Spies, deception, disguise: our first review exchange. Two rec lists and two reviews.

Cat’s Interactive Fiction Rec List

Since the theme we chose to begin was “spies, deception, or disguise”. I’ve picked out several different options for Arkady, all with very distinct approaches. Here’s the list, with my accompanying short comments:

  1. SPY INTRIGUE (here: http://furkleindustries.com/fictions/twine/spyIntrigue/SPY%20INTRIGUE.html): YOU’RE OFF TO YOUR FIRST DAY OF SPY SCHOOL (YES, THE ENTIRE GAME IS WRITTEN LIKE THIS). The reason it’s on this list isn’t just because it’s a game about spies, though. The entire structure is about disguise, in that the general presentation of the game itself is deceptive. SPY INTRIGUE subverts traditional expectations of how you’re supposed to “play” a “game” and the narrative created from that is compelling, almost addicting, at times cathartic. It’s the length of a short novel (85k), but you can save your place.
  1. Solarium (here: http://ifarchive.giga.or.at/if-archive/games/competition2013/web/solarium/solarium.html): It’s the end of the world, and you had a hand in it. Nuclear apocalypse in an alternate universe, and alchemy plays heavily into both the story and mechanics. There are elements of spies and disguise in the narrative and in the relationship between the protagonist and his love interest, who he’s trying to find after the end; I don’t want to say much more because part of the game here is the reveal of what’s true. (“True”?) Of course I’m going to suggest it, though–how often do I get to recommend a game with Manichean elements?
  1. Mere Anarchy (here: http://segue.pw/if/craft/index.html): A game about magic, and choice (of a sort), and what happens when you feel you don’t have any choices left. I’d say that the main characters are spies, of a sort; radicals or revolutionaries, certainly. I’d also say it’s about disguise–of self and of others, the sort of stories we tell ourselves as comfort. It feels like magical realism to me–by the best definition, where commentary on oppression is at the forefront of the work. (Actually, I want to talk more about how the intersection of magical realism and interactive fiction might be really productive, but this is not the time.) Mere Anarchy is approximately 14k, about 9k of which you’ll see on a single playthrough.

 

What’s interesting to me about this selection is that two different platforms, and three different uses of those platforms, are represented in this list. Solarium is Twine; SPY INTRIGUE is also Twine but feels entirely different; Mere Anarchy is written in Raconteur, a shell designed to make the javascript-based Undum easier to work with. There’s not just a huge range of plots within the concept, but of how to tell the sort of story you imagine.

Arkady’s Speculative Fiction Rec List

And here’s my list for Cat. I had a surprisingly tough time finding recent short SFF fiction that was about spies (and was still readable in a short time frame — I’m going to leave a hat-tip here to The Witch Who Came In From The Cold (https://www.serialbox.com/serials/562e8c19ada6e225e83bff0b) over at SerialBox, which is amazing Cold War spy magic courtesy Max Gladstone & Lindsay Smith and an all-star writing cast, but it’s too big! Maybe we’ll do a later theme on serials and collaboration and I can come back to it.) So what I’ve put together is far more about disguise and deception. Perhaps unsurprisingly, stories about disguise and deception tend to take a while to tell. All three of the following are novelettes or novellas. They’re also somewhat … varied … in tone.

  1. “A Year and A Day In Old Theradane”, by Scott Lynch (first published in Rogues, but now available online at Uncanny, here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/a-year-and-a-day-in-old-theradane/). Lynch is, of course, the go-to for heists, deception, and schemes in high fantasy — we all know about Locke Lamora — but this story is a classic team heist with wizards, city-stealing, the emotional aftermath of having done very bad things once upon a time, friendship and teamwork, and the best kind of con artistry. Of the three options in this list, this one is the one that I’d unreservedly recommend as being joyous to read.
  1. “Morrigan in Shadow”, by Seth Dickinson (at Clarkesworld, here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/dickinson_12_15/) I can’t write too much about why this is very high on my list of disguise and deception stories without spoiling the effect. Suffice to say that when I was describing this list initially I put this one down as ‘Mindfuck Infiltration’. Part of how the deception works is about what the audience believes, reading it. It’s also a fascinating example of using structural tricks to allow for unreliable narration. Also: space opera in its most brutal form (this is Dickinson, what do you expect). Concerned, as Dickinson almost always is, with irrevocable choices and whether there are good decisions at all, and if so, whether people are capable of recognizing or making them. Probably one of my favorite stories of 2015. (Read the prequel, “Morrigan in the Sunglare”, afterward, though that one isn’t about disguise/deception at all, but instead about love and annihilation and monstrousness. There are reasons I like Dickinson’s work.)
  1. “Fabulous Beasts”, by Priya Sharma (at tor.com, here: http://www.tor.com/2015/07/27/fabulous-beasts-priya-sharma/) And here we have disguise in a more reified form. Doubled and multiple identities; physical transformation; falsehoods; poison. Horror-fantasy set in northwest England. All about snakes, in a sense. (I love snakes. I love these snakes.) Content warnings are necessary: child abuse, incest, and rape. But this is a victorious story, about disguise as a veneer for a transformative and correct monstrosity. Also on my most-favorite stories from 2015 list. This was the first thing I read from Priya Sharma and it made me want to read everything else she’s written.

All three of my picks are stories focused on women. All of them feature friendships and/or relationships between women as a central part of their emotional structure. All of them are also about multilayered identities, secrets, and desire. I’m really excited to see what Cat pulls out of them.

Cat’s review: “Fabulous Beasts”, Priya Sharma

Arkady’s list was exactly what I’d been hoping for. I’m going to read all three of these eventually; I’ve liked what I’ve read of Seth’s work, and have just started The Traitor Baru Cormorant (everyone I know has read it traveling, and I didn’t want to be the exception). But all Arkady had to say to hook me on Priya Sharma’s “Fabulous Beasts” was “snake people”, and I’m glad she did. This review will contain spoilers; please do take a moment and go read “Fabulous Beasts” (here: http://www.tor.com/2015/07/27/fabulous-beasts-priya-sharma/) before continuing.

“Fabulous Beasts” is about monstrosity, of course – about female monstrosity specifically, about what’s hidden in our skin and blood, what our legacies are and how we make and unmake them. It’s deceptively simple in its conceit, but like its subject, it sheds its layers and emerges anew when you try to fix it in place. I have the distinct impression that the story’s structure, as the narration slips from present to past is coiled, like a snake.

The main character, Lola, is a monster. As we find out, so is her lover, is her cousin, is her sister. That relationship, which defies boundaries and usual constructions, is not part of their monstrosity – in fact, the recognition they find with each other is, to me, the kindest, most triumphant part of the story. Here are two women who know each other as completely as anyone can, who know what it is to be looked at and seen, and yet seen incorrectly. (Perhaps that is to say, here are two women.)

Much is made of Lola’s monstrousness: by her self, by her mother, by Kenny. And certainly, her acceptance of herself, her legacy, and her own poison is the story’s central throughline. But every single character we meet in “Fabulous Beasts” is a monster. The men are obviously so — Peter’s “a predator”, Kenny’s behavior violates every aspect of personhood of the women around him. But most significant, most fascinating to me is the strain of female monstrosity that runs throughout the work. Lola, of course, is a product of incest and has the ability to turn into a snake; and there’s Kathy, who lashes out physically at her daughter when fear overtakes her. But Talullah too is a creature like them. As a child, she lashes out at her sister’s tormentor. Later, she is Lola’s savior and her accomplice in murder. Venomous.

Then there’s Ami’s unswerving allegiance to her brother, her goading of Kathy; there’s the mocking from Jade, the schoolyard bully. No woman in this story emerges without moments of ugliness, of monstrosity. In fact, it’s often women’s relationships with other women that trigger those moments of aggression, violence, and pain. I would argue, though, that these acts don’t invalidate the very real affection and protection these women feel for each other, but rather embrace the complexity of identity, of mother-daughter relationships, of family and love and belonging.

And I love this.

Priya Sharma tells a story where women are allowed to lash out, to be ugly, to frighten and be frightened, and to be real. These characters are specific; their choices are inextricable from their histories and the violence done on their bodies. Kathy says she wishes she’d been able to leave; but she couldn’t, because trauma gets into the blood like venom, dulls the nerves. There’s no judgment here, from the author, from this reviewer. These women are monsters. Their history, their lives make them so. And that’s okay.

It’s more than okay. For Lola and Tallulah, monstrousness is actually at the heart of their unique, profound connection. They have an instant bond from the moment when Lola first sees Tallulah, and they grow up together – but Tallulah also is the witness to Lola’s first transformation. She’s the instigating factor in why Lola lashes out; when she pushes Jade for hurting her kin, she sets in motion that change.

(Not just, we learn later, Lola’s physical change, but the change of circumstances that triggers the eventual climax of the story. Ami reports the incident to Kenny, which triggers his realization of Lola’s identity. Every word, every concept in this story does double symbolic duty.)

And at the end, Tallulah’s own transformation is the only factor that triggers Lola’s, the shedding that allows them to take their revenge and free themselves from their history, remake their own legacy. It’s love, and loyalty, between the two women that allows them to present themselves exactly as they’d like to be. (As a side note, it’s gratifying to me that Eliza is not read as attractive even after they take control of their narrative, that there are many ways to be commanding, to be glorious, to be powerful and dangerous in one’s own skin while not being “beautiful”. I know we have a lot more of this in fiction than we used to. But I still like seeing it.)

I love these women. I love them for their ugliness, their violence, their aggression towards the world and to their loved ones; these are not uncomplicated women, they do not always do the “right” thing. Or, perhaps better: their world is not a world where “rightness” is applicable.

I got a visceral thrill from “Fabulous Beasts”. These women are monsters, and I love them for it, and I want them to win. Monstrosity in fiction is often written as a contrast, especially female monstrosity. Here is the witch; and here is the girl who seeks her in the depths of the wood. Here is Medusa, destroyed by a mirror. In “Fabulous Beasts”, every woman strikes, spits, lashes out, tries to defend herself. Every single one is monstrous in her own personal fashion. It feels luxurious, exultant – the taxonomy of serpents Eliza spends her time with is mirrored in the taxonomy of dangerous women. Even Tallulah’s delicate beauty only masks violence; she is striking as a snake and as a woman and as capable in either skin. This is a world where mice only exist in the vision of the men looking at the women around them, and seeing incorrectly.

“Unidentifiable”, Eliza says of herself and Tallulah; another word would be “unique”. That’s the same of all the women here, the violence they inflict always a response to a particular. And yet I do see myself and women I have loved reflected in these two women, who so clearly are not universal, who are entrenched in the landscape of industrial Northern England and its post-Thatcher legacy of poverty, who bear patterns which have no equivalent in nature. It’s true of all of us. “Fabulous beasts,” indeed.

 

Arkady’s Review: “Solarium”,  by Alan DeNiro

Like I wouldn’t pick the game about Manicheanism, alchemical transformation, and nuclear apocalypse.

Like Cat, I plan to investigate all three recommendations – I’m especially excited about SPY INTRIGUE – but “Solarium” is the one that grabbed me first and hardest just from Cat’s description, and thus I must preface this review by saying that a) I love all of what this game is about; b) I have some academic experience with gnostic theology; c) I have a slightly unhealthy interest in the nuclear history of the United States.

Playing “Solarium” was always going to be a good time. Spoilers follow.

The mechanic of the game is quite straightforward. It’s built in Twine, which as far as I can tell is a branching text engine, with essentially two functional options for interactive text: either clicking on a phrase gives you more information or recontextualized information, via revealing previously hidden text within the same narrative moment – or, clicking on a phrase offers you a choice which moves the narrative forward. Some of these choices are irreversible and alter the playable options of the game; some of them are instead iterative.

Solarium is essentially divided into three parts: a staging introduction, an information-gathering phase, and a climactic choice. You – the protagonist – travel through a post-nuclear-apocalypse Yukon landscape to a hidden laboratory, where you proceed to lie down inside a machine and allow it to extract your blood to make various substances which are of use in alchemical experiments. Then, in the information-gathering phase (which makes substantial use of Twine’s iterative functionality), your self-sacrifice and pain allow you to obtain more and more rarified alchemical ingredients, which unlock new routes through your memory and the history of the world in which this apocalypse has taken place.

It is an alternate United States, in the depths of the Cold War. A secret advisory committee has been formed to study whether an archaeologist who seems to be possessed by a speaking demon – an archon – within an amulet can actually keep men and women safe from nuclear bombs. You are one of the members of this committee. You are also something else entirely. Along with you are Annalise, an alchemist-professor; a war-hungry, bomb-hungry State Department analyst; and the former director of MKULTRA, the CIA’s mind-control experimental program. All of you must decide whether or not it is safe to trust the archon to keep the people of America from nuclear holocaust, if you recommend bombing the shit out of the Commies.

Spoiler: you bomb the shit out of the Commies. They bomb you back. The archon avails you not at all. There is a moment late in the game where a list of dead cities appears: New York. Detroit. Seattle. Los Angeles. Not everywhere, but enough.

This is not something you get to choose, in this game; this is something you slowly begin to understand, via the process of mortificatio. The mortification of the flesh: the translation of your blood into alchemical ingredients, via pain; the translation of the flesh into memory.

Your blood, it turns out, is a prime material. You are not you, at all; you are a possessing creature, like the archon is, slipping from body to body over thousands of years. This is one of the more interesting elements of disguise in this game; you have been many people, and one of the choices you must make repeatedly is whether you will reveal your true nature to Annalise, with whom you have fallen in some kind of love.

I found the experience of playing through the information-gathering stage of “Solarium” to be quite rewarding – all of the irrevocable choices I was asked to make were of compelling interest. I decided quite early on – right after I’d figured out that I/protagonist was also an angel or archon of some kind, a divine creature separate from an unknowable God – that I was going to make choices which were all about loving the fallen world. In essence, faced with a nuclear apocalypse and a machine designed to turn pain into memory, I decided that I wanted the I/protagonist to be a Sethian gnostic: while we are here, enjoy it; there are beautiful things worth preserving. (I think one could play an equally valid completely opposite option: the Valentinian gnostic, who looks at the fallen world – which you are responsible for! – and says I abstain entirely.) But I chose, over and over again, to say yes: yes to love, yes to pain, yes to acknowledging my own insufficiency in saving the world, yes to revealing my true nature.

I am still new to interactive fiction, so what I am particularly struck by in both playing this game and writing this review is how the format of “Solarium” collapsed distance between the ‘I/protagonist’ and my own self. I recall making one specific decision about how I wanted to play – a choice which, I’ll admit, comes out of my own sensibilities and current mental state (I like saying yes; I too love this fallen world) – and then I very rapidly lost track of the distance between ‘me’ and the protagonist, despite the protagonist being (in approximate order of relevance) nominally male; in the process of being exsanguinated; a millennia-old divine creature; fictional.

This made the end of the game, the climactic choice, where the protagonist is asked whether or not he will join his lover in a kind of death: love-in-death, but not love-in-the-world – a very powerful moment for me. I stared at my options for a very long time. I ultimately chose the world, over either love in death or death but not for love, and was – quite satisfied with the results of this choice. The final scenes of the game, at least along this path, suggest the possibility of rapprochement and an end to loneliness; they affirm that beautiful things may in fact survive.

So ultimately I found “Solarium” very satisfying on the level of exploring the choice of self-revelation and commitment, and I found its use of alchemy and gnostic theology extremely effective.

Where I think the game could have pushed farther is on its third axis: nuclear holocaust and the seductive horror of the Cold War. I was disappointed in the facile and somewhat surface-y characterization of the MKULTRA director and the State Department analyst, not to mention the President of the United States. DeNiro clearly is compelled by the symbolic valence of the White House as a counterpart to both the nuclear test site and the destroyed wilderness of the Yukon, but this valence is given short shrift as compared to the alchemy which drives both the mechanic of the game and its primary ethical-moral decision. There is a compelling link between alchemy – a science which was, originally, about creating eternal life – and nuclear warfare, the science of which compelled Oppenheimer to say I am become death – but this link is not causal or enshrined in the functional language of “Solarium”. Essentially, while alchemy drives this game, nuclear apocalypse is only its setting – and I think there is a missed opportunity here.

But that missed opportunity tells me something significant about how interactive fiction works on a thematic level: because these stories are told via a choice-making medium, removing a thematic strand from the available choices (remember: the nuclear holocaust happens no matter WHAT you do, in “Solarium”) reduces the effective power of that strand.

Despite this, I highly recommend this game. I will be replaying it to look at other routes.

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