What We’re Reading: Arcadia

TDW: The Hugos have come and gone, and by all accounts the best novel won. Personally I prefer the Clarke Awards mostly because it focuses on science fiction. This year’s line up doesn’t appear to be particularly overwhelming, though of course Children of Time was a delight to read. None of the other books seem particularly appealing, except Arcadia, and the only reason I picked it up was the great review it received on The Complete Review. So having only read two books from the selection, I can safely say of those nominated Arcadia deserves to win.

First and foremost it’s because the author, Iain Pears, is an accomplished writer and it really adds to his credence. Iain Pears loves to play with narrative structure. With his latest novel, Arcadia, he seems to have taken it one step further. The most interesting thing about the book is that it is both a novel and an app. The latter allows for fluidity between the story arcs of all the characters; for example, you can follow one characters story, and then another, as opposed to chronologically. Constructed as a novel it still works magnificently. To me this would suggest that deliberate structural choices – that is, the choices of the artist – are integral to the beauty of a given piece of work.

ArcadiaPears is clearly a master storyteller, and trying his hand at spec fic has allowed him to have further room to explore all the ins and outs of plot, narrative and story. We ‘begin’ in early 20th century Britain where Henry Lytten is writing a fantasy novel. Then we skip between a future world and a more medieval civilisation. It all works together in such an intricate and finely tuned way, each chapter launching itself from the previous one and slowly building the book layer by layer. This is a story of multiple perspectives, varied voices and a mesh of genres (sci fi, fantasy, spy thriller, romance). Somehow it all comes together to produce one of the most mesmerising reads I have experienced in a very long time. It’s quite a long read, but it won’t feel like it; Pears does not waste time and everything is in place for a reason.

It isn’t just this masterwork in structure the compels, as the rest of the book holds up. It made me laugh, it brought me close to tears and it made me connect with the characters, all of whom are fully realised. And the philosophy! Iain touches on such light topics as free will and time travel, loyalty and love. It is with zero hesitation that I can place this firmly in my top ten favourite books that I have ever read. To quote Mr. Orthofer, this book is ‘exceptionally good fun; very nicely and cleverly woven-together story’. Fun is definitely pertinent.

Despite this being a fantastic example of ‘literary’ spec fic, it never drags and its entire mission is to enliven the reader experience. Given that The Book of Strange New Things failed to win a Clarke, I hope that Arcadia succeeds.


Choice quote:

…through an extraordinary feat of imagination, he had taken the very worst of communism and the very worst of capitalism and fused them together into a monstrous whole.


What We’re Playing: Life is Strange

Mark:  Life is Strange is a completely charming episodic graphic adventure game by Square Enix, the Japanese company best known for the Final Fantasy roleplaying series. The game has won plenty of awards and featured in multiple Best Of 2015 lists. A ‘time-travelling teenager girl simulator‘ is the best short description I’ve seen. Read more

What We’re Reading: Starfish

TDW: I don’t even know what to tell you about Starfish except that it’s gorgeous. But I’ll try my best.

Starfish is bad-shit crazy

I mean, it’s really depressing and scary and gross and unhappy and has never-ending levels of crazy but it’s also gorgeous. Just not cute-little-baby gorgeous.

Blindsight and Echopraxia, Peter Watts‘ most recent books, were fantastic reads that revolved around first contact in space. Starfish and its sequels deal with another frontier: the bottom of the ocean. ‘Rifters’ are biologically and mechanically adapted humans who are able to withstand the pressure of the deepest, darkest parts of Starfish by Peter Wattsthe ocean. They live down there to make sure the energy of the Earth’s core is passed on to the land lubbers up top. The ocean is just as alien as space, except that there are more aliens.

Watts is a scientist and it really shows in this book. This is truly superb hard science fiction as Watts explains what it would be like to live on the bottom of the ocean. The biology of life down there, the social fabric of humans compressed together and even lessons on tectonic plates are all discussed in detail. Of course, all of these things are deadly: the vicious teeth of sea beasts, anger issues come to the surface and nuclear weapons are planted on fault lines. It’s huge in scope yet explores the minutiae of the topic so perfectly. But this isn’t just interesting science facts thrown at you page after page. Watts can tell an excellent story, too.


The story begins with just two rifters working on the bottom. At first we think our protagonist will cave, the other character seemingly the stronger of the two, but this is cleverly subverted by Watts. Before long a full contingent of trench workers are living in close proximity, with the inevitable fights breaking out. Hardship after hardship plays out, and most of the conflict is between characters on a psychological level. But above it is a sinister tone: just why exactly, beyond the obvious energy needs, are these people down here? What are the higher-ups hiding? We begin to find out when they send down one of their own.

There is no bullshit here: characters don’t do stupid things, but try to deal with horrific scenarios in the best way they can. There is a lot of story left just out of sight, and you want to know more. And while I think the plot could perhaps have been tightened up, it is told with a very strong sense of narrative, with Watts mixing it up when needed.


What was most striking was that I ended up liking the characters despite the fact that they are paedophiles, wife beaters and victims of abuse. They’re so human and well developed, even as the author explores how depraved they are. How they play off each other, how their pasts come back to haunt them like wet ghosts, is expertly crafted by Watts. As with the best speculative fiction, it isn’t just the monsters out there we should be scared of, but the monsters inside of everyone.

These monsters come out when under pressure, which is both metaphorical and literal in Starfish. The reveals are all jaw-dropping in their audacity and nihilism, but it is the journey of the protagonist that really strikes hard. She goes through hell, breaks down completely and that’s where Watts leaves us. Eager for the sequel. In fact, a recurring theme in his stories is the primal need to finish them in one sitting, a sign that you are in the hands of a masterful writer.

And on that note, I urge you to pick up Starfish as soon as possible!

What We’re Playing: The Witcher 3

The third installment of the Witcher series of games is by far the best yet, and is one of the better games I’ve played in quite a while. You can blame it for the lack of Fantastica posts from me for the last few months.

I don’t play that many games but late last year two came out in quick succession that I couldn’t resist: Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3. I’ve been a Fallout franchise fan since the original game (released almost twenty years ago) and it pretty much instilled in me a love of gritty, futuristic stories. So why did I ditch Fallout 4 halfway through and get into the witcher’s world?

The Witcher games are based (fairly loosely) on the novels and short stories by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Though he evidently has little time for the games himself, they’ve become progressively more popular with each release. They’re the stories of Geralt, a witcher – a kind of monster bounty hunter – and as the series has progressed his unwilling involvements in the politics of his world become more entangled (and the gender politics of the games have become less problematic).

There are basically two reasons why I think this game is interesting: its approach to storytelling in game design, and its monsters.



Being the offspring of a series of novels, these games have the benefit of inheriting a host of characters and backstories. There’s a clear sense of long-developed and complex relationships. At times this can be disorienting (Who was that King, again? Why does that particular sorceress want to kill me and this one want to sleep with me?) and yet it gives the games a rich sense of a deep and believable world.

The designers clearly put a lot of thought into expanding this world and doing its many characters justice. Throughout all three games there are numerous twists and considerable political shifts. Entire kingdoms go to war, become subsumed in a wider empire; factions fall apart and come back together.

Each of the characters exudes a sense of will; they act on their own agendas, have their own personalities. Though the player can influence the tide of events, you’re just one of many actors.

From a storytelling perspective, this is refreshing. It’s a change from the simple and typical situation in many video games of a protagonist struggling against an antagonist as the central source of conflict. This is partly true of Witcher 3 as well, but there’s entire political machinations going on that have little to do with the witcher and his main quest. Depending on how you look at it, Geralt isn’t even the protagonist of the world-story going on. He’s on a quest to help that hero/anti-hero, his once-ward Ciri.


Side Quests

Side quests in particular show the attention to detail in the designers’ approach to storytelling. Side quests are usually boring though in roleplaying games they’re usually necessary. You’ve got to level your character up enough by completing side quests to progress the story and move through harder acts. They tend to follow a repetitive structure: go to some location, kill the baddies, retrieve the McGuffin, and return for your prize (which is essentially how I lost interest halfway through Fallout 4 and started playing Witcher 3). After a while the sense of satisfaction of completing quests just doesn’t offer enough of a reward.

According to Alexander M. Freed, writer on some of Bioware’s story-rich games in the Star Wars and Dragon Age franchises, side quests are pretty important storytelling opportunities. A good side quest accomplishes at least one of the following: they help show depth to the character or the plot, they help to build the world, they can add a tonal shift to the main game, and they can offer alternative views on the game’s key themes.


Leshen, from the Witcher 3

Here’s an example (minor spoilers) to demonstrate how Witcher 3 side quests become mini-stories. Geralt arrives at a town where some creature seems to be killing people in a nearby forest. A town elder claims it’s the spirit of the forest, a spirit they once revered as a local god. It has become upset because the townfolk stopped sending young hunters out to kill animals and make sacrifices to it. This elder wants the spirit appeased, and for the town to return to its old ways.

But the young men of the village don’t want to risk their lives hunting animals to appease a spirit – especially one that is killing their townfolk. They want to be free. It turns out the spirit is an ancient leshen, a scary relict from ancient times.

Geralt has to choose to either spare the creature by making a sacrifice to it or to draw it out and kill it. The reward is the same either way but each has moral dimensions and unintended consequences. Nothing is ever straightforward.

Applying Freed’s measure, this side quest is great. The player has the opportunity to explore the character and understand his various dimensions. At the same time, they learn more of the game’s lore and get to explore its themes.

Not all side quests have this level of complexity, but many do and it helps the player to explore the world and complete continuously compelling stories.



Monsters in Witcher 3 are at times as important to the story as its people. This might seem a strange thing to feature as one of its strengths – most fantasy worlds are populated with monsters. What’s the big deal?

As author Sami Shah – latest to join us at Fantastica – recently pointed out, monsters are meaningful; they reveal our weaknesses. I’ve said elsewhere that the monsters we make are unique to times and places and they’re demonstrative of what is and isn’t permissible.

At the extremes of the known world, of allowable behaviour, are dark corners and the monsters that dwell in them. Understanding our monsters tells us a lot about ourselves.

Witcher 3 shows this idea perfectly. In the example above, the village has had a long relationship with the leshen, has been willing to risk the lives of its young men in order to sacrifice animals to a creature they revere as a spirit.

In other cases, a field gone to fallow might be haunted by a wraith – the ghost of a girl who was murdered by a jaded lover, and Geralt has to expose this crime in order to vanquish the monster. Or he might have to decide whether or not to execute a succubus that has been unintentionally killing the men that are drawn to her.


Johnny of the swamp

The game is full of examples that complicate the moral element of being monstrous. Religious fanatics kill off kill shape-shifting doppelgangers that just want to live as humans in towns and cities. Many of the rock-trolls and woodland creatures are sympathetic characters, even amusing ones.

In each case, the people of this world live side-by-side with monsters. So it should be no surprise to learn that many of them are drawn directly from folklore. At times the creatures live as a result of human errors of judgment and their crimes. In these cases, monsters are our creations and so we are responsible for them. Their existence is closely entwined with the morals, the norms and the lives of the people within the game. Resolving the cause is not always about waving your sword around (although that does happen a lot).

In other words, the monsters in this game aren’t flat and boring. They’re not simply obstacles to overcome in order to level up and progress to the next job. There’s something real about them. They reflect a richly imagined and morally complex world.


If you prefer your games as rich storytelling experiences but you prefer gritty, futuristic settings, fear not. Developers of Witcher 3, CD Projekt, are working on a solution just for you. A couple of years ago they announced the development of Cyberpunk 2077, their next big project. The sad part is, it’s only due to be released ‘when it’s ready.’ So in the mean time, I guess I’ll go back to Fallout 4.

What We’re Reading: Children of Time

TDW: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of those books I saw on Amazon popping up, but I never saw any coverage on social media or other outlets. Instead I read a single review on Goodreads by someone I followed that sold me immediately. It’s really quite crazy how much more important word of mouth is than any other marketing avenue. It also helps if the book you publish is truly excellent.

Which brings us to Children of Time. It has everything you could want.

Do you LOVE careful considerations of gender? Check.
Do you appreciate a wealth of characters who defy stereotypes? Check.
Do you desire generation ship novels where humanity is struggling to meet their destination? Check.
Do you want for books written by trained scientists? Check.
Do you enjoy sweeping sci fi epics that really push the boundaries? Check.
Do you HATE spiders? Ah, well, err… maybe skip this book.

This is a book on a grand scale. Humanity has killed itself and its last survivors set out on cobbled together generation ships to hunt for liveable planets. Thankfully, humanity had spread far and wide on terraforming missions before the calamity, and so these are the destinations the gen ships head to. The Gilgamesh is one such ship, and it is headed for Kern’s World. However, the terraforming experiment on that world has gone slightly awry – not quite to plan – and so the remnants of humanity must deal with problems they could never have ever conceived.

What I found particularly brilliant is the meshing of the author’s knowledge of both psychology and zoology in the perfect mix. It allows for a deep exploration of human nature, and also a very clever take on gender roles. How can we change what we evolved from? This book asks the big questions, and the resolution really left me stunned, in a good way. It’s a great example of plotting as everything builds to a climax, the author keeping his cards very close to own chest until just the right moment.

I really can’t give away too much, but the main thing to know is that this book contains SPIDERS. Spacefaring spiders. What more do you need to know at this stage? Perhaps how the book explores the growth of a civilisation that originally began life as minuscule jumping spiders. In fact, there is an element of Echopraxia by Peter Watts, using the Portia genus of spider as inspiration for the story. The juxtaposition of humanity to the spiders is masterful and even beautiful, their lives touching on each other until confrontation just can’t be avoided. The title, Children of Time, sums it up.

Aside from that I can’t say anything but to urge you to read it now. Time is of the essence!

What We’re Reading: The Traitor

TDW: I don’t often read fantasy, but this was certainly an exception. It isn’t swords and sorcery, just swords. And pikes. And chemical warfare. In a word, it’s grimdark, easily my favourite branch of fantasy. In case you don’t know, grimdark fantasy gets its name from Warhammer 40,000, where, ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.’ In The Traitor war is plentiful, as is scheming, oppression and, as you would expect, treachery.

Traitor-UK1First up, the writing is great. It’s a highly readable book and well-plotted. Think the Red Wedding, but stretched out over a novel, each twist of the knife building the pain to an absolutely unbearable climax. The characters are rich, particularly our protagonist, Baru Cormorant, but all of the supporting characters have significant roles and captivating personalities. It is also quite a subtle book. For example, unlike much fantasy there isn’t constant fighting, but a slow progression of aggression that peaks wonderfully (a duel, a skirmish and one major battle). The world building is exquisite, the type where everything is so planned and easy for you to grasp, but by the end you know there is so much more over the horizon. In particular, the evil empire of The Masquerade is wonderfully wrought.

There is some criticism out there concerning two big parts of the book. The first regards the evilness of The Masquerade. Is it too evil? I mean, it does literally tick off every Evil Thing one could conceive, but then if I were a world dominating Empire I would do everything I could to control the masses. Releasing disease, brainwashing children and suppressing freedoms are just part of it. The book is about control via these methods, and softer methods like economic and industrial progress (the hand that gives and takes). Baru fights to control herself at every step, and even at the tragic conclusion you can say she both controlled herself and let herself be controlled. It’s a wonderfully claustrophobic book, a ‘tar pit’ as it is so wonderfully put here.

The book is also very much about masks, making the enemy a little contrived, but I went with it. A big plot point is that Baru is queer. It is against Masquerade law to be homosexual, and the punishment is severe. Some readers can’t deal with this in light of the tragic elements of the book, and that’s fine. There is an element of the trope Queer People Cannot Be Happy, and it is very grimdark in that nothing good happens. To anyone.  The whole book. It’s a very tough and unforgiving world.

But I do disagree that this is a problem. The book is not about her queerness per se, rather, it is about deceit and it looks at what happens when you sacrifice the personal over a higher calling. The fact that Baru is a trained accountant, that she has suffered so early in life, all play into her calculating and ruthless logic. Is it an unfair and cruel portrayal of accountants? So far as I can tell by the majority of the complaints, it’s that, ‘everything is too grimdark!’ I say tosh, no such thing. This book has fantastic queer characters and thought-provoking themes, and yet we can’t have bad things happen? The author’s intentions are clear and masterfully designed, and that is what should be judged. What I liked is that it is never said explicitly what Baru’s predilection’s are, and like all the other elements they are layered and built to produce a resounding crescendo.

There is a lot to appreciate here, everything from the clear care and attention the book received to the fact that the names are all brilliant. (Do you know how much I hate manuscripts where the character is called Book or Photon or some other noun? Immeasurably. Do not do it.) Seth Dickinson has created a masterpiece of grimdark fantasy, one that will grip you at the start and slowly throttle the life out of you.

What we’re reading: The Three Body Problem

Liu Cixin’s 2015 Hugo Award Winning Novel The Three-Body Problem, translated from Chinese into English by Ken Liu, is a book that’s so big on ideas and themes you can easily forgive the occasional uninspired dialogue and exposition dumping.

Exiled to a remote radio base during the Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie makes contact with an alien civilisation, the Trisolarians, who almost immediately dispatch a fleet on the 400-plus year voyage to Earth.

The best part of the book is the well-thought out science. Consider how much of our science is based on observation of the Sun and the Moon and their effects on the Earth, then imagine how different and more complicated it would be if our solar system had three suns.

Add to this mix the fact that the suns have irregular orbits and as a result destroyed all other planets in the system, and you get a sense of the Trisolarians’ urgency to get off their home world.

I saw Liu speak at Sydney University on 3 November. He was appearing as part of the Sydney Talks program, organised by Sydney University’s Confucius Institute.

The main thesis of his talk, which you can see all over The Three-Body Problem, is the idea that great ‘civilisations’ are usually accompanied by technological leaps that seem inconceivable to the people who lived in the previous era.

MASSIVE crowd at Sydney Uni for Chinese #scifi author Liu Cixin. Biggest question line I’ve ever seen. Basically a rockstar. Questions about environmentalism, censorship and how can young Chinese writers reach broader audiences.

A photo posted by Mark Riboldi (@markriboldi) on

The most obvious example he mentioned is the leap forward in information technology that has accompanied the military and cultural dominance of the United States. Liu argued that China needs to oversee a technological advance, and then marketisation, of global significance to ensure their society continues to advance.

When pressed, he suggested manufacturing and energy production in space. (Space elevators – woohoo!) The auditorium at Sydney Uni was packed to the rafters, around 500 people, most of whom looked to be Chinese university students.

Thankfully there was a translator so the dozen or so non-Chinese speakers could follow most of what went on. Liu got a thunderous applause when he entered the room – like he was a rock star walking on stage.

When question time began people clambered over each other to get to the microphone. The end of the session sparked a mad rush of students to the stage for autographs and selfies with their idol.

It was quite amazing and heartening to see a science fiction writer treated like this by young people. Even more so were the depth of the questions the audience asked – absent were the ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ that so often trigger a yawn-fest at Australian writers’ events – the young Chinese-speaking fans asked questions about censorship, democracy vs authoritarianism, how young Chinese writers can find new audiences, environmentalism vs economic progress and more.

His answers were diplomatic. Liu is obviously conscious of being under the watchful gaze of Beijing, and encouraged readers to make their own interpretations of what he is writing about.

When asked what system of government was better, he said that more liberal societies tend to see more scientific innovation, whereas more centrally controlled ones are able to direct and exploit resources more effectively.  

The Three-Body Problem is the first of a trilogy, with the third book yet to be translated into English. With a series of films in the pipeline (which Liu advised people to not get their hopes too high about) this is definitely a series of books to read immediately. You’ll definitely have plenty of conversation material.

Want to read more? Check out Thomas’ review of ‘The Three Body Problem’ from April and the sequel, The Dark Forest.

What We’re Reading: The World Without Us

Chris: Imagine if humans disappeared tomorrow. What would we leave behind? How long would it last? These questions are at the heart of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It’s a book I mentioned in a list of Cool Things a few months ago, but I wanted to explore it further here.

The setup reads like a familiar post-apocalyptic story. Perhaps a pandemic has wiped out only humanity, or aliens have arrived and taken particular interest in us for their zoological studies. The end-of-world is such a common genre now we might well be reaching peak-apocalypse. This is why The World Without Us is worth reading.

Despite its imaginative premise, the book might be called ‘speculative non-fiction’. Weisman tours an impressive range of humanity’s efforts at construction (and in some cases, destruction) and explores how they would cope if they were suddenly abandoned by their human caretakers.

To make this alien concept real, Weisman starts close to home. It turns out your house would not last particularly long, with water most likely seeping in over time through the flashing in your roof. Plants – especially introduced creeper species – would make fairly quick work of mortar, too. Once water and plants get in, it’s all over. You’d be lucky if it lasted more than a hundred years.

The book then broadens its scope, looking at everything from great dams, ancient pyramids and even the holes left behind by years of mineral extraction. Other discussions include: how quickly Manhattan would sink (the subways alone would flood within days); what would happen to the thousands of untended nuclear bombs and power plants; human probes already well beyond our solar system, and the messages we placed on them; and how the Panama Canal would fill with silt, reconnecting two continents. All of this doom and gloom, and then some.

Interestingly, even in death we would kill off species. Innumerable cockroaches would die from exposure to cold, after having thrived in the warmth of our cities. And a year after our disappearance, human head and body lice would be completely extinct.

It’s not the grand developments we imagine to represent our human progress that will remain – the skyscrapers, the works of art, the wonders of technology. It’s the things we tend to think least about that will leave the most enduring mark.

Small plastic pellets, or nurdles, used as raw materials for the production of other, bigger, plastics make their way into the oceans every day. Many exfoliating scrubs use micro-plastics. They’re literally designed to be washed down the drain. In sea water these nurdles eventually break down into smaller, brittle pieces. But they don’t disappear quickly. Even if production ceased tomorrow, fish will be eating plastic particles for thousands of years to come.

Meanwhile, the half-million tonne of depleted Uranium-238 in the US will be around in 4-5 billion years, when the sun expands and engulfs the earth. Yet our most enduring contribution will be the radio waves we emit each day, which may continue to bounce around the universe for untold eons.

It’s not all doom and gloom in this book. The World Without Us also speculates on what species might survive and even thrive. Today, in Fukushima’s exclusion zone, plants continue to grow and in the absence of humans, animals continue on in similar exclusion zones around the world. The long-term effect of exposure to radiation on these animals is an ongoing question. But there is an undercurrent point to this. In the words of Ian Malcolm – chaos theorist – life finds a way.

That’s perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this book. It walks a careful mid-ground between the pitfalls on either side: a revelry in the gloomy acknowledgement of the damage we’ve already done (and, despite the premise of the book, will continue to do) on one side, and a sermon on the sacredness of Mother Earth on the other. The middle path is a peculiar one that leaves the reader feeling both sadness and hope. The message is clear. We are not the centre of the earth; it will be here long after the conditions we’ve created destroy us.

But even if you’re not especially interested in the fate of the environment, there’s another reason to read this book. It’s essential research for all those would-be apocalyptic writers. What would actually happen if society were to crumble, even if a desperate few were left? All those zombies might plausibly survive the nuclear winter resulting from the hundreds of incidents occurring around the world with every power plant melting down, but I doubt Rick Grimes would make it far.

What We’re Playing: Deponia

Chris: Players of indie games may think a review of Deponia is a little late. With the original released in 2012, and the final trilogy actually being wound up in October 2013, I’m exactly two years behind the times. But with a reading list up to my eyeballs and a playing list about as long, I figured what the hell.

Deponia is a 2D point-and-click, a genre undergoing a tremendous resurgence in the thriving indie gaming industry. Many people who back in the 80’s and 90’s played the likes of The Secrets of Monkey Island, or any of the other nostalgic treasures from LucasArts or Sierra, are now all grown up and have disposable incomes.

The distributors of Deponia, German company Daedalic Entertainment, are a bit of a powerhouse in the 2D indie gaming market, with some pretty respectable titles under their belt (not all of them great, but some are not too bad). Quite a number of their games have undercurrent themes – environmental degradation is one of them (in A New Beginning for instance, writers practically beat you over the head with their environmental themes).

Given Deponia is the name of a junk planet, I started off thinking it might be promising; that there might be some take away messages. Deponia is the home of the hapless and arrogant Rufus and his community. There is no end to Rufus’s self-aggrandising, nor his stupidity. His one redeeming feature is his rather sensible desire to abandon a place where people literally live in refuse. He therefore spends every waking moment dreaming up and then failing at ridiculously convoluted plans to escape to the nearby planet of Elysium.

These plans always end in disaster, and usually in some sort slapstick absurdity. The humour in general in this game is heavy-handed, playing off Rufus’s exaggerated stupidity. If you don’t mind a bit of silliness, it might just tickle you from time to time.

But if I was hoping to find, below the surface of junk, some nuance or something thought-provoking, I was much too distracted by something else to even bother looking.

On a surprisingly successful attempt to escape Deponia, Rufus finds himself aboard a strange vessel, where he sees a beautiful Elysian woman and he instantly falls in love. In the process of trying to ‘protect’ this woman, Rufus knocks her off the craft and sends her falling down onto Deponia, where he must retrieve her and help her get home.

This is where I started grinding my teeth. Firstly, the woman is so two-dimensionally imagined that the writers didn’t even bother giving her a name. That is, her name is ‘Goal.’ Her name is exactly what the creators saw her as. (Why not call her Aim, Desire or Object?) This might be a coincidence, given the game was originally written in German, but I’m fairly dubious.

And while that itself is grating, it doesn’t get better. Goal spends almost the entire game unconscious, while Rufus literally manhandles her from scene to scene, pining over her and claiming from time to time that ‘she belongs to me.’ This whining is at first so pathetic it might be laughable. As though the writers were self-parodying the apparent misogyny people claim of geek culture.

But this dynamic doesn’t significantly change throughout the game. The few occasions Goal does wake up, she’s a little feisty but essentially passive. The most ridiculous instance of this is when Rufus informs Goal that her fiancé is one of the villains. She immediately believes him – dumping the man she’s meant to marry without a second thought – and asks Rufus what to do next. And when, at last, Goal does perk up and tell Rufus how unpleasant he is, deponia_296961he just goes ahead and conveniently ‘switches her off’ by pulling out a consciousness chip – a device that none of the guys in the game seem to require.

I thought I might be a little overly sensitive on the issue; it is, after all, a title that is apparently targeted toward teenage boys. But others have given this issue much more air, and written about a number of other sex and gender issues in the game, which doesn’t fill me with much hope for it’s sequels, Chaos on Deponia, or Leaving Deponia. I started out playing a game from three years ago, but it felt like it was stuck in the last century.

What We’re Reading: Annihilation

MR: Walking the line between science fiction and horror, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a fabulous read exploring the inevitable futility behind clutching to reason, science, and civilisation. It won the 2014 Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards for Best Novel.

The story follows one of the members of the twelfth expedition sent into the abandoned and unspoilt coastal area of Area X by The Southern Reach – the now governing body of the northern U.S.A – to explore, document and, if possible though unlikely, survive. Read more