Susan’s Salon: 2020 November 29/30

Putting up Christmas decorations in November

The final Salon for November. Please use the comment section to just chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early Monday (Sydney time which is still Sunday in most countries) . It’s fine to be sad, worried, angry or happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post what you like (either troubling news or pleasant distractions) in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like and be nice to one another 😇

Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)

A slow and thoughtful episode with a cheeky title and overt connections to both The Next Generation and Picard. The risk it runs is playing dangerously close to being dull and/or mawkish but I enjoyed it and the slower pace allows the strong cast to carry the emotional stakes. There are a few surprises, so I’ll put the spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery: Unification III (S3E7)”

What is it like to be in a world

Yesterday I was musing at length about a Video Game Hugo. At that point, I think I was still very focused on story and narrative. Looking back at what I wrote yesterday and what I wrote back in 2015, I can see I used two examples of notable games that I have played and which definitely had significant SFF elements which I stated as not being things I think should win a Hugo. The two examples were:

  • Minecraft
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons

So in both cases I picked games with limited narrative elements.

So I thought I should re-think that. I’m not flipping my earlier view but I really want to reconsider it and see if I end up somewhere else.

Video game arguably offer an opportunity to gives a sense of what it is like to be in a setting. Ironically this is not always the case in the sub-genre of games often classed as role-playing games. Many video game RPG are often anything but. You play a game as a character but unlike table-top role-playing games, you aren’t necessarily getting to shape a character. Instead, more typically you are operating the characters actions rather than shaping their personality. There are notable exceptions and more games emphasising interpersonal aspects of games (including romance options) but that’s taking me away from the main point. Stronger narrative elements make it harder to just BE in a setting.

Setting and world building are a major part of what makes SFF a genre. Science fiction stories can adopt many plot approaches that connect with other genres (romance, adventure, mystery, horror, detective) and even borrow from other genres defined by settings (westerns, historical periods). The mutability of setting and the sense of playing “what if” with how the world/universe might be is fundamental to SFF as a genre.

Games with their own strong underlying plot aren’t inimical to this “what if” quality. Portal, to use an example I used in 2015, had a distinct story but also used a game/puzzle mechanic that took the idea of spatial wormholes and showed you what it would be like to magic up a way to use them at will. Certainly a book or a film can have characters do the same but a video game is obliged to have a consistent behaviour for how this departure from reality works and also forces the player to get to grips with what it would be like to be in a world where such a thing was possible.

Given that, I should really consider the non-narrative SFF elements of a game. Doing so would mean that games without narrative elements should be considered potentially strong contenders. I believe that gives me two criteria to consider:

  1. How good is the video game as a SFF narrative?
  2. How well does the video game give the player a sense of what is like to be in a SFF setting?

I think these two criteria work well with two touchstone examples of games I feel would have deserved a Hugo in the past: Portal and Chrono Trigger. Both had interesting narrative elements and both were strong in the second criteria that captures how game play works with aesthetics and world building.

No, don’t eat that: thanksgiving edition

It is (or is close to being) Thanksgiving in America — a holiday non-Americans are aware of through popular culture but our understanding of it is maybe sort of like it’s a way of doing Christmas twice?

This year Americans have a lot to celebrate, much of America is celebrating Joe Biden’s election and the rest have a wacky new conspiracy theory to relish in. To join in, I visited a local sweet shop and bought the most American thing I could fine, which was a tough competition in a building full of refined sugar. Surprisingly there was a clear winner, although this seems more like a parody of what Americans might eat than an actual product.

“Rocky Road S’Mores” is what is advertised along with ‘homemade’ chocolate, marshmallow, graham crackers and (I’m not sure why) cashews.

The chocolate tasted ‘homemade’ in the sticky not-tempered-properly sense. If I took a bit I could see the nominal graham cracker layer (I’m familiar with the name but I don’t actually know what they are) but there was notable change in taste or texture for that layer. If there were cashews involved they had disguised their presence well.

‘New recipe’, I wonder what the old recipe was?

Video Game Hugo

DisCon III have decided to use their discretionary power to include a one-off (for the time being) Best Video Game category for the 2021 Hugo Awards. Extensive coverage here

I wrote a post on the possibility way, way back in 2015 where I was thinking about ways of focusing the award on the narrative qualities and SFF elements. The Hugo Awards aren’t exclusively about stories but that’s the gravitational centre of them.

Continue reading “Video Game Hugo”

Straw Puppy’s POTUS Polls: The Horror-Farce Edition

Those drapes really bring the room together.

It has been three weeks since the election and while we know who won, a section of the US still hasn’t come to terms with it. The good news is that section is getting smaller and the bad news is that section is getting more entrenched and more divorced from reality. The variety of fantasy ranges from denial to paranoia [archive links].

I said last week: “The Keystone Cop Coup is making little progress in court after multiple legal challenges being effectively laughed out of court”. They have doubled down into absurdity since then with even more outlandish claims in press conferences, which contrast with the court cases that focus on procedural issues with vague hand waving at notions of fraud. While that might sound like the lawyers are being more sensible in court than they are in front of the TV camera, it is more a case of different styles of incompetence in different arenas.

Multiple good news on Covid-19 vaccines

News from the UK is that the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine appears to be at least 70% effective:

“The announcement today takes us another step closer to the time when we can use vaccines to bring an end to the devastation caused by [the virus],” said the vaccine’s architect, Prof Sarah Gilbert.”

That is good news that comes shortly after the announcement from the US that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be 90% effective:

“The developers – Pfizer and BioNTech – described it as a “great day for science and humanity”.
Their vaccine has been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and no safety concerns have been raised.”

What is doubly good is these two vaccines have been developed using completely different principles and work in quite different ways. There are disadvantages to both but in ways that are distinctly different.

As I understand it, the Oxford vaccine uses a different virus (one that causes colds in chimps) to deliver a key protein from the covid coronavirus to provoke our immune system into creating the needed antibodies. A similar vaccine is also under development in Russia and is also showing success

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and a similar one being developed by Moderna ( ) uses a more novel technique, exploiting messenger RNA. The use of mRNA potentially opens up faster and more adaptable vaccine development in general.

“Vaccines train the immune system to recognize the disease-causing part of a virus. Vaccines traditionally contain either weakened viruses or purified signature proteins of the virus.

But an mRNA vaccine is different, because rather than having the viral protein injected, a person receives genetic material – mRNA – that encodes the viral protein. When these genetic instructions are injected into the upper arm, the muscle cells translate them to make the viral protein directly in the body.

This approach mimics what the SARS-CoV-2 does in nature – but the vaccine mRNA codes only for the critical fragment of the viral protein. This gives the immune system a preview of what the real virus looks like without causing disease. This preview gives the immune system time to design powerful antibodies that can neutralize the real virus if the individual is ever infected.”

An added advantage for the mRNA vaccines is that it can be produced without a biological step. Apparently the challenge for mRNA vaccine development has been finding ways of keeping the mRNA sufficiently stable that vaccines can be produced en-masse. While those hurdles have been overcome, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at very cold temperatures and degrades within days even at normal fridge temperatures.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is more conventional and much easier to store. It is also easier to manufacture as it uses existing processes and will be much cheaper than the mRNA based vaccines.

Meanwhile, there are multiple other vaccines for covid-19 under development. This table from a PubMed article in June, has a good overview of the variety of types of vaccines under development.

Susan’s Salon: 2020 November 22/23

The turkey is made from tofu

Well, that was another week, wasn’t it?

Please use the comment section to just chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early Monday (Sydney time which is still Sunday in most countries) . It’s fine to be sad, worried, angry or happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post what you like (either troubling news or pleasant distractions) in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like and be nice to one another 😇

Star Trek Discovery: Scavengers (S3E6)

The core of this episode is a bit weak and cliched but it is surrounded with decent character work.

Book’s ship turns up at Star Fleet HQ with only Grudge the cat on board. With Saru keen to prove Discovery’s reliability to Star Fleet he forbids Michael from going on an impromptu rescue mission. Naturally Michael goes on an impromptu rescue mission.

The mission itself involves Michael and Georgiou visiting a junkyard planet that’s just some sort of rusty mineral processing factory but filmed with a yellow filter to look alien. The factory is run by the bad-guy organised crime gang and populated with slave-prisoners. The slaves can’t escape because they have devices on their necks that blow their heads off if they cross the perimeter. Book is one of the prisoners etc. It’s fine but you’ve seen it all before.

What is better here is that episode finally makes an attempt to deal with the question of Michael’s propensity for rogue missions in a way that is neither court-martial-life-imprisonment nor a pat-on-the-head and praise for what a cheeky scamp she is. The set-up for her disobedience is (more or less) a bit of a genuine dilemma for both Michael and Saru and the consequences for her insubordination are significant and have impact but aren’t absurd or unjust.

Trek has wobbled all over the place with these kinds of issues through every iteration. The problem is creating a dilemma for what are supposed to be military officers that doesn’t imply that at least one party is both an arsehole and shouldn’t be an officer with access to the weapons of a starship. The result adds to the wildly inconsistent portrait of Star Fleet as an institution and as a place where the chain-of-command is on one hand sacred and on the other hand a more of a vague custom rather than something enforced.

Meanwhile, the episode moves things along with whatever mysterious thing is going on with Georgiou and also moves things along with Adira and Stamets. The bridge crew also get new toys. None of which are big plot points (yet) but do demonstrate that the show continues to improve in giving a sense that everybody on the ship aren’t just holograms that wink off when Michael leaves the ship. A short scene with Tilly and Grudge likewise does a lot of this work. You don’t need big speeches or even a B-plot to ensure that a show about a crew of a spaceship feels populated.

ETA Cora makes the valid point that while the slave-worker story is a familiar one, it’s not one that is common in Star Trek