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Interview with Gail Godwin about Grief Cottage

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Julia Nunnally Duncan at Little Switzerland Books and Beans

August 30, 2019 from 3pm to 6pm
Julia Nunnally Duncan will be a featured author at Little Switzerland Books and Beans on Friday, August 30, from 3-5. A book signing will follow. Julia will read from her latest books A Neighborhood Changes, A Part of Me, and A Place That Was Home.See More
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Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock

"The introduction of my new publication, Guide to Antebellum Flat Rock will be launched on Sept 14 2019 at 1:30 PM at the Henderson County Court House 500 Main Street. A talk and a brief slide show follows with refreshments afterward. …"
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Nancy Werking Poling at Black Mountain Library

June 15, 2019 from 3pm to 4pm
Can women rescue the planet from ecological disaster?Nancy Werking Poling will launch her new novel, WHILE EARTH STILL SPEAKS, set in WNC. She'll tell the stories behind the story: How did Mary (more crone than virgin) get into the narrative? And Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth?See More
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Flat Rock history via a road

Travelling back in time on a Flat Rock roadby Rob Neufeld             If you walk the one mile length of North Highland Lake Road in Flat Rock, you step nearly 200 years into the past.            At the east end, the 21st century reigns.  Fronting six-lane Spartanburg Highway, a super-Ingles sits above a bog; and a CVS store faces an Octopus Garden smoke shop, a chiropractor, a cell phone provider, and a six-lane avenue to I-26 a mile away .            Neither Ingles nor CVS carries the big…See More
Apr 8

Player of Games reveals today’s game-changing mentality

by Rob Neufeld


            There is something big happening in Millennial Generation literature, and I thought I’d try to get a handle on it.

            To give an idea of one aspect of current thinking: I was at a gathering recently, plenty of youngsters, and I asked several people around a table, “Who thinks an apocalypse is coming?”  Everyone raised their hands.

            What?  That’s absurd.  We’re drinking beers and strumming guitars while Rome metaphorically burns?

            Then I asked a 19-year-old to recommend a book that represents the best in new wave fiction, and he named, “The Player of Games” by Iain Banks (who, sadly, died at age 59 two years ago).

            Just a couple of months ago, Mark Zuckerberg made it his 13th pick, and first fiction selection, for his 2015 “Year of Books” discussion on Facebook.


Optimistic pessimism


            “Life is not fair,” Gurgeh, game-playing hero of “Player of Games” admits to Nicosar, Emperor-Regent of a rapacious superpower.

Then Gurgeh qualifies his statement by saying, “Not intrinsically...It’s something we can try to make it, though.”

            Idealism confronts social Darwinism as Gurgeh, representing a society called Culture, travels 100,000 light years to engage in a game, called Azad, that determines who next assumes the throne in the kingdom of Azad..

            What follows is a philosophical as well as imperial showdown, and Banks is not only adept with those elements, he’s a subtle, witty, and persuasive creator of character and plot.

            Some of the best characters in the novel are sentient drones.  Keep in mind that we’re several thousand years in the future, and drones are necessary to make sure that humanoids don’t upset the libertarian apple cart—but that doesn’t mean the circuit boards don’t have personalities.

            If a Culture drone were hovering above me right now, it would be insulted that I called it a circuit board.


Simdrone rivalry


            Early in the novel, Gurgeh asks his traditionalist drone, Chamlis, to accompany him in a game of Stricken on their home orbital, Chiark.  Chamlis reports, “I’ll be there in twenty seconds.”

            “Twenty-one point two,” the drone, Mawhrin-Skel says “acidly, exactly twenty-one point two seconds later, as Chamlis appeared over the edge of the balcony.”

            Mawhrin-Skel is a malcontent who’d been kicked out of the Mensa-like Contact brain trust and deprived of certain advanced capacities. 

            Later, Mawhrin-Skel seduces Gurgeh into accepting stolen information in order to achieve a legendary status in a game in which Gurgeh already has a guaranteed win.  The drone then blackmails him with a recording of their deal.

            When Mawhrin-Skel knocks Gurgeh down and paralyzes him to make his point, Gurgeh wonders if he’ll be killed.  The drone demands that Gurgeh use his influence to get it reinstated with Contact, and adds an emotional appeal.

            “Don’t you understand what they’ve done to me, man?...Did you know that in our history people used to lose whole limbs...before arms and legs just grew back?  Back then, humans lost limbs...but still thought they had them...‘ghost limbs’ they called them.”

            Ultimately, the blackmail threat becomes the tipping factor in Gurgeh’s decision to travel five years for a dangerous mission about which he knows little besides its level of challenge.

            This is just to say: Banks can write.


Science, save us


            Science fiction is both business and religion today.   Being humble, accepting death, and looking beyond one’s time on Earth is not the key to salvation in this alternate world view.  Instead, science will deliver us from our errors and mortality.

            It will also deliver us from a ruined planet, with outer space the final frontier.

            It’s curious how precarious the triumph of good over evil is in “The Player of Games.”  So many things can go wrong, for mess-ups are the rule in my experience.  The optimism in the novel is more fantasy-like than is the science.

            Yet, one of our current culture heroes, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is making space colonization closer to real, and has named two of his drone ships, “Just Read The Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You,” after ships that appear in Banks’ fiction.

            Are we headed toward some of the developments in “The Player of Games”: genetic engineering, cyber-humanity, satellite life, and the transference of ambition from capitalism to gamesmanship?

            It seems disconnected from such old-fashioned concepts as intimacy, romance, and family.

            I was talking with one young man who plays story-building, role-playing games with anonymous participants in a virtual environment.  “It’s like meeting someone in an airport,” he said.  “You can have a great conversation, and then you may never see them again.”


Golden age of wit


            Don’t mistake the lack of family and intimacy for a lack of character, however.  Like the drones in “The Player of Games” who display wit, the games and forums in which people engage on the Internet are full of subtlety and irony.

            I would say that wit is at a high point in millennial culture.  There’s one game, “The Stanley Parable,” that pokes fun at game conventions.

Stanley, the character you play, is a man who works in office number 427 and pushes buttons on a keyboard.  One day, he finds himself totally alone, and investigates. 

            In the employee lounge, the voice over tells him to stop and admire “the immaculate, beautiful constructed room.”  When Stanley is instructed to go through a red door, and instead goes through a blue one, the narrator chides him, “You see, there’s nothing here.  I haven’t even finished building this section of the map.”

            The game voice sounds a lot like one of those testy Culture drones.

            Guess which video game addict plays “The Stanley Parable” in a TV series?  President Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” The game becomes metaphysical for him.  “It’s too much like my own life,” he says.


Games are us


            In “The Player of Games,” as perhaps in our developing society, not only are robots and humans melding, so is life and games.

            The Azad game is a great challenge because it is so much an expression of a player’s culture and mindset. 

            At one point, the Azad Empire makes Gurgeh play a game immediately after an exhausting previous one.   To do so, it has to rush his nine adversaries, which ends up mixing individuals from competing departments in the bureaucracy and thus undermining the gang-up-on-Gurgeh strategy.

            In a one-on-one game, Gurgeh’s Azad opponent makes it really real, and throws down the “physical option,” betting that whoever loses will have to be gelded.

            Another aspect of contemporary society: explicit and sexual content is not a problem.

            Banks’ first book, “The Wasp Factory”—not science fiction—is a horrifying look through the mind of a sociopath.  His second novel, “Consider Phebas”—the first of 11 in the “Culture” series—has a good-guys-don’t-always-win message.

            “The Player of Games,” second in the series, imagines a Utopia. 

            “Didn’t the Culture forbid anything?” Hamin, rector of Azad’s college, questions Gurgeh.

            Banks writes that “Gurgeh attempted to explain there were no written laws, but almost no crime anyway.  There was the occasional crime of passion...but little else.  It was difficult to get away with anything anyway, when everybody had a terminal (a tracking device), but there were few motives left, too,”

            As in the presidential races today, income inequality is targeted; and unlike them, solved.

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