what I did on my autumn vacation

It was nice having a week off. Not as nice as an actual road trip, and I could have done with less rain and another walk around the lake, but it was all right.

For Thanksgiving, we had jerk chicken and zucchini on the grill, sweet potato fries, coconut rice and cornbread. My spouse also made me a German chocolate cake for my birthday. We Skyped with our families, which felt pretty special and holiday-like since it was the first time for my side and almost the first for her side (and we got to see the new house and our young nephew).

I recorded three tracks for the new album project, and am confident the theme is going to work.

I wasn’t tempted by any Black Friday sales, but did get my Christmas shopping done. [UPDATE: I did get four little Puremagnetik plugins at 50% off on the Tuesday part of “Cyber Monday” though.]

I was tempted to pick up the last Mystic Circuits Portal in the special edition black panel — having decided that I don’t need another delay or reverb in my modular, nor more modulation sources. Portal is a unique distortion module that, above a threshold, wraps around to 0V instead of folding over or clipping. And it can wrap around a ridiculous number of times, feedback itself into ultrasonic ranges, generate interesting rhythmic crackles, perform “oscillator sync” with only one oscillator, and other things. This got my attention because (beyond “Black Portal” just sounding kind of badass) it’s similar in concept to an experimental plugin I wrote years ago, but takes that concept much further. There are two other derived outputs, one of which is a somewhat gentler quasi-quantized output, the other a spiky delta output. While the module can do ludicrously heavy distortion, I’m more interested in the other things it can do. So this is definitely more about curiosity than absolute confidence I will love this module, but satisfying curiosity is a valid use of remaining rack space.

I played my usual Dirt Rally 2.0, Noita, Bewejeled 3 and Guild Wars 2, all of which have been in rotation since before this pandemic struck, and Art of Rally which has been out for a couple of months. Noita has been getting significant updates even after leaving Early Access, with surprise new spells and monsters, so it’s always fresh.

I also grabbed Drag, which is neither about drag queens nor drag racing, but rather, an Early Access game of futuristic-ish off-road racing. The setting is a little strange, with sleek driverless rail buggies that have what seems like a vestigial roll cage too small for a human driver, with a long steering column ending in an odd bracket where the driver’s head would have been. Two of the courses are muddy wilderness roads that occasionally cross concrete or metal bridges or overpasses, bounded by forcefields to either side, occasional radio towers and oddly shaped concrete towers in the distance; the third is a raised bridge-like track mainly covered in a mound of mud, in an arctic setting with mysterious cranes and towers numbered in Arabic numerals but Cyrillic text. Graphically it looks good, within its sparse design. In terms of physics, it’s challenging, slippery and feels fairly realistic (although, once you’ve started to roll over it goes a little nuts, like many racing games do — and wheels are prone to pop off at the slightest provocation). Gameplay-wise there is not much to it yet, just different sections of course to do time trials on, with no sense of competition or career progression. I’m curious to see where future development takes it.

Probably where I spent most of my time was reading Rhythm of War, the fourth and longest book (at ~460,000 words) in the Stormlight Archive.

(I also read Dawnshard, a novella that takes place a little before Rhythm of War. I technically should have read it first, but at least thus far, it’s almost entirely a side story. It may very well become important to later novels, but if so, it will probably be retold.)

One thing I like about Sanderson’s novels is the “hard SF” approach to magic; there are definite rules and mechanics, the magic is highly integrated with how society works, and in most cases there’s a very scientific approach to determining the limits and applications of magic. This extends to the Cosmere as a whole — an overarching setting uniting most of Sanderson’s series, permitting some characters to cross between them and carry exotic artifacts with them.

But what I love about his books is the emotional impact of the story, both the lows and the highs. I care about the characters and want them to stop hurting and being frustrated. I celebrate with their moments of incredible triumph. I reel from the big revelations, shudder at the implications and cheer on their discoveries.

For a while I felt that the Stormlight Archive books kind of “cheat” at this; human emotions attract “spren” that can telegraph how they’re feeling even if they’d rather hide those emotions (or hide themselves!), while the Parshendi people speak and hum to rhythms that make their attitude explicit (with some conscious control when they concentrate). But this ties in nearly with the nature of this world’s role within the Cosmere, and it’s not as if his stories in other settings don’t convey emotion just as effectively.

Without even considering connections to other worlds, there are a lot of characters in this series. That is both a strength and a weakness of epic fantasy, I feel. This particular novel concentrates on three in particular, with lesser concentrations on a couple of others, and interludes, flashbacks and side trips to keep up with a few more. But the three main ones get a lot of development and growth and some of those great emotional moments that I love. The book also crams in a ton of that “scientific” discovery, and revelations about the greater universe and historical perspective on current events. Mental health is a huge theme — when you put people under continuous stress as these have been, they break. Their ability to hold it together, heal from emotional trauma, or just get some rest for once, is as important as how they face external threats. The truly important battles in this book were — for the most part — either against personal demons, or battles of wit and cunning rather than spear and sword.

I don’t think this book would make a lot of sense without reading the previous Stormlight Archive novels. It should be fine without reading any other Sanderson novels, although one would miss recognizing many tidbits scattered throughout. But then, there’s so much going on that I’m not sure even the wiki-article-writing superfans are able to catch everything. I don’t feel too bad not realizing on my own that so-and-so mentioned by a minor villain in this novel might be such-and-such character from a different series, who died, and now has a different name and completely different goals… while Sanderson’s novels are full of that sort of thing at this point, that’s not the main attraction for me.