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Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave.  All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.

Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.

‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.

‘Dragon! Ya in there?’

Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.

Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.

To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.

Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.

Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.

Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.

I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.

The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.

What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.

Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.

I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.

Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.

This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’

Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.

His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’.  Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.

Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.

Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?

Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.


‘The making of artificial intelligence is one of the proudest boasts of the secularists’, said Campbell. ‘Next to artificial life, it’s the greatest triumph for their materialism. Perhaps greater. They claim to have done what Christians once claimed could be done only by God – creating a rational soul. Would this triumph not turn to ashes in their mouths if their own creations were to acknowledge the true Creator?’

I have a confession. Back in the summer of ’03 I was living and working in Edinburgh. I lived out of the Central Library, just opposite the Royal Scottish Museum where I worked in a restaurant. I would take out fourteen books at a time and read them over a month or so, then return them for the next load. Those were pleasant days. I recall taking out Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division. I remember reading it. To be honest though, I have no memory what it was about at all. I am not even sure I finished the book.

Not an auspicious start for a review, is it?

In The Night Sessions MacLeod maps the conflicts of our time, a diabolical festoon of resource wars and radical religious fudamentalism, on to a near-future society where the Western world underwent an event known as The Rejection. All forms of religious belief have been driven underground. A brutal, second Enlightenment took hold, America was swallowed in a destructive civil war and artificial intelligence escalated the spread of the conflict.

John Richard Campbell is a young man fascinated with robotics. His work in a New Zealand preserve for animatronic models has given him an interesting outlet for his religious beliefs. He has begun to proselytize to his charges and what’s more, they are listening to what he has to say. When a secret sect in Edinburgh hears of him, Campbell is initiated into The Free Congregation of West Lothian. During the same visit, he meets a virtual reality dj Dave Warsaw and his partner Jessica at a club night in a former church. Campbell is repulsed and secretly intrigued by the orgiastic scenes created by Warsaw’s mastery of music and image. His faith has hidden him from such activities, a faith that makes him especially vulnerable to manipulation.

A year passes and a series of murders in Edinburgh begin to rise tensions throughout the secular world. The targets are clergymen, former soldiers in the Faith Wars, with hints of inter-fundamentalist cell reprisals. Adam Ferguson leads the investigation, using bleeding edge technology to identify patterns in the murders, compile every scrap of data on file regarding the victims and their surroundings. However, he finds himself confounded by the complexity of the case. There are also fears of a much great attack at the secularist nations, so thoroughly denuded of religious faith that Ferguson has to remind his officers out of courtesy to refer to the murder victims by the title of ‘Father’, or ‘Bishop’, and not the prefix ‘Citizen’.

MacLeod’s novel is a vast spider-web of ideas and supposition as to the future course of our society. The ‘Rejection’, I am sure sounds like Richard Dawkins’ fondest fantasy, but the story does not shy away from depicting the overzealousness of the anti-religious factions in this new world. His vision of future developments in surveillance technology and A.I. is also exciting and playful. Ferguson’s robot Skulk is more a partner than an investigative tool, complete with a winning sense of humour.

I also enjoyed the familiar sights of Edinburgh being mildly tweaked to fit this depiction, despite surviving catastrophic sectarian conflict. MacLeod’s characters are for the most part Scots. There is in fact quite a large cast. The prologue that introduces Campbell serves to fix him in the reader’s minds before his eventual return in the latter-half of the book.

If some of this sounds familiar, perhaps you are a fan of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which also had the premise of a futuristic society running headlong into a conflict with fundamentalist religion. The difference is MacLeod’s book has balls. The ending is much more satisfying. Yes, I am still bitter.

This is a book that I will have no trouble remembering. A thrilling and inspiring read.

Researchers today estimate that over two billion dollars changed hands in 2009 in exchange for items that exist only within virtual worlds. When tens of millions of people start spending billions of dollars on virtual objects, there will inevitably be disputes that lead to lawsuits. The questions that these lawsuits raise seem unusual enough to warrant a separate field of legal analysis. The generic term for this new field is “virtual law.”

I have been really looking forward to writing this review, as not only do I get to talk about this book – I can direct you to where you can find the book in PDF form (Here). The author’s website has further information on his research. I should mention I was originally directed to Lastowka by io9’s article published this week.

That felt good. I like to share.

Greg Lastowka opens his book on the legal ramifications of online conduct by comparing three castles, representing three states of law. Firstly he introduces the era of the physical castle itself, a fortified site of power for regants and later gentrified land-owners. Property law today still descends from the relationship of those who lived on the land of these castle inhabitants, with ‘landlord’, and ‘tenants’, the tell-tale references to the past. Then we have Disney’s Cinderella Castle, that fantastical gateway to the Magical Kingdom(TM) that actually enjoys surprising autonomy in its zoning laws, courtesy of clever negotiation on the part of Disney with Florida state officials. Finally we have the castle of Lord Britain. You may not of heard of him. He exists in the game series Ultima, has occasionally served as an alter-ego for developer Richard Garriott.

Lastowka relays two interesting anecdotes in regards to Ultima. The first describes how ‘virtual property’, such as a castle that can be owned within the game by a player, has become so desirable that it holds actual financial value. This is something that is common to many game series. In fact developers now market downloadable content for games such as Oblivion to players for a nominal fee. Lastowka asks, if virtual property has value, then shouldn’t the laws regarding ‘real property’, also apply?

The second Ultima tale also presents something of a riddle. In what almost sounds like the beginnings of a fairy tale, it appears Garriott as Lord Britain witnessed a player being robbed by another player. He intervened and using his in-game abilities, defeated the thief. Then moments later the ‘criminal’, repeated the same act. Garriott this time banned the player from Ultima, only to be confronted with the argument that if the game did not explicitly ban such behaviour, theft in this instance, the player should not therefore be punished so disproportionately.

Lastowka discusses how other online and virtual platforms such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, even Facebook’s Farmville (and I would include social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and the like also) have continually frustrated legal precedence, as the laws relating to theft, assault, libel are bound to geographical jurisdictions. Where is the jurisdiction when the perpetrator and the victim are separated by thousands of miles, with the servers where the event, in situ, happened in an entirely different location again?

Even online behaviour is held to a different standard from the Real World. Are husbands and wives who indulge in in-game relationships with virtual avatars guilty of adultery? Can an emotional attachment to a stranger wearing a digital body be considered real? We have the tragic case of Qiu Chengwei, who committed murder after his virtual sword was stolen and the police refused to get involved. As much as the ‘Dragon Saber’, sword may not have seemed important to the police, in Qui Chengwei’s eyes it was something worth killing for.

How does the law regulate such acts if some see the matter relating to fantasy and others a profoundly personal reality? John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace articulates the feeling of many online pioneers, that the internet is a virtual state and not beholden to the legalities of the physical world. This is a notion that often crops up in discussions of online censorship.

However, such appeals to freedom and group self-policing do not account for the need for legal protection and prosecution of cybercrime. This conflict between the idealised anarchist online state and legal precedent continues today.

As a causal online gamer, I found this to be a very interesting book. It eschews legalese and is quite well argued. Recommended.

He passes it and I rapidly read what he’s looking at. Domestic duties: the people of the dark ages, when living together, apparently divided up work depending on gender. Males held paid vocations; females were expected to clean and maintain the household, buy and prepare food, buy clothing, clean the clothing, and operate domestic machinery while their male worked. ‘This is crap! ‘ I say.

Robin is a warrior-historian in a post-human civilisation. Our planet is a dimly remembered historical footnote referred to as ‘Urth’. All time is measured in seconds. Key periods of human history have been erased due to censorship wars and a disease known as Curious Yellow. Humans have evolved beyond physical mortality itself, replicating themselves with multiple back-up bodies, and even customizing their own alien forms.

Robin has just been downloaded into a new body and has been warned by his former self that his life is in danger. Yet he flirts with death by engaging in duels and refusing to ‘back-up’ into a new body. His lover, Kay, has four arms, suffers from body dismorphia and enjoys having very public sex with him.

Got all that? Okay, now forget it.

Robin is Reeve, a petite housewife trapped in a loveless marriage to the monosyllabic Sam. Her friends are insufferably happy with their home lives while she is slowly going mad from the boredom of staying in the house all day waiting for her husband to return. Every Sunday the couples in the neighbourhood flock to their local church and are lectured on morality by the unctuous priest, Fiore.

Reeve begins to suspect that everyone is plotting against her. She suffers memory lapses and nightmares in which she is a man dueling with assassins in narrow streets, or is an armoured warrior slaughtering innocent civilians during a civil war. Is she Reeve, or is she Robin? What is real?

With Glasshouse, Stross mixes satire, simultaneously riffing on Ira Levin‘s classic The Stepford Wives and Patrick McGoohan‘s cult television series The Prisoner, with cutting edge futurism. The opening section of the novel can seem like obtuse technobabble, but once the nature of this future society becomes clear the book is transformed into a fascinating outsider perspective on contemporary morality and gender roles.

The futuristic society resembles a contemporary online video game, with humans able to heal themselves of any injury instantly, or live out a personal fantasy. The recreation of 20th century life is to Reeve, and the others trapped within the glasshouse, a dark age fantasy with confusing gender role-play, religious fanaticism and physical frailty. In the glasshouse Reeve is the ultimate inversion of the overly confident male Robin. Having to rely on her husband Sam to provide for and support her is frustrating. She is trapped in a body she didn’t choose, and forced through a combination of peer pressure and constant surveillance to live a life that disgusts her.

Stross’ take on post-human technology is fascinating, with the outsider perspective on contemporary life at times chilling but other times humourous. Brave the technobabble and you’ll discover a biting satire where a church service begins to the tune of Brecht’s Mack the Knife and participants in the dark ages experiment are rewarded with points for bearing children. The plot twists and turns, Stross exploiting the possibilities with identity crises and rampant paranoia making for a dizzying, dense read. I almost felt bad submitting it for this challenge.

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