In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler… plus other thoughts

I write this while distracted. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is eating at my mental budget (hot take: the Russian invasion is bad). I’ve struggled, wondering whether I should put this book review aside and instead write about the war in Ukraine right now, or just sit down and write a review without mentioning what was happening. But two things leapt out at me while thinking about that.

One, if I’m going to write about Ukraine, I’m probably going to approach it from an analysis of the speeches of Zelensky and Putin over the past few days, and a discussion of the social and geopolitical concerns involved. Worse, giving the invasion the attention it deserves will take more time than I have for this today… and possibly more time than today, period.

Two, my struggle with writing this review and ignoring mention of the invasion of Ukraine is relevant to my discussion of this book.

Why?

Give me a moment, and I’ll tell you.

In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler, is a fun science fiction survival adventure written for middle grade readers. For nerdy middle grade readers, probably. Sold as Hatchet meets The Martian, it delivers on those ambitious comp titles.

I found it in the process of researching agents for my own middle grade science fiction adventure, Bury’em Deep, and I’m glad I did. First, I’m glad because I think the agent who repped it might like my manuscript—though as ever, queries are a shot in the dark and I sent my query to her before I’d read this book, due to library delays. Second, I’m glad because it’s fun. I enjoyed reading it.

To elaborate: I was a huge fan of Hatchet when I got my hands on it in third grade. In The Red has a lot of the same energy, and Young Henry would have loved this book. So if you like middle grade survival fiction, and if you like science fiction, you’ll probably like In The Red too.

But finally, I’m glad I found In The Red because I think it’s a decent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Mostly. I’ll explore how they diverge in a moment.

But first, In The Red is a good comp title for Bury’em Deep because the two books are so similar in genre and structure. The rhythm of narrative tension, and the way both books escalate tension and stakes, is parallel. In several cases that’s true almost down to the chapter and page. I go a little harder right at the start of Bury’em Deep, but otherwise the books’ slow build and intermittent spikes match each other’s feel quite neatly. Furthermore, both main characters share the fundamental desire to be safe and go home, and both have some ”questionable” risk assessments. And the similarities continue in their emotional experiences: both Michael (of ITR) and Barry (of BD) are anxious, though I think Michael’s experience of anxiety is closer to a classic clinical diagnosis.

But how do the books diverge?

And what the hell does all of this have to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or with my desire to write about that invasion instead of writing this book review?

In The Red is a good middle grade science fiction survival story. It replicates the feel of Hatchet, and it threads The Martian’s needle of being a mostly-hard sci-fi survival story on Mars that still feels engaging.

But it confines itself to those stakes.

Our narrator’s survival story isn’t impinged upon by any other social concerns, or any awareness of what’s happening—please imagine me waving my hands—“out there somewhere.” This means that I have no sense, when reading it, of what the rest of the setting is like or what else might be going on. I don’t know who’s at war with whom, I don’t know what Michael’s parents worry about late at night, I don’t know what social issues are present and plaguing the Mars colonies or erupting out in the Belt. For that matter, I don’t know what the hell is happening in Florida, where one of our characters is from. We’re never given a hint. Apparently Florida still exists, and the Florida Keys haven’t been entirely submerged by sea level rise. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

I don’t know how well I succeed, but I’ve tried to make Bury’em Deep feel different than that.

Returning to the start of this piece, the answer to my struggle was to write about this book and to mention the Russian invasion. And that “yes both” approach was my approach for making Bury’em Deep feel like a more realized setting. I want readers to trust that they’d know if something as momentous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine were going on in Barry’s setting. I want them to trust that they’d at least find out when Barry did. I want them to believe that Barry would have opinions about such a thing.

I’ll elaborate.

Barry, and thus the reader, doesn’t know everything that’s going on. His understanding of his world (well, solar system) is imperfect, and he’s not well-versed in all the relevant political and social conflicts that are going on. But he’s aware of some of it, and he can’t ignore how those conflicts impinge on his life. Moreover, his awareness of those conflicts and struggles only increases over the course of the story. And while his immediate struggles for survival are small in scope, they are tied to many other much larger struggles. 

Basically, Bury’em Deep is political. I try to give as deep a setting background as I can without ever breaking Barry’s train of thought. I want to enable my readers to draw their own conclusions about the status quo in Barry’s solar system, and I want them to question how reliable and astute a political observer this thirteen-year-old spacer kid might be. I’m not trying to pull one over on the audience with an unreliable narrator, I just want the readers to ask themselves questions. And I want deeper questions to be available for more advanced readers, without getting in the way of a less advanced reader’s enjoyment.

This difference, the distinction between something that feels “apolitical” (In The Red) and something that is absolutely jam packed with political observation and experience (Bury’em Deep), feels like a difference in era as well. The science fiction that In The Red feels like is older, and less interested in critiquing society. It isn’t as interested in examining, or even acknowledging, modern day moral and ethical questions. It’s willing to accept our social assumptions and go have fun doing something adventurous. It doesn’t encourage readers to imagine those possible moral arguments, or to wonder for themselves what might be right, just, or good.

And I’m fine with that. I don’t think every book has to be a deep dive into hegemony. I don’t think every book has to question our bedrock assumptions about society and personhood and what is moral or ethical.

But “apolitical” is a quiet lie: all art is political. Not poking at our social assumptions goes hand in hand with tacitly approving of them.

Thus, I fervently want some genre fiction out there that does question our social assumptions. I want some genre fiction that doesn’t put on its blinders and just focus on the fun adventure to be had. I want fun, yes, and adventure, but ideally I’d love those things with a dash of wondering about whether what someone has done was just or correct. I want young readers to enjoy a story, and I want to invite them to engage critically with that story’s world.

My hope with Bury’em Deep was that it would be gateway fiction. I wanted Bury’em Deep to steer young readers towards books by N.K. Jemisin. I wanted to introduce classic science fiction questions about the boundaries of humanity, popularized with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner and the old versions of Ghost in the Shell. And I wanted to be honest about the struggles and conflicts in my characters’ lives, not keep troublesome and scary things hidden. That means mentioning the invasion of Ukraine, or allowing similar things to be a part of the setting.

In The Red focuses on being honest with readers about anxiety and panic attacks. My hope is that Bury’em Deep does that with the question of who we count as a person and where that boundary lies. So they’re not quite the same book after all.

Receiver 2: stay safe

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Hunted by kill drones, you’ll sneak through unnervingly empty buildings, scour for messages left by others like you, and hunt down tapes that teach you about the Threat and what you must do to defeat it—while you master every element of your randomly assigned firearm in order to perform well under pressure.

Receiver 2, by Wolfire, is an excellent game. It’s only on Steam right now.

But also, Receiver 2 is not for everyone. Not in a “only cool kids will like this game” way, but in a “you should be ready to engage with strong themes of mental illness, self harm, and the most serious approach to gun safety I’ve seen in a video game” sort of way. Like I said, not for everyone.

I really like this game.

It’s tense. It’s difficult. It is incredibly thorough and extremely well thought out (with a niggling exception that I’ll cover later). It’s the only game I know—besides its game-jam precursor—to bother modeling the underlying mechanisms of the guns you use.

Receiver 2 makes loading, safe-ing, and holstering your gun an actual skill. Learning to clear malfunctions by reflex is necessary, and mastering it is deeply satisfying in a way that simply tapping ‘r’ never is. Receiver 2 also discusses gun safety with extreme frankness, and pushes you to be aware of it constantly. If you screw up or forget, you may shoot yourself.

As someone who’s been a range safety assistant I deeply approve.

Intricately modeled weapons and foes, discoverable story and world-building, maneuvering through the tense spatial puzzles of kill drones’ blindspots in order to achieve your objectives—Receiver 2 is very good. I strongly recommend it, with two qualifications:

The first is that niggling exception from earlier, and something Wolfire says they’re resolving; the game revolves around uncovering tapes to advance through levels, but you lose a level of progress when you quit the game. That’s a problem, and it’s an unfortunate oversight. The game is already challenging, and has no save function, so demoting you a level when you quit feels needlessly punitive. Luckily, Wolfire has said that they’re going to fix that in a patch. Until then, I have read that typing ‘insight’ into the pause screen will advance you one level. Use as you see fit.

Second, if you aren’t in a good space to face strong themes of mental illness and self harm, especially around guns, I recommend caution around this game. I agree with RPS’ review of Receiver 2, but as someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal ideation I think they should have mentioned this content warning.

I’m keeping this non-specific in case you care about spoilers, but Receiver 2 deals with all those aforementioned topics head on. Now, Receiver 2 has one of the most straightforward and positive approaches to discussing depression and suicidal ideation that I’ve seen in a video game. But even though I knew that Receiver 2 had themes of mental illness and self harm, I was *not* ready for what I encountered. I’m glad that I’ve played the game, and I’m extra glad that I’ve *kept* playing because I admire some of Wolfire’s choices in handling these themes. But you should know that this game has difficult content—especially around suicidal ideation and self harm. I want you to be aware of that before you sign up for it.

Sweet Deus, Ex Machina is Good

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This movie has left me feeling conflicted… but not about whether or not I thought it was good.  Ex Machina is excellent.  It is a very good movie, in so many ways.  The people who made this movie knew what they were doing, and they did it very well.  I think I’m going to keep this one on hand as a reference for my own storytelling in the future. Continue reading

Rimworld: The Magic Continues

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Correction: with Alpha 7‘s release, the space magic continues.  Or, uh, the starving frontier space magic, beset by violent thugs and now diseases.  But let’s look on the bright side of things: even as Ludeon has introduced plague, it has also given us the prosthetics and organ harvesting and transplantation, in addition to a welter of other neat new features.

The introduction of prosthetics is far more important than you might realize.  The last version, Alpha 6, introduced a complex medical system which tracks injury and debility by location, though perhaps without quite the same granularity as Dwarf Fortress‘:

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My Alpha 6 colony had a slowly growing number of people who’d lost appendages to chronic cases of gunfire and explosions.  I was forever terrified of having my wonderful and productive citizens maimed horribly while defending the colony.  Now, it looks like we can give our debilitated friends a leg up, so to speak, by building prostheses for them to replace whatever they’ve lost.  Given the constant scarcity of more advanced medical supplies, I foresee specifically targeting raiders with cybernetic prosthetics so that I can strip the things I want from their cold, dead bodies.  Or from their warm and unconscious bodies, if they somehow survive the fusillade of bullets and seem like they aren’t worth rehabilitating.

This is Rimworld, after all, and I already do my best to hunt down fleeing raiders when they’re wearing or carrying things I find especially desirable.  It’s hard to come by powered combat armor without taking it off the body of an erstwhile attacker.  Traits have already made a meaningful entry into the game, affecting everything from move- and work-speed to mental stability and opinions of cannibalism, and there’s nothing quite like having a murder-happy speed demon ready to hunt down your fleeing enemies.  You just have to make sure that they never suffer a mental break or suddenly decide to betray you.

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Rimworld: Sci-Fi Frontier Shipwreck Fiction, Round 2

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The first time I played this game, my people nearly starved to death.  I tried to solve this by getting tricksy and using sunlamps outdoors in order to boost my crop’s growth cycle, only to discover that many electrical systems explode and catch fire when exposed to rain.  I did manage to pull through in the end, but it was pretty tight for a while.

That was all several releases back.  When I last reviewed the game, I mentioned that I thought it wasn’t yet worth its $30 asking price, but that it could be if it continued to develop as well as it had thus far.  Now, here I am several releases later, ready to tell you whether or not I think it’s continued to live up to its earlier promise.

My answer is easy: it has.  I’m not saying that it’s all the way there yet, but the game is damn interesting and its central features have been expanded aggressively over the past few months.  Any given change usually feels small, but the shift from when I first played back in early March has been impressive.  In addition to there simply being more junk that I can make for my colony, the world around my colony has gotten considerably more interesting, and often far more threatening as well.  I won’t cover everything, but…

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Rimworld: Sci-Fi Frontier Shipwreck Fiction

GmX9a8LuhHI set down on the planet with complete awareness of the dangers that I would face, and a steady sense that I would do better than those who had come before me.  As I established my new outpost, eagerly digging into the cliff face nearby to harvest the easily accessed metal and provide my fellow accidental colonists with shelter, I was certain that I was in the right place, doing the right thing.  I planned out my dwelling carefully, designed it with defense in mind, and laughed at the idea that I might have missed any of the silly issues which had so beset the Let’s Plays that I had watched before I picked up the game.

I forgot, of course, to plant any food.  Welcome to Rimworld.

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Sir, You Are Being Alpha’d

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Your merciless foes

Jim Rossignol of Rock Paper Shotgun also runs a game company, called Big Robot.  For one month last year, Big Robot ran a kickstarter project to fund their game Sir, You Are Being Hunted (now available both directly from Big Robot and through Steam).  I backed that project.  This summer, just a few days ago in fact, Big Robot released an alpha of their game to their backers.  Can you see where I’m going with this?  Good.

What follows is a collection of my first impressions of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a game about traipsing across faux-British countryside in search of important MacGuffins while being mercilessly pursued by a very large number of robots with guns.

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