the history of the mile (among even less probably claims)
This stuff later spawned a pretty good video game…
And a film series you may have heard of. (Lincoln’s co-authors lost their lawsuit on The DaVinci Code.)
Putnam’s and Wood’s book is an exhaustive, well researched, extremely well document demolition of nearly every conspiracy theory associated with Rennes le Chateau, and the persuasive presentation of evidence of a more mundane conspiracy (Sauniere was illicitly selling masses, and may have engaged in some light grave-robbing.) Even elements which struck me as probable enough (such as the location of certain church-sites) are addressed, with everything from first-person research, to cryptographic analysis, to computer simulations of the probability of certain features appearing by chance.
The number of myths the authors systematically demolish is impressive. Rennes-le-Chateau wasn’t the Visigothic cty of Rhedae. The placing of churches around Rennes doesn’t fit any sort of pattern, mundane or not. Berenger Sauniere supported his (real) generosity by scamming those seeking prayers for the dead. The inflection point of the entire story seems to have been a small remodeling task, which made the priest as power mad as one who is content in a small, remote town can be.
The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is certainly not the first book you should read about this maze of facts and secrets. But if you’ve encountered any of it, and you are interested in any bit of bit, The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is a must read.
- Pimps who run the game. They are the professors.
- Escapees who are about to get out. They are (graduates who leave the field but use their skills.
- Losers, who those sucked into the system until their time, youth, and money desert them. They are non-tenure track instructors.
- Disaster tourists, who get a thrill out of the place. They are students or others who for whatever reason don’t need the degree for employment.
Pimps are in zero-sum competition with each other. This conflict leads all pimps to give up freedom in exchange for safety.
Pimps act tough, but only because they are in a dangerous environment.Â They are prisoners of the lack of jobs and opportunities.Â There is no freedom in the ghetto.
A pimp may lord it over losers and strut for disaster tourists, but his life is essentially one of fear. Signs of weakness are pounced on. The only safe approach is to stay within your square block, not venture outside, and avoid conflict (while appearing not to). Original thinkers are weeded out, punished, or otherwise compelled to keep their heads down.
A sad example of this occurred this year at the formerly interesting group blog, Duck of Minerva. As I described it in a post from August…
An example of this was at The Duck of Minerva, a blog dedicated to celebrating one alley in the academic ghetto (International Relations). A humorous post on identifying and infiltrating old boys networks by a professor at a research university, Brian Rathburn, entitled â€œIntellectual Jailbait: Networking at APSAâ€ was taken down, all comments on that post were deleted ,Brian was forced to issue a self-criticism, Brianâ€™s post became a non-entity (substantively replaced by Steve Saidemanâ€˜s post â€œNetworking is Hard Workâ€œ), and two thinly veiled attacks on Brian were posted, (Daniel Nexon‘s â€œSexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies and Laura Sjoberg’s Letâ€™s talk about sex). .
To go back to the analogy, Brian, Daniel, and Laura were pimps who engaged in a turf war. Steve instead gave in to the system, avoiding conflict with the most generic post possible.
- Brian… blogger at Duck of Minerva, until he resigned
- Daniel… blogger at Duck of Minerva, until he resigned
- Laura… blogger at Duck of Minerva, until she resigned… this week
But Steve — who wrote a generic and grey post, who kept his head down — he’s still there. He even said he likes his job. Brave stuff.
It is perhaps the curse of the successful explorer that, after new lands have been found and the surveys made, his own writings become collections of obvious cliches and bizarre assertions. Surely Christopher Columbus felt this. In 1492 you are a visionary and a hero. But by 1505 everyone knows there is a large land mass west of Europe, and no one believes it is China.
Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial is, objectively, one of the worst books I have ever read.
There is some obvious discussion of local maxima and satisficing (picking the best solution you can find, rather than holding out for the perfect one), some more-or-less obvious if somewhat simplistic speculations about how business functions (it might be modeled as a problem-solving entity), and an incredibly tedious discussion of “standard social sciences model” (SSSM) psychology, in which a the interpretation of some early psychology studies is tortuously interpreted to imply that the human mind runs on a relatively small number of simple algorithms, albeit in a complex environment.
(If you read the Wikipedia page on SSSM , you will find criticisms that the SSSM is a ridiculous straw-man, and that it was “comical” to assert anyone believed it. But Herbert Simon, very definitely pushes such a view in his book.)
Indeed, Simon’s discussion of psychology is so dangerously wrong-headed I will spend a paragraph here refuting it. Simon describes the human memory system, and describes two systems long-term memory (which he is generally accurate about) and “short term memory” (which appears to be a confused mix of working memory, associated with general intelligence, and sensory memory, which provides the awareness of taste, etc). In mainstream psychology, long-term-memory and working-term memory as associated with the automatic, highly parallel, intuitive, and effortless “System 1″ cognition system, and the manual, serial, logical, and painfully slow “System 2″ cognition system. In academia these two systems are often studied under “dual process theory,” and in the military they are described as part of the OODA loop.”
While Simon does not use the “System” nomenclature, his description of it is oddly incomplete, basically missing the most important studies of the last few decades to provide an oddly limited view of human thinking. The only mental processes he implies occurs in System 1 is the passive maintenance of memories. And while he cites such famous studies as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (a measure of the range of working memory) and B.F. Skinner,” influential System 2 studies simply do not occur.
Now…. the reason for this is that Simon wrote The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969, and the last edition was published in 1996, perhaps the last year that his view on psychology could be taken seriously. Simon is a Nobel prize winner and, even more prestigious, a Turning Award winner. The reason for his digressions into “satisficing” and “organizational behavior” is he coined the term satisficing, and is a founding father of organizational behavior. The Sciences of the Artificial is like a letter from Columbus in 1505, describing his views on geography: Cliched, tired, ridiculous, and an artifact of a pathfinder.
I read The Sciences of the Artificial in the Nook edition.
“Depression Quest” is a hypertext-based depression simulator. Unlike the interaction fiction I recently reviewed, there’s no graphics engine: the “game” is a series of pages with a sound-track.
But it’s quite moving. The game shares themes with both Dear Esther and Gone Home, but by firmly placing the events in the real world the themes of sadness and loss are reinforced by an alarming veracity.
“Depression Quest” is free, but you can pay what you want, and any funds go to a mental health charity.
But there is life, hope, and economic success in Detroit too. There are some who are alive. Who fight, and who want money.
Bryce Hoffman’s American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company is not an objective book. And Hoffman is not an objective author. Icon is clearly written with the cooperation of Alan Mulally and Ford. It is a pean to a genius CEO who notes obvious issues (executives don’t like to say bad things about themselves), implements industry-standard decisions that are de rigeur in many industries (tracking systems that can identify which worker but a specific faulty part in a specific product), and deceives his way to the stop (thru treatment of certain underlines, as well as the entire United Auto Workers).
But my point isn’t to drag Mulally thru the mud. It’s a fact that while Mulally’s American competitors were going bankrupt, Ford was able to ride out the financial storm. Indeed, the only competition that Alan Mullaly’s Ford has for the most innovative, most successful American auto company is certainly Elon Musks’s Tesla. Ford isn’t the leader in hybrids. But it is #2. And like Tesla, it’s building on successes.
It’s unlikely that Mulally will ever be the recipient of a cult like Steve Jobs. But nor is American Icon simply paid publicity, like Who says elephants can’t dance?. Rather, American Icon is like Dean Barrett‘s travel knowledge: proof that the writer is alive, the subject is alive, and all the faults of joys of human struggle are playing out on a healthy subject.
American Icon is a well written book, and Ford seems like a well managed company. In most cities and most industries, this would not be remarkable. But given the collapse of Detroit and the death of General Motors and Chrysler it is a celebration of life.
I had the three best days of computer gaming in my life.
I used Steam (an app store, mostly used for Windows games) for the first time when it was required to use Half Life 2. My experience was so bad I’ve not touched it again for a decade.
But in ten years, a lot have changed.
Steam is now an awesome app store for computer games of all sorts, including interactive fiction. Unlike game which focus on fighting, shooting, or twitching, Modern interactive fiction focuses on telling a story thru the interface of a computer game.
Each of these “games” took between 2 to 5 to play. All were haunting.
The Most Haunting: Dear Esther
Dear Esther, a gorgeous video game that takes place outdoors on the Hebrides, revolves around three texts. The first appear to be written by the protagonist to a woman, Esther. The second is a fictitious history of the island, written by Donnelly. (A similar device is used in The Third Policeman, which constantly refers to works by the imaginary de Selby). The third is a passage from the Acts of the Apostles
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lordâ€™s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, â€œSaul, Saul, why do you persecute me?â€
â€œWho are you, Lord?â€ Saul asked.
â€œI am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,â€ he replied. â€œNow get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.â€
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.g
After finishing Dear Esther I felt much older, and much sadder. The feeling stayed with me for some time.
The Most Thought-Provoking: The Stanley Parable
(note the trailer above starts like a typical review. It’s not. It’s made by the people who created the game itself)
It’s extremely hard to describe The Stanley Parable without giving it away. The game is subversive in that word’s best sense — the best description I have heard is “Stanley is game that knows it is a game being played by those who know they are playing a game that knows it is playing a game.”
Fortunately, Stanley Parable also has an amazing and free demo, which teases the meaning of the game without giving it away. You can play the free Stanley Parable Demo on Steam.
The Most Political: Gone Home
If I had not played The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther the day before and after I played Gone Home, Home would be one of the top games I’ve played in years. As it is Home is a fine game, and the story stays with you.
You begin Gone Home on your parents front porch after a trip abroad. A note from your sister tells you that she has left, and not to follow her. The dor is locked, and no one is home. While walking through the house you gradually discover what has happened — both in the last year and the last decades — with the artifacts left behind by the overlapping stories of your father, mother, and sister.
As the pieces fit together, Gone Home takes on an increasingly strident tone, and you’re left with a very clear impression of which politicians and issues the authors support, and which they despise. The focus on issues that matter a great deal to many now — and will be largely irrelevant to those in the future — limits the appeal of Gone Home both to those who are around now (effectively excluding those of different voices) and in the future (who simply won’t care).
Interactive fiction is a beautiful, moving, and even controversial form of art.
The first video game was made in 1947. That means video games are 66 years old. By comparison, the first moving pictures were shot in 1841. 66 years later was 1907.
We are in the 1900s of video games.
The future is going to be incredible.
I just got back from a month long trip, in which I visited these cities as well as a few new ones, such as Phnom Penh and Ubud. The journey was remarkable, and the admiration I had for the writers over at Coming Anarchy played a big role in keeping me interested in traveling.