Review: Wheel of Time S01

Wheel of Time S01 (2022)

The Rafeverse isn’t a different turning of the Wheel as Rafe and Sanderson have claimed, nor even a Turning in which the Dark One won as some have suggested here (if that had happened, he would have been free in all worlds, at all times), but a Mirror World or World That Might Be.

The distinguishing feature of these Mirror Worlds is that while they are possible worlds, their appearance and sustained existence is improbable in the extreme. Stronk women taking down Trollocs with a pocket knife commando-style, while a blademaster can’t kill a single one. Globalized cosmopolitan age levels of ethnic heterogeneity in podunk villages that haven’t received more than a couple of peddlers per year for a millennium. Social mores of a late liberal society persisting after an apocalyptic total war and 3,000 years of upheavals and decivilization. “Darkfriends” managing to erase mention of the Eye of the World from Tar Valon’s libraries

Causality in this world is broken, with all its attendant effects on world self-consistency. Incidentally, this also explains the very low IQ of the characters in the show. Intelligence is only adaptive in worlds governed by consistent rules that can be figured out and then exploited for a competitive advantage. In a world in which an Aes Sedai can’t stop Whitecloaks from burning her at the stake while a bunch of untrained wilders destroy an entire Trolloc horde, or in which a village Wisdom can follow an Aes Sedai’s “tell” which her own Warder cannot, there is no significant payoff to intelligence, hence it was never selected for there. In this sense, Lan is actually rational and smart for not wasting his time training any of the boys in how to use their weapons, this is not how XP is actually gained in this world. He, at least, is fully cognizant of how his world works, and navigates it efficiently.

I would say that the aesthetics of this world tends to back up this theory. It has a washed out look, lack of attention to detail (costumes that spontaneously clean themselves), empty spaces, near empty sets, inconsistent distances and timelines, scales and measures that have no anchor in objective reality, and extreme warped perspectives, as when our heroes go for a Sunday jaunt into the Blight and Trollocs emerge to attack the Gap a few hundred meters behind them (in a normal world, this would beg the question of how they managed to avoid getting caught up in that flood, but not one in which time and distances “bend” in arbitrary ways as in the improbable Mirror Worlds).

One prediction we can make from this is that if the Mirror World theory is true, then it is an already highly unstable and indeed “fragile” existence, and one that may well unravel completely when balefire is weaponized again and breaks the already seeping chains of causality that hold reality in place beyond some critical tipping point. The likeliest point for that to happen is in connection with certain events at the Stone of Tear, i.e. the presumed end of Season 2.

Instead of holding anger against Rafe and the showrunners, I would suggest instead sparing a thought and extending some compassion towards the benighted denizens of this Mirror World, who live tormented and twisted lives with no understanding of how things are really meant to be, and whose very existence will probably soon end, at least bringing with it the small mercy of a final release from the permanent psychosis in which they are forced to live.


Game Review: UnderRail

Rating: 5/5

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UnderRail is an isometric turn-based RPG set in the deep future, long after an unspecified disaster has made life on the planetary surface impossible. The remnants of humanity scrape out a subsistence existence in the subterranean bunkers and warrens of the UnderRail. The flickering embers of industrial civilization survive in great station-states, which are tenuously connected to each other by dark, gloomy, and bandit-infested railway tunnels. Their prospects appear dim, beset as they are by wildlife infestations, banditry, wars, epidemics, and technogenic disasters. And deep within the abandoned bowels of UnderRail stirs an Eldritch abomination that desires to slave all life to its expanding biomass.

I should state at the outset that I’m not the biggest fan of old-school isometric RPGs – in fact, until now, I hadn’t played a single one. The early Fallouts, classics though they were, passed me by. Nonetheless, UnderRail is when I finally decided to make an exception a few months ago. There were two main reasons for that. The first one had to do with the rather banal purpose of eliminating the one major lacuna in my gaming experience.

But the second draw was the world that Dejan Radisic (“Styg”), the Serbian lead developer of the game – and for a long time its only one – had created. From a young age, I have been fascinated with tunnels, caves, warrens, metros, and nuclear bunkers. I had heard about D-6 and Yamantau before I read Metro 2033, let alone played the game. Moreover, since 2014, I have been toying with an idea for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, in which the Earth gets knocked out of the Sun’s orbit and civilization survives in a massive underground network*. As a game that is so intersectional with these very specific interests, and with so much in potential inspiration for my own world, I knew I had to complete it and to write this review to organize my thoughts, ideas, and impressions of it.


This is not a gaming blog, and game reviews are a dime a dozen on the Internet, so I will not spend much time on the pure gameplay aspects here. Should my gamer readers buy it? Depends. UnderRail has often been described as early Fallout underground. If you don’t care for old school RPGs, you probably shouldn’t. (I wouldn’t have either if not for the unique setting). But of you enjoyed those titles, and want to relive them in a fascinating new world, then sure, go ahead – you probably won’t regret it.

Note that Styg released an expansion pack (“Expedition”) a couple of months ago, which introduced a “Black Sea” area to the world map and some new weapons. I haven’t played it and don’t intend to.

Anyhow, first things things. In the past, I made the observation that while American post-apocalyptic games tend to coddle you to the point of parody (e.g. Fallout), their East European equivalents dump you in the middle of the wasteland, give you a dull pocket knife, and wish you good luck (e.g. STALKER, Metro, etc.). So yes, UnderRail is HARD. If you want to have a good time, I would suggest no higher than “Medium” difficulty for your first playthrough. I would also strongly suggest “min-maxing” your character base abilities – pick a specialization (e.g. guns, melee, psi) and stick with it, because “jacks of all trades” aren’t going to get far**.

Things that the game gets right:

  • The combat system is logical and engaging. While I don’t exactly have a base for comparison with similar games, it is cited by many reviews as the game’s single best feature.
  • People also praise the crafting mechanics.
  • “Oddity” system of XP gain by seeking out and studying unusual objects promotes immersion, avoids level grinding, and encourages exploration.
  • Entrancing music from Josh Culler that syncs perfectly with the dark tunnels and gloomy caves of the UnderRail.
  • It is clearly a labor of love, with rather detailed worldbuilding – all the more remarkable in that it was mostly done by one person!
  • Unlike most RPGs, the very structure of UnderRail forces you to think in three spatial dimensions. The entire world is one very large building, or spaceship.
  • The AI is pretty good. There is a cool scene where a guard pretends to be fooled when you present the wrong ID, but then reveals that he was just playing along when he acquires backup.
  • You need to solve a rather sophisticated puzzle – pen and paper required to work it out – to make the fight against the final boss much easier.

Things that could be improved upon:

  • Inventory management is chaotic; as in many other RPGs, all your items are scrambled in a big pile with limited sorting ability, which can get quite inconvenient when there’s dozens of them.
  • Merchants only buy a limited range of products and are chronically short of cash – one needs to wait a couple of in-game days for them to replenish their money and stocks.
  • Can’t expect much in this department because this is an indy game largely developed by one person, but the dialogue trees are generally limited and unresponsive to major game events.
  • There is no means of fast travel, which can get to be quite the chore when one needs to cross a large station-state. (Though I hear this has been fixed in the expansion).
  • The game did not do a great job of justifying the quests you need to do for a certain faction at the end. Many RPGs give you a choice between supporting one faction or another – but here, I feel I was… railroaded (heh) into fighting for a faction that I did not necessarily support and for reasons that I couldn’t make myself care much about (whereas good RPGs try to indulge player choice to the maximum extent possible).

The World of UnderRail


Many centuries ago, life on Earth’s surface became untenable for reasons that have been lost to the sands of time – even one of the oldest and most learned men in UnderRail says, “the only certainty is that [the surface] is currently uninhabitable. We desire to repopulate it, and for that to succeed we require change within us, we need to advance ourselves – evolve – in order to withstand its living conditions.” Some fraction of humanity descended into the UnderRail, a massive system of underground tunnels and bunkers created by Biocorp, an ancient organization that combined elements of a corporation, a state, and a research institute. It was organized in three hierarchic tiers, with “Apex Technocrats” at the top. Biocorp worked to make UnderRail entirely self-sustaining, cutting off contact with the outside world.

But its hold on power was not to last. The population strained against UnderRail’s carrying capacity, and there was unrest against corruption and rumored “immoral” experiments at the Hollow Earth research facility. 189 years ago, the Apex Technocrats lost power in a revolt sparked by what would later become known as the Hollow Earth Incident, which resulted in the birth of a faction of terranaut cyborgs known as the Faceless, as well as the biological abomination that would come to be known as Tchort (translating to “demon” in the Slavic languages). In the coming chaos and civil wars, Biocorp fragmented, and bandits roamed the tunnels in between heavily entrenched sovereign station-states.

One hundred years ago, a man known as Eidein discovered Tchort in the Deep Caverns of the abandoned Hollow Earth facility. It had since become overrun with dangerous minions slaved to the bioconstruct, and before long, he was the only surviving member of his expedition. However, Tchort deigned to spare him, instead inducting him into its mysteries. He returned to UnderRail and started up the Institute of Tchort in the abandoned Old Biocorp University, which devoted itself to the study and worship of Tchort. Over the next century, they would have recurrent battles with their mortal enemies, the Faceless.

Between 50-100 years ago, a group of scientists attempted to restore Biocorp. The new state was centered around the three cities of Core, Hexagon, and Dis, and was ruled by a council of technocrats residing in Dis. This “New Biocorp” didn’t last long. 18 years ago, a military force known as the Protectorate was formed by General Malek, which quickly took over Dis, its capital. The Protectorate integrated Biocorp’s power structure into the United Stations (US), the federal polity that now dominates North UnderRail. Meanwhile, Core City in South UnderRail staged a revolt against New Biocorp, commanded by second in command of Core City Security Forces Archibald Knight, and supported by Ruppert Simmons, a Biocorp technocrat. Core City is now an independent station-state ruled by an oligarchic triumvirate consisting of Knight (Praetorian Security), Simmons (CoreTech), and the newcomer Gunnar Edstrom (JKK).

South UnderRail is currently in a state of geopolitical ferment. The US is trying to extend its influence and cavort/coerce its independent station-states into its federation. Meanwhile, a partisan force opposed to what it sees as the Protectorate’s tyranny has risen up to oppose this expansion. The rest of UnderRail’s station-states maintain a state of armed neutrality. You start the game as a new citizen in one of these station-states, South Gate Station (SGS).


The world of UnderRail is divided into several distinct topological zones, each with its own characteristic built environment, ambiance, and flora and fauna:

  • Upper UnderRail is the most civilized zone, hosting the Institute of Tchort and the bulk of the Protectorate’s military presence in South UnderRail.
  • Lower UnderRail hosts the South Gate Station and most of the other independent stations, and also includes the Lower Passages (cannibal-infested utility tunnels) and the Upper Caves.
  • Lower Caves hosts many of UnderRail’s mines, hunting camps, and – being at the main water level – its major rivers and the Black Sea.
  • Deep Caverns is the most hostile and inhospitable zone, with only three elevators connecting it to the rest of UnderRail. It hosts a variety of unique and deadly ecosystems, the post-apocalyptic ruins of Hollow Earth, and the spawning grounds of Tchort.

One interesting consequence is that geopolitics happens in three dimensions, as controlling the limited number of elevators between different “levels” is no less important than occupying strategic crossroads and chokepoints. The more powerful station-states tend to stretch across two or more topological zones, which enhances their access to trade routes and logistical strength. Some of the missions in the game revolve around collapsing or seizing these access routes.

UnderRail doesn’t correspond to any modern society. Racially, they are mostly white, but with a few blacks, while onomastically, it is melange of primarily Anglo-American and Slavic influences. As Styg wrote in 2010, “Fallout is kinda “industrial age nuclear apocalypse that happened in recent history,” while this will be more “early space age non-nuclear apocalypse that happen quite some time ago”…” Bearing in mind that the game features things like laser weaponry and shield emitters, one assumes that the early Space Age in question refers to our world a century or two into the future. Perhaps, by that time, the US and all of Europe had become a common economic area, and millions of Balkanites and East Europeans had emigrated to the part of the US that would eventually host UnderRail?

The common tongue is English. Over the centuries, it has become colored by its underground setting, with expressions such as “derailed”, “pipeworker”, and “it’s all pipes and barrels to me” seeping in.

The universal currency in South UnderRail are charons. However, some of the biggest stations (such as SGS) have their own currencies, while United Stations Dollars are used by the Protectorate forces.

Food production appears to be based on aquaponics (that, at any rate, is the case at SGS), as well as hunting and fishing in the caves and rivers surrounding the manmade parts of UnderRail. While geothermal or nuclear energy would appear to be the logical choice for powering a subterranean civilization from our modern-day perspective, UnderRail appears to rely entirely on cold fusion power instead.

At a certain point, the “hard” sci-fi elements break down. An indeterminate number of centuries ago, there occurred a genetic mutation – most likely artificially induced – that allowed some humans to access psi powers (a form of in-universe magic that consists of Thought Control, Psychokinesis, Metathermics, and Temporal Manipulation). This may have been connected with the coming of the “Godmen”, a small group of alien immortals that – according to the “Mysterious Pillars” that sprouted throughout UnderRail at that time – had been destroyed by another alien civilization. These “Godmen” have since infiltrated human society and play a distinct role in its politics.

As a setting that combines cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and cosmic horror, one shouldn’t be surprised that life is nasty, brutish, and short for the masses of UnderRail’s denizens. Countless “zoners” lead a wretched and precarious existence deep in the “underhive” of Core City, their numbers constantly pruned by epidemics, accidents, and banditry. Others exchange their health for relative affluence working in the mines and forges of Foundry, or live and die on the whim of raiding bandits, as at Rail Crossing. At best, an ordinary citizen of UnderRail will find himself in a well-run, clean, and strongly defended station such as SGS. Though even there, material living standards are spartan, life is highly regimented, and citizens are subject to conscription. Probably the nicest and most comfortable lives will be those led by the upper middle class citizens and Oligarchs of Core City… though even they are not entirely safe from the intrigues and political jostling in that treacherous megapolis.

Violence is ubiquitous in this world at both the state and individual level (indeed, it usually seems to be either/or). At the start of the game, you learn of a war that took place between SGS and a rival station-state known as Omega Station. While SGS took casualties, they won the war and exacted a Carthaginian revenge: “Unfortunately for them, we were stronger and it was us who ended the war. They no longer have a station or a community, but we paid a high price as well.” So yes… your home isn’t exactly the Shire. This theme of Black and Gray morality is reinforced at the end of the game, when yet another faction that you had developed ties to is exterminated by the game’s supposed good guys.

This brings me to the point that UnderRail is morally ambiguous. While going on blind killing sprees will turn people hostile against you, merely robbing, kidnapping, and murdering your way through UnderRail isn’t going to lose you any in-universe karma points, at least so long as you do it discreetly. For instance, in one mission, a barbarian “Rathound King” tasks you with kidnapping a woman from a hunting camp whom he has taken a liking to: “She would make a perfect woman to bear my children!“, and to Tchort with consent: “Whether she agrees with it or not right now is not my concern.” On bringing her in, the Rathound King tosses her into a locked cage. Rather curious that the professional SJWs have yet to raise a stink over such an unbridled display of toxic masculinity…

In UnderRail, most people can only afford to look out for their own skin, altruism be damned. As a grizzled veteran explains to you in Core City, “Help them? Don’t be stupid, bud. Every day I see people getting killed like pigs, or beaten or, or dragged away somewhere into the darkness. If I tried to help every single poor soul I’d be a goner by now. Dead. Ice cold, bud. I mind my own business and let the world do its freakin’ thing.


The world of UnderRail is divided into factions vying for geopolitical influence consisting of station-states, bandit clans, and more secretive organizations.

South Gate Station

South Gate Station, where you start off, is a nine-story tower connecting with Lower UnderRail at the top and Lower Caves at the bottom, where a hermetic gate – a homage to Fallout? – separates it from the dangers outside. Facilities include an admin section, aquaponics farm and animal pen, engineering, an armory, shooting range, hospital and psionics area, library, commons and cantina, gym and showers, and private quarters.

As in the Greek polises and New England colonies, citizenship is not given away lightly; you need to pass a set of tests before they take you in. Inequality is low. The three Councilors who run the station live in similar conditions to the rest of the citizenry, though with better pay – their main reward is the respect that comes with the position. It is considered to be the strongest station in South UnderRail, despite being first in neither military nor economic terms. There are heated debates over whether to join up with the expanding US or to retain independence.


This scrappy, derelict town in the Lower Caves by the Black Sea is accessible via ferry from SGS and Core City. It hosts the US Embassy in South UnderRail, a modern concrete and glass structure with a lift going up to Lower UnderRail. There is an area of the city called Old Junkyard, or Depot A, that was overrun by aggressive mutants in the wake of failed Biocorp experiments more than a century ago. The town lives on salvaging old-tech from that dangerous zone.

The town’s two main gangs contest each other for control over the harbor and access to Depot A. You can help one of the gangs seize full control of the settlement, which will determine whether Junkyard falls under the sway of either SGS or the Protectorate.

United Stations vs. Free Drones

The United Stations is the single most powerful polity in UnderRail, and though it has no member stations in South UnderRail, it maintains a visible presence through its Embassy in Junkyard and Protectorate military bases. As mentioned previously, it is headed by a Council of Five, though some say it is only a front for General Malek. From the name and usage of dollars to the haughty behavior and tightly guarded Embassy, the resemblance with the United States is obvious. As of the present time, it is seeking to expand its federation into South UnderRail. Supporters claim that it will be good for trade and security, while opponents are suspicious of its authoritarian inclinations. But its presence in South UnderRail is precarious. Only a single vulnerable troop elevator connects Fort Apogee, its main base in Upper UnderRail, to its Embassy in Junkyard.

Opposing the Protectorate are the Free Drones, an anarchist outfit that was founded by someone called Wallace “Steel” Cholokashvili (heh heh). They claim that the US is a ruthless regime that tortures, kills, and imprisons thousands annually. And it has been confirmed to take hostages and wage chemical warfare against rebels. However, it’s not clear that the Free Drones are so much better than the Protectorate. In your first encounter with them, they will be guarding a stolen Protectorate train that was carrying critically needed supplies to Rail Crossing, a small, struggling town that has been ravaged by bandits. They would rather it starve than allow the Protectorate to earn humanitarian propaganda points.

That said, perhaps the one thing that makes the Free Drones worth fighting for is Kokoschka, their token tankie. He hails from “Fatherland,” a “very much great place” in West UnderRail that is run by a “great leader.” As a Borat-like source of comedic relief, his social views are… very based and redpilled: “Women not fight… clean, cook, wash our feet and shut up when we tell them. Here they talk when they like, it crazy! It derailed!

Core City

Core City is the biggest station in South UnderRail. Core City encompasses three levels, from Upper UnderRail through Lower UnderRail down to their docks and sewers in the Lower Caves level. As mentioned above, it is ruled by three oligarchs who separately dominate the security, technology, and entertainment sectors of its economy. The Protectorate has been granted limited transit rights, as well as their own dock, but there are otherwise no intentions of joining the US. The social center of the city is the Hardcore City Bar.

In contrast to the egalitarianism of SGS, Core City is a cornucopia of contrasts. The Oligarchs and their progeny, as well as the other moneyed families, lack for no material comfort. Sophie Talloski, the spoiled and perennially bored sprog of a wealthy family, is happy to shell out the equivalent of a yearly salary on an exotic creature you captured.

Those who manage to find employment with one of the Oligarchs tend to have comfortable, middle-class lives… at least so long as they don’t get caught up in their intrigues. For instance, while working for one of them, your handler vanishes: “It’s just, well – she’s gone. Too bad, I know, but you should simply forget about her.” You are told that she was a spy for a rival Oligarch, and would be well-advised to leave it at that.

Not even VIPs, such as the successful and celebrated gladiator Rocker, are safe should they cross the wrong people. One merchant tells you, “In one of the caves close to this – this very place I found Rocker’s corpse. In case you don’t know, he was one of the gladiators who fought several years ago. Damn good he was, but he just… poof, disappeared one day. He committed suicide by shooting himself five times in the head – and no one knows why to this day. I found him a few months after his death. I… may have taken some coins from his pocket – don’t judge me!

On the other side of the social chasm is the wretched hive known as Drop Zone. Murderers and muggers haunt every corner, constant epidemics keep the population down, and one cannot even be sure of the ground underneath one’s feet, with many ledges that suddenly fall away into the abyss.

The denizens of this law-forsaken place subsist on a vile brew known as barrel soup: “Recipe is simple – take whatever’s edible and put it in a barrel full of water, heat it up and eat when it’s ready! That’s all there is to it. A full barrel can last a long time and feed a lot of zoners… each barrel adds a different and unique taste to the soup. I often hear zoners talking about the best barrels to use – some of them even refuse to eat from a different barrel! They just add water and ingredients to the single one they think is the most hardcore… and eat from it.

Opulence and destitution come together in the city’s star attraction: The Arena. In the chaos following New Biocorp’s collapse, that area used to be the scene where rival gangs duked it out. Since then, the Oligarchs have regulated and commercialized the violence. Gladiators fight animals and each other to advance in the ranks, encouraged by the “bloodthirsty maniacs” watching them. Their ultimate goal is to become the reigning champion – the Invictus. Those who fail meet a less glorious fate – the bodies of the slain are chucked down the rubbish chute in the surgery room into the sewers, sometimes while still alive. The proceedings are televised across South UnderRail by the third major oligarch, JKK’s Edstrom.

JKK have recently used the lucrative profits from the Arena to create a new game called the Gauntlet. This consists of nine different rooms connected by a series of elevators that competing “runners” have to complete ahead of each other. There are no prizes for second place – they get electrocuted along with the other losers.


Foundry is the industrial heart of South UnderRail, and host to its only metallurgical complex. It is one of the richest settlements, and its residents enjoy an unusually wide variety of social benefits, including pensions and health insurance. It also maintains one of the best trained and equipped security forces in UnderRail, which keep them safe from the Ironhead bandits who prey on their metals shipments. Its leaders are democratically elected, and it is the only major settlement with something resembling rule of law. As the local sheriff boasts, all prisoners get a fair trial, in contrast to most other places in UnderRail, where “usually, it’s “You seem guilty. BOOM! Next please.” Sad but true.

Inevitably, there are downsides. While healthcare comes free, so does the highest level of industrial pollution in UnderRail – many workers develop acute respiratory problems by their 30s. Mortality in the adjoining mines is also high, and that was before they got infested by borers.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the town is now stalked by a psycho manhunter whose basement holds some rather grisly secrets. No wonder that everybody seeks to make their money there and retire in Core City as soon as possible.

Rail Crossing

Rail Crossing is noted as the weakest station in South UnderRail – occupying a strategic location with only weak defences, they are constantly savaged by bandits, and a recent raid by the Faceless hasn’t helped matters.

It is most notable for hosting the Dude – a comedy character who likes his mushroom brew so much that he has a vision of an entire trove of them that he asks you to fetch (mind the room full of mines protecting them). As it turns out, his cryptic references – e.g., an “all seeing Eye” somewhere in UnderRail – are invariably true. You may later discover that he is far older and more important than he lets on.


Oculus is the “eye” of UnderRail, a hidden object deep in the caves that can only be revealed by psi powers.

It is an alien-built structure. The Occulites who now occupy it keep watch over the UnderRail, manipulating its geopolitics through spying and assassinations for their own secret and unrevealed ends***.

Oculus is a huge lore goldmine, so you should really try not to miss it. Hacker man Twitch on the upper level has all the history, while another Occulist on the main floor can explain the geopolitical details of today’s UnderRail.

You can have a rather interesting conversation about the philosophy of medicine with Phyllis, one of the Occulites.


Lurkers are a brutal cannibal gang that resides in the Underpassages and steals babies and children, especially from the smaller settlements.

The Lurker base is a little carnival house of horrors, with flayed and decapitated prisoners hanging from meathooks and a cannibal chef preparing the gang’s next humanitarian supper in the kitchen.


Lunatics are a gang of psi-using bandits, rather mentally unstable, who have an inordinate fondness for poetry (“demented limericks chaotically scribbled in blood… about gods, pyramids, mushrooms and carnal pleasures“).

One amusing scene has them standing in a circle around each other doing jazz hands, surrounded by a dozen cats.

Institute of Tchort

This is perhaps the single most interesting faction in UnderRail. Combining elements of a religion, a cult, and a research institution, it is dedicated to the study of Tchort, a primordial being that is formless, constantly regenerating, and adaptable to any environment. As a Tchortist tells you during the admissions interview, “Tchort holds the key to evolving the human race to new heights… One day perhaps, through directed evolution – as Eidein originally named it – humankind will hopefully find a way to adapt to the life on the Surface and escape this gloomy underworld.

The Institute is located in Upper UnderRail, but has a single elevator that leads all the way down to Deep Caverns (the site of the Hollow Earth complex, the mutagen tanks, and Tchort itself). At first glance, the Institute is one of the safest, most civilized and self-contained communities in South UnderRail… the throngs of people camping out at the Institute gates in hopes of admissions are a testament to its level of civilization. Many Tchortists are Institute-born, and have never even ventured beyond its gates… as the cook tells you, it is safer here, and people care for each other. Acolytes address each other as “brother” and “sister”.

As befits a monastic community, the musical ambiance features choral music, and Institute ranks are based on Eastern Orthodox degrees (e.g. noviates, rassophores, stavrophores, etc). The Institute is divided into three departments: Preservation (security); Investigation (research); and Propagation (propaganda). During your stay, only the first two are accepting new acolytes. That said, you can see Propagation agents preaching the glories of Tchort throughout UnderRail’s bigger settlements. They are eugenic transhumanists, who strongly despise “devolved” and “dystrophic” forms of life, such as Lunatics and the Faceless. That said, they are not stereotypical dour zealots – they do know know how to have fun. Lame science jokes abound in the labs. One of the missions involves testing out different alcoholic drink recipes with one of the investigators.

The Institute’s lore is collected in a text called the Original Report****. As mentioned, the Institute’s founder and present leader is Eidein, the man who discovered Tchort a century ago, back when he was still Aiden Travers. At the time, he was the only surviving member of a doomed Biocorp expedition to retrieve valuable equipment from Hollow Earth. In the long decades since the facility’s abandonment, environmental hazards had accumulated, as well as natural predators of a “horrid and surprisingly alien” nature. Just as the expedition’s captain expired, and he was about to be consumed at the locked gates to Tchort’s demesne… the creatures retreated, and the gates swung open. And there, he encountered Tchort: “All I could see is pure flesh with tentacles sprouting from it in all their glory.” He studied Tchort for the next few weeks, discovering that the creature is able to enter unique regeneration cycles in which it loses any recognizable form and undergoes genetic self-repair with help from its junk DNA, which serves as a sort of backup for the creature: “How it knows what sort of adaptation it needs to survive in the new environment is not yet clear, nor how it is able to recombine or even create these new sequences…” The Report concludes with instructions to continue learning from Tchort, in the hope that humanity too can learn to adapt itself at will, seek immortality, and “finally return to the surface world.”

Science, security, eugenicism, transhumanism, biosingularitarianism… sounds like a dream faction! But there’s always the distinct impression that something about the Institute is… just a bit off.

For a start, the radical life extension treatment – which is supposed to have tripled Eidein’s lifespan – has only been tested out on Eidein himself thus far. He explains that keeping the treatment to one subject – that is, himself – is necessary, because they need to wait at least one generation to complete a life cycle and to make sure that the modifications to the genome do not have undesired or disastrous effects. This seems rather convenient, and one gets the lingering suspicion that Eidein’s transhumanism is very much just for himself. As the Faceless commander in Deep Caverns tells you – admittedly, not the most unbiased of observers – “The whole premise of Tchortism is a fabrication, and Institute of Tchort serves to be nothing less than a tool at both of their disposal, one they use as a means of achieving their goal… Eidein’s goal was transcendance, elevation of form and mind – power. The only way to achieve this was by allying himself with Tchort; Tchort’s goal is liberation, and the only way to achieve it is by granting Eidein what he wishes. They both benefit from the relationship.

But an exploratory approach soons reveals that many more things are not quite as they are. For instance, in one of the missions, you need to track down a missing rassophore soldier. When you find him in an apparently abandoned warehouse, it turns out that he is a conscientious defector: “I saw beings – abortive, rejected creatured, malformed and miserable. I was shocked. Thankfully, no one noticed I wasn’t supposed to be there, much less that my face was twisted from horror; blame it on the masks were are obligated to wear while on duty. But those things… they looked human! Luke humans that had been crossed with… something.” (Incidentally, good for him that he defected – should you let him go, he ends up being one of the few Tchortists to survive the events to come). As it turns, there is a full-fledged laboratory of horrors in a closed section near the Institute elevators, in which a race of gray-skinned, humanoid bioconstructs are industrially created to be experimented upon and then put down. You may optionally help them to escape.

Nor is such callousness in the pursuit of SCIENCE! limited to non-humans. Outside the Institute gates, you find a guy called Detritus. He is a zoner whose entire family died in one of the recurrent plagues that “dominated” the Drop Zone, but he survived thanks to his high immune resistance. He, too, is interested in seeking out Tchort – to regenerate, to live forever, to go to the surface – at any rate, it’s better than rotting in the Drop Zone. Or is it? One of the Tchortist investigators wants to bring him in, to study the source of his immunity. Despite having developed second thoughts, you can persuade him to go ahead: “Alright, count me in… Hardcore, hardcore. I’m as nervous as a caged hopper, but count me in. I’m ready.

Turns out, he should have listened to his instincts. Next time you meet will be in Deep Caverns, and poor Detritus will no longer be… the same.

Nonetheless, all that aside – and even allowing that Eidein misled the Tchortist rank and file for his own nefarious purposes – their extermination is an undoubted loss for UnderRail. For a start, Core City will lose its supply of cheap medicines, making life even more unbearable for zoners. There will be no more science produced in South UnderRail, if not all of UnderRail. Any lingering dreams of transhumanism and returning to the surface will now be permanently extinguished. It is sad that there is no way to prevent this, such as by reforming them from within.

The Faceless

The Faceless were created during the era of old Biocorp as an experiment. Their revolt was one of the triggers of its collapse, as well as the direct cause of the ruination of the Hollow Earth research complex in Deep Caverns. Taken by rage at the scientists who had created and exploited them, they threw them into the mutagen tanks: “Was it justice or revenge, or both, that I cannot tell you. But the fact of the matter is that our birthplace became their grave,” says their commander.  But little did they know that in exacting their vengeance, they were also creating their own future nemesis: Tchort.

While the Tchortists are biosingularitarians, the Faceless have taken the cyborg route to transhumanism. They are rumored to have a giant city in the deepest of the Deeps, and traverse the UnderRail within their armored subterrenes. As Old Jonas, a long-term resident and adventurer in SGS, tells you, while the Faceless are not exactly friendly, neither are they necessarily hostile. They generally let others be, so long as they don’t impede or provoke them in some way.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Faceless. On the one hand, they don’t go out of their way to do harm, largely sticking to themselves unless provoked… which is admittedly rather easy to do, and can even be entirely coincidental (as with a certain unfortunate shopkeeper in Rail Crossing). They don’t even execute the Tchortist prisoners they capture during their battles with them in Deep Caverns. On the other hand, it is noted that they do not leave a single man or woman alive in the aftermath of their attack on the Institute of Tchort. They are closely allied with the Godmen – indeed, the Mysterious Pillars describe them as “half god, half man, half rock” – who also each have their own inscrutable agendas. Unlike the Tchortists, they do not appear to be open to anyone joining their faction. Their brand of cybernetic transhumanism is for them, and them alone.


At the start of the game, a mysterious agent working for Oculus infiltrates the Faceless and steals their most precious object. This triggers the Faceless invasion of UnderRail, as they desperately attempt to retrieve the item.

This is where you come in at the start of the game.

You main quest has to do with locating that mysterious item, to return it to the Faceless in order to call off their invasion – and to prevent it from being weaponized by an even greater evil, should it fall into the wrong hands (or tentacles).

The schemer who stood behind this series of events is revealed at the end, and his last minute escape creates ample scope for a sequel.

And there is an even greater mindfuck in store if you were to really connect all the lore you learned from Oculus, the Faceless, and the Mysterious Pillars. Suffice to say that the game’s executable is TimelapseVertigo.exe for a reason.

At the end of the game, you are offered the opportunity to become an SGS Councilor, or to go north to Hexagon.


Lists of random things that amused me… perhaps somebody can use these to expand the TV Tropes entry?


  • Psi abilities are unlocked with a “red pill” (or years and years of intensive meditation).

  • Kelly Oliver (the US consul) named his son Magnus (“allegedly after an Old World chess grandmaster”) and daughter Aida (opera by Vivaldi).

  • Oddities:

  • Old Data Medium (floppy disk): “It’s a very old type of data medium. You can only wonder what’s on it since you have no way to read it.
  • Pack of “Lung Cancer” cigarettes: “On the back of the packaging there are disturbing images of death and decay of human body. Why someone would package a product in this manner and, more importantly, why someone decided to consume the entire pack is beyond reason.
  • You can reply “They call me Adahn” to questioning from a certain group of bandits.

  • Wallace “Steel” Cholokashvili, the founder of the Free Drones – a mishmash of Stalin, and a Georgian rebel leader.

  • I probably shouldn’t have to explain Dude.

  • Meta: You can “Play UnderRail” on a computer in Foundry.

  • The Occulist “Twitch” looks like that hacker man from The Matrix.

  • The Deep Worms in Deep Caverns remind one of Tremors.

  • The Eye of Tchort (both the sense of impending doom effect, as well as Tchort’s physical form), the Mouth of Tchort (its “envoy”), and even the inability of the Faceless to combat Tchort themselves (because their minds are more advanced, and hence more susceptible to its influence) are all, of course, references to Lord of the Rings.


  • The bodybuilder in the SGS never skips chest day.

  • Some guy high on LSD: “Did you know that we actually use less than 10% of our brains? I know I do!

  • Cale the Crazy, who thinks he is invisible, and is very affronted when you don’t play along.

  • Al Fabet is a parody of the loot-obsessed player. He walks slowly around Core City, overburdened by his wares, ineffectually trying to sell his useless junk loot to the vendors.

  • The exchange of creative insults with Rude Rob at the Hanging Rat.

  • Cap’n Coltrane, who speaks like an old-school pirate to increase his custom.

  • Kokoschka the Tankie.

  • You can find the body of a mauled man, surrounded by a pack of rathounds, with the book “How to Tame a Rathound” by James S. Tupid lying by his side. More Darwin Award than Nightmare Fuel.

  • Any conversation with the Dude:

    • “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took a bolt in the knee.” “That sounds awfully familiar…”
    • “Neutrinos are whack – maybe they’re giving me a headache (maybe its the mushroom brew?)”

  • Some of your responses in the admissions interview with the Tchortists, e.g. “Ever felt another creature in your body?” “Like… Tchort? Yes, yes…

  • Sophie’s naming of her borer pet: “I was thinking about all these hardcore names, but nothing sounded hardcore enough. Then it hit me! Literally, the creature hit me with its drillhead thing…. in the leg. Drill… leg… So I named him Drilleg! laughs Drilleg – say it… Drilleg. Driiiii-leeeeg.

  • Institute of Tchort:

    • While you’d be killed for it if you said it in the admissions interview, you can drunkenly reveal why you really joined the Institute while doing the vodka tasting: “I saw Tchortists stealing this, eh, things from a research facility in Core City, and I came to the Institute just to find it.
  • * Lame science jokes abound in the labs (“What does the cell about to undergo mitosis says to an interested investigator: “I hope I have your divided attention!”“).

    • Institute researchers still addressing 21st century concerns: “No, the particle accelerator will not create devastating black holes – that is a derailed thing to think!
  • In Deep Caverns, an old geezer teaches you how to avoid the feeling of doom from being in proximity to Tchort. The trick is to stare into a pit and repeats truths about yourself. After communing with this “Hole of Reason”, you do feel your memory is becoming better… “Or maybe you’re just losing your mind due to the fact that you’d spent an hour talking to a bottomless pit.

* The work humor on the old emails at the Hollow Earth labs, down to complaints about inappropriate content, would be familiar to any office worker today.
  • The IRIS AI goes BSOD when you shut down the current, homicidal, corrupted version and try to boot the backup version from 189 years ago if you don’t have sufficient hacking skill.

  • Repair Bot working on opening the gate to Tchort’s domain is a barrel of laughs.

Nightmare Fuel

  • UnderRail as a concept is a smorgasbord of the most horrific post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk tropes. It has everything: Famines, epidemics, banditry, cannibals, cannibal bandits, inequality, monsters, biohorrors, urban magic, wretched hives, ancient conspiracies, Eldritch horrors from beyond the stars.

    • There’s also the whole living underground part, never a breath of fresh air or the feel of sunlight on one’s skin. On the other hand, does it matter? Humans have had centuries to get used to this, it’s not like wind and Sun is something they miss. Presumably this is now just everyday reality for them now.
  • Pick your political poison: The Core City oligarchy, the United Stations which uses chemical weapons to put down dissenters, the mustachioed “Great Leader” in the far west, or anarchists indistinguishable from bandits.

  • In Core City, wretched hive denizens subsist on barrel soup, and are repeatedly whittled down by famines and epidemics… illiteracy is rife (the Arena’s managers assume you can’t write when you apply to become a gladiator). Nonetheless, they replace themselves at a rapid rate – references to families with many children are legion – endlessly perpetuating the cycle of destitution.

    • As if that isn’t enough, gang warfare was ubiquitous back in the days following Core City’s revolt – and it is now poised to return in force thanks to a former Councilor in your station who’s decided to go back and relive the good old days.
    • The Oligarchs can crush anyone they want into oblivion: From Vivian Young, your “disappeared handler”, to Mykola the mechanic, whom you meet in the merchant district, whose business they ruined. Not even VIPs such as the “suicided” gladiator Rocker are safe.
    • The Arena’s chief mortician is a bit loopy: “I just happen to have a patient that is missing an arm. Care to donate?” “I dissected my first eel when I was five. My first human? Six or seven years old. Feels like yesterday.” “Who needs a spleen? No, really… it’s not a vital organ.” And he’s supposed to be better than the previous one! “Had a wild stare. He used to work here a couple of years ago; the idiot used to throw folks who were still alive down the chute while laughing maniacally!
  • Foundry is a polluted industrial hellhole with low life expectancy, surrounded by Ironhead bandits, where spouses take out hits on each other, a psycho killer on the loose… even so, people still yearn to migrate there.

    • Balor, the chief of the Ironheads, once offered a disarmed train guard the chance to use his own massive sledgehammer against him. It was of no use to the hapless guard, he couldn’t even pick it up.
    • The story of the psycho killer is actually quite sad.

* One of the Oddities in the Lurker base is a baby’s hand on a chain.

  • While many of the critters in UnderRail are more slapstick than horrific, the Death Stalkers & Black Crawlers – giant scorpions that can strike and paralyze you, before melting back into the shadows – are exceptions.

    • The borers who recently infested the Foundry mines use psi energy to cocoon themselves within the entity of its choice, i.e. rocks. SGS experts call them “psi-enhanced polymorphic organisms.” The apex example of its development is the Beast, which is invulnerable to mechanical forces and can only be killed by subjecting it to temperatures of 2,500C or higher. How many other deadly psi-morphs remain entombed in the rocks like Balrogs, waiting to be discovered by future miners who delve too deep?
  • The Rathound King, apart from being a beast of a man in his own right, has a pack of rathounds at his beck and call.

  • There is a cannibal with his own Saw-like complex built into the Core City sewers. When you enter, the arm of a dismembered body is still twitching. He has a three eyes human skull in his possession, and a knife engraved with the words, “Man is wolf to man.”

  • The Institute of Tchort: Insane cult that worships an Eldritch abomination… and it’s one of the nicer places in UnderRail – safe, secure, the only place where some science still gets done.

    • Immoral experiments (Rejects, Detritus, etc).
    • Even the Institute is falling apart, if more slowly than the rest of UnderRail. While it started with two wings, over time they abandoned the West Wing due to falling numbers. The place became contaminated with dangerous wildlife. During the West Wing Expedition of 67, an elite unit was sent to re-secure the area. Contact was lost. After a few days, one survivor came back… dragging his bisected upper body to the checkpoint before expiring.

  • You ended up in a station-station with the resources to teach you how to use your psi powers. But not everyone is so lucky… some are just banished into the dark and dangerous world outside – some, presumably, are killed.

  • The Faceless come off as emotionless cyborgs, have by far the best grunt units in the game, appear to have unlimited numbers, and their subterrenes – which no other faction appears to have – give them total strategic mobility within the otherwise narrow confines of UnderRail. They annihilated the Institute of Tchort, one of South UnderRail’s strongest factions, within a single day. It is to be hoped they don’t soon change their isolationist ways – as things stand, they will probably be able to conquer all of South UnderRail in a few weeks of campaigning, if not the entirety of the Protectorate as well.

  • To get a certain part needed to open the gate to Tchort’s domain, you need to switch off the auxiliary power to the cryonics pods holding the bodies of cryopreserved Biocorp scientists. Now in fairness, given the ruined state of Hollow Earth and UnderRail’s collapsed scientific production, the chances of anybody coming down there to fix things up before the battery juice runs out within the next 246 years – let alone come up with rejuvenation treatments – is quite minimal. Still, as a transhumanist, I was not happy with having to pull that switch. Doubles as a Tear Jerker given that we know the backstories behind some of the “patients” via the work logs in the main laboratory.

  • The IRIS artificial intelligence in Arke power station produces an endless stream of robots to protect the facility.

    • And it’s not even the only such facility! There are RAFs (Robotic Assembly Facilities) for the manufacture, storage, and rapid deployment of armed robotic units in case of conflict throughout UnderRail. They can run autonomously, without outside interference. At one point, IRIS was connected to all of them.
    • The default state is to maintain a set number of units and use them to defend against intruders. But imagine if someone was to tweak those conditions and acquire control over an endless stream of weaponized robots.

  • Pretty much everything about Tchort:

    • The details of its creation.
    • Its visual appearance (in the words of the protagonist: “One giant, disgusting mutated mass of flesh with slimy tentacles sprouting from it“).
    • The sense of imminent doom that it projects on all living beings within a certain radius.
    • Its ability to generate lesser minions to defend itself.
    • How it has managed to manipulate intelligent human adherents into worshipping it and furthering its designs.
    • The Mouth of Tchort: “… instead we got you – another mangy railrait. Trash-digging, foul-smelling, ugly, dysgenic MONGREL!… But, alas, we have not eaten for a while so we must make do… Come, little one, let us take you down the corridors of pain. Take heart for on the other side a greater destiny awaits. You must descend to become exalted. Come… join your river into our sea and become the flesh of a god.

  • Fun fact: The calculations on how many people the world’s current electricity output can support by growing wheat indoors in my post on the world’s maximum population (under today’s tech levels) were initially done for this prospective sci-fi novel.

** For my part, I played as a “psi” character (the game’s equivalent of magic). This is also probably the easiest build, as UnderRail conforms to the “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards” trope. My base stats were as follows: Strength = 3, Dexterity = 5, Agility = 7, Constitution = 5, Perception = 3, Will = 10, and Intelligence = 7. (In retrospect, I wish I had picked much higher Perception – dealing with stealthed enemies, such as the dreaded Death Stalkers – large scorpions that sting you out of nowhere, paralyze you with poisons, and slink away unnoticed before you even have the chance to strike back – was a real pain). This thread is an excellent resource for psi builds.

*** In this sense, they can be compared to the IT directors answering to the cryogenic Mannerbund of Howey’s Silo, the “overseers” answering to the Enclave of Fallout, the “invisible watchers” of Metro, the “Unknown Fathers” of Saraksh in the Strugatsky Brothers’ Inhabited Island, and the Illuminati/MJ12 of Deus Ex.

**** Which one needs to read carefully in order to resolve a potentially sticky situation in the endgame.

Game Review: Civilization V

Civilization V (2010) ★★

I think it’s by far the worst of the series. This is “Civilization for Dummies,” so to speak (as one reviewed called it). Consider:

1. The AI is primitive, as if it’s actually going backwards rather than forwards with time. Difficulty levels are determined by artificially giving the computer controlled civs more resources, not improving their intelligence. This was acceptable a decade ago. Now, it most definitely is not.

2. There are now almost as many Wonders as there are normal buildings, and the benefits they provide are seemingly random and unconnected with the actual building. The Kremlin is a modern Wonder. WTF. There is no longer that feeling of anticipation and even “wonder” when you manage to construct a Wonder.

[Read more…]

Of Rats and Men

This is a (very preliminary) prologue to a sci-fi novel I’ve been thinking of writing for some time. It’s called 100 YEARS TO VICTORY, but obviously liable to change. My sole question is: Would you continue reading the rest of this book?

It’s been nearly a decade since I built my first cage.

It was an exceedingly small cage. Physically, and literally, it was about the size of a large computer, though its inhabitants were none the wiser to the fact. To them, it would have appeared as a world entire, a world of rolling plains and giant trees and gentle hummocks in which they could make their burrows. That world wasn’t particularly big either. It didn’t have to be. Not when it hosted consciousnesses that were conditioned by evolution to a home range of less than 50 meters in radius. As far as a rat was concerned, the neighboring hill might as well be a foreign country, and its denizens – instinctual enemies, to be exterminated so that its own clan could survive and propagate.

And so the years passed, passing into decades, and centuries. There evolved subtle differences between rats in different locales: The rats in the ice-bound north, for instance, developed white fur and epicanthic folds to protect against snowblind, while males in the torrid south acquired rich manes to attract females. Many thousands of rat generations appeared and disappeared in the blink of a human eye. Arbitrary eons of blood and breeding, and the profound indifference of a Mother Nature that canceled them out over any long enough period of time.

Then I said, “Let there be grain.” Stalks of wheat sprouted out at the bed of one valley. A moment-millennium later, rice appeared in a second valley, and was followed by flowerings of millet, maize, and sourghum in yet other places.

[Read more…]

Book Review: C.S. Friedman – Black Sun Rising

Black Sun Rising (Book 1 of the Coldfire Trilogy) by C.S. Friedman, published in 1991. Rating: 3/5.

The Coldfire Trilogy is sometimes described as a successful fusion of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So what better work to start reviewing on this site?

I will be forthright: By far the most wondrous and intriguing element of this series is the world Celia S. Friedman built. Not really in the details – names are generic, and cities have no character of their own – but in the metaphysics. This is a world where simply thinking about something can bring it into being. This is reminiscent of other fantasy worlds like Solaris, numerous Philip K. Dick creations, and The Wheel of Time’s Tel’aran’rhiod. If you’re the type who has a lot of nightmares, living there probably wouldn’t be your cup of tea: “Erna is a harsh mistress.”

The interrelations between the cognitive and physical realms are mediated by the fae. The fae are a sort of energy current that can be manipulated, or “Worked,” by conscious minds to produce what we might think of as magic. But don’t call it that! For as the main hero of the story points out, “The fae is as natural to this world as water and air were to our ancestors’ planet.” Nor is it all bad: It can reinforce buildings against earthquakes, and cure wounds (giving faith healing an altogether more literal meaning!). The natural world, as a result, is subject to Lamarckian evolution: “Here, if trees grow taller, the next gaffi calves are born with longer necks.”

As it is now more than a millennium since humans first settled the planet, the concept of a world without fae is hard to imagine. Even though Damien Vryce, the main protagonist, serves a Church that is committed to the extirpation of the fae, he himself reacts to a vision of such a world with terror:

Explosives fire like a sharp drumroll in the distance, the crack of a hundred pistols perfectly synchronized. He feels a sharp bite of fear at the sound, at the unnaturalness of it. What kind of Working must it take, to make it possible for so many guns to fire successfully, with such planned precision? … For the first time in his life, he knows the rank taste of terror. Not the quantifiable fear of assessed risk, but the unbounded horror of total immersion in the unknown. Guns fire once more in the distance, and for the first time since coming here he realizes why they can function with such regularity. Man’s will has no power here—not to kill and not to heal, not to alter the world and not to adapt to it. The whole of this world is dead to man, dead to his dreams, impassive to his needs and his pleas and even his fears. The concept is awesome, terrifying.

This vision was created by Gerald Tarrant, the anti-hero of the story, to evoke fear in Damien. He is a centuries-old sorcerer who escaped death by pledging himself to demonic forces, gaining immortality and great power over the dark fae in return for regularly engaging in murder and feeding off the fear and terror of his victims – hence, his psychological torture of Damien, which the latter agrees to. But Tarrant is also the original founder of Damien’s Church, even if he has long abandoned its ideals (albeit he says it’s not that simple). This makes for an uneasy and tension-filled relationship between the two that looks like it will evolve in interesting directions in the next two books. It is also the main reason that I will continue reading the series to its end.

So why the rather mediocre rating? Plot. Characters. Consistency. It is not entirely clear why Damien became so committed to Ciani in the course of a weeks-long fling that he would literally travel to the ends of human civilization to bring back her stolen memories. Nor do I even recall why she was singled out in particular. The Big Bad’s fortress is originally described as a massive, physically-impossible structure of “naked stone” that “rose up from the earth like a basalt column,” but soon afterwards it becomes a citadel that was like “a jewel, a prism, a multifaceted crystalline structure that divided up the night into a thousand glittering bits.”

The very title of the book is “Black Sun Rising,” but there is only one reference to a black sun that I can recall. And unless it’s a metaphor for Tarrant, I don’t see it leading anywhere:

In the far north, across the Serpent’s waist, a midnight sun is rising. Black sphere against ebony blackness, jet-pure; a thing that can only be Felt, not Seen. Into it all the light of the world is sucked, all the colors and textures that the fae contains: into the crystalline blackness, the Anti-Sun. He stares at it in adoration and horror and thinks: There, where all the power is concentrated, like matter in a black hole . . . there is the power we need for this quest. Power to shake the rakhlands and make our kill and move the earth besides!

Apart from the stolid Damien Vryce and the darkly seductive Gerald Tarrant, the other characters are quite wooden, Senzei in particular giving off the vibes of an expendable (and accurately so, it turned out). Despite or rather because of his inherent intrigue and dark mystery, Gerald Tarrant is – looking at it in another way – a quite banal product of the feminine erotic imagination. Like a fusion of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, and the serial killers who get bags of love letters in the mail, as channeled through Ciani:

With consummate grace, Tarrant walked to where she stood, took her hand in his, and bowed gallantly. Gritting his teeth, Damien was forced to acknowledge the man’s charm. … With a sinking feeling Damien realized just how drawn she would be to the Hunter, and to the mystery that he represented. It would mean little to her that he tortured human women as a pasttime, save as one more fact for her to devour.

It’s all the same power to her. He’s just another adept. More interesting than most, perhaps—but that only makes him more desirable. The cost of it means . . . nothing.

Essentially, the sheer awesomeness of Gerald Tarrant paradoxically cheapens him as a character, especially when he decides to slum it with mere humans. But maybe I am missing something big that explains all this in a later book.

Finally, there is also an ecological and anthropological element to the story. There is “The Forest” that Gerald Tarrant had engineered into existence with the force of his will, his need, and his intellect; sunlight and its solar fae are deadly to a man of the dark like himself, so over the long centuries, he created an entire ecosystem that could thrive without sunlight. There are the rakhlands, home to the rakh, a cat-like species that – under the avalanche of human fears over a rival species – evolved intelligence. The humans tried to exterminate them out of existence, with the result that the rakh retreated to an isolated part of the continent and erected a barrier called the “Canopy” to protect themselves from humankind. In a world where thinking really is existing, the Canopy can be seen as an “extentsion of their communal protection [and of] their need for protection [against man].” We also meet the “Lost Ones,” subterranean-dwelling relatives of the rakh who eat creatures from the above – including their cousins – for sustenance. They are the Morlocks/Falmer of Erna.

Have no illusions: This is not a landmark fantasy series. The characters are forgettable, with the partial exception of Damien Vryce and Gerald Tarrant (although the latter has his own issues). The plot meanders considerably, and is barely discernible in places, like the earth fae over the ocean. I think there are too many points of inconsistency for them all to have been a result of errors on my part as a reader (if so: Apologies. Maybe somebody was stealing my memories when I was reading the book?). There is also one character’s miraculous and unexpected survival at the end that, much like Sherlock Holmes’ faked death, strains the bounds of credulity. I wonder if the author will explain this sometime, or whether its a deus ex machina that will lie buried – unlike the unlikely survivor – to the end.

But it intrigued my just about enough to download the second book. I guess that means that aura of Erna can still draw you in even despite quite significant flaws in execution.

All The Books I’ve Read, Running Through My Head. This Is Not Enough.

Over the past week I’ve completed one of my most significant projects, though I’m not megalomaniac enough to think it will present much interest to other people.

It’s a list of all the books I’ve ever read.

Well, not all of them, of course. That’s unrealistic. Since completing it, I’ve remembered a couple more. But I almost certainly got more than half, and perhaps as many as 75% of the real total. And forgetting a quarter or a third of them isn’t a great tragedy anyway, since me reckons that if you can’t recall reading a book, chances are it wasn’t worth your time in the first place.

Some interesting things have emerged out of this exercise. For instance, almost 40% of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative. Even so, they unfortunately don’t include Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and the Strugatsky brothers. My familiarity with the classics, especially in Russian, are extremely patchy. Self-help and self-improvement books total almost 10%, of which 2% are about poker. Here are the detailed stats:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 103 4 107 33.9%
Literature 54 5 59 18.7%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 118 3 121 38.3%
Self-Improvement 29 0 29 9.2%
Total 304 12 316
96.2% 3.8%

Here is the same data, but by total page numbers:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 45,442 936 46,378 36.4%
Literature 15,544 2,000 17,544 13.8%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 52,108 1,021 53,129 41.7%
Self-Improvement 10,311 0 10,311 8.1%
Total 123,405 3,957 127,362
96.9% 3.1%

I highly recommend everyone do something similar. It’s easy (Excel and Google suffice), and though it will take some time – two days, in my case – it will pay off by bringing back good reading memories that would otherwise indefinitely remain dormant, as well as provide an incentive to start systemically writing book reviews. If you can’t write a review about a book you’ve read, chances are the time you spent reading it was wasted. But by writing a review of a book, you decant and internalize the best of what it had to offer.

It will also enable you to make some useful macro-generalizations. For instance, this exercise really drove home the point that my classics base is very weak. Many giants of literature are missing entirely. This is something I can start working on remedying. Another advantage is that you can make some observations about what types of books make an impression, and what types don’t. For instance, I observed that the books that tended to garner 5 stars were usually shorter than others in the same series or broader category. I guess brevity really is the soul of wit.

Our Lady of Shadows

An original poem:

And there shall come a time of wist and woe,
When flesh grows weak and spirit fails,
Of dark foreboding (and of secret glee),
When I look down into the Abyss.
There in its sad and murky depths,
Where daemons lurk and spirits fall,
The realm of death awaits.
With its tenebral vestiges; it reaches out,
And carresses my tear-stained cheek,
Whispering vespers of profound console,
Like a friend forlorne, and now come back
To reclaim what is rightfully hers:
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Waters of Oblivion, a bitter brew indeed,
The more so for the man of faith ‘twas I;
And I cried out, twixt hope and fear,
A yearning to be saved.

Lo and behold!
The skies of gray and mourning
Are rent asunder, above the dusty plains of Sheol,
A Ray of Light unto the Kingdom of Darkness.
Thus all things end.
And begin.

And my eyes are seared, for only Him do they see,
Scorching the way for His angels appearing;
And my flesh is scourged, for only Him does it serve,
Building a skywalk to the Kingdom of Heaven above;
And my lips are taken, for only Him do they praise now,
Demiurge dispelling;
And the LORD God comes.

Lighter than aether, yet unbearable,
Matrix of bliss uncontainable;
Impaled by infinite slivers of Light, yet bound
In that fearful lattice of absolution.
And I scream for the end, yet my lips are taken,
And I writhe in anguish, yet my flesh only serves Him,
And I flee my passion, yet my soul betrays me,
For my eyes are enraptured,
And only Him do I praise:
Thou shalt worship the LORD thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.

Centuries and aeons pass,
Of that everlasting Mass,
Until one fortuitous night,
A lady of shadows arrives.

Long-forgotten vespers drift across my raptured mind.
With its tenebral vestiges, the abyss reaches out,
Dimming that accursed Light.
My old friend coalesces, and tears well in my burnt eyes;
I kiss her on the lips and embrace her gift of night.
It’s with open-hearted glee,
That I wish the dying of my light.
For dust is my mother and I am coming home at last,
Forever into that good night.

(And then there’s only dust.
The universe abides.)

The Top 5 Books On Everything

Good books are of course far better than almost anything you can read in a magazine or find on the Internet. They are also of double the benefit when the reader actually interacts with them, e.g. by writing a review. I have about 25 of these on my two blogs, but they still come very far from encompassing all the best stuff I’ve read.

The problem with writing a review is that they are very time-consuming. A post on on current affairs, in which I can find quotes and links to material on the click of a button, takes far less time and effort than leafing through a tome or trying to locate some important passage in a Kindle book. Reader response rates tend to be fairly modest too. It goes without mention that one is expected to actually read the book too.

So, books reviews are very useful. Both for personal development, to better internalize its lessons through rephrase and summary, as well as for the benefit of laypersons who may be inspired to read the book too – or at least to correctly quote its arguments, while pretending to have read it, and not come off as a fool or a fraud. (For instance, I am personally convinced that 95% of The Bell Curve’s confident critics have never even touched it). But they’re taxing on time and stamina. How to resolve this?

I think I have a solution. Henceforth, instead of reviewing books individually – as I tended to do beforehand – I will review them in taxonomic bunches. I will also only review the best books in their class as reviewing bad books is the most horrid of chores, and useless to boot. After all, going by Pareto, probably something like 80% of the more useful and relevant information on any subject is contained in 20% of the books on it; there is thus an inherent advantage in only focusing on the top 5 or so.

To this end, I have compiled a list of “top books” on various subjects, theories, and themes that will hopefully appear as blog posts in the not too distant future. If they are in italics, it means I have yet to read the book in question. Note that only English language books or books with more or less accessible English language translations cay be included. Please feel free to provide suggestions for the ?’s, to suggest alternatives for any book on the lists you think unworthy, and to suggest lists of books on topics of your own expertise.

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Whiskey Trickles Into Russia’s Drinking Culture

Russia has a long and proud drinking culture; according to the chronicle of its founding, the main reason it chose Christianity over Islam was the latter’s prohibition of booze. Vodka has been distilled there since at least the 12th century. As of the time of writing, it is the world’s largest spirits market by volume – 2.4 billion liters in 2009, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), of which more than 80% accrues to domestic vodka brands. Whiskey’s share is only 0.5%; but it is growing at explosive rates, and whiskey now account for two thirds of all spirits imports. Indigenous distilleries are sprouting up and conditions appear favorable for this growth to continue.

In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus – a point illustrated by Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, one of Russia’s leading sommeliers and author of whiskey books, who got his first taste of Scotch by taking sips on the sly from the bottles his diplomat father brought home from abroad. This changed with the opening up of markets in the early 1990’s. Whiskey consumption has seen tremendous growth; the SWA says exports to Russia have risen from £5m to £31m in the past decade.

Though starting from a low base in comparison with the biggest Scotch markets, such as the US’ £499m, growth is expected to remain double-digit well into the future for three main reasons. First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes. Second, the growing segment of female drinkers favors spirits that can be sipped. Third,  the government plans to quadruple the currently low excise duties on spirits by 2014, thus narrowing the cost differential between vodkas and whiskeys. All this implies growth for blends, which dominate the Russian whiskey market – for a time, Tuzmukhamedov was Dewar’s chief promoter in Russia – and very strong growth for single malts.

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Esperanto Estas La Plej Facila Lingvo En La Mondo

In the course of my Chinese adventures, all other languages started to seem a lot easier. So needless to say that Esperanto, one of the easiest of them all, looks like just a walk in the park now. In particular, I’m interested in what the glossophiles here think about it, i.e. yalensis and Lazy Glossophiliac. Here are my rambling thoughts on it:

* It is easy. VERY easy. I have been studying it for three days, and I can already say many phrases: e.g. the one in the title (“Esperanto is the easiest language in the world”). Its vocabulary is about 60% Latinic, 30% Anglic-Germanic and 10% Slavic; its grammar is simplified Latinic; its morphology and semantics are largely Slavonic. Being a natural language, everything is very logical, it is entirely phonetic and there are no exceptions. Root words can be easily transformed from verbs (add in “i) to adjectives (add an “e), an adjective (add an “a), a place where it is done (add “ej”), a professional who does it (add “ist”), a female version (add “ino”), a diminished version (add “et”), a magnified version (add “eg”), etc. For people with some familiarity with European languages, the vocabulary is a piece of cake. It will be a lot tougher for Asians, but nonetheless even for them it will still be an order of magnitude easier than starting from a natural language.

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