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Weekend

With swim season over, there was no swim meet this weekend. I celebrated by making banana bread for breakfast, which DesignGirl declared absolutely delicious. (We had all these bananas going bad, y'know?)

The swim team banquet was Saturday night. DesignGirl got a towel award, as she improved her time every meet for six weeks. Yay, girl! In fact, the team gave out 13 towel awards, which is the most that they've ever given out. Even weirder, they had 50 kids on the pre-team (those who can't swim well enough yet for the main team), which usually has 10-20 kids.

I made orange fluff for the banquet. At first, I was worried because nobody was eating the fluffy. When I went back there to check not half of it was gone. What's wrong with kids these days that they don't eat orange fluff? Well, somebody discovered that it was good as they had done everything but lick the pan when I checked a second time. YES! Better yet, we didn't have to take any home.

The real high-five goes to Meg, who made her mashed-potato and meatloaf cake. Bake a round meatloaf, cover it with purple mashed potatoes, and pipe on white mashed potatoes. It really did look like a cake. And who can go wrong with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

I was a weeding fool over the weekend. In addition to mowing the lawn, I had to get the weeds away from the AC unit. It's too hot to block the air flow. After quite a bit of work, I had half (maybe 2/3) of the side bed cleared out. I also cleared more from the fig tree, and more from the blueberry bed. At this point, I still have lots and lots to do.

Between all that, I played too much Final Fantasy X. It was my go-to game all day. At this point, I'm grinding up AP by collecting monsters for the monster arena.

DesignGirl finished my Final Fantasy inspired story. She loved it, but now wants MORE. Marketing research was a success.

This week's raisin bread loaf proofed too long. (That baker terminology for rising.) Next week's raising bread will proof far less.

The Beginning Place (1979)

The Beginning Place (1979) by Urusula LeGuin was one of those books that I used to see in the library. Something about the title grabbed me, but I never quite got around to picking it up. I thought it was a young adult book, but in that, I was wrong. Now we would call it a new adult book.

This book challenges my ability to summarize it, or even understand it. Although pegged as part romance, it doesn't progress as you would expect a romance to progress. The man isn't strong. The woman isn't beautiful. Their destinies are not perfect together, if only they'd see it. Quite honestly, what we have is two normally hurt people trying to turn themselves into competent adults, and having a too few role models to fall back on.

Meanwhile, we have the fantasy world which is vaguely gothic in feel, always evening, yet usually pleasant and welcoming. The world itself seems to have rules rather than overt magic steamrolling the narrative. This is not a story of overt magic. This world feels substantially more whole, feeds our protagonists in a more satisfying way. And while they are they, time almost stops, but never completely enough to forget yourself. The responsibilities of the real world always pull them out.

Although I'd like to rate this highly, I found that the story left me, as a person, a bit emptier. The romance felt rushed and perfunctory. The ending felt out of character. The symbolism left me hanging. Whatever this book was supposed to be, or aimed to be, I feel that it went too far in too many directions to leave it much of anything. Like a hollow chocolate bunny, an outside layer of delicious can't hide the empty middle.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001) is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. Replaying this game fifteen years later, I still find the story solid, the mechanics solid, the game play solid, and the mini-games so god-screamingly fubar that I want to murder a game developer. For this revisit, I bought the Remastered HD version for PC.

The HD remaster looks very, very nice, while retaining the bright colors and vibrancy of the original version. Thank you, artists, for not ruining the wonderful aesthetic. FFX is truly one of the most beautiful RPGs ever created.

The story itself follows the understandable Final Fantasy arc. We get a team, a crisis, a journey, eventually leading to an airship, and a final boss battle in an etherial place. It's what they did from there that made the story work. This is the first FF (I think) where a major point of the story is the romance between the hero and the heroine. It's a tragic love story. Over the course of the story, we learn that if she succeed, she dies, but if he succeed, then he dies. Our lovers are star crossed, their eternal longing certain. It's the success of this element, played straight, that expanded the story from being a boy's story to being and everybody story. Add to that the story of the previous generation, told through flashbacks, the stories of all the other companions, and the stories of other peoples, and you get a FF so packed with story that it splits its seams when it laughs.

You see all the usual FF classes, all the same, and yet all a little different. Yuna is both a summoner and a white mage, and the Aeons she summons don't just flash through for a round, but stick around and fight as their own beings. With the Aeons being so powerful, it means that Yuna is easily the most powerful character in the game when you need her to be. Lulu is a black mage, down to her black dress. She doesn't have a pointy hat, but her stuff animals that she uses to cast spells are of all the cutsie creatures that his version of FF didn't use (such as moogles and onion knights). Kimari combines the powers of a blue mage and a dragoon, in the most disappointing combo in the game, not being a strong enough spellcaster to matter and not being a strong enough warrior to matter. Rikku is both a thief and an alchemist. Auron is a swordsman. Tidus is another swordsman with elements of a bard. Wakka is an archer in the guise of a blitzball player, his specialty being status ailments.

The advancement system is like nothing that I've seen before or since, with the characters buying spheres on a grid, growing in power not by leveling, but by traversing the vast sphere grid. As the characters fight, they acquire both sphere levels and spheres for activating those levels.

Power doesn't just proceed linearly, it proceeds laterally. Rikku enables the modification of weapons using collected items and spheres. A few encounters allow the same with aeons, also using collected items and spheres. Combine the right things together for the right kinds of fight, and your characters can now grow powerful in completely new ways.

As all FF games, this one has bosses galore. Sometimes the boss fights are fun, sometimes they're annoying, and sometimes they are grinding long, especially at the end. Most of the time, I had fun with the bosses. My only annoyance with them is that they are immune to anything interesting that your character do. This makes sense, as the game developers didn't want you using any "I WIN" spell combo to trivialize the boss fight.

The PC Remastered version came with controls to increase or remove random encounters, a mechanical auto-fight, and a gameplay speedup. This helped in many instances later in the game when things got grindy.

Along with all the good comes a little bad. While some of the mini-games included were fun, for the most part, I found too many annoying, and some flat-out murderously frustrating. The monster arena subquest, where you seek to catch 10 of every monster, proceeds quickly at first, but in the later dungeons, some of the encounters show up so rarely that you can spend hours grinding just to get to 10 encounters. (I'm looking at you, Tonberry.) One subquest required that I dodge lightning bolts, but I dodged 0 lightning bolts in 30 or 40 tries. I think that my video was lagging behind the software so that when the image appeared on my monitor, I was already too late to dodge the lightning bolt. Even so, you had to dodge 200 of those thing in a row. That's FUBAR crazy. Challenges are one thing, but self-torture is entirely a different thing.

Getting to some of the best spells in the game proved rather hard. At this point, I haven't found enough Lvl. 4 key spheres to unlock any of the best spells. With enough work, yes, I can collect them, but that just brings us back to the grind. I had this problem on the first play through. Fortunately, you don't need the best of everything to complete the game. I think that those super spells were there to satisfy the completionist and challenge-obsessed players. They like the crazy hard challenges thrown into games.

The characters have all sorts of special celestial weapons that they can acquire, which is fun except for all the mini-games that have to get played to acquire said weapons. There's even a few hidden aeons that can be acquired.

This HD version is descended from the International version, which introduced dark aeons to the game. For some unfathomable reason, the designers put super-impossible (but not impossible) aeons into places where you had to face them, whereupon you got butchered. I found that they sucked so much fun out of the game that I used a game editor to remove them. I had no problem with the challenge, but I had every problem with the designers requiring you to power up your characters so that you could get the items that you needed to power up your characters. By the time that you can defeat the dark aeons, you don't need the special items at all.

As normal, the final boss fights are insanely hard and long, with multiple stages of defeat. Fortunately, you can work them out. The problem in losing, of course, is that you need to go through all the cut scenes all over again, and you can't skip.

My main problem with the end game is that it got rather grindy. I ran into this problem when I first played FFX. I can grind valiant at first, but soon I flag. There soon comes a point where the potential reward is offset by the tedium of the journey. The offered challenge is just not enough to draw me on.

And then there's Blitzball. I figured out more of it this time, but truth be said, the game bores me and your opponents run over you for so long that playing the game just gets unrewarding fast. Even worse, some of Wakka's best moves are tied to the blitzball subgame, so if you don't play it, one of your characters doesn't get his best stuff. Evil!!!

That much said, don't let my rants about the endgame fool you. The flaws of the endgame stand out so starkly because the reset of the game works so fabulously well. And for some, the flaws are what they love. There are people who love blitzball. There are people who love the challenges. There are people who love the crazy side quests. It's all good for somebody.

I hope that ten years from now, I take the time to play it again.

Time War (1973)

Time War (1973) by Lin Carter was a tribute to A. E. van Vogt. This sort of novel was a huge throwback to a former days of SF, in the 30's and 40's, when van Vogt wrote his convoluted stories of the super man. (And, incidentally, reminds us of the racism of the time which so permeated SF.) Lin explains the the style of the novel in the epilogue.

In this story, a man learns that he can teleport, and soon after, learns that he is a radionic superman, a rare event in the history of the world. From there develops not only a convoluted plot, taking only 160 pages to resolve, but endless amounts of describing and redescribing the same situation over and over. Yes, at merely 160 pages, the book feels padded. Quite often, my eyes glazed over and I failed to read paragraphs at a time, but that didn't matter. The same facts were deployed again and again, just in case you missed one.

In case you were in doubt, there's only one beautiful woman in the book, and the guy ends up with her end in the end. This sort of book is a male self-fulfillment fantasy.

This books also feels a bit like a conservative fulfillment fantasy as well. It should be noted that the ordinary people of the future acted like children, lived without responsibility, and were not awake to their predicament. That sounds like an awful lot like today's modern Conservative rhetoric. In contrast, the Conservative Superman takes his business to the top, his astonishing mind destroying his foes, untangling tangles plots, and generally self-making himself. He needed no help.

In all honestly, I can't rate this book as low as it deserves, but I can't rate it highly at all. The book bored me in a mere 160 pages. That's an astonishing feat. If you happen to like this classic stuff, then maybe you'll enjoy it. Myself, I'll give it a pass. I'll also give Lin Carter another try, just not by reading a tribute to a classic style.

Weekend

The weekend went quieter than most weekend.

For Friday pot luck, I made jello and cottage cheese stuff. You know what I mean. I forgot the crushed pineapple, but it still should have been edible. Unfortunately, the kids didn't know the stuff at all. Even worse, pot luck got started half and hour later than normal, meaning that the jello stuff went semi-liquid. The kids and even the adults avoided it. Such as sad fate for a much beloved dish.

Jenny and DesignGirl went off to the beach with friends for a few days. I stayed home and minded the cat. I also ground away at Final Fantasy X.

During the week, I've been on a new writing project. I banged out 10k words on a Final Fantasy inspired story, one harkening back to the old days of sprite based Final Fantasy III through VI. I've been working out the background details with DesignGirl (who named all the characters.) There will be crystals, summonable things, flying ships, tech and magic mixed willy-nilly, and ancient civilization, a big bad enemy, rulers who are lying to you, and all sorts of the usual stuff. Play through any turnkey JRPG, and you'll know all the major movements of the plot. I'm almost done the second pass (the pacing needed a few tweaks), but I'm fairly satisfied with the fluffy results.

Yard work had to happen as well, but I didn't get the lawn mowed as it actually rained on Saturday night. I had no ambitions to mow on Sunday afternoon. None. But I did get some weeding done and some mulch relaid. Not much. Like I said, it was hot.

I ruined the pizza crust on Sunday night. I remembered to halve all the ingredients except the water. DOH. Although the pizza was edible, the crust stuck to the wax paper, which I used instead of parchment paper. DOH and double DOH. It was not my finest pizza hour.

I also made raisin bread for the first time. It could have been fluffier and it definitely needed more cinnamon, but it satisfied my lust for raisin bread.

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Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977)

Midnight at the Well of Souls begins Jack Chalker's Well World series. Tacking WORLD onto a concept was the freshest meme back then, and the Well World certainly delivers. When I picked up the book, I didn't expect much, but I found the prose style energetic, up-paced, and entertaining. This was a much better read than I was expecting. And like most of the SF of that era, it wraps itself up in one book.

The story itself is a sci-fantasy. That's all due to the concept of the Well World, where many different races live in hexagons on the planet's surface. They were all artificially created by a race called the Markovians, and the planet itself is run by a world brain. Thus, you have super-high tech appearing as magic, and many otherwise fantasy creatures, such as centaurs, mermaids, and hyper-intelligent concepts. (Really).

Yet, that's not the story. That's just the concept.

In the story itself, the passengers on a freighter, responding to a distress call, find themselves dragged into the Well World, given new bodies, and begin a race to reach the control center of the planet. To do that, each group must lie, cheat, steal, and cross alien and hostile hexes in order to get there first.

The protagonist is a freighter captain, and inhumanly old Nathan Brazil, who doesn't much like what the human race has come to. Identical service clones are not his idea of a good time. When pulled into Well World, it soon becomes clear that there's more to Nathan than meets the eye, and he knows more about the Well World than he's letting on.

The book has a little sex, but not graphic enough to bother with. If you're easily offended by inter-species sex, and all the possible variations of offended implied by changing bodies, which also means changing genders, then this might not be a good book for you. Even so, the risque is mild by today's standards, and I don't think that most folks would notice much.

Celebrating Star Trek's 50th

In celebration of Star Trek's 50th, I'm going to make stuff up, because that's what I like to do. Even more so, I'm going to rewrite the show just because I can.

Yay. So let's do this! (That's the required modern lingo.)

Everything about my new timeline centers around the Eugenics war.

Before the Eugenics Wars, Earth had multiple nations colonizing the stars. Humanity actively altered itself to fit into these new environments, often after the colonists had arrived. This active altering came to be called Eugenics, even though that's a misnomer. (This is why almost all aliens look like humans and can interbreed.)

The Eugenics Wars happened on Earth, as some folks made themselves superior. Many human groups fled. The number of unapproved colonies went through the roof. All sorts of bad stuff happened. Thanks, Kahn. All colonies severed ties with the mother planet. About the same time, the world of Vulcan ripped itself apart as the two factions fought for dominance. In the end, the Romulan faction retreated into deeper space.

After the Eugenics war, Earth banned the use of Eugenics. With Vulcan and Andromeda, they formed the United Federation of Planets. Rather than a galaxy bound to Earth, they would be bound together in a voluntary union. (This explains why there are so many planets, yet humans, who only have one planet, dominate the Federation. They just have more people than any other race.)

During the war, the Klingons feared that Kahn would win the Eugenics war, then come after them, so they used their tech to breed a soldier race to defend them. Thus, the high born Klingons looked very human, but the soldier race looked very fierce.

Once the UFP was established, it was time to go out there and find more planets to bring into the Federation, but as so many colonial records were destroyed in the wars, or never registered in the first place, finding them gets a bit tricky. Thus, you need to send out missions.

All would look good if not for those pesky Romulans, who had begun their own star empire, or the Klingons, who also thought that one was a good idea. And some in the Federation would come to see the UFP as a sort of soft-empire, but one just as ruthless. Her enemies knew better.

Given the size of the UFP, soft power mattered more than hard. Rather than build pure warships, the UFP put its energy into multi-roled ships, able to explore, transport, and fight as needed. (This is why smaller alien warships are often able to fight the much larger Federation ships to a standstill.) Indeed, the Federation's excess human population provides it a surplus of manpower and colonizing power while other civilizations are still working at building up their core planet. Although not absolutely stronger than any of their enemies, the UFP can overrun their opponents through sheer force of numbers. This is why the Klingons prefer capturing existing human colonies, as they just don't have the population to establish them themselves. The Romulans also use force to bring planets into their empire, but like the Romans before them, understand the limits of force, letting those colonies manage themselves.

That's it in a nutshell. Nobody paid me to do this. Nobody's going to pay me in the future for this. Make of it what you will.

Cake Victory

This is a big shout-out to my girls who took first place in an SCA newby tournament for their period cake. DesignGirl sculpted the dragon on top and participated greatly in making the cake. They won by on point. Way to go, girls.

Around the house, I continue weeding the path. Yes, it's that bad. This time, I succeeded in puncturing Jenny's soaker hose, even though I tried staying far away. Those things wander, y'know. And they hide real good. I also made war against the vines and weeds around the raspberries. Sadly, the birds have absconded with all our raspberries.
I found The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (2007) a rather frustrating and glorious experience, depending on the story. On balance, I found too many stories simply not to my taste, so I skipped them. Of the stories that remained, I can heartily endorse each and every one of them as GOOD.

What was wrong with this collection? I found that too many of these stories weren't fantasy or science fiction stories, they were other kinds of story with fantasy or SF twists, usually at the end. While I don't call them bad stories, as each was written very well, they simply didn't strike me as belonging in this collection. You might think me narrow minded or intolerant or fussy or behind the times, and maybe I am each of these things, but I strongly disagree with the notion. I've read some pretty radical stuff in my day without blinking. This stuff wasn't radical, it was boring.

Even worse than boring was the sameness of all the stories. I could have sworn up and down that most of these stories was written by the same dull writer. The voicing came across like a machine had produced each story, each one using the same kind of pacing and technique. Unfortunately, without the engagement being in the stories, each one felt dull.

As for the good tales, they were a varied and engaging lot. I'll give a shout-out to some of my favorites. My criteria is that the story must work through its SF or fantasy element. If you can easily change the element while keeping the heart of the story, I don't consider it a SF or Fantasy story. Also excluded is any story which I've forgotten the plot for only a few days after reading it.

Three Twilight Tales - Jo Walton
These three, fairytale style stories, are just long enough to entertain and get their point across.

The Island - Peter Watts
A fantastic psychological hard SF story and a hard SF story at the same time.

Ferryman - Margo Lanagan
This is a very mythic tale, told well.

Dragon's Teeth - Alex Irvine
While I found the ending rather empty, and the structure rather awkward and forced at times, the story is a fine example of low fantasy which, when working well, works extremely well.

Mongoose - Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
This is pretty much a medium-hardness SF tale. While I think that the story lacks a certain something and has a few pacing issues, I rather enjoyed everything else.

Before My Last Breath - Robert Reed
Mankind discovers an alien graveyard. Simple, yet mournful.

Joboy - Diana Wynne Jones
A boy discovers his own heritage the hard way. I think that the story ended a bit poorly, but it held me all the way through with no issues.

Utriusque Cosmi - Robert Charles Wilson
I don't know whether to call this a time travel story, a memoir, or a rationalized Theosophical universe. Honestly, it's all of the above and it just WORKS.

A Delicate Architcture - Catherynne M. Valente
This is a fairytale style story, about a confetion-made girl, one with great heart and heartlessness.

The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles - Kij Johnson
This was a simple animal perspective story, well done. This story screams "read me out loud."

Medieval Fun

Jenny and my daughter, DesignGirl, are up to medieval fun.

DesignGirl like learning about the bow at camp, so they've bought a bow together so that they can shoot with the same bow.

To add to the madness, there's a local SCA even that's all for new participants, so Jenny and DesignGirl are making a medieval-compatible cake. They did the research and they're knocking it out tonight.

Myself, I'm still a bit burned out on all this stuff, but if they have enough fun, then it might just rub off on me.

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