Monday, March 9, 2020

Star Trek, RPG Dice, and STEAM

A few weeks ago I saw an interesting Venn diagram posted on Twitter by someone named Christine Liu:

In hindsight, I guess it's not surprising to see so much overlap between science and art... after all, the education acronym STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) includes them all.  I just enjoy seeing these intersections, and I guess I've tried to make the central region of this diagram a focal point of this blog, too.

(Sometime, ask me about a talk I heard at a conference a while ago about how astronomer Johannes Kepler got the idea for one of his eponymous "laws" of planetary motion.  The answer, I say in Buzzfeed listicle mode, will surprise you!)

Today, though, my thoughts about this STEAMy synergy turn to the world of dice.  If you're coming here from the RPG world, you know all about them.  You may know that a two-handed sword does 3d6 damage against large opponents, and no speed factors will tell you otherwise.  You may have been inducted into the illustrious Order of the d30.  You may have scratched your head about the fairness of some very non-Platonic Zocchi dice.

But did you know about how Vulcans use them?

Almost 30 years ago, Star Trek: The Next Generation brought back Leonard Nimoy as Spock.  That episode may have been a bit underwhelming in some ways, but it showed some interesting aspects of alien cultures that fans had been hungering to see for years (well... this fan, anyway, he said pointing two thumbs inward).

In the episode, a Romulan kid shows Spock a set of little dice-like blocks that supposedly convey "the syllabic nucleus of the Vulcan language."  In an episode of Star Trek: Picard from just a few weeks ago, those dice showed up on the desk of a Vulcan admiral.  Since we never got a good look at them, I always just assumed they were either cubes or four-sided dreidels (since Nimoy had a history of using elements of his Orthodox Jewish heritage in creating bits of Vulcan culture).

But no!  An enterprising (heh? heh?) fan found pictures of the actual props from 1991 and posted some detailed shots...

Click to enlarge... it's only logical
There are some shapes here that RPG veterans have probably not seen:
  1. Okay, we do have one bog-standard D&D die, an 8-sided octahedron (d8) on the left of the image above, with slightly sawed-off corners.
  2. There's also a square pyramid (5 sides), at the top, which I don't think is useful for dice-rolling at any aspect ratio.
  3. But then we come to the truncated octahedron (14 sides), on the bottom.  Essentially keep sawing off those corners of the d8 until the triangular faces erode into hexagons.  A Google image search for "d14" seems to bring up a few manufacturers that use this shape, but it's not employed by many games.
  4. Lastly, the one that surprised me the most: the rhombicuboctahedron (26 sides) on the right!  There's kind of an architectural mini-majesty to that shape, which I don't think I'd ever taken notice of before.  No less than Johannes Kepler himself gave it that Greek-derived monster of a name, but if you were around in the 1980s you may remember it as Rubik's Snake.
However, if you were around during the ancient Han dynasty, you may remember either the 14-sided one or the 26-sided one (with 8 of its corners minimized to give it 18 rounder sides) as dice for the Chinese board game Liubo.  Some random examples from Google image search...

Anyway, 8 + 5 + 14 + 26... I guess there must be 53 unique syllables in the Vulcan language.

Where was I going with this?  Oh, the ART of it all.  It's kind of amazing how these uniquely deterministic 3D geometries can be used (hacked?!) to give our brains randomized input that assists in our creative endeavors, be they games or divination or actual art pieces.  They all have the capacity to instill wonder, push boundaries, and do the other stuff in the middle of that STEAM diagram at the top of this post.  Occasionally one also finds designers of Glass Bead Games employing randomness as a spur to creativity, too!  I keep ruminating on becoming one of those designers someday, so these posts are a set of running notes that may someday be assembled into something bigger....

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Dangerous Reviews (3 of 3)

Finally... Here's the third part of my ongoing review of the 33 stories in Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions.  In part 1, I reviewed the first eleven stories, and in part 2, the second eleven.  Some stats and summary at the bottom.


23. "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" by Sonya Dorman

What do you get when you mix a depressing, dystopian future with a bright-eyed, well-drawn protagonist?  I'm not quite sure.  At just 6 pages, there was nowhere near enough time or space to really find out.  What this story did do was remind me that I truly ought to read Octavia Butler's Parable series.  I've been remiss.  This story, though?  SKIP.


24. "The Happy Breed" by John Sladek

Okay, this may be another cautionary ("if this goes on...") type of tale, similar to a few others in this collection, but it was really well done.  Seriously creepy vibe, conveyed simply and straightforwardly.  It makes you feel for the fate of the protagonists, and it stings.  Why?  In the 1960s, they were a bit vague about how "The Machine" could become so firmly ensconced in our lives.  Now, we have smartphones, the internet, streaming everything, and home devices that you converse with.  It's here.  (Also, I read this on a plane, where you definitely get the sense they're trying to lull the passengers into a similar zombie-like state as the "Musselmen" in this story.)  WOW.


25. "Encounter with a Hick" by Jonathan Brand

Let's joke about that big taboo called "religion," why don't we.  This ultra-short story has the similar genetics of mockery as the ones in this collection from Lester del Rey and Damon Knight (which I loathed), and in some ways, this one is just as shallow and silly.  I won't be pulling out comparisons to Voltaire or anything.  If this was published elsewhere, I'd guess it would've been in a like-minded venue of the time, say Playboy or National Lampoon.

However...

The voice of the hippie-ish first-person narrator held my interest for the duration.  His patter (in the form of a transcribed legal deposition) was zippy and even a bit lyrical.  Still led to a stupid punch line, but OKAY.


26. "From the Government Printing Office" by Kris Neville

Despite the clever conceit -- a jaded grown-up voice narrating the thoughts of a toddler -- I can't find much to redeem this story.  It's another one that extrapolates a nasty, brutish future from one slightly whimsical and inconsequential concept.  Oooh... "Doctor Spock, but evil...SKIP.


27. "Land of the Great Horses" by R. A. Lafferty

Cute concept.  I'd never read Lafferty before, but the prose reminded me a bit of Harlan Ellison's (which is a decided compliment).  Just a bit politically incorrect by today's standards, but not a hugely "dangerous vision."  OKAY.


28. "The Recognition" by J. G. Ballard

Very well written.  About as spooky and folksy as Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" earlier in this collection, but in a very different setting (swap out America for England).  However, this story also suffers from that same bleak malady of British pessimism that suffuses Pink Floyd's Time, Rick Priestly's Warhammer, and the absurdist ending to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Not my thing at all, but still so nicely wrought, craft-wise.  OKAY.


29. "Judas" by John Brunner

Silly silly silly.  Semi-interesting, possibly, as an example of a 1950s aesthetic one could call "chromepunk" (youngsters of today: visualize the pre-bomb Fallout universe?).  But the story itself was just a thin veneer for more simplistic religion-bashing.  Zero nuance or subtlety.  SKIP.


30. "Test to Destruction" by Keith Laumer

Interesting combination of a hard-drivin' rock-em sock-em adventure with an old fable that tells us how absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With a dash of alien hive-mind telepathy, for flavor.  Not really very deep, but it holds the attention.  OKAY.


31. "Carcinoma Angels" by Norman Spinrad

Entertaining O-Henry-ish tale of the "be careful what you wish for" variety.  Not very science fictional, but somewhat phantasmagorical and solidly a product of the sixties, man.  OKAY.


32. "Auto-da-Fé" by Roger Zelazny

This one was masterfully written.  A bit silly in its own way, too.  The conceit is clear in the first couple of paragraphs.  I don't need to go into the details, but I will say that it forced me to think about those creepy online speculations about the pre-history of the universe occupied by Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater.

I was a bit surprised by how "straightly" Zelazny played it all.  He didn't feel the need to drive home any explicit Moral Of The Story™.  However, I couldn't really find much of an implicit meaning or message, either.  I'm not saying every story needs that, but in this particular case I think it was reduced in stature by lacking some deeper why of it all.  It's probably regarded as a sci-fi classic in some circles, but I can't see much beyond the tricksiness of it.  Ultimately, just OKAY.


33. "Aye, and Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany

All righty.  FINALLY, not since perhaps the fourth story in this collection, here is a story truly worthy of being in this anthology.  I'm actually not going to say anything about the story itself, except that it makes wild extrapolations about the weirdness of humanity that really aren't that wild or weird.  I've written some purple praise about Delany in the past, and even though since that time I've heard about some other opinions of his with which I vehemently disagree, I still think his writing is amazing.  WOW.

- - - - - - - - -

Statistics:  I've recommended 12 out of 33 to skip (36%), copped out on 16 out of 33, that lie in the murky middle (49%), and given only 5 out of 33 the "blew my socks off" rating of wow (15%).  Is it ironic that the author who said "ninety percent of everything is crap" only rated an OKAY?

I didn't really expect to be so negative about the majority of the stories in this collection, and I searched for good things to say whenever I could.  It's probably just obvious that 53 years is a long time, and the norms and tastes swirling around the concept of a "dangerous vision" have shifted quite a bit.  I'm still very glad I did this, and there are a few authors that I'll be seeking out more from.

Then hopefully I'll be catching up on some other topics relevant to this blog, which hit an all-time low number of posts in 2019.  I hope to bounce back those numbers a bit, at least!  ;-)