Dumbing down (21 points)

It’s a good thing we had Nan the Great cremated. Otherwise the people of Salisbury would currently be experiencing minor earth tremors due to a rapidly rotating body in a grave somewhere. The makers of Scrabble, so the Today Programme reported this morning, have changed the rules to allow proper nouns. To put it another way, for the benefit of the kind of people who need this rule change, you can use names now innit.

Nan, who would pass the time by memorising the approved list of two letter words (and there are a surprising number of them), would not approve. In fact she forced us to introduce a new family rule, which is that the player of the word must at least know (or have a good idea; appeal to other players is permitted) what the word actually means. That way we might still have all been thrashed on a regular basis but it was with a bit more dignity. And educational.

One of the reasons I dislike point-and-shoot video games is that you might get hit and killed by the enemy, but guess what, suddenly you’re back! Or you can carry an infinite array of weapons around that you change with a click. This is not challenging. Games are meant to combine a measure of luck (e.g. what letters you have in your bag) with skill (e.g. what you do with them) and those two factors combined make it a challenge. This rule reduces the challenge level of Scrabble by about 75%. I will stop now before I start sounding like the Daily Mail. I have my pride, in case you hadn’t gathered.

One question mark over the BBC report: it says Mattel are bringing out a version of the game with new rules but will continue to sell the old version. Presumably the only difference between the two is the rulebooks and the boards stay exactly the same? Hmm. It couldn’t be a cunning marketing ploy aimed at the kind of people who need to use proper nouns … could it?

Pratchett, games and lists

To the Unicorn Theatre last night for the latest of the Studio Theatre Club’s Pratchett plays. The group has gone back to its roots with a revised version of the very first such play that it did, in 1991, a few months before I came to Abingdon and a year before Bonusbarn was born. Wyrd Sisters: The Director’s Cut.

The usual high standards; nigh on perfect casting all round. It was a shame they left Death out but you can’t have everything. Plays also can’t include lines of narrative text: I remember from the novel the lovely line “they turned to see a dwarf trying to loom over them”. Also difficult on stage would have been the bit where someone tries to sit in a chair occupied by the ghost of the dead king. “Is someone sitting here?” / “Yes …”

On the way back home Bonusbarn gave an interesting insight into the politics of gamery, or the workings of his own mind, or both, speaking contemptuously of the people sitting in the row in front, who I would guess to have been students. “I’m never going to be that nerdy. They were talking about Magic: The Gathering. That’s a card game.”

… which led on to a discussion of which is better, a technologically accomplished piece of work graphical like World of Warcraft, where everything is laid out for you on screen, or a proper role playing game (you may see where my prejudices lie) where you may have a few props and enabling items but the main action takes place in the imagination.

… which led on to a reminder (following from his suspicious identification of my ability to recognise authentic player-talk) that I was in the university SFSoc in my day, even though I hardly ever went to a meeting because they clashed with scuba diving on Thursday evenings and so I just turned up to the end of term video weekends.

[Sigh] “Were you the president?”


“Did the president have long hair and a trench coat?”

Um. Thinks. I do remember a long(ish) haired president. I also remember a trench coat. I forget if they were the same person. But …


Which leads on to something almost completely different but saves me doing two blog posts where one will do. Apparently the Guardian is having one of those prescriptive moments that the national press do so love and is listing the 1000 books everyone must read. They’ve now got down to science fiction and fantasy titles. There’s 149 of them (for the sake of convenience Discworld, Narnia, His Dark Materials etc. count as one title each) and the full list is kindly summarised here so I pinched it.

Some I’ve never heard of; some (I’m looking at you, Rowling) I’m thinking “what??” With the possible exception of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I’m thinking that any book published in the last five years is too recent to say everyone should read it; I’d say published this century except that China Mieville’s there (though not with the title I’d have chosen). But anyway, here’s the list again, with the ones I’ve read (60/149 = 40%) in bold.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
JG Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
JG Ballard: Crash (1973)
JG Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960) [seen the film; does that count?]
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973) [didn’t understand it, but read it]
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002) [why this and not Perdido St Station?]
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- )
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) [what happened to The Chrysalids?]
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)