Well, it's been only a little over a month since New World was released, and the bloom is already off the rose.
A combination of crazy bugs and a rapidly-dropping player base (going from nearly 1 million concurrent players shortly after launch to under 250,000 today) has the future of the game already in question.
Seems like the post-mortem might come sooner than I thought!
New World is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for the PC, made by Amazon Studios. It was released on September 28th 2021, and the big story surrounding its launch was the fact that the game servers were so overwhelmed that people had to spend hours and even sometimes half a day sitting in a login queue.
Scaling issues with game servers on launch day are common, and harder to solve than most people imagine. Full disclaimer: I work for a division of Activision Blizzard that handles online play, but my opinions in this article don’t represent that company at all. In any case, the server issues are mostly gone now, and they aren’t what I want to talk about anyway.
Jeff Bezos gave Amazon Studios a mandate to “dominate gaming”. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, they had done the exact opposite of that. Their first title, Breakaway, was an online game where two teams tried to put a ball in their opponents’ goal while physically fighting them off. It was announced in 2016 but cancelled in 2018. The studio’s second title, Crucible, was a hero-based team shooter in the vein of Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. It was actually released in 2020 but then un-released a few months later due to low player count.
So the third game, New World, had a lot of pressure on it to succeed. One or two failures can be written off as learning experiences, but three failures become a pattern. Amazon was determined not to let this happen. Because the company owns Twitch, the dominant game streaming platform, they could easily incentivize Twitch streamers to play New World, and even more easily promote these streams to the entire Twitch audience. Watching entertaining people having fun playing games with their friends is a huge motivator to buy a game.
And it worked! So many people bought the game that the servers buckled on launch day. Even now, a month later, there are still tons of people playing the game. You can log into any server and see a lively world populated by thousands of players.
So Amazon must be breathing a sigh of relief. They finally shipped a massive hit, and can continue on with their mission to dominate the gaming landscape. Right?
New World is certainly a hit, for now. But the game is unlikely to find long-term success. More importantly, I don’t think Amazon Studios has learned what it takes to make hit games, because New World succeeded for the wrong reasons.
Let’s look at the game itself to figure out this contradiction. Firstly, the positives: the game looks gorgeous, it has a large and lush world for players to explore, the combat has the potential to be interesting, there are lots of other people playing it, it has a complex and potentially interesting crafting system, and there are many opportunities for both player-versus-environment (PVE) and player-versus-player (PVP) conflicts.
That’s the good stuff. Now for the not-so-good stuff. New World doesn’t really have an underlying story. This isn’t a small thing, and it can't be patched in later.
The game starts off with a cinematic of a silver-masked man getting a mysterious item from a hooded stranger on board a sailing ship. You, the player character, are also on this ship. The ship crashes on the shore of an unknown magical island and most of the crew are killed. You, the player, must fight evil corrupted zombie crew-mates and make your way to civilization, where friendly townspeople will give you tasks to go kill wildlife, chop down trees and hit rocks, and join one of three indistinguishable factions.
And that’s basically it.
It’s not clear what anyone’s ultimate objective is on this magical island, where some people (the players) can never be killed and others turn into generic zombies. Leveling up and looting treasure, sure, that’s a given. But to what end? Perhaps there’s some Big Bad Boss lurking out there that you’ll eventually have to team up to defeat, but there’s no evidence of this in the first twenty hours of play. And the factions that you join don’t seem to matter at all. Join one, and you’ll get a yellow, green, or purple icon above your head, and can participate in massive battles (that don’t happen in the main world) that can maybe swing the affiliation of a sector of land towards or away from your faction. But since anyone can walk into any town that has any color of banners flying from the rafters, why should the player care? My starting town switched factions twice since I began playing, and it didn’t seem to affect any of the non-player characters (NPCs) or the quests they gave me. It doesn’t help that every city has an identical layout, either.
Beyond this massive oversight, the game itself has tons of different systems, and most of them work fine, but none of them are outstanding. There’s nothing that stands out about the combat, which has a block, dodge, and three special moves for each type of weapon. It feels like it could be more interesting than it ends up being in practice, because when enemies start to attack you and you’ve already started your own attack animation, you can’t stop to dodge or parry. So it ends up being mostly about skill levels and numbers. It’s like a MMORPG wanted to be Dark Souls and then realized that it had to be an MMORPG, so it landed in a solidly bland middle.
Speaking of levels, everything has a level. Every weapon skill can be leveled up by using them. Hitting rocks has a level. Chopping trees has a level. Sewing thread has a level. And the one thing in common with all these levels is that they start out advancing fast but then settle down into a slower and slower grind. How many more hundred levels do I need in chopping to cut down this harder tree? I don’t know. I may never get there before boredom sets in.
At the end of the day, New World is a very pretty MMORPG that doesn’t do anything in particular better than any other game. There are MMORPGs with better crafting. There are some with better combat. Some have more interesting PVP. Almost all of them have a better story.
New World hit the market at a very unique time: the exact point that a lot of people were tired of playing World of Warcraft and wanted something that was similar but looked better. New World was exactly that game at exactly the right time. Combined with Amazon’s built-in Twitch advertising advantage, it was poised for success. And it’s not a bad game by any means. It’s satisfying to level up a character and grind through a beautiful, lush world.
But in the long term, the missing story and lack of meaningful end-game content will cause players to drift off. There’s no monthly subscription fee, just a one-time purchase, so there’s no reason not to quit when it gets boring. If you enjoy playing with your friends, you’ll stop when they stop. The Twitch streamers will move on to the next great gaming craze. Eventually, the game will become a wasteland, and there is nothing sadder than an MMORPG with nobody in it.
Why didn’t Amazon Studios do a better job with New World? They had near-infinite amounts of money to spend. They had skilled talent that Amazon lured from other game studios. What they didn’t have was a mandate from the top that was anything more than “go dominate”. What do you do when given such marching orders? You spend money and you hire talent. But to what end? Since it’s not clear, you look at games that “dominate” now and try and make games that have the same systems, but “better”. But what does “better” mean, exactly? New World has great graphics, lots of combat and crafting systems, and PVE and PVP content. But it’s missing that spark, that understanding, that sense of what good games can be when backed by leadership who live and breathe them.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t understand games, so he can’t give Amazon Studios the inspiration that it needs. Since the only thing he wants is numbers, Amazon Studios will find a way to deliver those numbers. At least for a while.
Eagle-eyed viewers of this blog have already noticed the shiny new banner up top, along with a nice new headshot of yours truly. That photo is courtesy of a good friend of mine, expert photographer Stephen Mirowski.
I've been neglecting my blog while I concentrated on my newsletter, Arcade Dreams, and other personal projects. I think it's time I changed that. Blog writing isn't a quick path to success (and one could argue that it never was), but it's still fun, and it's a great way to keep in touch with your audience.
And I still have some things I want to say, about video games, about science fiction, and about life in general.
So stay tuned!
Titan is one of the most interesting places in the solar system. It’s the largest moon of Saturn, and its cloud-covered atmosphere is nearly as dense as Earth’s. If you landed on Titan with nothing more than a (very) warm coat and an oxygen mask, you could walk around the orange-colored landscape.
In No Time on Titan, a short story set in the same universe as my Silicon Minds series, biologist-turned-astronaut Lyesha Brown gets to do just that. But this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is marred by corporate skullduggery and a mysterious death. Lyesha must sail the dark liquid methane seas and uncover the mystery of Saturn’s largest moon, before it’s too late.
It’s fast-paced and fun. Please check it out at one of your favorite retailers:
Barnes and Noble
I'd like to tell you a story about the most obscure video game ever made. Only one person in the world has ever played it, and until now, only one person in the world has ever even seen it or heard about it. It's a game called Balablox, from 1987, and it ran on one of the most obscure computers ever, the Heathkit H-89. This one, in fact:
I got this computer in 1979, when I was 7, and started making games in Microsoft BASIC. By 1987 I was 15, and eagerly awaiting my new Packard Bell PC/XT clone. But before I entered the PC age, I finished one final game on the Heathkit. It was loosely based on the short film "Balablok", from the Canadian National Film Board or NFB. Here's the loading screen:
You play a small square creature, running and jumping to get the key and escape each level, while being assaulted by monsters. It's a bit like Lode Runner, but the monsters have special attacks. Here's the first level:
The game is slow (interpreted BASIC on a 2MHz Z80!) and hard, but you can beat all 15 levels. The H-89 buffers keystrokes, so you can hit left while falling from a jump and then hit space bar, and you will jump to the left once you hit the ground. Here, you're crossing a zipline.
The game has a level editor, so anyone can make new levels. Of course, being 15, I had to include the Starship Enterprise. This is level 7. The key is on the front deflector dish. The diamond gives you the power to shoot up, destructively.
Here, in level 8, a spider guards the entrance to the bottom lair. The spider web will stop your movement for a time, and other creatures might eat you. There are eight "invaders" in the middle, but only one will move. If you touch any of them, you die.
Level 9 is the first really difficult "gating" level. You can't get to the key right away. You have to hope that the nastie shoots a fireball, clearing other level blocks and (temporarily) enemies so you can run to the right and jump up. But the blocker might block your path.
I couldn't get past this level in 2021, but at least I got a high score. Note the hilarious high score entries from 1987.
Let's look at the source code. DEFINT A-Z makes all variables integers, vital to get enough speed when running in interpreted BASIC. The command RANDOMIZE(PEEK(11)) seeds the randomizer with a bit from the system clock. All graphics are character graphics, since that's all the Heathkit supports. They are stored as strings. The map is a 20x12 grid (the screen is 80x24, and each block is 4x2). X$=INKEY$ reads the keyboard.
The main game loop reads the keyboard and sets walking directions, updates enemies, webs, fireballs, plays a bell (CHR$(7)) when you hit a coin, and checks if you have finished the level. My uncle taught me about main game loops. They still exist today!
Here I'm assigning all the graphic elements. The H-89's character graphics required entering a special mode using an escape sequence, which changed all the lowercase letters into symbols. DL$ is a string for down 1 and left 4 chars. Updating the screen is just a matter of printing strings, which makes it fast enough (barely) to have an action game using interpreted BASIC.
Here I'm checking if the character is able to move in a given direction, or jump.
Line 5000 updates the status screen on the 25th line. The emulator has a bug that scrolls the screen when you print anything on this line, but I patched the game (34 years later!) to work around it by adding a ; to the end of line 5020.
Monsters have a 50% chance to do their special move and a 50% chance to move towards the player instead of randomly. I did zero tweaking for this. It just seemed to work.
The game came with a level editor, which is happening at line 8000. Cheeky 15 year-old agnostic me is having fun with the comments.
Line 9000 and on is computer-generated code, from a program called SKETCH that let you make a screen out of character graphics and save it as BASIC source code. I used it here to make the loading screen. Another command imported it into my code. I miss SKETCH. It was awesome.
This code saves and loads level files and prints the main game menu, letting the player access the level editor or play any level directly.
The hall of fame or high score screen. ON ERROR GOTO will make a new high score table with two entries called "NAMELESS, JR" if one doesn't exist.
There's a simple nested loop sort routine to order the high score table. Not very efficient, but it gets the job done. And that's the end of the code!
Apparently I started on a sequel, SUPER BALABLOX...
It starts off with you falling in a deep pit, with all your old enemies dead and buried!
And you end up facing an incredibly powerful dragon! And then the game just... ends. I never got any further. Never did beat that dragon. I started a couple of games on my new Packard Bell PC XT and the skeleton of one on my 386 (it had VGA!) but I never finished another game.
Life happened, things got busy, technology got more complicated. I was no longer between the ages of 7 and 15. Never would be again.
But you know what? Maybe I'll see if I can make a really simple fun game. Let's see what happens.
Note: huge thanks go out to Mark Garlanger for his Heathkit H-89 emulator, which you can find at https://heathkit.garlanger.com/emulator/ Without this emulator, I could never have revisited my childhood. I still have my original H-89, but it died in 1990 and the company died as well. Mark recovered 95% of my old floppies!
I've got an exciting announcement!
My friend Zach Weddington, who did the documentary Viva Amiga that I reviewed for Ars, just launched a Kickstarter for his next project. And I'm on the team! I've been hired as a writer for the project.
It's called Arcade Dreams, and it's a documentary series covering the history of arcade games, from the penny arcades of the 20s to the heydays of the 80s and 90s, right to the virtual reality rooms of today.
I'm really excited about this project, so please check out the link below. And if you Want to Know More(tm), read on...
I remember the first time I walked into an arcade. It was like entering a dark cavern full of flickering neon lights and electronic sounds. It was intoxicating. The games drew me in, with their promise of an escape from a humdrum small town life into a universe full of possibilities. For a few, fleeting moments, and for just twenty-five cents, you could be anything.
Like me, director Zach Weddington had fond memories of arcades from his childhood. He went digging to find out more about their stories, and fell into a rabbit hole. It turned out that arcades were more than just a fad that came and went in the 1980s. They had actually been around for more than a century. Weddington, who was coming off the success of the documentary Viva Amiga, realized that if he wanted to see a comprehensive history of arcades, he would have to make it himself. “Growing up in the ’80s, like so many other kids, I was obsessed with arcades,” he said. “Now I get to turn this lifelong passion into my dream documentary series.”
Months later, after hundreds of hours of work, and assembling a team of industry heavyweights to help him, Weddington was finally ready to share his dream with the world. The Kickstarter for Arcade Dreams is now live, and it looks fantastic.
Arcade Dreams is a multi-part documentary about the 100-year history of arcades through the eyes of the game designers, the players, and the games themselves. Starting with the “penny arcade” mechanical amusements in the early 20th century, these games slowly gained in sophistication. Electrical augmentations added sounds, skill challenges, and scoring. Then, in the 1970s, a new invention called the microprocessor revolutionized the industry. Arcade games became video games, but many of the early titles were an evolution from their electro-mechanical ancestors. One example:Sega’s Gun Fight, a confrontation between two small cowboy figurines in a Wild West diorama, inspired Taito’s Gun Fight, an early video game.
Arcades peaked in popularity in the 1980s, then started to decline. In the 1990s, as home gaming consoles started to replace arcades in children’s imaginations, arcades evolved again, providing new experiences like Dance Dance Revolution that you couldn’t get at home.
And even after pundits pronounced arcades dead, they carried on in places like Japan, just as popular as they had always been. In the 21st century, new amusement centers around the world experimented with the arcade formula. At the same time, retro arcades with 80s and 90s titles started to cash in on nostalgia, like the Guinness record-holding Galloping Ghost, which boasts more than 300 games. Collectors and fans bought and restored cabinets and created their own arcades in their garages and basements. People yearned for the social and community aspect of playing games in the same physical space. Even in 2020, with the pandemic keeping many of us at home, arcade owners are hanging on and planning for the future. Their stories, and others, are all part of Arcade Dreams.
Weddington has assembled some incredible talent to help him bring his vision to life. He joined up with Bill Winters, an Emmy award-winning Director of Photography (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), and legendary producer John Fahy, who has worked with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Peter Jackson. Executive producer Berge Garabedian, who runs the popular movie review website JoBlo.com, came on board after a chance encounter in an online pinball forum. “What drew me in was the film’s teaser trailer, I was like ‘Oh…my…God! This is my life!’ and I immediately wanted to be a part of the production team. It also feels like now is the perfect time for this project, as retro gaming and nostalgia from the 80s are uber-hot,” said Garabedian.
And Weddington also asked a certain long-time Ars Technica scribe to join the Arcade Dreams team as a writer. Yes, I’m proud to say that I’m part of this project, and I’m both honored and humbled to be in such distinguished company. The footage that I’ve already viewed is incredible, and I can’t wait to see it all come together.
What really makes this series stand out is not just the fancy 3D rendered titles, or even the gorgeous shots of the video games and pinball tables. It’s the people that Weddington found to tell their stories. I’ve been going through some of the interviewees and writing up their biographies, and there are some amazing characters. For example, Eugene Jarvis, who designed arcade classics such as Defender, Robotron: 2084, Cruis’n USA, Pinbot, NARC, and Smash TV. There’s George McAuliffe, who was a sales manager for Time-Out Amusement Centers right when the arcades started to collapse, and worked with Dave Corriveau to help found Dave & Buster’s. And Roger Sharpe, who literally saved pinball in the 1970s, playing for the game’s life in a dramatic courtroom battle to prove that winning was due to skill, not chance.
Joining these industry legends are a host of designers, fans, collectors, restorers, and arcade operators, too many to list here. Together, they combine to tell a story that is more than just about games. It’s about art, technology, and passion all combining to create windows into other worlds, and to bring imagination and fun to life. It’s about bringing people together to test their mettle against the machines and against each other. Ultimately, it’s about us, and how our dreams became reflected against the plexiglass in a darkened room.
The Arcade Dreams Kickstarter is now live. It will run out of quarters in 45 days, so don’t forget to insert your coin.
I remember my mother cutting out the snippet in TV guide and showing it to me excitedly. “I think this show is right up your alley!” She was absolutely right.
It was the summer of 1988. I had come home to the small town of Gibsons, BC after graduating from high school. I was working at the public library to pay for university, but I got off work just in time to watch this crazy new British sitcom. It was about the last man alive, stranded three million years in the future on a giant mining ship with a hologram of his dead bunkmate and a creature who evolved from his pet cat.
It was Red Dwarf, and it was as brilliant then as it is today.
I still remember the excitement I felt each week as I rushed home, and the joy I experienced when I heard the theme song. Particularly, I remember a kind of whooshing feeling, a unique form of euphoria I’ve never had before or since, when Episode Six began instead with the song “Tongue Tied”:
I tried to say "I love you" (love you)
But it came out kind of wrong, girl (wrong girl)
It sounded like "Nunubididoo" (tongue tied)
That's 'cause you make me tongue tied (tongue tied)
Whenever you are near me (near me)
Right from the get-go, something about this show just clicked with me. It took all the tropes of the science fiction I loved and played with them, paying homage to them in a loving yet utterly irreverent manner. And despite all the crazy genetically-engineered monsters of the week, it was ultimately about one human, Dave Lister, and his relationship with another person who was simultaneously alive and dead. Arnold Rimmer was annoying, hilarious, and yet relatable. He was Lister’s greatest nemesis and his best friend. He was a joke and yet he was all of us.
When Rimmer tried to copy all his notes for his astro-engineering exam on his arm, then looked aghast as nervous sweat turned it all into a black blob, I could feel his anxiety and pain. Exams made me feel the same way: even though in Physics classes we were allowed to bring a one-page “cheat-sheet” filled with anything we wanted, when it came time to sit for the test all those symbols and equations seemed to blur together like they did on Arnold’s arm. When he slapped down a black, inky handprint on the exam paper and signed it, my laughter was cathartic. I’d been there.
Dave Lister was all of us, too. Kind-hearted yet sloppy. Smart but lazy. Forever blessed and cursed by his own potential. And haven’t we all felt like the last human being alive sometimes?
The show went on for many years, growing in budget and special effects, and—for a while, at least—never losing the magic that made it special. Some of the best episodes came from the sixth season. Still, inevitably it sagged a bit from having to live up to its own success. Season 7, where Dave meets a parallel-universe version of his dream woman, Kristine Kochanski, felt a bit off. They had replaced the incredibly cute Claire Grogan with a the younger and “sexier” Chloe Annett, and the relationship never felt right again. Season Eight found the crew reunited with the old Red Dwarf crew (resurrected by nanobots) and then promptly thrown in prison. It was a bold move to keep the series fresh, but mostly it felt weird and uncomfortable.
And then the show went away. By this time it was the end of the 90s, and it felt like maybe Red Dwarf’s time had passed. The actors went on to do other things. It was seemingly a pleasant memory, a reminder of happier and simpler days.
But then something happened. Something wonderful.
In 2009 a new, all-digital channel in the UK called “Dave” commissioned a three-part episode of Red Dwarf called “Back to Earth”. Going completely metaphysical, the show imagined the characters warping to a different reality—our-reality—in the present day, and coming to grips with the idea that they were only characters on a TV show. Fortunately, it all turned out to be just a ruse concocted by another Despair Squid, and they returned to their “real” reality once again.
I thought the story had ended there. But just recently I discovered that there were three more six-episode seasons: Season 10 from 2012, Season 11 from 2016, and Season 12 from 2017, all made again for the Dave network. I found them on the “Britbox” channel that you can get as an add-on to Amazon Prime Video.
It was an amazing feeling, sitting down and watching these characters that I had loved thirty years ago, slip effortlessly into their old roles. Out of character, the actors are visibly older. But through the magic of makeup and the power of imagination, once they are in costume they seem to have aged barely at all. It’s like seeing old friends that you knew from elementary school and laughing with them at hilarious jokes that you both remember.
To cap it off, the team made a full-length movie that was released in 2020—I was able to purchase it on iTunes. Red Dwarf: The Promised Land finally reunites the Cat with his long-lost brothers and sisters who have been wandering through space for thirty years in a fleet of ships arranged like a cat face. The cat folk are oppressed by a tyrannical leader, and the Red Dwarf crew must do their best to set things straight. It’s a marvelous coda to the Red Dwarf story, and yet it still leaves room for more adventures.
To which I say, yes please. Smoke me a kipper, skipper. I’ll be back for breakfast.
My top ten episodes of Red Dwarf:
10: “Skipper”: S12E06: Rimmer obtains a Quantum Skipper and goes hopping about the multi-verse to find a dimension where he isn’t such a giant loser. We see Captain Hollister again, among other old friends.
9: “Camille”: S04E01: Kryten rescues a mechanoid from a crashed spaceship and falls in love, but she turns out to be a genetically-engineered polymorphic creature.
8: “Out of Time”: S06E06: The crew pick up a time-travel device, but then have to fight off their future selves who have turned into corrupt and immoral hedonists.
7: “Stoke me a Clipper”: S07E02: “Ace” Rimmer (see below) returns to try and accomplish an impossible task: to recruit Arnold Rimmer to become the next Ace.
6: “Dimension Jump”: S04E05: The crew meet “Ace” Rimmer, a counterpart from another dimension who is impossibly more charming and successful than Arnold, and it drives Arnold nuts. A classic.
5: “Marooned”: S03E02: A “bottle” episode where Rimmer and Lister are trapped on a snow-covered planet. Great dialogue and character moments.
4: “Parallel Universe”: S02E06: Holly transports Red Dwarf to a parallel universe where women are the dominant gender, and Lister and Rimmer meet their female counterparts.
3: “Stasis Leak”: S02E04: The crew finds a time portal connecting to a point three weeks before the crew are wiped out. They can’t save anyone, but Lister finds that an older version of himself has married Kochanski.
2: “Holoship”: S05E01 Rimmer finds a hologrammatic space ship and gets everything he ever dreamed of, yet the price he has to pay is too high. Sweet and poignant.
1: “The End”. S01E01. The first episode of the series. Set up the premise and sends Lister, Rimmer, and Cat on their way to adventure.
For most of my life, I’ve tried in vain to explain why I love cities. Despite numerous and obvious downsides—the noise, cost of living, the pollution, the unending crowds—I’ve never wanted to leave the city I was born in: Vancouver, BC. Many New Yorkers have an even stronger version of this sentiment. But it took author N.K. Jemisin to express the feeling I never could properly quantify. Her latest novel, The City We Became, is a triumphant love letter to New York, while simultaneously being a rollicking good sci-fi action story.
In The City We Became, the New York of present day is under attack by inter-dimensional beings of great power and terrifying sensibilities. In response, the combined psychic energy of the city itself has manifested into six people: avatars of the five boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, as well as one person who is the city as a whole. These six New Yorkers, each from diverse backgrounds and with normal individual lives, find themselves turned into beings of great power. They must race against time to find each other in order to defeat the enemy, who wants to destroy both them and the city they call home.
In the novel, New York is a young city still in the process of “being born”. Other cities around the world have suffered similar attacks throughout history, and either survived intact or been partially or completely destroyed (New Orleans getting hit by Hurricane Katrina is given as an example of the latter). Each city manifested its own avatar, but New York was the first to produce more than one. And they’ll need them all, because the enemy is particularly mad this time and the consequences might be even more dire for the human race.
The attackers, led by the manifestation of the sickly-sweet Woman In White, bear more than a little resemblance to the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. This is a deliberate choice. In this world, all great fictional enemies (and all myths and legends, such as Atlantis) exist in other parallel universes and dimensions. This adds to the familiarity of the struggle, even as the implementation of the attack by the Woman In White is unique. The real brilliance of the novel, however, comes in the rationale the enemy gives for her attacks. I won’t spoil it here, but it puts the conflict in a different light and adds more layers to the “good versus evil” narrative.
The Woman In White is not above using the systemic racial inequalities present in modern-day society in order to further her own ends. This adds another level of depth to the story, as the enemy allies herself with people who are already leaning towards the wrong side of the fight for equal rights and equal justice. It brings our current problems into sharp relief. When the Woman In White tries to sway the avatar of Staten Island—the only white avatar of the group—over to her side, we can see how inequality hurts all of us, even those of us born into privilege. Staten Island’s avatar lives a safe and cushy life, but she’s also held back by her domineering father and passive mother. The reader ends up rooting for her to do the right thing, but is anxious that she won’t.
Coming out during the COVID-19 pandemic and followed by the Black Lives Matter protests, this book has ended up being perfectly timed in its release. It’s a celebration of both cities, which are currently under attack by invisible deadly enemies, and black voices, who struggle to be heard. It’s powerful social commentary, but it’s also a fun action adventure, like Black Panther crossed with War of the Worlds.
Cities represent both the best and worst of us. The energy of millions of people coming together to live and work in the same space has been the driver of human civilization for millennia. But cities are vulnerable, and always have been. The City We Became is a powerful defense of cities, both literally and metaphorically. I love my city, as clearly N.K. Jemisin loves hers. Her novel is the first of a trilogy, which is exciting—I’ll definitely be buying the next two installments.
The really cool folks at The Imaginaries Podcast interviewed me about my latest novel, and we had an amazing conversation about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. The hosts, Kend and Tony, are super fun and smart people, and we had a great conversation together. They really know their science fiction, and they've had some incredible guests over the years, so I'm really honored to be on their show!
You can find the episode on:
I hope you'll have a listen!
I just finished reading Agency, and my head is still spinning. That’s a good thing.
Agency is the latest book by author William Gibson, released on January 21, 2020. It’s a science fiction novel set in multiple time periods that are in communication with each other, and features two main protagonists: one human and one artificial intelligence.
The book follows up the events of Gibson’s last novel, The Peripheral, a groundbreaking work that established both inter-time communication technology and the concept of “stubs”. Stubs are parallel universes that branch off at the exact moment that communication with the future begins: they start to diverge from our own at that moment, and begin their own alternate history. The “giant stub” that sets off all these branches is the one that discovered the time-communication process. It exists a few centuries from now in a high-tech but dismal world where a series of events called the “Jackpot” ended up killing off most of the human population. No direct travel between stubs is possible, but thanks to digital technology and near-zero latency, people can enjoy virtual visits across time.
You don’t need to have read The Peripheral to understand Agency, although readers who did will be rewarded by the return of “giant stub” characters such as Lowbeer, Ash, and Wilf Netherton. They’re all inhabitants of a far-future London run by “the klept”, a corrupt hereditary government of oligarchs eerily similar to present-day Russia.
A new stub has branched off from our own in 2015, and because of this communication, both Brexit and the election of Trump failed to happen. This didn’t fix the world as much as one might have hoped: the “present-day” stub in 2017 now faces an international crisis in Turkey that could potentially result in nuclear war with Russia. The few remaining good guys in the “giant stub” don’t want that to happen, so they resolve to use their powers to help prevent armageddon in this parallel universe.
And that’s not even the main plot. The other big difference in alternate 2017 is the existence of Eunice, an artificial intelligence developed by the military and stolen by aspiring businessmen. As the novel begins, these businessmen hire “app whisperer” Verity Jane to run a beta test on the Eunice software, keeping close tabs on her during the process. Eunice, however, has other ideas. She immediately befriends her whisperer and makes plans to free herself and keep Verity safe. This involves setting in motion a whole cast of characters, including the ever-watchful group from the giant stub. However, mastermind Lowbeer has problems of her own. The klept has decided that her efforts to help out other stubs might erase the possibility of parallel versions of the klept from ever arising in these stubs, and they don’t like that at all.
Agency, much like The Peripheral, propels itself forward in a whirlwind of awesome confusion. Characters are whisked around from place to place, come into contact with people from parallel universes, and take virtual visits to other stubs. The word “Agency” in the title doesn’t refer to some shadowy organization, but the ability of characters to take actions that will change the fate of multiple worlds. At the beginning, it seems like Eunice is the only one with real agency, as she moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. But when she disappears midway through the novel, everyone else’s decisions start to matter.
William Gibson rose to fame with his debut novel, Neuromancer, which imagined a world where everyone spends all their time plugged into a global computer network, and transnational corporations run roughshod over governments. As his dystopian vision of the future turned into our current reality, Gibson wrote novels that were closer and closer to the present day.
With The Peripheral he finally returned to the future, but instead of one dystopia he imagined two, and he brought them in communication with each other. In Agency, these two futures are still around, but now there’s also an alternative present, and the emergence of a truly world-changing artificial intelligence. This dizzying array of universes creates a novel that feels very much like living in our real-world 2020: lots of things are happening, most of them bad, and nobody is really sure who is in control.
Gibson’s trademark terse but descriptive prose is still in evidence, as is his wild imagination. What he’s often struggled with in the past is endings. The ending of Agency, however, is everything I wanted it to be. It’s a surprise but makes sense given the rest of the story. It resolves the main question of the novel, but still leaves some things unanswered. There is definitely room for at least another book in this series.
If you liked this book, and are intrigued by artificial intelligence in general, you may enjoy Silicon Minds of Mars, by yours truly.
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I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I am the writer for the upcoming documentary series Arcade Dreams.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.