Monday, 4 July 2005

Jane Austen’s letters

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s Easy to love.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Complete letters.

I’m going through a bit of an “Austen-kick” at the moment. I expect to have knocked off all the novels in the not too distant future (all but Northanger Abbey will be re-reads, but you will be relieved to know that the List’s rules allow this), have recently watched DVDs of the BBC’s recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation, and also have Claire Tomalin’s biography to come. The letters are just another symptom of the wider interest.

What with my reviewing backlog, it’s now a little while since I finished the letters, and I can comment on the overall impression that they left with me more accurately than I can describe the details. I do recall that reading the letters totally submerged me in amazing levels of detail, some of which was near incomprehensible, even with the notes (yes, more endnotes) to refer to. I suppose if someone attempted to plough their way through all the e-mails I have written in the 15 years I have had access to e-mail, they might find it pretty bewildering if they didn’t know me. Austen’s letters cover a similar period (perhaps more like 20 years), and even if letters weren’t quite as easy to send (they cost money on a per-letter basis for one thing), it’s clear that letters were to Austen as e-mail is to me, at least to a first approximation.

To make things worse for the person not intimately familiar with my activities, if they were to have to read my e-mail in the way that I read Austen’s letters, they would only be given roughly 10% of them. It’s estimated that Austen probably wrote about 2000 letters in her life-time; less than 170 survive. Much of this is due to the efforts of Austen’s biggest correspondent, her sister Cassandra, who destroyed most of their letters. What a biographer would do to go back in time and get their hands on that stash!

Nonetheless, with a little effort, and with the help of the notes and appendices, I did find it possible to keep track of most of the family’s names and inter-relationships. The broad impression is of a very foreign world. Women of Austen’s standing tend not to go anywhere beyond their village or town of residence unless accompanied by a man. A significant portion of women’s lives is dominated by the hunt for material to make new clothes.

In addition to her circumstances, Austen’s character (or 10% of it!) does also come through. She seems to have been witty, understanding, kindly and intelligent. It’s interesting, for example, to read her letters to her niece about whether or not the niece should marry a possible suitor.

The letters are not an easy read, because their paucity makes for disjointed narratives, and because there is so much trivial detail to them. On the other hand, there’s no other way of getting as close to conversing with a famous, long-dead author.

Thursday, 21 July 2005

FPS Survey IV

Listening to:

Bach, prelude in G minor, BWV 929, played by Igor Kipnis on a very quiet clavichord.

Unreal Tournament 2004

← Back to FPS Survey III

My fourth venture into the land of first-person shooters was rather different from the previous ones. This time I bought Unreal Tournament 2004. It had won some amazing reviews, and we had a good enough Internet connection that I figured that getting maximum benefit by playing online against others would be quite doable. (Moreover, the reviews claimed that the bots were sufficiently intelligent that solo play was quite reasonable too.)

UT2k4 is quite a different game from the previous shooters because it is completely plotless. There is no enthralling story to act out. Instead, the premise is that you are a contestant in a virtual reality competition (the tournament of the title), where the competition requires you to shoot, kill and destroy the other contestants (but in a purely virtual sense, you understand). Being killed in such a setting doesn’t stop the “story”; it is part of the story. Indeed, you’d have to be doing pretty well not to ever get killed. And being killed is no big deal either: you almost immediately respawn in a random location and get right back into it. Your score at the end of a round of play is typically a function of how many opponents you’ve killed.

A complete free-for-all is called a Deathmatch. But there are (more interesting to me) team events as well. In these, you are a member of a team fighting against another team, and the aim might be to kill as many of the enemy team as possible. That’s Team Deathmatch, but there are also more interesting team games to play. For example, a shooter classic is Capture the Flag. UT2k4 comes with this and a variety of different game styles, including one that is a bit like handball or football, but where you can shoot the opponents.

But I’d say the real highlight of UT2k4 is its Onslaught mode. Not only does this feature lots of vehicles to drive (some with multiple seats), but it focuses on semi-strategic play with teams required to fight their way across a map of inter-connected nodes until they reach the enemy master-node and can attempt to destroy it. Having played a little against the bots (they are pretty good), I then played a lot of Onslaught online. I was never particularly good, but I did progress past being a “noob” (newbie, or novice).

The online experience can be absolutely amazing. The game comes with built-in voice-chat, so you can even talk to your team-mates if you have a microphone. You can always type too of couse. If the team is co-operating well, it can be very satisfying. Perhaps these successes were valued all the more because of their comparative rarity, but it really was neat to pull off some co-ordinated manoeuvre, with a bunch of people all working together to achieve some objective or other.

The world has moved on now, and there are far fewer people playing UT2k4 online than there were. (I suspect it doesn’t help that I’m in Australia where there is a smaller population to start with—playing over trans-oceanic links can be pretty fraught, so I do feel as if it’s a local game.) Instead, people are playing newer games. The latest as I write is called Battlefield 2 (with even more support for the “squad experience”), but I haven’t succumbed to that one just yet.