The Creepiest Thing on the Block

I play Minecraft. I’m proud to say it. I’ve created parts of my novel in Minecraft. My pattern recognition, directional memory, and sense of design have improved through Minecraft. And my hope is that when I’m a little old whatsit, I’ll still play Minecraft, from my recliner, as a means of staving off dementia.

But sometimes Minecraft is scary is hell. I’m not talking about the screeches of a demon cow somewhere in the night. I’m not talking about coming across a charred hallway in a dungeon, mining a block of emerald in the floor, and spotting a dragon’s tail sliding along the cavern beneath. Nor am I even talking about scaling a mountain to the sky, only to find a creeper at the edge of the summit, where he blows me down, down to my death.

I’m talking about the things that, by nature of the program, shouldn’t happen in Minecraft.

[Let me make an introductory aside: For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a survival game, where you live in a cartoon wilderness. The trick is that you can manipulate any block in that wilderness. And this allows you to build houses (or castles, or factories, or ruined abbeys). It lets you dig mines for resources. And it challenges you to explore the surrounding deserts, forests, and structures that the game randomly generates. There are monsters that come out at night–and never really leave the darkness (of say, a cave)–so there are points when you’re staving off the baddies torch by torch, while outside your little halo, the only thing you can see is a gleam of magical quartz in the distance. I have, in fact, been eaten by a Grue.]

Now if you know Minecraft, you probably recognize that many of the scariest events I’ve mentioned don’t come with the standard game that the company ships. Instead, you might realize that I’m playing what’s called modded Minecraft, where I’ve downloaded programs that users make available as a means of spicing up the vanilla experience. If procured from a trusted clearinghouse, these mods are astonishing in their variety and professionalism. (MIT has a Minecraft modding license.) Among a multitude of other things, they introduce magic systems, more monsters, distant lands, new building blocks, airships, spaceships, crypts, city-managemen simulators, mini games, and turbines run by hamsters. They also, necessarily, mess with the code of the game. And this–I hope–is what can explain the few moments when I’ve come across things that should not be.

First, there was the desert temple I found. Desert temple. No biggie. They’re pretty common. I looted the basement, as you do—and heard a sort of howling thrum beneath the floor. This was not common. I dug down maybe six squares, and landed in a chamber that was lit by a portal. I stepped through the portal—because we’re just playing a game, right? I stepped through, and landed in the widest desert I’d ever seen. Maybe a desert plane. It had mountains that rose to the sky. It had red cactuses. It had a scattering of wells. And the only other creatures except my trembly self were red creepers (instead of green). They would explode so violently that they’d leave craters down to lava. The red creeper is sort of a mythical beast in Minecraft—so I’m not surprised that somebody made one. But the desert dimension doesn’t show up in any documentation. It doesn’t show up on Google. I don’t know where it come from. And I don’t know, if I had stayed, I would have found some kind of destination, or raison d’être to that plane–or if it just somehow existed as a particularly volatile Easter egg. I left; it seemed both repetitive and dangerous. I logged it as a curiosity, and moved on.

Last week, in another version of Minecraft, I built a chateau. It’s got vaulted ceilings, five floors, a few outbuildings. My sister ruined it some by saying the color and the window placement remind her of a yawning hippo. But that aside, it’s a good, big build. The trouble is that during the construction, if you told me that Minecraft had an invisible stalker in its bestiary, I would have believed you. There were times—at least four—when I’d be going along, and then just… run into something. You couldn’t see it. I never took any damage. But this impediment would just show up—and rarely stay in the same place. It reminded me a bit of de Maupassant’s “The Horla.” But whatever. Apparently these things are called Ghost Blocks, and they are glitches that show up in the game sometime–and anyway, onward. There’s no stopping the hippo chateau.

Then on Sunday, as I entered the chateau, I found that above three of the floors levitated a collection of blocks. There were eight blocks in each construction, in a square pattern with the center hollowed out. Think of a square donut. (Or a Minecraft furnace recipe.) They were made of marble—which is what I used to make the chateau’s walls. They were manipulable. I could add to them—because I didn’t feel so inclined to delete them. But what the heck? I am not open to any kind of public server. I’m not even open to LAN. But let me tell you: Since I’ve discovered these little… entities, the invisible stalker has gone away.

This is why I love Minecraft. Even when arranged as a solo-player experience, you aren’t alone. If nothing else, you’re in contact with the intention of the game designers, and the intention of the mod designers, and whatever the heck both their imagination and yours happen to summon–deliberately or not.

Are we looking at a program glitch in my chateau? It must be. I mean, it must be. But the space that those squares fill has always been just space. And though levitating structures aren’t too hard to implement in Minecraft, they rarely occur out of the blue. I think I have a haunted chateau. It’s so big that I can’t keep track of what goes on in every corner. And if this were an homage to “The Horla,” I’d have to get a hand mirror. And I’d have to hold it our way in front of me. And I’d have to see that between me and it, something stood, blocking my own reflection.

My Reaction to The Americans Finale

I just watched the series finale of The Americans. I won’t spoil it. What I will acknowledge is that despite its historical setting, the brutality in the series is apparently fictional–at least in terms of what happens to the spies. In fact, the series creator even trained in real-life intelligence work, until he decided it was just too boring a gig. That said, The Americans does point to the expense, the worry, and the constant calculation that went into managing information for both sides of the Cold War. The anxiety, as we know, was real. Both The Americans and the history it draws from are deeply sad. Even if we make the huge concession of putting the many US/Soviet proxy wars aside, people did die–or they spent their lives in prison, or they lost their careers. And all this is to say that although the espionage side of the conflict might have been more peaceful than what The Americans portrays, the cost of the whole war may be higher than we will ever know. 

The saddest part of The Americans is that regardless of what happens to its principal characters onscreen, you and I know that the Soviet Union falls to disarray. From a western viewpoint, that could be a good thing–but only to an extent. New wars will emerge from the fall. Nuclear material will scatter to mini-despots and highest bidders. And despite how The Americans’ spy story ends in 1987, we have since realized that the espionage still goes on. This, in fact, is the most poignant part of the series finale. It’s not articulated, per se; it’s not a point of plot as much as it is a point of history–or even the present. The peace that all the spies fought for–the reforms from Gorbachev, the demise of a super power–all of that work has since lead either to a failure or a trick. After the rise of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ended (failure), but the Cold War did not (trick). We did not win. We did not. Instead, as with The Americans’ parting image of a young spy in a safehouse, our adversary just started to wait. Russia is apparently good at waiting. They waited for years. Russia, after all, abided long enough to make 2016 part of the the same damn war. And one of the reasons why its patience has gone so undetected is exactly because the work behind it is not flashy. It is just too boring a gig. In fact, it moves merely through study, and query, and incremental control of what they choose to make into scintillating information.

(Originally posted June 14, 2018)

SVU

I don’t have a terribly high opinion of the political commentary offered from SVU, but I thought the episode this week was pretty startling. The executive summary (spoilers) is that an Ann-Coulter type journalist is a guest speaker at a university campus, where the protestors and counter-protestors get into a riot. During the fracas, somebody rapes this journalist. What happens next is what you’d expect: grandstanding lawyers, a hateful peanut gallery. One suspect is a mouthy Antifa barista who says a woman who denigrates women should be denigrated herself. The other suspect is a white-supremacist vlogger who wants to throw out half the jury because they aren’t racially pure. At the end of the episode, the court dismisses charges against all suspects. The case is just too fraught for the truth to will out. The Anne-Coulter clone stalks off—brutalized, enraged at the inefficiency of the justice system, and undeserving of the fact that nobody will ever put her rapist away. 

The episode was difficult to watch, because it showed me people I don’t like, and also people I don’t wish to be like. It showed a fringe that seems to creep closer to the mainstream each day. But more than that, it showed what could happen to a process that should really remain above politics (as much as anything can). It showed a breakdown of law and order. I’m not talking about riots in the streets; the riot finished in two minutes of airtime. I mean a breakdown of due process, of bureaucracy, of justice itself (no matter how imperfect it has always been). And all of this happened, because those of us who have inherited the system couldn’t work with one another well enough to employ that system. We could not protect a citizen, because the case was never about a citizen. It was about a stance. It was about who was right. In fact, it was like another famous court case, where a woman once agreed to cut a child in half.

(Originally posted February 2, 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin showed that a writer could write seriously, and with serious literary heft, about other worlds. And as what happens when you take such worlds seriously, she showed us our own. Among other things, she spoke for women, and she spoke for hope, and she spoke about how hopeful women didn’t have to give a crap about things that didn’t matter. She found the numinous without ever naming it. She just showed it in the beauty, and the imagination, and the variety that resides in character, predicament, and place. Perhaps not least, she knew how to write about love. I will miss her. I’d like to have met her. And in the world of my doorstop of a book, I think I’ll make her a saint somewhere—never encountered, or even described, but revered: Ursula the Dreamer.

(Originally posted January 23, 2017)