Andrew Groen’s “Empires of EVE”

Synopsis: Every day, tens of thousands of internet spaceships do battle in real-time.  Politics, warfare, betrayal, and culture are all part of the internets only sandbox MMO, EVE Online.

EVE is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG).  Role playing is the name of the genre, and there is a fair bit of it inside the EVE universe. Although for some players, their online persona can be a wicked truth to who they really want to be.  EVE is a type of world known for its violent tendencies.  This goes far beyond the regular scope of video games.  With no developer arbitration, almost anything in the game goes (except real life threats).

When something is destroyed in EVE, it is lost forever and must be rebuilt.  Loss is real, and it’s what makes EVE a monumental game of risk.  It is also why the player base is so dedicated, and so unforgiving.

Diplomacy is strong in EVE, in fact its the backbone.  More so than the economy, and the players love to break it in half.  Alliances are so massive they require diplomats to act on their behalf, and sometimes the interactions between these diplomats can go terribly wrong, leading to thousands going to war.

Massive solar systems are fought over every day, for the limited or rare resources they offer.  This space, is referred to as null sec.  No rules, no developer interference.  A truly player run universe.

Wars are won and lost every day in EVE, but these are the ones that made history.  Some, even global headlines.

Groen takes us on a detailed journey through both the early stages of EVE, where as few as 3000 people played (800 logged in at once), to today where its user peak is around 38,000 (64,000 was the concurrent record in 2013, with hundreds of thousands of accounts).  All playing in one, seamless world.

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Outlook: When you have a personal interest in a topic, it makes the book that much harder to put down.  Empires of EVE is one of those books.  My experience aside, one can say that there has never been a game such as this.  One player, can have an impact on the entire universe.  Rising in the ranks of the games biggest alliance, getting access to the war chest (similar to a guild vault) and liquidating all the assets in minutes, or venting all the fuel (required to run stations) out into space.  With stations down, sovereignty is up for grabs.  These are how some wars start.

EVE Online is split into security systems.  1.0 is the safest, and patrolled by in-game AI, offering some form of protection.  0.0, known as null sec, has zero police interference and is where the game really comes alive.  Embezzlement, ransom, pirating, drug trafficking, murder for hire, espionage, it’s all in null sec.  All player controlled.

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Groen takes time to explain to the reader exactly what EVE is, moreover exactly what he is talking about.  EVE has a rich and highly dedicated subculture.  This is great for people who are new to EVE, and want to know more about these epic online wars.  The impact EVE has had on the gaming world goes far beyond some next-gen title.  It completely broke the mould for how a multiplayer video game should work.

There are no end bosses, no raids, no reputation grind or mounts.  It goes against the known tried and true recipe for MMO success.  Let the players do whatever they want? Nonsense! – “Here’s a ship, it has guns, go shoot something.”

Groen covers EVE’s early political ideas, and how they forged the way for EVE Online.  He explains how the first player driven governments were formed, how political icons rose to power, and how it all collapsed in early 2007.

What I didn’t expect from this book, was player interviews.  Some of the biggest names in EVE’s history gave their time to Groen.  Whether explaining their side of the tale, or fact correcting, players actively contributed to the development of this book.  This again ties into the dedication of the player base.

Everything in EVE happens in real-time, including your advancement towards new weaponry and ships.

“CYVOK” was the first player in the game to pilot a Titan class vessel.  The largest, most expensive ship in the game.  It instantly became a target.  CYVOK and his Celestial Horizon alliance was able to hold “Sir Molle” and his Band of Brothers at bay, but not forever.  CYVOK remains vigilant to this day stating that an insider deal, outside of the EVE world, led to its destruction.

A Titan class warship takes 3,500 hours to train for, and costs $7,600USD* of in-game materials.  CYVOK’s Titan required an entire alliance to pool its resources.  In 2006, this was the most prestigious enterprise an alliance could carry out.

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And yet, this is nothing of today’s battles which now clock in at weeks to months of real battle time.  When an armada of this magnitude is destroyed, the real world value topples $300,000USD*.

There are many more tales like this inside Groen’s book.  If you love science fiction, or political / psychological warfare, this would be one you couldn’t put down.  After reading Empires of EVE from an outside perspective, one could see how many people treat this as more than a game.  Real people, from all over the world, changing the face of a player driven universe.

As a retired EVE player myself, I can say that Groen’s research was not only intensive, but sound.  The amount of time it took to amass this history, from a video game no less, is nothing but impressive.  The lengths he went to in order to achieve complete accuracy is astounding.

Not in this book (because it technically wasn’t a war) was the infiltration, heist, and murder of “Mirial” and her entire alliance.  A fantastic, dedicated group of espionage pilots lead by the now infamous “Istvaan Shogaatsu”.  Article here from “Game Skinny.”

The images used in this post are all from within the EVE universe.  Every ship you see on the screen, is a real person.  Fighting for what they believe is right, or at least, their right to own.

The video below is just one of the many events you will read about in this book.

The EVE community successfully kickstarted Empires of EVE in 2014 raising $95,000.

Featured image and images inside this post courtesy of EVE Online

*This amount is calculated by the real-world value that items would have, if you could buy them outright in the game.*

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Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Synopsis: Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology by Charlie Brooker, covering topics relating to our ever-growing obsession (and its consequences) with technology.  Our dependence on social media, for example, is covered in different variations over three seasons.

Brooker uses dark themes and imagery in his stories, creating a higher sense of urgency to act by the viewer.  Brooker chooses in several titles to play on our fear of advancement and dependency to bring his messages to life.

The episodes are approximately 1 hour each, and take place either in an alternative present, or a near future.

Each episode has a different cast, setting, and sometimes a different reality.

Outlook:  When I first saw Black Mirror come up on Netflix, I saw a women in a mirror practicing her smiling.  I checked out IMDB for a trailer, but for whatever reason it didn’t sit well with me.

Quite literally years later, I clicked ‘Play’ just to give it a whirl.  To me, Brooker’s Black Mirror is the best science fiction I have seen on television since Battlestar Galactica, or the X-Files.  I binged the entire 3 seasons in 2 days.  Granted, the first season only had 4 episodes, but I was hooked.

Black Mirror episodes stay with me for days.  I constantly think about them in a myriad of ways.  Whether it be a different conclusion, or comparing them to our modern world.  Brooker has a way of showing me an idea that I had trouble putting into words.  A brilliant writer, and to have so many theories about our future all based around technology is fantastic to see not only as a viewer, but a fan of science fiction.

One episode in particular entitled Playtest has been on my mind constantly.  The only time I can push it out of my mind is when I pick up a book.  The episode has many different levels of thought.  Experiments, futurism, addiction, exploration, trust, and fear.

Other episodes focus more on modern society or satirical themes.  What if society chose the punishment for a crime? A tale of torment revolving around the old adage “an eye for an eye.”

Brooker’s work reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”.

Brooker has been slated to begin writing Season 4.  He warns that Season 4 is even more intensive, dark, and truthful.  Whether this is a marketing ploy or not, we will have to see.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Synopsis: Set in an unknown galaxy, in an unknown star system, human beings live on what they call the “Twelve Colonies”.  These are twelve planets in the star system, all with human life.  Where as we use countries for our place of origin, the Battlestar series uses colonies.  One could be of a higher class and reside from Caprica.  A lower class citizen would be from Aralon.

The Twelve Colonies were established by tribes who left their home world, Kobol, the birthplace of humanity. There were at one time thirteen tribes, but one that was separated from the others instead went to a distant planet called Earth.

Cylons, as they are called, are a creation of humanity.  The machines we designed to help us with daily life and protect us, became self-aware.  Humanity tried to stop them, but they rebelled.  This was the beginning of the Cylon war (Battlestar Galactica, 1978).

After humanities defeat, the Cylons left the twelve colonies in hopes of finding a life for themselves where they could prosper.

Ever since the Cylons departed the solar system, mankind has sent an ambassador to the neutral zone.  Every year, a diplomat arrives to discuss continuing peace between the two races.  The Cylons, send no one …

It has been 40 years since the first Cylon war.  Having evolved, the Cylons make a decision to return to the twelve colonies, and cleanse the human race once and for all.

In an all out assault, the Cylons launch a simultaneous nuclear raid on all colonies.

50,000 humans survive.

WARNING: This post contains no spoilers from me, but I cannot be responsible for anything mentioned in the comments.

Outlook: Personally, I have watched this series 6 times.  The first few times I always picked up on something new, something that made me second guess myself on a plot line.  BSG (Battlestar Galactica) in my opinion is the best Science Fiction to hit the television screen.  This was before big blockbuster sites like Netflix existed, and HBO was still pushing dramas such as The Sopranos.  BSG was released on the SyFy network, filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a modest budget.

To my knowledge, BSG is one of the first shows to take the viewer beyond what they see.  The show makes you think for yourself, to come to your own conclusions, or discuss things with friends.  The depth of the show was unmatched for many years.  Comparable only to something as complex as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Terminator for example. A brilliant movie.  The viewer is presented with an AI from the future, who comes to destroy the past, preventing a one ‘John Connor’ from leading a human resistance.  But with those two facts, is where the movie turns to more action than science fiction drama.  We have our protagonist, our antagonist, and away we go.

BSG leaves us with a sense of wonderment.  Humans created a machine, that evolved on its own, and adapted.  This could potentially be 100 years after the first machine we create passes the Turing test.  We have developed AI so advanced, we doomed ourselves.

With only 50,000 humans surviving the Cylon holocaust, writer Ronald Moore shows us humanities true nature.  Both the good, and bad.  Moore shows the audience a true reality of “what would we actually do if this happened today?

Religion plays a large role in the BSG universe, and a necessary one.  Remember, when all hope for humanities survival is lost, what do most of us do, even ones who are undecided on religion? They turn to God.  Whether that be a single entity or many, every individual is different and of course has the right to choose.

Hope is a powerful thing.

Most of us in desperate times, look to God, or speak to the sky, asking for answers.  However, those same people never look to God when things are going well.  A religious person may argue that reason is alone, is why things are going bad for you.

Religion is always challenged, and it is no different in BSG.  The military has a plan, while the people have one too.  Who is right? Who makes the call when only 50,000 humans exist? One bad call could wipe out the species.

There is so much I would like to give an opinion on, but the last thing I want to do for someone who perhaps clicks on this post without actually seeing the series, is ruin it for them.  I would love to discuss my thoughts on certain episodes or even the premise as a whole, but I don’t want to take that chance.

With a show such as this, a show I believe to be so perfectly executed, I can’t leave anything to chance.  For any true science fiction fan, this show may change the way you perceive humanities future.  That may sound extreme, but it is true.

AI is a rising hot topic in today’s world.  As it should be, as technology increases at an alarming rate, it is easy to see how we could falter.  Some believe we are far away from a sentient machines, others not so much.  I don’t mean people like you and I, but the top 1% of our world.  DeepMind has already beat the best Go players in the world, with ease, and is now embed into Google’s architecture.

For now, sentient AI is true science fiction.  But hot damn! It sure is interesting.

To this day, the BSG official forums are a buzz with activity, and the subreddit of /r/BSG is no different.

BSG is the type of show that can ignite a discussion for hours.  If you are a die-hard fan, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the series.  Whether it be on the comments below, or if you want to send me some mail.

Featured image courtesy of “SyFy”

Black Mirror: San Junipero

Synopsis: The year is 1987, and San Junipero is a blossoming party town.  Lavish night clubs, beautiful beaches, and city lights.  It is here we follow Yorkie, a young woman visiting San Junipero.  Yorkie, being naturally shy, is unsure what to make of this posh city.  She meets a regular named Kelly, and they begin to fall in love, and share the city of San Junipero together.

But is it all too good to be true?

WARNING: Spoilers ahead …

Outlook: Black Mirror, once again, showing its true Sci Fi form with this “Total Recall”-esque feel.  I didn’t know what to make of this episode on my initial viewing.  Half way through, I paused and made some food, thinking I would come back to it later.  What made me come back, was actually how well the director and cinematographer put everything together.  The sets, the music, the lights – it was surreal.  Because it had to be.

San Junipero is really the predecessor to a “Dyson Sphere“.  What if when we die, we can choose whether we continue to thrive for eternity in a world created just for us, or truly die and let the sea of blackness wash over us.  This is eerily close to the other episode which I wrote about, Playtest.  We, as human beings, are ever searching for the answers to an afterlife, now more than ever thanks to advancements in technology.  Hell, you and I could even be in a Dyson Sphere right now, we have no way to prove we are not.  This is the only reality we know.  Strange thought, yes?

The world of San Junipero exists in the cloud, to which that would prove complicated for the thousands of residents.  We are not told what safeguards are used, so really, every day in blissful Junipero could be your last.  That is left for the viewer to decide.  Perhaps a more broad thesis could be explored.

San Junipero was praised not only for its writing, but it has an ending that is far brighter than other episodes of Black Mirror.  Personally, I prefer the darker side of the series, but to each their own.

Ex Machina

WARNING: Contains spoilers …

Synopsis: Caleb Smith, a programmer for Blue Book (Google, essentially) is chosen for a one week retreat to meet the companies CEO and founder, Nathan Bateman.

Bateman has been working on a secret project regarding artificial intelligence at his secluded, luxurious home.  Bateman has been working on a sentient machine he calls “Ava”.  Caleb is told about Ava prior to them meeting, and Bateman asks Caleb of he believes the robot will pass the Turing test.

Outlook: Ex_Machina is one of the few sci-fi films that really draws in the audience.  This is far from a Marvel film where intelligence with no predisposition to violence, becomes violent, sarcastic, narcissistic and decides to attach rockets to a massive piece of Earth.

One thing that I have always thought ever since I watched this movie, is how would us, as a human being, be different from a robot if they [the AIs] didn’t know they were a robots.  Meaning, you and I could be sentient machines.  This is of course a stretch, as all you have to do is cut us open to see we are not wires.  But what about on the most basic level of consciousness? If something truly believes it is alive, and if has consciousness then it is alive, is it right to call it a machine?

The manipulation Bateman uses on Caleb is perfect.  However, Ava has truly mastered it.  When Caleb truly believes he is also a machine, and caught in Bateman’s web, he is not only desperate to find an answer, but also to save Ava.  Ava, having perfectly manipulated Caleb, had no intention of being saved, but always wanted to escape.

This is the truly masterful piece of the film.  Ava, being a sentient machine, plays the innocent young woman doing exactly what she believes Caleb wants.  If AI can begin to manipulate the human condition… well, that is terrifying.

Right now, we have no idea what consciousness is.  It can’t be measured or viewed.  Neurons firing trillions of times a second create synapses in our brain that gives us our personality, our ability of choice, and the ability to over think every detail.  Such as, getting stuck in a logic loop.  Some of the greatest minds of today have urged people to stop developing a self-learning algorithm.  AI has been a fascination for us ever since James Cameron wrote Terminator.

Nathan Bateman: “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”

Ex_Machina was recognized by the National Board of Review as one of the best independent films of the year.

Featured image courtesy of “JustWatch”

Black Mirror: Playtest

Synopsis: Playtest takes a look at our not too distant future.  In fact, what we see technically takes place in present time.  We are always looking for the next big technology, the next .com boom or the next Google.  What can developers do to set them above the rest? Why is gaming so addicting? In this episode of Black Mirror, one can find out.

Connor is on a mission to find himself.  Travelling the world, enjoying life, and trying to escape the world he left behind in America.  Low on finds, he uses “Odd Job” to be a guinea pig for a new VR simulator, at England’s biggest game development firm.

Enthralled by an easy, interactive demo, Connor (chasing the adrenaline) agrees to go further with the experiment.  The architect of the game, a Japanese developer known around the world for his horror games, agrees Connor is the perfect candidate to test the VR system.

Outlook: For someone like myself, who enjoys reading about technology, science fiction, and most importantly the advancement of AI, this episode really stuck with me.  I mean, waking up at 3am unable to go back to sleep for hours, thinking about the world we see around us.  Elon Musk even believes we are living in a simulation.  Why? Looking at the scale of video games, it is easy to see why one may think so.  A mere  37 years ago, Japan gave us “Pac-Man.”  Ten years later, in 1990, we got “Final Fantasy,” “Super Mario 3,” and the “Mega Man” series.

These were huge leaps in technology, going from top down arcade style games, and blasting into 2D and even 3D gaming.  In as little as ten years.

From there, we are now into full immersion gaming, whether it be a VR system or a $3,000 rig running Titan cards.  We are always pushing the boundary of entertainment.  This is why scientists believe we could be in a simulation.  If we are progressing this quickly, who’s to say we aren’t a brain in a tank? Well, we have no way to prove we are not, and that’s why it’s easy to either dismiss or accept.  You and I have no idea what “another life” would feel like, or look like.  This same concept was used in 1999’s “The Matrix.”

Dan Brown applies the same principle in his book “Angels & Demons” which was adapted into a film, starring Tom Hanks (2009). Brown used the fact that the human population has been exploding at a rate Earth cannot sustain.  In his book, he believes that there will be 37 billion people on the planet based on the current human birth trend.  However, the UN debunked this some years ago.

As far as TV shows go, this is some of the best science fiction I have seen since Battlestar Galactica.

Featured image courtesy of “Netflix”