Andrew Schultz has a nervy knack for swervy snacks that train take you to a brain break, and if all the play’s pain slays sane, then at least your frenzied frolic matches the envied aeolic! The antagonist, the Burning Bright Spurning Sprite, is “hoping for SOMEONE, ANYONE who might understand the slightest bit what’s in this” game, and while we might have to tie a little tightest to slightest, why not be fit for the bit?
This game presents you with cryptic rhyme puzzles, where mostly meandering mishmashes of words are thrown at you, and you’ve got to find some tangential rhyme scheme to carry on the meaning. While silly, this can be quite clever: a “freak framing” requires us to rebuke it of “chic shaming” from the “clique claiming” that makes it a rather “bleak blaming”, which helps to solve the situation. That kind of tight sequence of word association wrests wit where writ, leading sometimes to zany amusements. Presented with a mad monk: “>had hunk / You try to claim the mad monk has lost muscle, but the insult doesn’t really land, because with age comes wisdom, and stuff.” This kind of rhyming can be quite cute and inventive, with a delightful puzzle where trudging through slow sludge is solved with “>grow grudge / As your mood hardens, so does the sludge! But you don’t see that right away. You’re busy accepting you’re not perfect and realizing you don’t have to be and recognizing sometimes stewing is better than lashing out. The sludge even recedes a bit. You can go any of the four directions now.” There is a ludic fantasy of possibility implied here, a Norton Juster logicslip where you can end up anywhere just by ceasing your ascent!
Before we jump to conclusions, the game does unfortunately undermine that fantasy, because most of the play sequence consists of typing rhymes that don’t do anything until by sheer brute force you stumble onto the intended one, which often has little to recommend it over any of the unintended ones. In Roaring Rocks, for instance, you need to look for a boring box, which doesn’t really seem connected, other than that the game hints something is hidden? I tried “soaring socks” to jump over the obstacle, which seems like a more intuitive answer, but the game didn’t recognize it. Similarly, at the deep dune, I got it to seep soon, but the game complained that waiting for the seeping would take too long, so I tried a speed spoon, but got nothing. Instead, I’m supposed to leave the room and return? Which feels underdelivered for a game like this. Where the connective logic is more tightly interwoven with the rhymes, that logic can often be bewildering, as in a dizzying sequence that has you manifest a banquet, then cause a crow concert inside a shoe, which gives you a light lute, then you’re teleported? And sometimes the game’s writing makes you seasick: “A stun-steed zooms by, bellowing “None-need-done deed!” Have you lost focus on what’s really important? Or just put in a bit of extra rigor? You decide on the second, as you could also imagine a bin-bare-min mare to insult you for finding no extra neat stuff.” The game is telling me that the puzzle is solved and I can move on unless I want to find bonus points, but insists on doing it in a way that causes maximum whiplash. I suppose it’s hypocritical for me of all people to complain here. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.
Perhaps recognizing the dizziness, Schultz provides some nice features, like a series of helpful items that modulate your experience, such as a Guide Gong (keeps you on the right path), lurking lump (gives you one strong hint), and leet learner (keeps tally of the available rhyme points), all of which are nice customization tools to provide you with whatever additional mooring your mind might need to stern stay to learn lay the word way to keep bored bay. A hint system and a walkthrough add additional clarity.
These added guiderails temper any frustration to allow Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey to thrive on the chase for those sizzles of delight, when, trying to find where a locking lift could lead, you undertake a shocking shift, ending up in a Sore Soul’s Gore Goals, a rather desolate place indeed, but then you breathe life into it through shore shoals and four foals and why not more moles? If, at the end of such a wild ride, “You feel like you learned nothing, and yet, at the same time, you think back to what made you say “Wow, whoah,”” then, with the finishing bow bow, at least you’re left with a hundred percent pure sent pleasant present for constant content.
Midway through this our mortal life: “The train seemed to be slowly moving towards its goal. To my goal, to be exact. The iron car, puffing to its destination, will go back in just a couple of hours — for me it was a one way ticket.” When the train breaks down, waylaying us in a mysterious village, we’re primed for a metaphorical journey of pilgrim’s progress paused, but quite quickly we’re handed a map, given a quest, which opens up another quest, which requires us to manage our inventory, and voila – you have stumbled upon the latest Russovian convergence!
Through this custom system, Twine in form but parser in spirit, characters nod us toward puzzles with glib pretenses: a character wants to get into the train for Reasons, but “I am not on the best of terms with the miserly driver, and without his cap it is simply impossible to get into the cab!” Yes, to get into the driver’s cab, apparently all you need is the driver’s cap. This whimsically arbitrary knockabout of “asking questions will only slow you down” fetch quests sets the tone for a puzzlefest that delights in both continually posing story elements while also subverting them with cheerfully blatant gamey surfaces: ““That the train is drawn on the map, as if it always stands there, like buildings in the city! What is this nonsense? And then, when did you manage to draw the train on the map?” / The mayor slowly drew the tobacco mixture into his bowels and passed his hand in front of my face as if he was stirring something in my head. / “Firstly, relax. Secondly, you are mistaken about buildings. Thirdly, the train stands exactly in the place where it is drawn, I don’t see a mistake here.”” Don’t be concerned about the how, definitely not the why, but the what, oh, we’ve got plenty of the what around here.
Charmingly surreal enthusiasm keeps you always one headscratch behind. You stumble onto the public transportation system, only to be taken for a ride: ““Why doesn’t the tram go?” / “Because there are not enough passengers, it’s clear!” / “Let’s say your passenger is in front of you.” / The man slapped himself on the forehead so that dust rose: / “Kh-kh! Oh, and I wonder why this face is unfamiliar. Are you off the train? The whole town is already talking about you. Let me explain how our trams work. / I tell you: trams run very rarely, basically we can do without them. But sometimes we have to poison jackals, otherwise they rush to people.”” So many questions, but rest assured, none of them will be answered. One Way Ticket commits to the bit, even as it enjoys thinning the bit as much as possible without causing the fourth wall to snap. Taunting you through the graphene grins the game’s humor: “The fence did not look very unapproachable, but I had absolutely no reason to pretend to be either a bee or a monkey, which at all costs had to get close to the flowers.” The implication being, of course, that you will need to puzzle through the fence to collect the flowers.
That creative tension between offhand grabbagging ideas and then committing to them with ebullient certainty bestows brilliant paint, “even yellower than the yellowest cadmium sulfide used by artists to represent the color yellow”, on what might otherwise be industrially mechanical. A statement like ““And what is this city?” / The little man beamed with genuine joy and answered: / “This is the city of which I am the mayor!”” manages to turn a character’s utilitarian flatness into a disarming joke. One character, having finally had his state changed by your successful completion of his fetch quest, shares your relief as we progress to the next set of unexpected whatsits needing whotsits: “"I’m so glad I can finally leave this basement. Frankly, I’m already fed up with the taste of the local hookah — it’s like playing with someone who knows only one opening: boredom is death, the very sense of the game disappears…” The sense of the game, then, appears in the dislocating weirdnesses that keep you guessing, not just through the puzzles, but in the much harder to parse contexts.
Unfortunately, the game dislocates you much more than I think it intends to, which dials up the confusion to migraine. Firstly, the inventory management necessary to solve puzzles is kind of unclear. You have two inventories, a journal full of notes you’ve made and a bag full of items you’re carrying, and you oscillate through them basically at random: to meet the priest for the first time, you need to use a note from your journal about meeting him in the evening to solve a puzzle about turning the sun to change the time, but when you get the fetch quest item for him, you have to use that item from your inventory to turn the sun to change the time. Then, once you give him the item, you need to make it day again, which requires you to use a journal note to change the time. In each instance, the UI obliques the puzzle through an obfuscatory layer roughly correlate with “guess the verb” frustrations.
Secondly, the occasionally haphazard translation can make disambiguating between what’s weird intentionally and what the language barrier has rendered confused difficult: ““Here is the last passenger!" the tram driver exclaimed when he saw me. / “An extremely curious passenger!” the python passenger looked at me angrily. “Here you are, in order to dispel possible misinterpretation.” / The passenger pulled out of his high boots first one, and then another one… hand. / “I’m a right-four-handed, haven’t you met someone like me?” / I was petrified to the point where I couldn’t even shake my head. The two right hands were fingering with the numb fingers pulled out from narrow boots.” So in this scenario, we have the zany puzzle that someone has all their limbs on one side, but when I first read this, I thought it was someone with four arms but who was right handed, a misconception that obscures the puzzle solution you have to later intuit. And uh, why is he a python? “He was like a python put in a box for a hamster serving a python a light breakfast.” Uh. Okay. I guess, um, that clears it up?
Thirdly, the Twinesque UI requires you to click through a lot, but requires precise input on specific screens, which is both more difficult than it needs to be and results in a lot of lost time cycling through or pausing to think if you should intervene in some new way before moving on, etc. Plus it makes movement around the map much more difficult, since each location requires you to click through the same introductory material each time, which can be annoying. Compounded this annoyance, the map is segmented into quadrants, which slows you down by forcing you to travel through hubs to get to the location you want. Given with the sheer amount of needing to wander around and try random things or notice random things that might have inexplicably changed from one moment to the next, it can become exhausting.
But if you can keep pace with the wayward logic, you can enjoy its complex layers of interdependence that lets you trace disparate elements as they course to an emotive core, slowly recognizing the life inside the inexplicable architecture: “The whole building looked crooked and oblique and rather resembled some kind of creature, molded from plasticine and not falling apart only because somewhere inside there were thin, but rigid wires hidden, with invisible ties connecting all unsightly protrusions and corners into a single whole.” Indeed, the game’s delight in inventiveness manifests most obviously in that everyone you meet, even the tavern hostess, is an inventor in disguise, and your job is to help them build their machines and improve the world in excitingly unexpected ways. Perhaps the game describes its madcap inventiveness best: “Some kind of harnesses and chains, which seemed to be randomly wound on the axles and gears of the mechanism, led from wheels to pedals, and from pedals to other wheels, creating a kind of mechanical tangle that I could not unravel at first glance.” And if it all breaks down, leaving you stranded indefinitely? Well, you ought to try the local corn wine.
Inevitably, a trend that emerged during my time in academia was digital humanities. Inevitable because of the pervasive nature of computing, inevitable because great technological change has become synonymous with the passage of time, inevitable because the idea of adding STEM to humanities might yet abate inevitable austerities, inevitable because surely this was a career path to tenure, yet for all that inevitability no one was really sure what exactly digital humanities was, besides inevitable. Lots of experiments were conducted, datasets created and grown and maintained, plenty of words were assigned values and plotted over time, cartloads of terminology were mined out, and yet nothing really seemed to come of it. One fellow postgrad student, our local Digital Humanities Guy, talked about how he was going through an author’s oeuvre, assigning every word a value, and certainly by the time he was done this would mean something. Indeed, as a more enlightened scientific path to literature, the thesis’ experiment apparatus meant that any insight would be an emergent result from reading the data, when it came. In the interim, he was a great chat at the pub. Sadly, I never did hear what resulted from reading the data, if it finally came, but I’m sure that if you talked to him now, he’d have lots of exciting ideas about GPT-3, what that might prove, when it’s ready.
That same combination of grand visions of redefining the possibility space of literary understanding and tiny experiments seemingly bemused by what they demonstrate pertains to this tech demo of stateful narration. Passer makes a very bold go of reimagining engagement contours, and why not, it can be quite exciting. What if interactivity was recast as an emotive call and response, using sentiment analysis to inflect the reader’s ability to empathize and inhabit each character in such a way that they build out the characters’ conflicts themselves, an internalizing prism by which to understand our complicities in the frameworks exhibited by the work, humanizing the characters through our fraught humanity. What if the modes of interactive fiction so far developed were backwards, forcing ideas of agency upon the work, rather than allowing the work to seep into us, gauge our each flinch and riposte, hear how the song sounds echoing from our hearts’ acoustics? What if the layer afforded by interactivity is a new dimension of literature’s spiritual planishing, a work that not only changes us but which can be changed by us? As Passer states, “When I reframed “interactive” in terms of a state change, I realized I could partition entities into stateful and stateless entities. A person is a stateful entity, right? The state of a human can change. A printed book is a stateless entity; nothing can change the state of a printed book without damaging it. With this framing, I saw an insight that a stateless entity (e.g., printed book) can change the state of a stateful entity (e.g., human reader), which I labeled as noematic interaction. This is why I feel uncomfortable labeling stateless writing as “static” writing; there is a state change occurring to a human reader from a printed book. A process that causes a state change doesn’t intuitively feel static.” Rather than a parser purveying a formalistic distance of verb driven agency, what if our input happened on the level of the writing itself, filling in words ourselves at critical junctures, a writing that leaps from the page into a dialogue? Where could that take us?
Not here, not yet. The Lottery Ticket doesn’t quite have the engine to match its drive. The Lottery Ticket, to the extent that it is by Dorian Passer and not by Anton Chekhov, is a frame story that mirrors the narrative conceit, but which lacks the emotive depth in Chekhov, and which seems mostly disconnected from it; the only meaningful dovetail is the stormy ending of Chekhov being opposed to a “happy I have my friends” summeriness in Passer. Indeed, the embedding of Chekhov seems somewhere between a cheap meta gimmick and a structural support for a story which might otherwise not stand on its own. The idea of adding something to or on top of Chekhov seems misconceived to me, and distracts from what the story might be better suited doing, which is animating the abstract ideas going into it, rendering alive the airy theorizing.
That split focus between, a) trying to improvise some layer where we are reading the characters reading Chekhov and isn’t this just how stateful narration can superimpose etc etc, and b) delivering a novel system of response that stages a standalone artistic effort, results in a tech demo that doesn’t really know what it’s demoing. The headline idea, a parser that asks for your emotive response, is underdelivered, with throwaway stakes and corridored responses: “I can tell that Jas is getting a bit down whenever we complain about that sauce. / For the past week, Fran has been protesting with these dramatic gagging noises, even though she still devours it. I still pretend like I’m happy to chow down on it. / I wonder if Jas is _____ to eat that sauce again herself?” None of this really entails our immersion: we barely know these characters to assign value to their feelings, the blank thought we are expected to fill is sufficiently superfluous and dry to invite nothing but the blankness, and the setup nudges us with a prebuilt answer that makes us wonder why we’re spending so much effort trying to be stateful. Like, a character talks about Toria’s feelings as she waits for a lottery ticket, to which we’re invited to reply: “Oh, you know, very ____ over here.” Yes, excited, nervous, any nearby word you want to add. It’s more data entry than interactivity. Trying to wrestle some nuance out of the system, I entered “serene”, trying to recast Toria as at peace with the outcome of the lottery, which won me the following engagement: “Who am I kidding? I’m very nervous. That’s why I’m digging into my fingers…” Which basically dismantles every conceit that has gone into this. Whatever a stateful narration could be, it isn’t this. I think this is just a captcha.
Again, a great chat at a pub, but we still await Passer’s vision for a stateful narration, however that might work, when it comes, if it coheres.
In the postapocalyptic physicalization of the shells which consume us, we wrestle life out of the myriad compounding pressures threatening unlife. Only the past’s remains remains, how we strain within it to undecay. Simplifying the complexities of rampant overurbanized hypercompetition, we sneak past faceless devouring crowds to find food enough to keep our microcommunities alive. Nomads of a landscape not designed for your survival, until slowly you accept you haven’t, merely await some sacrifice to suffice nobility in the sundering. Otherwise, no one left, why then you, who even are you? “He should have killed himself after they died.”
January struggles in its search for an answer, rewriting itself constantly, overcoming concrete patterns of distortion to rewind the words to soften the starkness of the silence that gulfs the calendar, find amidst the scatterings some story to live, some way to render the neutralizing distance into an inhabitable I. In postapocalyptic physicality, this survival is cobbled of exertions through too tangible excruciations, gag reflexes overcome to swallow this day’s sustenance: “It took two hammer swings to remove the doorknob. The pet store’s door sagged inward, and he made the mistake of following it. Instantly he gagged; the rancid fish-death stench hit his nose and bloated down his throat like chewed oysters coming back up, gelatinous and greased and rotten. He retched and stumbled back to the cart, shoving the cat aside to grab a pack of gingersnaps. He crammed two into his mouth. Then he stuck his face in the pack and breathed ginger until the bile drained out of his throat and down to his stomach.” Every act drains more than it sustains, you’ve never enough, it could be so easy to release, but you have to keep searching through the pain for shelter, the discomforts accreting your restlessness: “In an effort to outpace the storm, they had travelled too hard. Exhaustion soaked through him like melting snow and slushed his bones. By midday, the stormclouds had overtaken them, and his head throbbed with the weight of the imminent snowfall. He stopped and pitched the tent. If the storm trapped them here, at least they could boil fresh water from the snow. He should have made lunch for them, but dizziness unsteadied his hands, and his eyes closed and closed when he tried to open them. The stormclouds swelled in his head.” Strain you don’t have to think about, feeling is more than enough to try to process, no energy left to pretend a self of all the sweat, simply submit to an endless rush of incident in the vain hope for an equilibrium, despair that you are the disequilibria being crushed back to the empty serene.
Which curdles the postapocalyptic into a deadend, the deadening until at last in mercy the ending. Any home only for as long as fulfils an arc, then, with nowhere else to go, shunted off elsewhere, until the energy of the tropes run dry, and some violent denouement is wrested from the long taper. So January goes, until the exhaustion gives way to ennobling sacrifice, giving oneself as sustenance to ensure others endure: ““You’ll eat me, won’t you? As long as I get all the clothes out of the way.” / He rubbed his red nose and sniffed again as the cat wandered away. Abruptly he did not like the thought of it, lying there naked in the road like a plucked flower, his fat pink fingers and the red petals of head blood and the private white stamen of his stomach on display. It would be a shame—shameful, he meant—to be found looking like a picked flower. He consoled himself with knowing that he wouldn’t look that way for even an hour. After that, he would just be meat.” So it goes.
As we follow the calendar’s steady progression to the end, a January giving way to new January, the primary engine of engagement that drives us through the course is a painterly enjoyment: “Like ants spewed from a poisoned colony, dozens of bodies radiated from the firepit in dazed concentric circles. They had collapsed to the ground gently, some with enough time to fold their hands over their chest or curl up on their sides like drained spider husks. Many were naked, and all whole, unbloodied, unmangled. The morning frost powdered their skin, clumps of white offset by the black frostbite that stained their fingers and toes.” Heavy emphasis on choosing the view, the colors, their kaleidoscope. Visuals given careful touches, until the composition sits just so, gallery ready: “The cold air caught him like an old pair of jeans, familiar and tightly cinched around his middle. He tugged the collar of his coat over his mouth and looked back at the house. A Rockwell painting still. Nothing stirred. In the bottom-right corner of the painting the artist had added one detail: a parted curtain, hand unseen, and the sandy head of a child just tall enough to be visible over the window sill.”
In smaller fragments, a brilliance of details can be magnetic, tugging us from one surprise to another: from “the garden still smelled of sunrise” to “The sensation dredged him up from the tarry depths of another gasoline dream”. The postapocalyptic physicality can empower a pounceable poetry: “A fat green bottlefly veered into his eye. It plinked off his flinched eyelid, and he swore and swatted at the buzzy air.” We feel each jostle and twinge, yet a dexterous clarity keeps us focused through the recoil. Even when the colors fade and we find ourselves in chiaroscuro, hatches still sharpen the dynamics’ immersions: “Before then, he had tapped the water from time to time, hoping the shimmer under the surface might feign fishlike and lure the cat into something. But the darkness became profound.” January keeps its sketchbook ready to capture the filiation of moments that photographs cannot.
Much of this sharpness bruises on the caricature bleakness of postapocalypse grittiness, providing painterly insight into a doldrum of dours: “A wire bisected the empty silo. / From the well-water-blue circle of sky descended a bird. Black. Glossy and corvine of some kind. He never learned the difference between ravens and crows. The bird swept in and worked its wings to halt above the wire. Its dusty flapping dissipated in the sterile silo air like the fading ripples of skipped river stones. The instant the bird’s talons gripped the wire, it electrified. / The shock wired the bird in place. Every muscle contorted. The talons viced around the burning wire as the body shuddered, feathers a soft black buzzing sight. The electricity must have clamped the bird's mandibles shut, for it made no sound as the shock turned to heat. Its talons sludged around the wire, forming a dripping magmatic mass that hardened into long intestinal globs of black plastic. The feathers frayed, charred, black to black, ash shivering off the bird like fog rolling off the sea. / Below, the ash began to accumulate. / The bird lost its eyes next, weeping like hot rubber from the sockets, and its beak, cracking loose like a snipped nail. The fused halves of the beak landed in the swelling pile of ash below. The bird’s body was all stain, all mar, no feathers or skin now, only a curdled black carapace of burns. The pyramid of ash trickled higher. It shaped the silo into a perfect hourglass: the bird could have stepped neatly off the wire and onto the solid pile of ash.” Prestezza shocks in hues and shapes: a wire, a sky, a bird. Definition is resisted, with the opportunity to elaborate on “corvine” being swatted away for “never learned the difference”, emphasizing instead the motionblur swatches, a dizzy overlay of rigidity and contortions spilling out in a merged “black buzzing” that overtakes the logic of the scene, overriding into excess imagery that solders out any prior purpose, creeping in grotesques of “dripping magmatic mass that hardened into long intestinal globs” and “weeping like hot rubber”. The bacchanal surrealism of unbounded imagery helixes the reader from the initial grounding to an increasingly for-itself macabre. Unfortunately, much of the effect of such a rupture depends upon the sequence it is rupturing: were the characters to just get on with a scene after such a setting, a ludic intensity might emerge; were the characters subject to a cavalcade of such scenes, futilely attempting to carry on with narrative, a grungy psychedelism might emerge; but as a standalone vignette, disjuncting only the dry comment “Rarely, these days, did he have meat to cook.”, the outcome is instead a little silly and adolescent. Having one note is not made better through fortissimo.
The painterliness works better wherever it slips free of the limited band of emotive intent, allowing an idea to shoot through and bloom: “He passed time by naming the flowers. It surprised him how many empty names existed in his mind. He could recite an alphabet’s worth of them: aster, bluebonnet, chrysanthemum... / Some of them he recognized—rose, tulip—but the rest, he blindly reassigned. / He found a sprig of stubby flowers bowered beneath a tree. They huddled together in an unfriendly way, white-petaled, small-eyed, so he called them elderflowers. On the side of the road, fuzzy yellow things sprouted from the earth like uncombed licks of hair. He knew that daisies were yellow, and so daisies they became, and the cat entertained itself by weaving through them, its feathery tail flicking among the flowerheads like it might convince them it belonged. / Coral tree-buds became peonies; umbrella-wide blooms, dahlias; a weeping of top-heavy bells, willowseeds.” There’s a lot here to like, from playing with nominative characteristics to jaunty fantastettes like the cat’s tail. What’s most interesting, though, is that not knowing the names of flowers, rather than capping the details, becomes an invitation to creatively play with the vibrancies to reappreciate each flower as if for the first time, delighting in the fidelity of being enabled via elderly elderflowers and weeping willowseeds.
Like everyone, I find Cormac McCarthy astonishing. However, I found The Road ridiculous, with its clipped dingeries and scowling misanthropies skewing too jejune. McCarthy’s garrulous callousings don’t add anything to the garrulous, the calloused, and any moreness made of it seems to make less of both artist and subject. Rather, I found McCarthy’s most effective work was the contemplative, inchoate Suttree. Scavenging around Knoxville’s rivermud fringes, we feel at home in McCarthy’s grime, at last seeing beauty and humanity as he discovers.
Relationships are innately allegorical, a liturgy of symbols the deify manifold particulars into universal abstracts; the thousand thoughts racing through our heads are unique to us, but thousands have sobbed into their pillows just like this, thousands will again. A charged statement, the stumblesighed admission of finality, that could have been said by anyone, was specifically said by you: “I’m saying that I don’t know if this is still the– the best thing for us.”
Interplay between empathetic recognition and gradual revelation grips us into the push and pull and shove, with each begging for groundedness like “I won’t take it. You’re not walking out on me until you give me a semblance of a reason for leaving.” heaving into entanglements which cannot be contained in any constituent unit, an ambient esprit which pervades unisolated in our isolating: “Her: I– / Where is this coming from? / … / Me: N-nowhere. In particular.” Because, when we drill down to the reasons for the breakup, we seem to be slipping further away from what we wanted to say, diluted by all the things we’ll wish we didn’t say. When we come to the specifics of a complaint, it seems almost irrelevant, each implication into explanation rendering it moreso: “Her name’s not Link. She saw my Zelda tattoo on my wrist when I was taking her order at the shop, and when I asked for her name, she said “Link”. / While I was preparing her latte, she stood over the counter and tried to talk about the games with me. And I told her that I didn’t actually know that much about them. That the tattoo was for my grandfather. But she still insisted on making small talk. / And she came by every day at 4:30. She liked the music that I was playing at the café and gave me her number so I could send the playlist to her.” What does all that add up to? Not this loss. The twists and turns of who cheated or maybe cheated with who bloat over the core malaise of disconnect, just another tactic in a long list of not so clean extractions, a series of excuses emphasizing its first syllable: “Look– I love you. I love you. So much. / My hands start shaking as I try to hold back my tears. / But– I don’t think I’m in the best place right now to try to… work this out. I don’t think I can give this relationship what it needs right now. And I don’t think you deserve that.” A calcified reiteration of love to cohere our sense of honesty contiguous with how we mumbled the same thing only hours ago, somehow congeal a consistent propriety out of sudden severance, even a kind of altruistic care, ever so considerate about what the other deserves, renunciation as a supreme sacrificial love, don’t you see how affectionate I am, abandoning you like this? Knowingly, she insists on the lie, embarrassing us to another redoubt: “Her: Look– I know we’re in a rough spot. I know. / But I don’t need you to give us a 100%, if you don’t– if you can’t. I get it. I’ll give more than my 100% for a bit, if you need me to. / [Thinking:] Fuck. Fuck– no. This is not– / This is making it harder. / Why is she saying this?” What would she prefer, we acidically grimace, that we stark down to hatreds? And I thought she loved me!
Breakups resist preserving recharcterizations; vain attempt to endure in endings. Alienation persists, and that’s the intention. “Her: Where– / Where was all this before? / Huh? / Why / did you wait / until now?” Fantasy break of intimacy when presented with the richly inaccessible inner lives we carry beneath each curated connection. Actually, the person you’ve known so deeply isn’t a person, but a portrait made of the parts of themselves you have sought, they have revealed, and the true consciousness lies forever beyond you, no one will ever be with you the way you must be, marooned. Every painful echo and its nowhere implied: “And somewhere along the way I forgot how deplorable my existence was without yours. It was so– so empty, so inhuman– I couldn’t even hurt. There was nothing to be hurt about. And the first time I did– that I hurt– I felt that I had finally come into my own. / And forgot why I was able to hurt in the first place.” Breakages as an identity stronger than the one that held us an us.
That we don’t wrestle out a satisfactory conclusion, no resolution but only an after, is germane to the theme, but perhaps could have been more intentionally refined. There are juicy bursts of lyricism like “Her eyes develop a crystalline envelope” but the cavalcade of cryings can become somewhat cloying and don’t always emote as desired: “My face turns to my left, the twinkling lights of the city’s buildings merging with each other as tears infect my eyes.” Almost a poignant image, but the palpably wrong verb “infect” clangs it out of tune. The timed text is a further frustration. As an effect, perhaps it can be primed to impact, but as a standardization, it’s just annoying, reading with staccato lagginess. This work invites multiple readings, yet anyone who has tapped their fingers to the finish will be ill inclined to route back to the start. It’s also misconceived for the theme, rendering glacial a situation which should feel frenetic, intense, freewheeling out of control. Also, I hit a debug screen: “The (if:) changer should be stored in a variable or attached to a hook.” So that could be fixed.
But if it’s all a bit messy, so are we: “And as messy as hers– my mind churns with doubt and fear, unable to trace the link in between thoughts, scenarios, and choices; with all the things that led to this moment, and the ever-lingering question of if, in what seems to be our final hour, / she will finally tell me the truth.” Nowhere we turn to holds any of it together, so perhaps, really this time, we deserve better than this, and we can in love choose not to assign blames, maintain grudges, calcify the hurt, and simply and sweetly accept delicate destruction: “So please– just let me let you go.” Wishing we both might find better paths than the one we’ve shared. Still, as the door clicks behind you, a pang to echo through so many sleepless nights: “the end. / ...unless you don't want it to be.”
“What am I for? How do I do what I am for?” asks the city to itself, and you the courier reply, judging the answer from the linkages you make, break, escape. A city of inventive momentum wresting industry from the sands, automaton hive built of billions of little like yous amalgamated into “Infrastructure, precious and invisible”, prisms you only through what you carry, whether you choose to carry it with you, down through “the myriad paths beneath.”
In a relatively compact pinball sequence, we are given five or six or seven threads, however many may the completionist collect, which our courier can unravel to see behind the weft the touches fragilely interdigitating motionblur vistas. Conduin, a city in steampunk arabesque, hums neon with Proper Noun fantasies that keep the world always one secret ahead, as you chase vignettes that can’t be explained without footnotes, though these details do not detain the reader but supercharge them through thematic skeins, stylism Ursula K. Le Guin.
Or at least, at its best, it does. The prose zeniths in a vibrant fluency that keeps its aorta pumping: “You watch the shock of jolt streak from the collector behind you out across twisting brutalist sandstone roofworks, powering domiciles rumbling to life with the morning, musical inventions, tools of industry carving out the Tourmaline District at the far edge of Conduin's circular city walls.” Little phrases like watching “the shock of jolt streak” work on their own as unexpected turns, but which shed shadows as you realize that “jolt” is the in universe name for the magical electricity harvested from the eternal storm above. Similarly, the story uses the ways this fantasy directly entwines with our current malaises to build a ready rapport that has us eager to explore some more: “As the city grows, its residents become accustomed to wonders beyond understanding. Endless water pouring from its heart, geologicians pulling clastic stone structure from the sand in mere days, the sky itself tamed in the name of invented light and sound. Citizens carry lightning in their pockets, humming battery-wands sheathed in stone to transfer payment. You can hear the zap-buzz of commerce now, whirring contraptions winding up to fill sitting halls with constant novelty, if not harmony.” This is the kind of pseudounfamiliarization that is easy to bobble to eyerolls, indeed the last sentence starts wobbling, but here it injects a selfreflective vision of place to make it feel lived in, worried in. When the story keeps running down the powerlines, it really works.
That wobbling of the spinning top hits most when the desire for exposition floods free of the canals, forcing us into screeching halt wiki entries: “You get the sense she's drifted deeply into thought. The crease in her brow deepens, and she flexes her scarred fingers. / "You know the Unseen Strings?" She finally says. / "Is that a book?" / You offer your best guess. / "Good one." She says. "But no. It's that beyond sight which puppets us. Hunger, emotion, duty. What we sense people want from us. Streetborn call them Strings. Do you think we are slaves to them? Do we have a scrap of a choice?"” Nod to the fourth wall exposition, just so anyone from another world listening in doesn’t have to be kept curious. This anxiety about ambiguity dulls some of the otherwise excellent razorsharp descriptions: “Upward, tiered hard angles create a tempting staircase, though you know as soon as you place a foot off the ground the Constables could be on you.” The first phrase of the sentence is wonderfully resonant imagery, but then the insistence on worldbuilding rushes into the room to ruin the mood, breathlessly explaining the civic ordinance with your lawyer’s concern. Sometimes, with an editor’s touch, you want to prune sentences to focus on the flowers: “A painting of deep, reverent colour occupies a place of honour in the center of the room” says it all, but then it says more.
With every whirl it does not wobble we twist through dizzy streams of delights to alight on a detail enlivened with fear of steel outclanging beauty’s silence: “Conduin's walls are high enough now to make sunrise a little later, sunset early.” Enmeshed in a matrix of designs increasingly more intricate than we: “What next? Another intrusive thought. How long before the city finally proves me obsolete? / A question too big for your body. The idle melodic hum at your side pulls you back.” And yet it’s hard not to get carried along by the music unique to this world, as in lovely vernacular chirps like “You find Sixwise Chimmering a fewfolk up from street level, in a walkup with a fading façade.” The linguistic music timbres each faction unique, especially the Sympaths, whose formalist dataset neologizes in tongues: “Weldingsand, unfolding mindflower how. Internal lightning.” and "Lexical semiotic selection lightningrod.” and, best of all, “Wireframe web in the wind of others' speech. Interlocuter output taxonomization, categorization.” With clockmaker’s tightness, “wind” can be breeze to play with “web” or it can be turning to play with “wireframe”, and how both of these play together inlays the diamond gleam.
Thus, all the Proper Nouns, rather than dwell aloof in Lore, prove fecund with painterly possibilities: “Gold fluid - sparkling in a ray through the hexagonal drystorm clouds above, thick, attempting to congeal - is gushing from the wound in their midsection.” Presented with all these presiding curiosities, your choices reflect a personality through fragrant spices that mull your streetwine worldview, whichever you wish to adopt: “If there's one thing guaranteed in life, it's adaptation. / Perhaps the street might overtake the desert itself. / Or perhaps they will always be flowing into one another.” A great choice tree that reflects many different philosophies on the same observation without feeling pitched. The kind of off-hand thought that reflects onto what the dominant hand holds.
Whichever outcome we grasp hard won, or swiftly stolen, we find a tenuous peace with the city, our place within it or without it. Swerving severances like “Even as a beggar, you've never asked like this” simply strengthen your resolutions more empowered than the jolt all aclattering in the machinery and the mastery: “Freedom was made to be bought, but you dare seize it from thin air.” Because, somewhere, wherever amidst the sprawling you stop falling, is not simply the city, is where you live.
Continuity of place records the fragments we scatter within it. Though we can never create a complete picture of the peopling into memory, still it retains a frame, a reel of rooms we were in years ago, of streets we drive each day, of landmarks we never visit but which loom over us as if we belonged to its enduring, though we know we do not, and we find ourselves some place else, doubly alienated from the gone and the begone: “"I could never have left while there were more stories to hear, to learn, to catalogue and archive. Stories are so fragile, perspectives so ephemeral! They disappear and leave the world poorer for their absence. It doesn't matter that the void left behind will be filled by some new telling (which I will always also crave, and devour); must those stories be lost? Must there always be forgetting to usher in imagination?"”
The struggle to catalogue a lost place, and everything that was once possible in that place, animates our struggle against the obscurity of memory: “Even now I sometimes struggle to recall the actual events of that meeting and not the hundred ways in which I have told and retold the story in the five years since: to my friends and, later, my editors; to the research librarians and cryptobiologists I consulted in the dodgy underbellies of the academic-industrial complex; to the glittering glitterati of the donor class, those brahmins of the City whose funding feeds the fringe-work (performance, poetry, painting--even it turns out, mythohistoric research), fattening it up until it can pass as avant garde, or perhaps--if you're lucky--even "cutting edge."” Contextual fantasization of the known lost allegorizes the elves into a wistful wishfulness for what the past could have been like. Elves, as we learn about the wild idylls in which they lived, are ghostly redolent with elegance, an edenic majesty of sylvan urbanity. For example, the signage that litters our cities with lights is amplified in the elven fantasy as an ornate grandeur of authentic engagement through a rich tradition of textile artistry: “Three times as tall as they are wide, (which apparently made for a pleasant reading experience, according to the stranger) each panel had embroidered upon it a fable, folktale, history, or family story of the elven people. These were stitched, by hand, upon their homes and businesses, their temples and brothels; decorated the façades of every theater and every warehouse. They were the responsibility of the owner or caretaker of the building, and their upkeep was considered a civic duty. / "The embroidery wasn't pure Elvish script, you understand. Instead it partially converted the logograms you would find in the history books back into their originating imagery, which made for a more illustrative retelling than the written words. The creative process of doing so also allowed for a lot of artistic imagination: commentary upon and reinterpretation of those histories by the textile artists of later generations was not just permitted--it was expected, demanded, and depended upon."” The rigorous specificity of recall, giving us the dimensions of the panels, grants us the archival certainty upon which we can found a conjectural fancy, imagining the colorful whirlwind of centuries of compounded artistic tradition. The elves, in their heightened aesthetic, decorate the city with the ways that historical reinterpretation of one’s place within a city could stitch together the people who dwell according to those lines, who come to embody where they echo, a public celebration of creativity and identity of which we, bombarded by advertisements, might prove envious. Glancing around our own pale imitations, we can appreciate any illustration that paints their gaps.
Absence sustains fantasy through alterity, finally drifting free from the decay that defines our own relationships with place. The story of the elves appears from a stranger who emerges just at the point that the city of the present breaks down, fails to blind us with the lights that could outshine other ways of living: “Yes, that was it: a stranger met on the Night of Candles, when the runes and wards holding back the weight of the earth had collapsed, crushing the delicate pipes that snaked down from the northern reservoirs and cutting off the supply of gas for the City's lights. In response, the Guild of Engineers decided to use the recently-completed electroalchemical power plant, first of its kind, to relight the lamps winking out across the city. Overtaxed by the sudden increase in demand, the electroalchemical plant caught on fire, plunging the city into darkness for a second time.” Informational density sputters entropic through prose hinting at scenery only to burn it down, a series of details that matter and then don’t matter and then are replaced by other ephemera which matter, don’t. This cascade of replaceable things is ruptured by a dream of irreplaceable things, “a living gloss on the staid, hide-bound histories--more colorful and contradictory, fluid but also fragile,” a vitality that imprints upon the material, but which cannot be preserved, remaining only through traditions that persist from interpretation to interpretation, accreting substance and sensibility, a legacy whose self-referential loop reinforces their daised deserving: ““The elves held memory and history in the highest regard. Elven historians and scholars of archeology and anthropology were unparalleled; the archives they left behind are to this day considered paragons which every human library and museum aspires to match.” Curators of longing, their each attribute lovingly pinned by lepidopterist trivia endless teasing you through library stacks until you’ve finally forgotten where you came from.
The elegiac obsessiveness pierces the initial mystery of memory at which the story gestures, opting instead for a detailed civic engineering tour: "The elven architects were a bit different in training than our own stonemasons and master builders. Their tools certainly included the triangle and compass, but also the loom and the needle. They were mistresses and masters of knots and stitches, drapes and pleats. / “Each wall was made from many individual panels of fabric. These panels were of a fixed proportion, three times as high as they were wide. Toggles held the panels together, but could be undone to create doorways where needed or desired. Once a year, to mark the height of spring, every closure of every panel wall in Wild Idyll was undone, and the wind blew through the city unobstructed, blowing out bad air and spirits, blowing in the petals of flowers and pollen of new growth.” Before long, you realize you are being given a lecture, and it’s here that that obsession with lost elegance becomes reductively comparative to the present, a classicist sneer in Carrara marble against all the barbarians milling below, the refined traditions and courtly excess of the elves an ornate display with clear import: “you're not wrong about the preoccupation of Elvish with indicating status. Overall, that is exactly how the language behaves, and many newcomers to Wild Idyll found themselves in situations both ridiculous and tragic--until they gained a better grasp of the Elvish tongue.” The yearning for a past more perfect mimics the unidirectional polarity of majesty beyond your ken, with each superlative laurel of elvish culture forming a complexity that elevates the individual only through assimilation, with judgment scouring away any skeptical pull away towards the present: “"But you're right to notice that the simplicity of variants for 'hello' are a notable exception to the Elvish language generally. The vocabulary for 'goodbye' is unusual as well, but in the opposite way." / "In the opposite way, how?" I inquired. / "Well, where there were just three ways of saying 'Hello,' Elvish had 497 different words for 'goodbye'!" / "497? Really?" I said, skeptically. / "Give or take a dozen, I suppose, depending on how persnickety you're being." Their stare was expressionless and unimpressed by my skepticism. "Regardless, you must admit it's a lot to learn, and certain to be confusing." / The stranger steepled their fingers in front of lips pursed in thought. "Let me explain a bit further."” Unimpressed by your unwillingness to learn, the explanations resume, avalanching more details that absolutely will be on the final exam. When, reformed into being a better student, you start intuiting the next lesson with your questions, you receive converse praise: “"You are very perceptive indeed," they said, "and what you say is largely true."”
The vertex of a past whose loss is rhapsodized in fantasy and a didactic unipolarity of complex adoration appears, unsurprisingly, in a kind of colonial selfinvolvement: “"The last farewell of the elves was bigger than any one person's ending; it was reserved for marking the death of whole worlds."” A farewell to everything coincides with the disappearance of the elves, a farewell that we learn “is nothing less than the very name of this great City in which I live, this city of humankind, christened by the elves with their final farewell.” The death of the whole world, sighs the elves, as they leave a world which goes on without them. The perfected disappeared overloads the imperfect present into a selfevidencing symptom of degradation in which the humans, in their lessened aesthetic, become coextensive with the disdain that our companion holds for the loss of past grandeurs: “Their voice, when at last they spoke, was hushed at first, yet leaked bitterness. "Goodbyes are so...violent. So final. I hate goodbyes. I hate all 497 ways of fucking saying fucking goodbye. But especially the last one. I truly despise that word, because all it is, all it embodies is...cowardly despair. And when the time came, when my parents and sisters and brother and all the aunts and uncles; my friends, my colleagues, my lovers and ex-lovers; my queen, my lords and ladies of estate, the temple priests who taught me to read the history of the city in its fabric walls, the teachers from whom I learned everything--when every single one of them uttered that hateful word and left the world behind, left Wild Idyll behind, abandoned their--our--city!...”” Thus our stranger endures a stranger in a city no longer ours, the power of their history no longer power nor history.
The loss of the ours isolates the individual into a togetherness they have to share as a loneliness, a series of stories that have lost their binding, as when our companion recalls the noodle shop where he listened to the stories of his patrons is “Gone in the way that even the places you deem most essential--its greatest institutions--can disappear in a city. And that was how I learned a very important truth, that everyone learns, but each in a different way: nothing is permanent. That in a city, even more than the countryside villages and farms where I had lived before, change was the only constant; and the only way a city could stay alive was for it to constantly reinvent itself.”” The world’s going on becomes a death not just of you, but of us, of every specificity by which you were conceived, by which you could conceive others. “When a world dies it is so a new one can emerge, screaming, from its bones and blood.” And they look back on you, but you were never here.