Worms and Twigs

One piece of webfiction in particular holds a peculiar trend. The work of fiction would be the web serial Twig, by “Wildbow”, the author of the Spacebattles-favorite superhero epic Worm. The trend is for fans to declare that the storyline must be almost over.

The claims that Twig must be ending soon first started appearing in earnest around Arc 10. Now Twig is at Arc 20. And there’s talk that, honestly, really, Wildbow’s close to finishing it off.

When browsing through the Worm community, I’ve found an explanation that I felt made a lot of sense. People want Worm II, Wildbow’s announced sequel to the initial blockbuster, and they’re so eager that they want Twig to be over.

I admit to being one of them. A story I could follow a chapter at a time could get me to know the setting better than having to dig through a gigantic million word archive. At the same time, I’ve always felt Wildbow has had pacing issues, and thus I’m not surprised Twig has gone the way it has.

The morbid question I have is “will Worm II overload Spacebattles even more?” According to a running thread, around 15-20 of the top stories in Creative Writing are Worm-centric. I personally feel that if it catches CRWs attention again (which is not a guarantee-Pact has only two fanfics written on Spacebattles, and Twig has zero), most of the “victims” will be other wormfics.

So I guess I’ll have to wait and see. For what it’s worth, Worm itself ended after 31 arcs, and Wildbow’s next work, Pact, wrapped after 16.

Alternate History’s Missing Middle

While I’ve blogged a lot about Alternatehistory.com as a website recently, I’ve been similarly disenchanted with the genre as a whole. Even by my critical standards, I can only find a few works that I actually like.

First, it’s an inherently smaller genre, so the portion that falls into Sturgeon’s Law is going to be bigger and the sparks of brilliance smaller in number. Perhaps. But I think it goes deeper. I think the genre is limited, potentially inherently so.

It’s like Arcade, who’s very good for individual filler issues for low-to-mid level superheroes, but fails utterly whenever he’s used for anything else. That might be a weird comparison, but I’m about weird comparisons.

See, I find alternate history to be a perfect example of the “barbel genre”, which gravitates towards one extreme or the other, with little in between. To be fair, the “middle” is the absolute hardest to get right, as you have to find just the right balance between skimping and splurging. But I’ve seen very few ones that even try, and most of the ones that do are just changing the setting to something slightly more obscure.

So, on the low end, you have what I call “Turtledove AH”, which is a sort of often implausible one that focuses more on prominence in popular culture. The two biggest are “South wins in the American Civil War” and “Axis wins WWII”. Harry Turtledove popularized this genre, but it is not limited to him. This genre has its worldbuilding be shallow and not terribly concerned with plausibility, and its plots frequently used for unsubtle commentary on contemporary politics. Often historical events are transposed full force into the alternate history even if it doesn’t make sense.

That’s one end. It’s aimed at people who won’t know the implausibility, or won’t care. At least they tend to have decent plots.

On the other end is what I call  “Online AH”, a sort of hyper-niche story where there’s more attention to detail, less on plot (if any exists at all), and the change itself is the be-all-and-end-all of the work. This is the kind that’s prevalent on AH.com proper, and has plenty of pitfalls of its own. The standard of worldbuilding is set so high that even small implausibilities stand out, there’s zero attraction to someone who isn’t already interested, and the chapter-at-a-time online nature means it, much like fanfiction, can be overwhelmed by fans or write itself into a corner.

What would the missing middle be? Probably look at a more obscure divergence, and leverage it into an interesting and distinctive story. Some of the late Robert Conroy‘s books tried this, but they failed and sank into cliche. Oh well.

Why do I think this is the case, that the genre’s so “barbel-y?” I think that economics might play a role, that there’s a difference between commercial authors (not unreasonably) wanting something that will sell, and obscure niche authors (also not unreasonably) wanting something they know a lot about, to an audience they know will read it.

But it could also be that the nature of alternate history itself provides an object that’s hard to blend in. Either it stands as a metaphor for something else (Turtledove) or becomes the center of everything (online). This is also an imperfect theory, but it might work.

Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve noticed.

 

More Motor Companies

So, it’s time to have more motor car companies that have emerged out of my mind.

One is Ueno Motors, a smaller Japanese manufacturer in the country’s north. Named after the family name of its founder, I’ve envisioned it as having to roll uphill thanks to its poor geography and size. The exact state of Ueno, beyond “Seen better days” and “wallowing along with six figure units and mass-market pricing”, depends on my mood. Sometimes they’ve found a niche with weird nostalgic styling that conceals their aging platforms, other times they’re the makers of the blandest blandmobiles of all time.

Another is Mosaic, or whatever the equivalent of “Mosaic” in its native language would be. Mosaic can be applied anywhere, being formed from the merger of a disparate number of car companies into one body (hence the name). Whether it reaches the height of General Motors or the depths of British Leyland also depends on my mood.

Third is a revision of my old Barton Motors. It’s still a New Jersey based manufacturer that drops out of the mass market, but I’ve moved it away a bit. Barton makes a good transmission for the time and keeps it up. They even supply other automakers with their transmissions, which helps as their own cars fall behind in other ways (the drivability image given by this only lasts so long). So, they leave the final-assembly business but remain as a parts supplier, and achieve success that way. It may be ahistorical, but hey, I’ve thought it up.

Wither Alternate History

So, I was in that awkward position. I was getting annoyed at arguments and the board surroundings on Alternatehistory.com, but still felt semi-obligated to post there. So I tried an experiment. I’d go without posting on there for one day, and see how it went.

So I stayed away for that day. It was hard, like resisting an addiction. But I made it, and once I stepped back, I wasn’t eager to go forward again. Now, this should not be construed as a public “I’M NEVER GOING BACK THERE AGAIN!” boast. (Most of the time, the arguers come back soon anyway). I still browse and have posted since the date, but my activity there is far, far less than it was. (from multiple posts a day to only one a week, and probably less).

There’s one redeeming niche to AH, albeit one that’s still slipping. It is a place where people knowledgeable on obscure minutia can be. But that assumes interest, which isn’t always there. But hey, there’s talk of obscure car brand what ifs! And a few good stories.

That was the good. Now for the bad.

The Staff

First, it’s understaffed in conventional terms. It has far fewer mods per user than Spacebattles, Sufficient Velocity, or most other forums. It’s not uncommon to go to another board and see more mods earmarked to one section than AH has overall.

There is a mechanism around it, and it’s actually interesting to watch from a distance. It’s almost the opposite of Spacebattles/SV, as an AH regular turned recent-SBer noted. Basically, if SB is more uptight and enforcing of small violations but relatively lenient about banning, AH is the opposite. There isn’t the energy or will to deal with so-called “shitposters”, but cross a line and get the axe.

The worst thing the board leadership does is use sensitive political topics as a form of entrapment. Instead of declaring a moratorium, they simply ‘invite’ users in to post something against the grain and then ban them.

This is why going through any thread on AH from a few years back will find a mountain of members with “BANNED” in their title.

That’s one problem. But it’s actually not the biggest problem-after all, the staff’s hammer falls most often in the dreaded “Chat” (or ‘Polchat’, as it’s nicknamed), and I almost never went there. (And with good reason.)

The Userbase

The bigger problem for me was the sort of users the board has. Since I generally view AH as a kind of second War Room on Spacebattles, the quality of poster there is much lower. It feels like a barbel. Young and/or clueless posters on one end, and bitter old cold war vets on the other.

SB’s userbase in the War Room tends to be between the groups, contains a lot more recent veterans, has the average user being more knowledgeable, and their high-knowledge posters can talk in a more accessible way.

The userbase is highly compartmentalized, which leads to the surreal example of a “look at the Abrams go!” 198X WWIII TL being right next to a contemporary one where Iran kicks the US’s teeth in to cheers and schadenfreude.

As for the younger posters, they’ve gravitated to pop-culture timelines, which leads to a major problem in why I left AH. But overall, the combination of the staff and userbase leads to this weird mutually unsympathetic situation where the staff acts in a heavy-handed way, but the user they crushed seems to have deserved it nonetheless.

Still, bad users are a problem anywhere. What made me finally pull away was…

The Stories

Ok, so I was following a lot of narrative TLs on AH, and even helped contribute to a few. This is the reason I stopped. Users and staff are a distant second. I could no longer enjoy them-not even a “follow them till they stopped, then think ‘what was I thinking’?”

Like all too many other internet fiction places, there’s an attitude of stories receiving little but unconditional praise. Many of the stories also have a lot of not uncommon wish fulfillment. If only it was that. No, the two annoying examples are:

  • People saying “What about the thing?” What about this person, or that person, or this game, or that song, or whatever. This happens most frequently in pop culture timelines, but pops up now and then in other places.
  • Rivet-counting. There will be technical nitpicks and criticisms, some more valid than others, in any sort of detailed TL.

That’s it. Very little about narrative, even less about characterization. I’ve repeatedly characterized the clunktastic The Big One as on the level of a middle-of-the-road alternatehistory.com timeline. It certainly does fit the template, even if its politics don’t. Slides in next to, or maybe a little above the 198X WW3 tinny Red Storm Rising knockoffs. At least those have a story.

The timelines unto themselves don’t. I see too many brown M&Ms, and my brain has changed. Some of them can be interesting and/or plausible, but I’ve seen behind the curtain. My belief in mega-butterflies doesn’t help. All I see of cause and effect is “because the TL writer wants it”, and thus all the psuedo-historical timelines have all the organic flow of someone building a toy tower.

I ditched Massively Multiplayer because it was wish-fulfillment (however intentional or not) and had a commentary of “what about the thing?”. The other timelines I dismissed for that narrative reason alone.

This is kind of a rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. But I must emphasize I have no ill will towards people who want to stay there, or write in that board’s style.

I’ve just grown not to like it. And because I used to like it, I felt the need to see what I think happened to make me not enjoy it anymore.

 

Changed Tastes

In some ways concerning fiction, I’ve become far less judgemental. In others, I’ve become far, far more so. In some cases, it’s authors I used to like becoming bad, in others it’s me changing in tastes and sophistication, and seeing them as bad.

Three “rules” remain for me:

  • The more something is hyped, the more skeptical I become.
  • If something aims low, I will be less critical than if it aims high.
  • I will find criticism of everything, even stuff that I like. But fiction without pretense is critic-proof.

Indoctrination Theory

There was a discussion on Space Battles about what people thought of the “Indoctrination Theory” of Mass Effect 3’s infamous ending.

(If you’re brave you can see a detailed site on it here. The short version is that Shepard was mind controlled). Bioware has officially stated that it is not canon and forbids discussion.

Now, my post on the subject had three parts. (Read the whole thread, it’s very good)

  • Mass Effect is not an ambiguous art game like say, Yume Nikki. It was supposed to be clear.
  • By itself, the theory is just a goofy one, much like the theory that the entire Pokemon anime is the dream of Ash in a coma.
  • However, the real ending was so bad a critical mass of fans attached to the weird theory.

I’d also like to add, after a night of reflection, that the ending, much like the Reapers, was set up to fail. The expectations were so big, and the lack of planning so great, that A: Anything was bound to be disappointing to someone, and B: The chances of a slip up, as happened to the villains, were great.

So that there was controversy wasn’t surprising. What’s a little surprising to me is that there isn’t more controversy over Bethesda’s tiny, bland endings to their Fallout games. You couldn’t take a page from New Vegas?

 

 

Indian Ocean Fury

Gunner98 has released two new Command scenarios for testing. This one is the Indian Ocean Fury set, taking place in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. (The out of order numbers are no cause for alarm, simply because some scenarios take longer to make than others)

The two are Indian Fury 1: Persian Pounce and Indian Ocean Fury 3: Socotra Scramble.

Both are as big and complex as you’d expect. I’ve noticed that Gunner98 throws in a lot of minor nations as allies to the USSR-everyone from Algeria to Finland to Eritrea has thrown their hat in the ring in his various “_____ Fury” scens. I don’t know how much of this is motivated by plot concerns and how much of it is motivated by gameplay ones.

Not just the FE Battalion Anymore

My crazed mind continues.

So instead of stuffing the Fire Emblem cast into one battalion, I spread them out all over other units. This I’ve found is a little different than the battalion idea, in many ways for the better.

  • I can sideline physically incapable units.
  • I can go across all levels, rather than from “private” to “Battalion commander”.
  • I can make the protagonists argue amongst each other about strategy in ways that they couldn’t as small-unit commanders.
  • From a meta example, I can put them in different technology levels in a way that’s easier than “Hey, you’re WWII cavalry now, then you’re a Gulf War battalion, now you’re a modern light infantry one!”
  • Pegasus knights as pilots, anyone?