Monthly Archives: April 2007

microsoft funny money

microsoft has done an interesting thing with their xbox live marketplace: they made their own kind of money. when you log on to live marketplace and want to purchase anything (e.g., movies, games), the cost is given in "microsoft points." for example, i am downloading the HD version of a scanner darkly; the cost is 480 points.

so how much is one point worth? well, you can do the math and see that 1 point = $0.0125 (1.25 pennies, or 80 points = $1). so my movie download is costing me $6 (ouch).

at first glance, this just seems to be another irritating, proprietary microsoftism (not to mention potential ripoff); it’s something you accept, deal with and move on. if you think just a bit harder, you realize a few things (which i didn’t at first):

  • you need a calculator to determine the actual cost. the conversion factor was chosen carefully so that most won’t be able to do the conversion in their heads; the order-of-magnitude shift amplifies this problem.
  • if you don’t use the system for awhile, you’re likely to forget what the conversion factor is, or actual costs you may have calculated in the past.
  • most people are probably too lazy to do the calculation in the first place (or if they’ve forgotten the factor)
  • microsoft could, at some point, institute inflation and it probably wouldn’t be noticed.

bottom line, in my opinion: "stored-value systems" like that set up by microsoft are very convenient, and are designed to obscure and encourage expenditures. it’s pretty smart and pretty shifty at the same time.

broken angels and altered carbon

Broken Angels    Altered Carbon

it’s been awhile since a science fiction author did something that surprised me (pleasantly, that is). i read a fair amount in the genre, but nothing has really raised my temperature much in the past few years…some enjoyable books, some duds, some disappointing sequels and prequels. my expectations have gradually been sliding down the gravity well of a deep and boring black hole.

richard k. morgan has lifted a weight from my sholders.

he just rocked my tiny sci-fi world. he made me foam at the mouth like a rabid star trek fan having a close encounter with patrick stewart. he renewed my faith in sci-fi as a viable genre, one that has something to offer beyond its vivid imaginations of time travel, hive-mind alien intelligences, and the occasional green woman doing the interplanetary horizontal mambo.

with his first two Takeshi Kovacs novels, altered carbon and broken angels, morgan has crafted incredibly entertaining stories that bear the hallmark of my favorite books – i was sad to finish them, yet satisfied with their resolution at the same time.
his central futuristic conceit in both novels revolves around the cortical stack, a small device planted at the base of your cortex and capable of storing one’s mental state, one’s life experiences, up to any given point in time. your consciousness and identity are tied to your stack, not your body (or sleeve as he calls it), so you can hop bodies and still be the same person. this simple idea provides rich soil for innovation, and he plants an array of curious seeds over the course of the novels.

morgan uses an interesting socio-political backdrop for his stories, one where corporations and the Protectorate, modernism and religion, greed and virtue, slug it out without clear winners and losers. in this landscape, he drops Kovacs, an ex-Envoy and a Quellist who follows the nihilistic and cynical political philosophy of the revolutionary Quell, a poet-warrior from his planet Harlan’s World. he’s a shattered anti-hero who slugs his way through one spirit-crushing episode after another. on one level, Kovacs seems admirable in that he fights for social and individual justice, deeply distrustful of corporate, government and military interests; on another, he’s pretty much in it for himself. it’s hard to rationalize his altruistic underlying motivations with his means (usually violent) and his feelings (usually detached to the point of inhumanity), and it’s also hard to say whether you really like him. Kovacs is a bag full of contradictions in a world full of flawed people.

altered carbon is the first in morgan’s trilogy of Kovacs novels. it’s a cross between a hard-boiled detective novel and a cyberpunk dystopian nightmare (yes, i paraphrased from the book jacket). a few comparisons seem appropriate: gibson, dick, chandler. a friend seemed to think there was a resonance with iain m. banks, although that reference point isn’t as obvious to me. regardless, morgan’s prose crackles and pops, vividly painting a grim far-future earth where immortality is possible and murder is never quite what it seems.

carbon is a crime thriller with Kovacs as unwilling gumshoe working for an arrogant Meth (short for Methuselah, i.e., people who have lived for a very, very long time across many sleeves). he is tasked with solving the central character’s murder, and he has to do it sleeved in a body with an interesting past. in return, he gets a reward that he basically can’t refuse. the plot twists and turns are far from obvious, with every step of the journey richly described, and they ultimately lead to a startling and explosive conclusion.

broken angels finds our friend Kovacs on Sanction IV playing mercenary soldier in a bloody uprising. mid-way through the conflict, he is presented with an interesting opportunity – to find a Martian artifact worth unimaginable sums. in the middle of a raging war, he partners with a band of re-sleeved special ops soldiers with financial backing from the Mandrake Cartel, a corporation who wants the artifact and will use Kovacs to get it. while there is still a detective story at the heart of angels, the backdrop of senseless war, betrayal, and greed overshadow the quest for great mysteries. the first novel is like reading about mister roger’s neighborhood in comparison to the second…don’t look for that warm, fuzzy feeling in this book (or, i suspect, in any of his books).
the last of the Kovacs novels is woken furies, which i look forward to reading. i’ve also just learned that he has a new novel forthcoming, set in the future, but in a different universe.

i wouldn’t say richard morgan’s novels are for everyone, but if you like hard-edged sci-fi with provocative ideas, noir sensibilties, and flawed heroes, then pick up Altered Carbon and let me know how you enjoy the ride.