Category Archives: Things I Like

Things I Like: 2018 Edition

These are some of the things I enjoyed in 2018. Not all of them were released this year — in fact, one item on the list debuted in the mid-1980s! — but I first encountered them all in the past 12 months. Here’s what I liked, and why.

Favourite book: Rejoice, A Knife To The Heart by Steven Erikson. Less a novel, more a classic SF idea story, this tale of first contact puts just about every aspect of human society under the microscope. Erikson is unrelenting in his critique of humanity’s power structures, but he never fails to maintain empathy for those caught up in them. It’s hard not to see the world differently after reading this book.

Honourable mention: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. This fantasy is a penetrating examination of empire: the benefits it claims, the violence it requires, and the resistance it engenders. Intelligent, uncompromising, and featuring a compelling central character, this is an outstanding debut novel.

Favourite show: Counterpart. The concept for this spy thriller can be boiled down to four words: Mirror Universe taken seriously. That would be enough of a draw by itself, but throw in an intriguing alt-European aesthetic, well-drawn characters, and some wonderful performances — not least from series star J.K. Simmons — and the show becomes unmissable. The title sequence alone is a thing of beauty.

Honourable mention: The Orville. Seth MacFarlane’s comic-drama take on Star Trek is the kind of show that could go wrong in so many ways. One of the reasons it works is that despite the jokes, it nevertheless holds sacrosanct the same thing Trek does: that core vision of an inclusive, post-scarcity future. Somehow, applying a layer of humour gives MacFarlance cover to be sincere about the things that really matter.

Favourite movie: This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, this is the classic heavy-metal-band mockumentary from 1984, which somehow I had never seen until just last month. There’s not much to say about it that hasn’t already been said, except that it still holds up remarkably well in 2018. A rare case where the hype is entirely justified.

Honourable mention: Thor: Ragnarok. New Zealand director Taika Waititi injected some welcome humour into the Marvel movie series with this entry. Though the first third or so is a little slow, things pick up with the arrival of Korg, who steals every scene he’s in. After that, the movie never looks back.

Favourite game: Civilization VI. Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy series has been with us for 27 years, and though Meier is no longer the primary designer, each new installment continues to be as addictive as the last. The biggest change in Civ VI is “city unstacking”, which forces players to rethink their approach to managing the land around their cities. There’s still nothing quite like the experience of taking a single stone-age settler and building a society capable of colonising another planet.

Honourable mention: Torment: Tides of Numenara. This is the spiritual successor to the classic RPG Planescape: Torment, and its inclusion here will come as no surprise to anyone who read my previous piece on that title. Tides of Numenara doesn’t quite match its illustrious predecessor, but it’s an intriguing, thought-provoking game even so. Highlights include the richly imagined setting and several of the companion characters, one of whom is written by fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss.

Things I Like: Planescape: Torment

What can change the nature of a man?

That’s the question at the heart of the classic 1999 video game Planescape: Torment. The game follows The Nameless One who wakes up in the mortuary with no memory of his past. He soon discovers two disturbing facts: he recently died, and this is not the first time this has happened.

Planescape: TormentIn many ways, Planescape was ahead of its time, offering rich characters, strange locations, and a thought-provoking story to rival the cream of today’s titles. The Nameless One is joined by a intriguing assortment of companions as the game progresses, from a cynical floating skull to a pyromaniacal mage who The Nameless One once took as an apprentice. The setting is similarly fascinating: the game takes place primarily in the city of Sigil, overseen by the ominous Lady of Pain and home to such unlikely establishments as the Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts.

But it’s the story where this game truly shines. The game focuses far more on dialogue than combat, offering a remarkable range of options when conversing with other characters. And as The Nameless One slowly uncovers the truth about his past lives, the central question weaves through the narrative, forcing the character — and the player — to explore its depths. Can the loss of memory change the nature of a man? Can pain? Can love? Or can nothing at all?

Refreshingly, Planescape poses the question without trying to give you the answer. Rather, it allows you, the player, to answer it each time you play. And it does so in a way that is guaranteed to stay with you long after the game is over.

Things I Like: The Lost Thing

Even if you’re not familiar with Shaun Tan’s beautifully strange artwork, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of The Lost Thing, the film adaptation of his book of the same name which won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It’s a wistful, offbeat story about a boy who discovers a odd creature at the beach and sets about trying to find its home.

The Lost Thing is one of those works of art which feels like it sprung into existence as a complete, perfectly formed whole. Everything about it is just right, from the slowly unfolding story to the lovely animation of Shaun Tan’s art. Tim Minchin’s narration is wonderful for both its pathos and its timing, and the characterisation of the out-of-place creature itself is a joy to behold.

And there’s plenty to reward repeat viewing — signs, billboards and other background details add layers to the story, highlighting the particular obsessions of the world that the boy and the creature must navigate in their search for the creature’s home.

At only fifteen minutes long, The Lost Thing doesn’t ask for much of your time. No doubt there are many more important things we could all be paying attention to. But that’s precisely what The Lost Thing is about: the value of setting those important things aside and opening ourselves to the strange, half-hidden things all around us which are so easy to ignore.

Things I Like: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

It’s hard to know what to say about Steven Erikson’s superb ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen that hasn’t already been said. Phenomenal? Epic? Absolutely. Complex, funny, tragic, deep? Without a doubt. The greatest work of fantasy yet written? In my opinion, yes.

Malazan Complete SeriesPerhaps I can put it best by saying that the Malazan series is the most complete work of fiction I have ever encountered. Somehow, Erikson has managed to combine an astonishing breadth of scope with a no less astonishing depth of insight and theme. His plotting is brilliant. His exploration of character is second to none, for both variety and depth. His setting is as epic as you’re ever likely to see. His prose is masterful. Erikson never pulls his punches, but neither are the books unremittingly grim. Over the course of the series, just about every facet of human existence is explored, questioned, and put into new perspective. Yet the emotional payoff at the end of each volume is always compelling and frequently devastating.

This is a series which changes its readers. Is there any higher compliment for a work of fiction than that?

And for people like me who are scratching out their own stories, the Malazan series shows just how much you can do with words. Erikson himself has deconstructed this aspect of his work in a series of essays which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in the craft of writing.

No work of fiction stands alone, of course. Without Tolkien, without others along the way, the Malazan series would never have come into being. All the same, if I was asked to name the single greatest achievement in the field of fantasy, I wouldn’t have to think about it for even a moment. The Malazan Book of the Fallen stands head and shoulders above every other work of fantasy I’ve ever read.

Things I Like: Braid

My inaugural Things I Like post was about an ancient Akkadian piece of philosophical / satirical literature, so for this follow-up post I’ve decided to skip ahead several thousand years and talk about an indie computer game, Braid.

Braid is a two-dimensional platform game. On the surface, it looks much the same as any other platform game: you jump from here to there, avoiding creatures and collecting items, in this case puzzle pieces. But there’s one key difference between this and other games: the flow of time works differently on each level. Right at the start you find that you have the ability to rewind time, and as the game progresses you discover objects and creatures that interact with time differently, items which slow the passage of time around them, even worlds where your direction of movement determines the direction of time.

And the notion of time’s malleability is not confined to game mechanics. The game’s protagonist, Tim, is trying to atone for some unfortunate mistake involving a princess and a monster. His reflections accompany the player’s progress throughout the game, forming an intriguing, multi-layered narrative exploring the experience of life within time.

Braid is only a short game — you’ll probably finish it in less then 10 hours — but it has more depth than a lot of games many times its length. Its creator, Jonathan Blow, has some fascinating ideas about games and what they can be. His next game will be The Witness, which is due for release some time in 2016. If Braid is anything to go by, it will be well worth checking out.

Things I Like: The Dialogue of Pessimism

In an effort to liven up the blog a little, I’m starting what I hope will become a semi-regular series about things which I think deserve a wider audience. “Things” is a deliberately vague term — many of my recommendations will no doubt come from the world of literature and entertainment, but there’s no telling what else might crop up here on occasion. Posts will probably err on the side of brevity, as this won’t be sustainable if it takes too much time away from my novel writing, but we’ll see how we go.

And so, without further ado, here’s the first Thing I Like: the Dialogue of Pessimism.


Image in public domain

The Dialogue of Pessimism is an ancient text from Babylon and Assyria consisting of a series of short exchanges between a master and a slave. In each exchange, the master proposes some course of action, to which the slave enthusiastically agrees; then the master changes his mind, and the slave finds reasons to agree just as enthusiastically with the new proposal.

There are so many levels on which to enjoy the Dialogue. Is it a critique of the capriciousness of those who possess power? A satire of the obsequiousness of human reason, ever ready to rationalise whatever decision one has already made? A commentary on the absurdity of life, a mere 3,000 years before the advent of Kierkegaard and existentialism? More than likely, it’s all of the above — and with the kind of references to then-contemporary culture (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh) that would make an Akkadian Joss Whedon proud.

Wikipedia’s page for the Dialogue suggests that it may have been intended for public performance as much as private reading. Performing the Dialogue would have created an opportunity to add yet more layers, contextualising it for a particular city or ruler or circumstance. It’s fascinating to think of an ancient audience taking in the Dialogue on a dusty Babylonian street corner, or to picture some cuneiform-scribe tapping out the words on clay tablets, perhaps at the request of his own master.

Sadly, some fragments of the Dialogue have been lost to time. But there’s still plenty to enjoy. Come for the satire, stay for the Mesopotamian wisdom — and don’t miss the slave’s cheeky closing remark to his master.