Fanfiction – Mastermind Hunting

When I was in my teen years, I read a lot of stuff that isn’t as good as I remember. Normally, I don’t review it but, for a change, let’s review something that’s a bit of a study in contrasts. It’s an interesting way to get some perspective.

Mastermind Hunting by Louis IX is a story that stuck in my memory for its distinctive details, even as I forgot how deeply flawed it was.

On the broadest level, you could say that the first half to two thirds of this 616,225-word story matches the synopsis: A “Where in the world is Harry Potter” story …but even that is flawed.

The first story arc does have Harry and the Dursleys wandering through Europe and the Middle East… but neither Dumbledore nor anyone else in the wizarding world is actively pursuing them in any significant fashion. You’ve got roughly a novel of a pre-Hogwarts wandless magic prodigy wandering through 1980s and 1990s muggle world events… not really being chased by muggle intelligence services so much as wandering in and out of intrigue because they have no idea what he’s capable of.

…and that’s a recurring theme that doesn’t help the story. It feels like the movie Shanghai Nights was still fresh in Louis IX’s memory but he didn’t properly understand how to make that sort of “alternative history for real-world people and events” writing work. (Rule #1: Shanghai Nights works because it’s dedicated to being a comedy. This just feels like the author coming up with implausible alternative causes for real-world events because it makes him feel clever.)

You could also say that recurring theme is “[Insert scene about some tangent] …but that’s not important to our story.”

That said, some of those tangents are also why I remember it, because they’re so unlike anything I’ve ever seen before… such as young Harry accidentally apparating into a particle accelerator, going a bit Doctor Manhattan, crossing paths with some mesoamerican gods, and recovering but with eyeballs made of magically contained seawater… in the process, creating a digital clone of himself.

Those are all things which could make an interesting story… maybe even an interesting Harry Potter story… but not here and not all in the same story. In Mastermind Hunting, elements which would need to be the central focus of a story to be done properly are set up, then allowed to languish… and yet I kept reading to the end, which has to say something for Louis IX’s writing instincts.

It’s also one of those “the guy who wrote this is either a teenage boy or a sociopath” stories, where the author clearly doesn’t understand the problem with certain writing decisions… first and foremost, how liberally Harry uses mind magic to fix problems. Harry ran into a terrorist or death eater sympathizer? Let’s just mind-rape him to install a better moral compass. Sure, its interpretation of an “inner world”-style occlumency is creative, but tons of stories have done that and some in more creative ways. (Though its interpretation of how apparation works and why wizards have trouble doing it over long distances is more novel.)

As you might expect from such an author, narrative structure also isn’t ideal. By Chapter 22, it feels like it should be nearing the end of an arc, but no… and at the end, Voldemort gets defeated with two large chapters to go, and then Umbridge is introduced, only to be gotten rid of before the chapter is over so two more brief “It’s not over yet” arcs can be done.

Spoiler: It involves letting the readers become convinced that a very major character is dead, then having Harry fail to use a Time Turner to prevent her death, then having Harry’s digital copy (who became a flesh-and-blood copy and then spent off-screen time becoming an unrecognizably divergent OC) get a better time-travel solution from the Department of Mysteries and engage in a cheap knock off of a James Bond thriller that seems to be intended as a tacked-on way to close out plot threads that were allowed to languish so much that I’d honestly forgotten they needed to be closed.

It’s kind of impressive that, in less than the entirely of the second-last chapter, he managed to kill off my ability to care as far as he did.

…which reminds me of another problem that isn’t a one-off thing: Not understanding how much preparation goes into keeping the death of a named character from feeling cheep and ill-fitting. Even J.K. Rowling fumbled that in killing off Cedric Diggory after four books of letting the readers get used to the idea of Voldemort being about as effective as a Saturday morning cartoon villain.

Anyway, next point… “crossing paths with some mesoamerican gods”. This includes not only mesoamerican gods, but also Wadjet, and the Archangel Raphael, and, like the mind magic and character death, they give a strong sense that the author didn’t think deeply enough on the implications and effects of including them. Harry Potter canon was careful to avoid leaning toward or against anything religious beyond mentioning the witch burnings and, even if you’re going with the easy choice of old Celtic gods, it takes a lot of skill to keep divine beings from destroying the Harry Potter atmosphere.

I also don’t like that they take away his metamorphmagus ability at the end because it was a gift he “doesn’t need anymore”. That sort of “implicitly lording it over the mortals” is why I don’t like gods in settings in the first place. Aside from that, why did Louis IX think it was even necessary? Because it made him too overpowered without Voldemort to balance him? That’s the mark of a bad author who doesn’t understand that “even Superman can’t punch clinical depression”. (If Wolverine’s healing ability didn’t break X-Men as a story, then Harry keeping his metamorph abilities wouldn’t here. I find that the best conflicts are the kind that superpowers can’t solve.)

…it doesn’t help that, for a final story arc and a third “it ain’t over yet” in two chapters, Louis IX decided to reaffirm his perception that it doesn’t irreparably tarnish your hero for them to invent a “stop being evil” mind virus. (I have only read the spin-offs, but I get a strong impression that was the core evil of the infamous “The Conversion Bureau” fanfic in the My Little Pony fandom.)

Again, “either a teenage male or a sociopath”… but, given how the final chapter falls apart into a mish-mash of “isn’t this cool?” stuff, and the touches of “didn’t think about the implications” that show up in other ways, I’m leaning toward teenage male. If you want to see sociopath, look at fics by Jared Ornstead under his Perfect Lionheart identity, like Partially Kissed Hero or Chunin Exam Day… those start out “definitely gonna hook you” great and then screw with you… and that’s not the only reason to think sociopath. Nugar wrote a great analysis (mirror) of why those two fics exude sociopathy.

However, despite all those flaws, I didn’t find it too difficult to re-read it when preparing to write this. Trial by Tenderness by Cevn McGuire also has a similar number of memorable elements, but I had to give up on it when I tried to re-read and review it. It also helps that Mastermind Hunting is one of those rare ultra-long stories that’s actually complete, rather than just dying when the author’s muse did, like with Guardian, Millennium, and Big Human on Campus by Black_Dragon6.

In the end, it’s a hard one to rate because it’s too sloppy for 4 out of 5 to feel right, but I didn’t get the firm sense of “I don’t want to put this down, but I can’t figure out why” that 3.5 out of 5 would suggest. I’d say 3.8 out of 5 if you stop reading before Harry’s special abilities are taken away in the wake of Voldemort’s defeat, or 3.6 if you continue reading until the end.

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Making My Review TODO List Public

Since my list of fanfiction to review seems to grow much faster than my ability to re-read and review things, I thought it wasn’t very fair to keep it hidden. For that reason, I’ve started transcribing it over to a page on this blog for anyone to read.

Fanfiction Review TODO List

It may have errors, I haven’t finished copying the entries over yet, and it’s very minimal compared to my usual reviews, but I hope people will enjoy it and I’ve enabled comments in case anyone wants to answer any questions I posed to myself in it.

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Retrocomputing Advice: Linksys ProConnect KVM2KIT

If you have a retrocomputing hobby, and you don’t have a lot of room (like most of us), it can be difficult to leave your stuff set up so you can enjoy it when you need to take a break.

One way to mitigate that problem is to use a KVM switch, so you can have PCs from multiple eras sharing the same desk, keyboard, mouse, and monitor.

I actually received my first Linksys ProConnect KVM2KIT in a gift of hand-me-down hardware and discovered that it is just about the most perfect KVM you could want for retrocomputing.

First, it switches two PS/2 ports and a VGA monitor. The only thing it’s missing is audio.

Second, you switch between the two PCs by double-tapping Scroll Lock, so you can hide the unit itself under or behind your desk to avoid having an anachronistic-looking box or button marring your setup like with something like the Belkin Flip F1DG102P.

Third, it requires no external power source, being powered by the PS/2 keyboard connector.

Fourth, it’s not that expensive on eBay.

Fifth, if you need it, you can set it to automatically cycle between its two inputs at a configurable rate… useful when you are doing something else while babysitting some install wizards.

As mentioned, it does lack audio switching, so you’ll have to come up with a solution for that on your own (two pairs of speakers, feeding the speaker out from one PC into the line in from another, a separate switch box, a mixer, etc.) but, aside from that, I have no complaints.

It Just Works™ and makes for a very comfortable and unobtrusive way to put two retrocomputers on one desk. Pair up an S-Video or Composite to VGA converter that supports VGA pass-through when not in use and is OK with more esoteric signals and you could add a console or an 8-bit micro to the mix.

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Incognito Mode for Zsh

Incognito Mode. We all use it from time to time, but, if you’re a heavy terminal user, you might use your terminal as often and in as many diverse ways as your browsers.

…so I thought, why not make an incognito mode for Zsh?

With this script, typing anonsh will recognfigure an open zsh instance in several ways:

  • HISTFILE will be unset so you still have a command history, but new entries won’t get copied from RAM to disk and will get erased when you exit the shell.
  • If you’re using the zsh_hardstatus_precmd function from my custom prompt, it will be redefined to show anonsh instead of the command name or working directory.
  • If the %1~ token for displaying the current path is found in your PS1/PS2/PS3/PS4 prompt variables (or the $base_prompt from my custom .zshrc), then it will be replaced with a literal ... so that clear can’t leave anything problematic behind.
  • clear will be redefined so that it also uses every method I could find to ask your terminal to clear its scrollback buffer, as well as asking GNU screen to empty its own scrollback buffer if $TERM is set to screen.
  • Zsh will be configured to call clear before exiting to clear any scrollback that might otherwise hang around if you are using termcapinfo xterm* ti@:te@ in your .screenrc.

Enjoy. 🙂

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Fanfiction – Invincible

Today’s fic is a little Harry Potter disaster movie slash Battlestar Galactica crossover named Invincible by Darth Marrs.

The basic concept is that the plot of the movie 2012 has come to the Harry Potter setting, but the radiation involved happens to resonate with magic and become much more lethal to magical plants and animals, humans included.

Nothing magical will be able to survive those radiation levels even if arks are built, and the magical governments of the world are determined to prevent a panic, so they keep it a secret. However, because Hermione was one of the researchers first called in to identify the problem, Harry learns of it and, inspired by a memory of a friend showing him Space Battleship Yamato, he sets out on a desperate effort to buy a decommissioned aircraft carrier, the HMS Invincible, and convert it into a spaceborn ark.

Of course, things can never be that simple. The purebloods are convinced of a goblin prophecy that will allow them to survive in the goblin caves, but they will only allow wizards in if Harry’s project is stopped. The purebloods see this as an opportunity to cleanse all the muggleborns and halfbloods from their society, so Harry’s efforts are quickly declared illegal, even as he allies with the Americans to share technology and magical innovation so they can build their own pair of ships. (Spoiler: There is no prophecy. The goblin religion forbids them from leaving Earth and they’re determined to take wizardkind with them into oblivion as one final act of spite.)

This is where one of my reasons for marking this story down a bit comes in: It’s tagged and presented as a Harry Potter – Battlestar Galactica crossover with elements of 2012 but, for the entire first half of the story, it’s a Harry Potter – 2012 crossover without a hint of Battlestar Galactica in sight. Having my expectations primed that way, I had trouble relaxing and enjoying the first half because I kept wanting to “rush through the introduction that has gone on far too long and get to the actual story”.

We’re talking “Battlestar Galactica doesn’t come in until chapter 16 of 33” in a novel-length story, 140,082 words long.

Still, for what it is, the first half is well-written… I just had trouble enjoying it for the same reason I rushed through more or less all of David Brin’s Sundiver. Improperly set expectations. I won’t mark it down too much for that… but I can’t ignore it entirely in my final scoring.

Anyway, the second half of the story starts with them discovering some survivors from Helena Cain’s illegal looting and pressganging of surviving civilian ships.

What follows is a story about Harry and company meeting up with Colonial survivors, dealing with the Cylons, and finally settling in an O’Neill cylinder built and abandoned by the Lords of Kobol.

Since all but one of my remaining problems with the story seem to stem from a common mismatch between my own philosophical outlook and that of the authors, I think I’ll address them together in one go before we get to the good parts:

I get a general sense from this story of a setting which implicitly penalizes the human drive to grow beyond what we are, but, more importantly, a story where the author sees nothing wrong with that… a setting which inherently pits science and magic at odds with each other as means for the betterment of our species, and casts science as wanting.

Most notably, in the core rationale for forcing the colonials to choose between allying with wizardkind or trying to make peace with the Cylons in the canonical way: Cylons have no souls and any descendants of human-form cylons, no matter how distant, will forever lose access to magic. (Specifically, the choice is cast as between immortality and magic.)

I could buy something like the teleporters that led to the situation in the My Little Pony sci-fi story Just Like Magic of Old, where the technology is flawed and the cylon resurrection process breaks the connection with whatever the source of magic is. Then, it’s a simple cautionary tale about trying to run before you’ve learned to walk, and nothing against science itself or our ability to better ourselves through dedication to studying the world.

…but saying cylons have no souls and having prophecy indicate that interbreeding with them will abandon magic forever has an undertone to it that “once a machine, always a machine”, that humans are the only “true” sapients and non-human sapients are impostors, not worthy of having the same aspirations.

It also feels like an opportunity for a slippery slope into exactly the mindset the colonials have which caused all the trouble in the first place and gives me a sense that the author might have that religious mindset that sees it as desirable that we be forever trapped as children under the rule of some immortal parent, rather than being able to achieve adulthood and sit as equals with the highest thinking powers in the universe.

(“Only God can truly create life” and so on. That belief that there’s some essence to the universe that we cannot replicate is a central part of why, despite China having 5000 years of unbroken history, it was Europe that developed science much more recently and leapfrogged China enough for Britain to dictate terms to them and get a 99 year lease on Hong Kong.)

…but then what do I know? I’m a physicalist for the same reasons professor Shelly Kagan lays out and I see it as unpalatable for the existence of the soul in fiction to have any implications beyond the ability to outlive one’s physical form… the ideal way to squash the implications being to have souls arise organically as an inevitable side-effect of sapience.

More generally, I’m always brought back to the Dresden Codak page “Caveman Science Fiction” which casts the recurring “you go too far” trope popular culture uses toward science in light of innovations we take so for granted that nobody will question that they’re a good thing.

This same theme also feels related to another detail I find distasteful: The magic used for things like expansion charms acts like radiation on muggles, further amplifying that “it’s one or the other” element.

Aside from feeling like a needless “this universe throws roadblocks in front of merging the best of magic and science for the betterment of all humanity” decision and opening up plot holes surrounding why all the non-human life in their expanded spaces isn’t dying off too, it reminds me of how one of the purposes of Bible passages like Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11 is to support the concept that we are a special creation, separate from other animals, by establishing a recurring theme that, whether it’s animals, seeds, or clothing, different things must be kept separate… a mindset that I find harmful now, given how much we know about the nature of reality and how much trouble we have with baseless discrimination in society.

(A call-back to our base instinct to separate things we might feel empathy toward into “us” and “the other” and feel no empathy toward the latter.)

As for my last remaining problem? It feels like the story is incomplete as it relates to cylons. I’ll explain further as part of explaining what I did like, so let’s move on to that… and most of what I like has to do with the novel ideas:

First, using magic to solve the problems with an Alcubierre warp drive, resulting in a solution that is both novel and inherently depends on the mixing of magic and science for success.

Second, I like that this is the first story I can remember where it’s entire ships of wizards who meet the colonials, rather than just one or two, so they have far more ability to provide aid to the ships they encounter.

Third, the origins of the Lords of Kobol. (Wizards who lived where the Black Sea now is during the last ice age and fled during the previous occurrence of the 2012 plot… using magical sleeper ships because they lacked the scientific knowledge to go faster than light, and having lost their magic because they were so callous that they did things like slaughtering unicorns with impunity.)

…which is the first (though more minor) facet of what I meant when I said the tale of the cylons felt incomplete. Maybe it was mentioned briefly enough that I missed it while reading, but I don’t remember getting a clear explanation of how the Lords of Kobol went from wizards slaughtering unicorns to a population exclusively made of squibs and muggles. The story even has the characters notice that there had to be more to it than that. (Humans have a tendency to start to skim-read when we feel we know what’s going on, so it’s important for an author to spend time on something proportional to its importance.)

That leads into the next creative part: That the seers in the colonial population are squibs, that chamalla brings out marginal magical ability in the same way that an unnamed cactus-based drug (peyote?) does among Earth seers, and that Laura Roslin may be the most powerful seer in the surviving colonial population. I think this might have been touched on before in other crossovers I’ve read, but never in a way this distinctive and memorable.

Likewise, the idea that they’re a population full of squibs is also used to produce a very clever explanation for Messenger Six: Gauis Baltar is a squib and she’s a Class IV Demon… a malicious manifestation of his guilt born of what little magic he has, which has gained some measure of independent sapience but, because she’s still a part of him, she can’t just be killed.

Now, I’ll get into the cylons. While I find the mechanism a bit distasteful (stunning spells are lethal to cylons and are used to kill all the cylons on the fleet simultaneously so none can escape to act as saboteurs once they realize they’ve been discovered), I do like the novelty of having the Final Five wake up among the cylons and touch off the cylon civil war that way.

The problem I hinted at before is that it’s unfinished in that respect. The civil war removes the cylons as a threat, and… what? Again, unless I missed something, there’s still a population of psychologically human people out there who have every right to live, but who are without souls and who could meet and start interbreeding with souled humans at some point in the future. Either you applaud the extinction of thinking, feeling beings who fought their monstrous kin for the right to live free (which is a morally reprehensible thing to do) or you’ve just kicked resolving that social and political conflict down the road.

Finally, I really like the addition of and detail spent on the O’Neill cylinder. It’s far too rare to find those in fiction and it really lends a sense of how wondrous the sci-fi side of things can be. (For some reason, even the grandest stuff in series like Stargate: SG-1, Mass Effect, and Halo has a sense of being too familiar to do that… not to mention how they’re intrinsically tied to settings that lean toward action and martial conflict rather than the sense of adventure that, aside from Star Trek, seems to be relegated to the comparative obscurity of classic sci-fi novels.)

So, in the end, what do I think about it? I’d give it a 4.2 out of 5. It’s got some very creative elements and, despite its flaws, I enjoyed it. It might have been a 4.3 if I didn’t have so much trouble with the first half because of improperly set expectations, and, had the other flaws not been present, it could easily have been a 4.6.

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The Existence of God(s) as Cosmic Horror (Pre-Draft)

I have a somewhat interesting perspective on the possible existence of higher powers… one I haven’t seen someone else really focus on… and I thought it’d make a nice appendix to the book on fiction that I’ve been accumulating notes for over the last two decades.

(If nothing else, as an example of a worldview you may not hold, so you can practice recognizing the defining traits of a worldview so that you can embody yours in your worldview more effectively.)

Now, given what I specifically plan to focus on, it’s going to take me several cycles of writing out a draft to tease insight out of my brain, then distilling the points that are sufficiently on-topic back into point-form notes, and then repeating… possibly waiting a week in the process to let my perspective on the writing shift… but the first such “just let things flow” draft was interesting enough that, despite being all over the place, I was encouraged to share it, so here we go.

(Bear in mind that I imagined what are in-line quotes in this post to be floated asides. I just don’t feel it’s worth the effort to try to implement that before I renovate my blog template.)

It is not uncommon for Christians to look at dictators who have been claimed to be atheists, and to see them as people convinced that they exist beyond all law. That morality is made-up, that, with no absolute authority, “all is permitted”, and that, like a spoiled child, their wants and desires are the most important thing in the world.

Now, a much longer article could be written about how that is rarely the case, and how you are unlikely to find someone who believes themselves to be evil yet manages to achieve power. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was outwardly religious and Hitler himself held many crackpot beliefs. Josef Stalin’s beliefs are unclear, but it is known that he saw the Russian Orthodox Church as a political rival.

However, you can find tons of atheist rebuttals like that. This is about why a healthy-minded individual might not only see gods as being as fictitious as unicorns, Santa Clause, and the Tooth Fairy, but see the cosmology thus described as explicitly evil. (There. I said it.)

First, think about why one would want an absolute authority. They want that certainty in their life… but that assumes said authority is deserving of being absolute.

When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.

Abraham Lincoln as Quoted in Herndon’s Lincoln (1890), p. 439

Search any religious text on Earth, and you will not find any ideas or morals beyond what could have been produced by the most forward-thinking person of the period in which it was produced. Worse, for the older books, they often enshrine ideas we now consider to be so bad that we must pick and choose which of the passages to obey and which to ignore… hardly an absolute authority and evidence that our morals come from somewhere else.

And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?

Robert Green Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses (1879), Section XVIII, “Dampness”

Rather than finding absolute authority comforting, I find it a terrifying prospect. Imagine that you were a slave in some ancient society, and the religious books said that was your lot in life. If they’re the works of fallible humans, then there is hope for a more equitable future… but if they’re truly the word of some godly force, guiding the universe, then you have no hope. Existence itself will bend to keep your people oppressed.

Worse, though, think about the state of existence. If gods exist, then the absolute authorities that people desire seem perfectly OK with their thousands, millions, or billions of years of attention having left us to clean up countless sources of needless suffering, such as guinea worm disease (an African parasitic worm that can grow over two and a half feet long and must be slowly drawn out of the body over several days), Loa loa worm (a parasite that sometimes burrows into human eyeballs), Leprosy, and countless other horrifying conditions.

Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, Vol. II, ch. 2

Wanting to delegate ultimate authority to some immaterial super-adult is a very human perspective, but also a very childish one. “Better to enshrine the flawed, unjust laws mankind’s bronze-age ancestors were able to conceive into the very fabric of the cosmos itself, than to accept the terrifying uncertainty of being responsible for our own fates”. I, on the other hand, find it far more terrifying that all the ills around me are because some supreme being chose them to be that way… that we’re trapped in this cycle of suffering and injustice because some dictator who can never be overthrown wills it to be.

If the universe has no gods, and is uncaring and amoral, then there is hope because every cause of our suffering is small and mortal and can be overcome. In general, humans instinctively fear the unknown, so anyone who is comfortable with part of the status quo will act to preserve it out of fear that the alternative will leave them worse off. Multiply that by several billion, and mix in our instinctive predisposition toward dominance hierarchies, and it makes all the sense in the world that evil continues to exist.

To me, the prospect of organized religion being correct is a far more terrifying cosmic horror than anything Lovecraft ever wrote, because Lovecraft wrote about beings and forces that rarely noticed us and only menaced us when we got caught under foot… religion makes claims of powers that, ostensibly, have had thousands or millions or billions of years of active interest and chose this for us.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Steven Weinberg, Freethought Today, April, 2000

Why should I find it comforting that some ultimate authority with suspiciously human characteristics supposedly put us into this mess and has plans for us, when evil people seem to find perfectly good justifications to do evil things anyway, and good people have become more moral than the “moral authority”?

Beyond what Mr. Weinberg says, though, religion is an insult to human dignity because of how readily it steals the credit for our successes, shames us for the instincts supposedly put into us by whatever sadistic puppet-master made us to populate his cock-fighting pit, and attempts to stifle the true shining feature that distinguishes us from all other species on this Earth: Our insatiable curiosity and unflinching desire to investigate the true nature of our universe.

The whole idea that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they dared seek knowledge tells us everything we need to know about the founders of religion and its true purpose.

CDenic on YouTube

That said, I’ve gotten off-topic. The interesting core part of my perspective which I haven’t seen others touch on is that “if you think on it enough, any setting where the power that motivates the universe flows through a thinking divinity will become cosmic horror”.

Fundamentally, I find it inherently horrifying to imagine a setting where there can never be any hope of humans being truly free to sit, unbeholden to the whims of some higher power… and, frankly, I find myself suspicious of the upbringing of anyone who longs for that. It just sounds a little too much like someone who’s developed a trauma bond with an abusive father and, having been forced out into the world, seeks to replace them.

I think anyone who left their home to escape a controlling father can probably understand why the idea of a celestial counterpart one can’t escape even in death might be horrifying.

There. I’ve said my piece. Even if you’re an atheist, you probably didn’t think of the Lovecraft comparison, so, whoever you are, sit and cogitate on it. Expanding the mind always makes for better authors.

In later drafts, I want to dial in more closely on the subjective psychological aspects of my perspective, how they interact with the feel, tone, and atmosphere of a narrative, how they relate to fantasy and other settings where tangible, empirically demonstrable power is available to mortals at the will of higher powers, and possibly how it interacts with how equally horrifying I find the prospect of nanotechnology, given what understanding I have of the world as-is from my expertise with computer programming.

(You think COVID-19 is scary? Imagine that it can leave you trapped within your body as it’s remote-controlled by someone else.)

As a matter of fact, I’ve already started another “draft, then distill cycle” even before starting to distill the first one, and here’s what’s come of it so far:

Imagine for a moment that you’re a child with a capricious, controlling father. All your life, he has done things that he says you’ll thank him for when you’re older, even though something deep inside you says “This is unfair. This is wrong!”

Now imagine that you’ve been told you must obey him, even as an adult, and that his decisions will be no less inscrutable.

Now, imagine that his name is God… the ultimate inscrutable father figure, rewarding and punishing you, seemingly at random, always telling you to trust him because “It’s for the best”. A father figure who you will be beholden to for eternity, even in death.

Take away the name “God” for a moment. Doesn’t that seem like a terrifying prospect? A capricious father who you can never escape?

If nothing else, it should be a damning indictment of human social instinct that there exist religious women in Saudi Arabia.

Religion is rooted in the primal assumption that an intelligent force lies behind observed events wrapped in efforts to make that misconception less terrifying. To welcome gods into your worldview in this age when science has explained so much is to welcome a sweetened medicine long after it has proven not only non-efficacious, but actively harmful to your health, because you are addicted to the sweetener.

P.S. To anyone who thinks I “hate” God, please read what I wrote more closely. This is my objection to the idea of God being real. I could expound at equal length on the idea of Harry Potter being real, but that doesn’t mean I believe the Wizarding World exists.

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Novel – The Wiz Biz

…and since I seem to be reviewing books in reverse order from when I read and took notes on them, today’s review will be The Wiz Biz by Rick Cook… an omnibus of Wizard’s Bane and The Wizardry Compiled and another book that spent some time in the Baen Free Library but isn’t there anymore.

(And, since it’s an omnibus, prepare for a long review.)

The first book is a story about a human computer wiz (named Walter Irving “Wiz” Zumwalt) who gets summoned into a fantasy land where the good guys are losing… he’s destined to be the hero, despite everyone (including him) thinking that he was summoned by mistake.

Eventually, he realizes that magic is kind of like programming and it becomes clear to the readers that what allows him to win is a bit more than that. While his programming knowledge is technically what allows him to win, what really makes him the hero is that he’s an Outside-Context Problem to the villains who, until now, were inexorably winning the war.

It is a classic 80s “male geek becomes a hero” story, and the first volume doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test as far as I can remember, but it does pass the Sexy Lamp Test (at least one female character who’s important enough to the story that you couldn’t replace her with a sexy lamp bearing a post-it note), so it’s more a matter of demographics than bad writing. (There are at least half a dozen female characters who have meaningful conversations and are crucial to the story, but the main character, who happens to be male, is so central to the story that it’s hard to find any scenes where people talk without him coming up, female or otherwise. It’s just that kind of story.)

The story also has an interesting approach to the interaction between the hero and Moira, the lead female: It flat-out lampshades the clichés. He’s attracted to her because the wizard who gave his life to summon him cast an infatuation spell and he comes right out and says she’s not his usual type (he prefers willowy blondes). Not only does she not like him for most of the story, she has every right to that view because he’s as likely to get them both killed as an unattended toddler. Worse, because he’s an adult male, he’s used to being competent and that makes him even more of a liability.

As I mentioned earlier, his “secret power” is that he’s a walking Outside-Context Problem, so I’d like to go a little more into that.

First, he’s such an unexpected thing that the bad guys assume their future-scrying must be on the fritz. Beyond that, much of the driving conflict revolves around him struggling to recognize that he actually is relevant and how so, rather than just possibly being a misfire of the summoning.

Second, the story likes to draw parallels between computer hackers and wizards and, more narrowly, the secret of his success is simple: All the other wizards are programming raw machine code and a good wizard is someone who can do so without accidentally corrupting or deleting themself. On the other hand, his post-secondary education taught him how to think like a computer scientist. (Something he finally realizes two thirds of the way through the first book.)

Like most good novels (and like far too few pieces of fanfiction), it does a good job of combining sections where a lot happens in a short amount of time with sections where a lot of time is glossed over in very little prose, and doing it without the reader getting confused.

…and, like George O. Scott’s Venus Equilateral (another omnibus I highly recommend), this is a story where, once the character realizes his role, you get a strong sense that the author has real-life experience. George O. Scott was a radio engineer, and Rick Cook clearly has training in the kinds of low-level programming Wiz gets up to. That in and of itself is fascinating and it’s the essence of one of the meanings of the phrase “write what you know”.

I have high-level programming experience, but it still would have taken me some thought and research to come up with this. We’re just so used to modern processor architectures being boring and same-y… even compared to what actually existed around the middle of the 20th century. (Even the stuff that still exists is likely to surprise higher-level programmers who didn’t encounter alternatives at school, such as AVR chips using a modified Harvard architecture rather than a Von Neumann one.)

…of course, reveals never go well with technology-like things, and, when he demonstrates his first magic program, it has a bug that results in just about every bad thing that could happen without the magic going truly out of control. (It destroys his progress with the female lead, alerts the enemy to their position, gets orders issued to have their little sanctuary burnt to the ground, etc.)

…but, at the same time, it’s also used to explore his motivations and bring about character development before he even realizes the magnitude of his screw-up, and, again, it’s told from that delightful perspective of interpreting what’s going on through the lens of computing before it became ubiquitous.

There’s also a recurring theme of his approach to programming being so alien that, when perfectly reasonable assumptions are made about what a magic user is, it leads people to the wrong conclusions about Wiz… especially the bad guys.

The secret to a good fantasy crossover is to ensure that your “modern” character isn’t any smarter (or even necessarily as smart as) the natives, but has knowledge or life experience that provides a truly unorthodox solution to the problems without making the natives feel incompetent.

I also like the irony in tweaking the old “hero rescues the girl” trope by having the mass of bad guy henchmen take Moira by surprise and capture her specifically because she’s the biggest threat as a magic-user, so she obviously must be the hero. (and leave Wiz to become the hero because he has no magical aptitude they can sense at all.)

Finally, sometimes formula exists for a reason, but a good author will always find ways to play that to their advantage. I got a real kick out of how, at the point where a movie would have something like a training montage, Wiz has his “I’m not going to take it any more” moment and discovers the local equivalent to energy drinks. (Vile stuff that tastes like coffee you could stand a spoon up in and works the same.) What could be more fitting for a programmer? 😛

…which brings me to one of the things I find most personally noteworthy about the story… how it feels.

I’m not sure if it has a proper name, but there’s an atmosphere that I’ve felt from various Interactive Fiction (text adventure) games and Legend Entertainment games I sampled, as well as from amateur fiction in subcultures that originated on Usenet and wound up on sites like Sapphire’s Place and The Transformation Story Archive. As far as I can intuit, what I’m picking up on is the ambient feel of 1980s and early 1990s college/university geek culture which got flooded out by the original Eternal September.

Some of the plot elements I’ve described feel familiar to 80s movies, but this goes beyond that and I think it has to do with prose being better at communicating certain elements to someone who didn’t live through them.

(Speaking of which, I’d appreciate any suggestions for how to find more of it in an efficient way, given that I’m a little too young to have experienced it firsthand.)

Now, before I move onto the second volume, Wizardry Compiled, I’d like to touch on something that is best explored across both books together: How they handle female characters.

I did say that it fails the Bechdel test for not having a scene where two females talk to each other without Wiz coming up but, despite that, it has a nice amount of depth for the type of story it is.

For example, there’s a scene where Wiz encounters a fleeing caravan of Fae refugees and it’s a conversation with a brownie mother that makes him realize that he’s unintentionally become a peddler of horrible weapons… but that’s just one scene. Let’s talk Moira.

As I mentioned, Moira is the love interest who starts out hating Wiz, but there’s a very nicely couched reveal involved. It turns out that she doesn’t just resent Wiz for the obvious reason, but also for deeper reasons that have to do with her own past. (And I like how it lampshades that pattern: There’s actually a scene where Wiz has to keep shooting down her excuses until, finally, she has to admit the real reason just as much to herself as to him.)

Beyond that, she’s also integral to the second book, which is structured into two independent stories: One following Wiz, who’s out in the world and uncontactable, and one following those back in the capital, including Moira, who takes a leap into the unknown to visit our world and hire more programmers. (A part of her arc involving her dissatisfaction at now living in the shadow of the man who is revolutionizing magic.)

…yeah. The first arc, originally published as Wizard’s Bane, is what most people would write and call things done. He learns how to do magic like a programmer, defeats the bad guys, gets the girl, decides to stick around, and is set on a path to revolutionize the world. The second book is all about how “happily ever after” isn’t so simple.

(And the conversation which allows the second volume to pass the Bechdel test is thematically related, with Moira helping one of the hired programmers, Judith, come to terms with the loss of her childhood fantasies about dragons.)

The Wizardry Compiled, is all the stuff that would normally be boiled down into a mere epilogue. It takes place two years later and covers Wiz training wizards to think like programmers when teaching was never his strength, navigating the politics of the wizarding hierarchy when politics is even less so, overcoming the tendency to neglect everything else for his work before he loses Moira, and Moira actually making what is effectively first contact between the fantasy setting and our world and importing more programmers to help with what he started, all while a conspiracy festers between good guys and bad guys to preserve the status quo and prevent their own obsolescence.

It’s dedicating an entire book to this “epilogue fodder” which takes the story from merely “good with some great scenes surrounding the invention of a magic toolchain” to “classic and legendary” in my eyes. In fact, the first chapter of it feels sort of like an epilogue that realized it had more to say.

It begins with a very nicely chosen quote, and continues to introduce the chapters with good quotes throughout:

You can always tell a really good idea by the enemies it makes

programmers’ axiom

Like the first book, it continues the theme that the biggest hazard of magic is unintended side-effects but, unlike the first, this one has the unintended side-effects stem from unintended ways that humans will intentionally use what Wiz has given them, rather than what the “computer” will do with what humans ask.

In essence, it’s shifted from bugs in the code that is magic to bugs in the end users who run the code that is knowledge. The first book touched on that in the form of the Black League (ie. villains) but now it’s focused on the casual cruelty of ordinary humans against those not of their tribe.

In keeping with the style, it makes use of the same out-of-the-box wit as the first volume, with moments like Wiz surviving a death trap because “even death traps need regular maintenance”, a fire-breathing dragon accidentally giving itself steam burns, flawed magic code being literally buggy, and a different bit with a dragon which reminds me of a scene in the 1996 Steve Martin movie, Sgt. Bilko.

The best part, in my opinion, is the part of the second book beginning about half-way through when they hire more programmers from our world. Aside from that being entertaining in itself, something about the mindset required for writing them made the cuts back to Wiz significantly punchier.

It’s a shame that Rick Cook didn’t fully grasp what he had though. The sequels to these two volumes feel too much like cargo cult copies of the first two… similar, but with an unsatisfying shallowness to them and focused more on the programmer culture references and less on the deeper technical and social commonalities between magic/wizards and programming/silicon valley.

I think it’s that he got so into the appeal of the latter half of the second book that he overcompensated and jettisoned the deeper aspects that made the first book work and made the second one an even better balance. Even the second half of the second book feels like it’s toeing the line on that “too much shallow humour” front. (I also noticed the second book starting to show hints of the “shallow humour and action starting to crowd out deeper elements, which get squashed into the end” pattern I vaguely remember observing in the later books.)

Still, both volumes in The Wiz Biz are definitely excellent and I don’t want to fault them just because I’m able to see room for improvement. (It’d be a pretty sad existence if I couldn’t just relax and enjoy things.) It’s just that, if you do try to analyze the experience, you can see how the first book was more serious, while the second book slides from where the first book left off, to an optimal balance of deep insight and shallow humour, then fails to settle there and starts to hint at what the sequels would be before it ends.

Get the first two, but don’t get the later ones. They’ll feel like a disappointment.

That said, people do say to try to get the two books separately if you can, because The Wiz Biz was edited sloppily. I did notice the odd typo, but my main problem with the omnibus is that it doesn’t always use proper scene breaks, which means I have to occasionally stop and rewind to make sense of what’s going on.

In the end, whichever version you get, these are classic fiction that I’d highly recommend. 5 out of 5.

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