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http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/09/the-lizard-people-of-alpha-draconis-1-decided-to-build-an-ansible/

Scott wrote another short story. As is usually the case, it's intriguing but there's also much to critique :) The aliens in the story develop great technology, and build an ansible out of negative average preference utilitarianism.

I have a lot of different thoughts inspired by this story. I don't think it's the sort of story where knowing what happens is a problem for reading it, but I will cut a detailed discussion just in case.

Spoilers )
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So, Arrival (the film, adapted from the Ted Chiang story). I didn't have a lot to say about it. Aliens, were great. Linguist, was great. Kind-of-sympathetic kind-of-antagonist military were a bit gratuitous, but generally good. But I did have thoughts about a few specific things.

And, yes, I'm annoyed it wasn't EVEN MORE like a Ted Chiang story than it was, but please do adapt as many Ted Chiang stories as you can. The tower-of-babel one would be amazing...

Spoilers )
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Every Heart a Doorway tells the story of a school for the recovery of children who've been subject to portal fantasy stuff, specifically people wanted to stay but were cast out for some reason. It's pretty good; I felt it could have embraced the premise *better*, but it still did a pretty good job.

I have lots of different thoughts about this.

Returning from portal fantasy

One of the biggest is probably that, it's written as if people being cast out is a central feature of secondary worlds, whereas originally I think it's more like, the authors didn't think about it much either way, they just tacked on a happy ending even if it didn't really make sense in the book.

But as liv points out, many people found portal fantasies incredibly moving as children because they wanted to escape somewhere else from where they were, and returning was horrible, and this story serves very very well as an emphatic rejection of that trope.

Funnily enough that was never me. Lots of my friends overcame a lot of childhood problems, but though I was nerdy and bad at making friends, my parents were great, and I never wanted to get away from here, even if I was drawn to the idea of going somewhere where my strengths could blossom. I got some of that by going into maths and programming.

Flaws

I enjoyed this more than most of the other Seanan Mcguire I've read, even the Mira Grant. I think the strengths were similar, but the bits where "the characters go where the plot says, completely disregarding logic, common sense, emotion, characterisation, survival, or physical possibility" were much less prominent.

At least to me -- I know some people didn't find that a problem in any of her books, and some people were bothered by it in this one. But there are going to be *some* rants in the spoiler section.

I wasn't bothered by some things that bothered other people. To me, the variety of sexualities etc didn't feel shoehorned in, except occasionally (and I was pleased it was there). I wasn't bothered by shifts in narration from tight third to omniscient (I actually quite like little omniscient asides).

Strengths

The diversity of characters. The description of the secondary worlds: the harsh "high logic" faerielands; the "high nonsense" nonsense worlds; the ones with rhymes, the underworlds, etc etc. It is all very memorable.

Random thoughts

I know I can be too optimistic here, and it can be impossible to stop bullying, but I also just despair at how it's taken for granted in so many situations fictional and real. Here there's a fairly small group of children, with several adults present full time. Can't they at least TRY to prevent at least physical attacks? And ideally violent threats?

Spoilers )
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In several ways I enjoyed the second (African swamp dragons) and third (Sea Serpents, Chinese dragons of many sorts, and Polynesian firewyrms) more than the first. The main character is more proactive. We start to see more of the outline of her life. I found it a bit easier to cope with the alternate-history geography too, either because I was more used to it, or because it was further away from places I'm familiar with.

I like the bits of her son Jake we get. There's so few fantasy novels with children and adults together.

And I'm more familiar with the alternate world. Several things are different: the series is set later than I'd realised (1890s?) but steam power is severely curtailed by the lack of iron, taking the place of various resource-scrambles Europe imposed on the world in our history.

And I still can't believe I missed everyone is Jewish, temple judiasm or "magisterium" judaism, but with the varied devotion victorian scholars had for Christianity.

As I'm re-reading, I see more things alluded to in the early volumes, about her eventual discoveries, and the misadventures she gets into, and her later remarriage, that make me excited to know which of the things I've read tie into those and which are still to come.

Every book seems to wend its way until the plot starts about 3/4 of the way through, but the third one I was really wrapped up in all the things that happened until that point, the difficulties of navigating a ship, negotiating chinese bureaucracy to get to see dragons, befriending islanders, surviving storms, performing experiments.

I'm still a bit put off by the alternate-history names for countries. Couldn't we just use the same names even if the shapes are different? It seems like more places are islands? And it feels weird I can't just look it all up online and see what corresponds to what, but here no-one seems to have done the work. I should compile a list of what I managed to work out for my own reference.

Minor Spoilers )
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I'm rereading Borderline in preparation for reading Phantom Pains.

(Be warned that although these are not dwelt on unnecessarily during the book, and I didn't notice any notable bad handling, the main character suffered emotional abuse and a suicide attempt before the book starts.)

I love the basic concept. The main character, struggling to cope with borderline personality disorder, is recruited by an ad-hoc agency dealing with various supernatural stuff. More like negotiating stuff than SWAT raids. I'm being deliberately vague because I like the way the main character finds out about this stuff so I want to avoid spoilers.

Writing about a character whose perceptions shift so radically is really hard. Whenever you're dealing with a main character's flawed perception, you need a balance between, narrative presents their point of view at least superficially plausibly, and yet sooner or later gives enough information that the reader can tell its skewed. But when "this person is great" and "this person is horrible" can abruptly switch places without warning, it's really hard to carry the reader along. Somehow it feels like it doesn't really "count" if the main character believes it but I don't. Borderline handles this well (although not so well I didn't notice).

The supernatural worldbuilding is also really interesting (spoilers below), although it did feel sometimes like it hadn't been fleshed out enough.

I followed the author on twitter and was really pleased when she was nominated for a Nebula.

Minor spoilers )
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I saw this recommended online somewhere and the premise was v my sort of thing so I gave it a go.

Bob is a hacker who gets lucky rich, signs up for cryogenic suspension, and at some point in the future is scanned and turned into an AI in a semi-theocratic-dystopian future. This is before that tech becomes reliable or cheap, so it's only used where an AI is needed and the subject doesn't have much choice, specifically running a space probe.

The generally comedic tone allows a lot of interesting premises to be examined which I've rarely seen in other books, like automatically using multiple copies of the most effective uploaded personality, instead of using each once each.

There's a bunch of space exploration which is solid and pleasingly up-to-date, but not otherwise spectacular.

Bob is an example of the sardonic-witty low-self-esteem hacker who shows up in lots of books. An archetype I like, but have got sick of. The sexist comments are fewer than The Martian, but still not zero.

If you like this sort of thing, you will probably enjoy it a lot, but if you don't, it probably won't persuade you.
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Overgrowth (AKA the realistic ninja rabbit game)

Oh look! Cute anthropomorphic rabbits. This is going to be bloody, isn't it?

I only played a little of this. I love the basic mechanics. You control a humanoid rabbit walking around a 3d environment. AIUI, the characters are actually composed of separate limbs etc not just treated as a moving cylinder. You have a whole bunch of ninja moves, but they mostly depend on how you're moving and the attack button: like, "high kick left" is done by "move left and press attack". That means, it's easy to cause attacks to happen, and if you just want to spam *some* attack, it's easy to do so. But if you want to do specific moves which are necessary to the situation, or to roll with attacks and come to your feet, you need a bunch of practice. So there's an immediately apparent bunch of skills, not just "abilities which are unlocked".

It really feels like ninja combat: many enemies can be taken out in one punch, unless they block in which case you need to vary the attacks. Knives are dangerous: you need to knock them away, but can then roll to pick them up and have a big temporary advantage over one enemy.

Disturbingly, you get bloody as you get hit or cut. Not excessively for the amount of damage you've taken, but it's a real contrast to non-anthropomorphic-rabbit games, where you're usually immune and enemies usually go straight from "upright" to "shower of stars" or "shower of blood".

But I didn't put a lot of time into the actual game, so I don't know how it would be to play for longer.

Virus called Tom

Hilarious setting, a mad scientist who sends an intelligent virus (you) to take revenge on a corporation who sidelined him. You slide around a grid, trying to rotate tiles so circuits become complete. Quite fun, but I didn't persevere.

Ninja Pizza Girl

You're a teenage girl delivering pizza by dodging, jumping, ducking obstacles. Each level has a few implicit challenges: first to complete it at all, and then collect all the items and finish with an excellent time, which unlocks stuff.

The banter with her father and little brother are funny, and generally uplifting: they tease each other a lot, but are quite good for each other.

You periodically meet rival ninja pizza deliverers, who function as enemies, except your character doesn't lose a life, instead, they're knocked off their feet, and tauntingly laughed at until they stand up, which is really quite emotion-provoking. And when you get a good momentum going, the screen lights up whizzy and rainbow, but when you're knocked over repeatedly, it goes grey and dull. Many of the unlocks are self-care things which make the world happy again.
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Camel Up

Played at Alex's. Quite silly and sometimes fiddly, but I really love the way it works. Camels race round a camel racing track. Each round, each camel moves once (1,2, or 3 spaces) according to a die, but the moves are spaced out as each player can either make a bet or move a camel, and the round only ends when all the camels are moved. Then the per-round bets are resolved. When a camel crossed the finish line, the per-game bets are resolved.

The camels are lovely: they're little camel meeple pieces which stack, and when multiple camels are in the same space on the track, they stack up, the top one considered in front. And when any camel moves, all the ones on top of it move along with it.

The way the bets work works fairly well, there's a token for a bet at various payoffs, and the first player to take one for a particular camel gets the best payoff, etc. So there's no "just bet as much as you want", you have to eke out small incremental advantages, which feels more in the spirit of the game.

Hogwarts Lego game

Belonging to Ms 8 (I think?). It works really well at capturing the feel of both lego and of hogwarts.

There's an arena of 4x4 lego rooms with room for four lego people to stand, which slides freely if an adjacent room has been lifted out. Four classrooms with relevant stuff to collect (potion, familiar, divination crystal, and spellbook), and the rest corridors, either straight, L-shaped, or T-shaped.

Each turn you roll a die and it gives you one of several different move types. Usually you pick up a corridor, and rotate it, or pick up a corridor and slide one to three other rooms around. You can slide classrooms and rooms with people in, but not pick them up. Then you move your meeple from one room to an adjacent room (assuming the doorways match up).

Each player controls a student from one house, and needs to collect the four collectables in their colour, and get back to their common room to win.

I don't know how well the strategy holds up, but it did very well at capturing the feel of lego: you build the arena and different rooms first, and the meeples and collectables have just the right lego bumps to click onto in the rooms and back in the common room. And also hogwarts: it's not scary, but it does feel like the layout is just constantly new to you.

The rules had a few weird omissions near the beginning (Do you need the room to match up with your common room before you first move into them?) But they also had several sections about suggestion rules modifications and additions, and had several extra pieces for them, and encourage you to experiment, which is a very lego approach to a board game.

Pandemic Legacy

C+K have pandemic legacy, Pandemic where you play a series of a dozen or so games, and each one alters the board and rules in a permanent way (good and bad). They've played about half the games and we joined on the most recent one. I'm carefully not talking about what happens, because most people who are interested probably want to play it for themselves. (But if you're curious and don't care about spoilers, feel free to ask me.)

But even knowing the general principle, it was really exciting to play a particular game and see what had happened and what happened this game. Some of the changes were about what I'd expected, but others were really interesting.
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I really liked it. Especially the first half an hour or so is exactly the blend of humour, action, frivolous and serious I like. It manages to make deadpool seem both intimidating and effective, but also whimsical and willing to charge into impossible odds.

Deadpool is notoriously edgy, in good ways and bad depending on his mood and the medium he's portrayed in. His whole schtik is doing bad things to bad people -- he openly admits that's not really ok, but that it also does good by getting bad people out of the way.

There's two problem with "edgy". Read more... )
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I read the first book, Leviathan Wakes, a little while back, and recently got round to reading the second and third. Someone online said book #5 was really good, so we'll see what I think.

What I really like is the setting -- medium future solar system SF, when Mars has been settled, and Earth and Mars are the solar system's superpowers, but humans are still scattered round the belt and a few other places doing mining and research and so on, with a varying tension in how they're loyal to the inner planet governments they have almost no connection with.

It's old school in a way I like, to imagine humanity will eventually make inroads into the solar system, rather than assuming it will never happen, or will only happen by some magic alien tech which is dropped onto us. It feels like, it's at an *earlier* phase than some other books, in that we've settled *one* other planet, and some other asteroids and moons, and the situation is evolving from there.

Earth and Mars have military spaceships, bu they're like aircraft carriers -- they've rarely been tested seriously against OTHER serious military spaceships, only against smaller stuff. And they really exist as a last line of defence for the settled planets which might be futile.

Of course, into the middle of this, they DO drop some alien technology, which is simultaneously an incomprehensible physics-defying threat, but also automated and uncontrolled and potentially an opportunity if you're VERY VERY careful.

The second and third books are about as good as the first (which is good but not superb for a series :)). They still talk about the settled human places and the politics between, though it's evolved a lot. And I wish there were more of it. The alien tech is still there, not sidelined, still central to the plot of each, in what happens next, but not completely obviating the existing worldbuilding.

A few minor details bother me. "No lightspeed delay" is not impossible like "free energy" it's impossible like "garble warble farble" -- you need to say what it MEANS before you can attempt to claim it's something which has happened. *Different* details bothered other friends.

The second and third books are *better* at a varied representation. The first book focuses on Miller, a hardboiled detective archetype, and Holden, who has almost the same personality but runs a spaceship instead of being a detective. The second and third keep Holden but have (I think), an even mix of male and female viewpoint characters, many of which I really like. Although I feel it's still playing catch-up in some ways, like one fo the viewpoints in the third book is an antagonist, who doesn't feel as equal as the others.

And the viewpoints are not always very distinct -- when it's describing what's going on, it's easy to forget who's in theory seeing it. And I feel like something's missing it's hard to put my finger on. Like each character has stuff that happens, but it's not always much of an *arc*, it's sometimes hard to fit "challenges met and overcome" into the plot of the book.
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What I like about Ingress

You can make plans and follow them. You can say, "I have ten minutes, let me see if I can grab keys for these four many portals" or "Can I fill this hole in fielding". In pokemon, you can't really set out to *do* something most of the time.

There's a big incentive to visit different and out-of-the-way portals which is really interesting. Getting keys for them, or linking to them, mean the portals are *different*, not just "go to whichever ones are closest".

You can look up where's an interesting place to go to.

What I like about Pokemon Go

Filling the pokedex and collecting high-level pokemon gives you a form of progress which you can always increase. In Ingress, the only form of permanent progress was levelling-up, which was fun at low levels, but it was about conquering territory which was always transitory.

There's three teams, not two. I don't know why, but that seems to make it a lot more fun, both in how gyms change hands, and in meeting people.

The flavour is really nice, I love seeing different pokemon.

When you get to higher levels, there's not quite such a cliff of "now it's too hard to level up, and there's nothing else to do, there's no point".

Problems I'm starting to have with Pokemon

I've had a *lot* of fun with it. But I am starting to find some problems.

The new scanner sort-of works. It at least tells you what's within 200m. But it seems like that's not *totally* reliable. And it doesn't seem to tell you pokemon in order. But that means, I never have the satisfaction of tracking a pokemon methodically. It's either "walk along the river" or "rush backwards to establish the edge of the circle, then dash in one direction, and either frantically search around 200m from the first point, or reach another edge and triangulate". It's not a *fun* process, it's aggravating.

You don't play only at pokestops.

I mean, it's realistic that you don't get good intermediate indications of progress, you just have to try your best and then wait for success. But getting positive feedback is one of the things that makes games fun!

Now I have most of the pokemon which often spawn nearby, there's a lot less point going for a little walk and capturing some. I used to take a little wander, catch a few, come home. Now it's "go and see if there's a rare one, there isn't". Or, waste a bunch of pokeballs catching pidgeys I don't really need.

And it's hard to *work towards* filling my pokedex. ETA: Either someone tells you where a rare pokemon spawns, or you just wander around and hope. Either way, you get a random success for no reason, followed by a long period of failure.

So I may stop. But I wish it would become possible to start over, while being able to switch back to my original account occasionally. Like, in Ingress, having multiple accounts even if it took time to switch was a big advantage, because you could put multiple high-level resonators on a portal. But in pokemon, it seems like it wouldn't make that much difference. I'm sure I *can* start another account, but it would be nice if it was officially supported, "yes, that's what you're supposed to do, we won't ban you". Maybe with a built-in delay for switching or something.
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Caped anthology

A collection of superhero short stories. Not a must-read, but I found all were a good read in a different way.

Archivist Wasp, book

Which was on the wiki of "potential hugo nominations" with a great title. I loved the basic setting, a post-apocalyptic world, where the protagonist is honoured/trapped as the archivist, ghost-hunter, forced each year by the priest to fight to the death to keep her role as intermediate to the supernatural. Straining to keep the community safe from dangerous ghosts, and to record what scraps of information she can, to add to the archives for future archivists.

Then she meets a pre-apocalypse (or contemporary-with-apocalypse) ghost, much stronger than any other, and they flee together, passing through the ghost underworld, and... Well, I liked the start but got bored, so I didn't finish it.

Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

I loved the premise here, all about life in a mostly-post-uplift solar system. The inner planets are ruled by some of the cabal who were uplifted first, now effectively Gods. The Oubliette is one of the few havens for non-uplifted, but ruled by a massive shared exo-memory, people share or refuse permissions from. Other humans live in the Oort cloud. Jean Le Flambeur is an anti-hero thief, with unspecified ties to the "gods", broken out of a virtual prison to recover... something from Oubliette.

When I first read it, I completely bounced off it. On second reading, all that mostly made sense to me, and I was really interested in it. But I wasn't sure how consistent it could be, if it would be kept up for the following books or not. I will probably try them at some point.

And it constantly felt like they waved "quantum" around as magic, and I'm not sure, if my understanding is lacking, or the book's is.

Better Call Saul

The prequel series to Breaking Bad, about Jimmy McGill (later aka Saul Goodman), an ex-huckster small-time lawyer trying to make good, and torn between his impulses to "be basically decent", "screw everything up" and "open his mouth at the wrong time". From the reviews it sounded like I would enjoy it more than BB, and I quite enjoyed the first half-a-dozen episodes, but then I mostly lost interest.
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I want to read Preacher one day, I got The Boys from a humble bundle comics bundle, and from what I hear it sounds similar.

It's set in a world with superheroes, where they are partly media celebrities, originally manufactured by Vought corporation and used to support a merchandising empire, and partly a controversial bid to replace conventional military forces. And are invariably, at least the well-known ones, horribly corrupted by power.

The Boys are a small mostly-independent CIA-funded with the remit of policing superhero activity, in theory policing actions when a superhero does something wrong, in aspiration more like the opening shots of a war against the highest-profile superhero group.

It's unsurprisingly really violent, and shocking in other ways. Like, it's unsurprising real-world superheros would be corrupted by power (although, I mean, they need servants and cleaners and construction firms and media relations and so on, if they were unpopular, one superman wouldn't get far unless he executed a coup directly). But they are overwhelmingly loaded down with gratuitous murder and unusual sexual fetishes they act out in unsavoury ways.

And I'm conflicted about that. It's partly parodying the notion of squeaky-clean superheroes. And I do *enjoy* the "artistic violence" motif. But it also feels gratuitously unpleasant even by that standard, like it just piles up a whole bunch of unpleasant stuff. And is mixed at distinguishing "unethical" from "socially disapproved", like there's a lot of transphobic language, and sometimes that's making a point about how societal acceptance can be mixed, and the contrast between Butcher, who offends people all the time, but is generally non-judgemental of anything not unethical, and Wee Hughie, who knows the language he thinks should be acceptable, but has led quite a non-cosmopolitan life. But often it's just... lots of offensive language for no particular reason. And the same for violence and sex etc.

But what I *liked*. I liked the worldbuilding, the different superhero teams and their relationships. I liked the relationships between the characters. Butcher, the hard man from East End London stepping into a leadership position. Wee Hughie, the civilian recruited into the middle of all this. Mother's Milk, the gruff but responsible second in command. The two most violent members of the team, but who gradually grow relationships to Hughie and the rest. The bantering one-upman-ship between the diverse team and the American institutions they're mostly involved with.
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That was pretty good. None of the MCU were perfect for me, but this one did a lot of good stuff. (And some awful stuff as usual :( )

Read more... )
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Another film I think I watched once, but then absorbed a lot more of from popular culture. I think it held up pretty well.

As with many films *about* violence, it walks an uneasy line between talking about it and exploring why some people are drawn to it, and exploring why it's bad.

Spoilers:

Read more... )
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Several of these I received or gave for Christmas, but I didn't really talk about.

Castles of Burgundy.

Rachel and Osos started playing on Yucata. Moves are "take hex tile of ~6 types", "place hex on matching-colour place on board", and a couple of other things. You get two moves per turn, determined by dice roll -- you can take a hex from one of six supply spots, and each empty place on your board has a dice number on, you can only place when you match that number.

It's one of the games that's quite fiddly to grok at first, but each move is really simple once you've played a game and learned approximately what each thing does, and which things you should be concentrating on for points.

There are lots of different ways of scoring a few points, eg. finishing a field (contiguous region of same colour hexes), shipping goods, placing animals of the same type in a field; and lots of things that give you an extra action of a particular type, or allow you to adjust a dice roll, or otherwise let you do something that might score points. And a lot of the game is balancing between these -- you constantly have to judge which will be most beneficial on your board, which isn't always the same as it was last game.

Aquarius

A really simple but interesting game from Looney Labs. You have a deck of cards, each of which is divided up into 1-4 panels (either all one panel, or four quarter panels, or one quarters and one three-quarters, or divided rectilinearly or diagonally into half, etc). Each panel shows one of five (?) elements, but the drawings for the elements are really, really gorgeous, it's worth playing just to see them.

Cards are played in a grid, and a new card must match elements along part (?) of a touching edge with an existing card. Each player has a secret goal element, and you win when you have a chain of 7 (?) panels of that element anywhere on the table.

There's also a few special cards like "swap a card" or "change goal".

Lemminge

One of angoel's, I really love this one. The rules are simple -- you control two lemmings, you play cards with a number and a terrain type and one can move that many cards over grass (?) or that terrain. But you get either a bonus movement for already-played cards of that type, or get to alter the terrain type.

Dixit

From ghoti. Each player has a hand of cards, each of which has a haunting slightly fantastic picture on. Each player takes it in turn to choose a card and describe it with one word, then each other player also chooses a card, then all the cards are shuffled and all the other players have to guess which card was the original the clue was to.

The clue-setter gets points if some but not all people guess the picture. The other players get points for guessing right, and for other players guessing the card they put in.

I've played a couple of other games with similar "design a clue some people will get" mechanics but this seems like the most direct version of it, and the pictures are so, so beautiful.

Other people may not need to specify this, but I realised I was drawn towards "cheating", ie. making a clue based on knowledge I knew only one or two other players would have. And I think that's not actually cheating, but I found it more fun when I deliberately rejected that and chose clues based what I thought anyone could get in theory, but trying to tune to the obviousness where I thought it would be obvious to some people but not all.

Ivor the Engine

I didn't play this but I saw ghoti playing this. Apparently there are other Ivor games as well so I'm not sure how to tell them apart. But apparently, this one fit the feel of the series quite well, but didn't work especially well as a game.
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http://www.yudkowsky.net/other/fiction/girl-intercorrupted/

Yudkowsky wrote another story. A short one!! Apparently that's a genre in Japan? It tries to be, the plot of a book, but hustles through each chapter with much less filler than a normal novel.

A young woman who is heavily into internal things including online kinky things, is the prophesied hero summoned into another dimension to save the world. The characterisation of the main character is not perfect, but is better than I feared.

The focus on the rules of magic, the implications and subversions thereof, are the most interesting bit. I didn't think it was as interesting as HPMOR or some of Scott Alexander's stories, but it was worth reading if you like that sort of thing.