“Do you want to meet again tomorrow evening?” a girl once asked me, towards the end of a short coffee date.
“I can’t. I’m halfway through Assassins Creed Black Flag, got one level remaining on Metro Last Light, and I haven’t even started Crysis 3. I simply haven’t got the time.”
She pouted. “Nick, you talk about video games like it’s work.”
I realised she was right  and there must be something deep in my personality that makes me relate to games this way. I suppose there are many ways to approach your hobbies, and gaming in particular. I remember once back in 2011 when Jimmy was on his Bioshock binge  he said to me, “Nick, I don’t want to complete this game because then it’ll be over.”
I play games to finish them. He plays them to not finish them. Others presumably play them to enjoy them, which is probably the most psychologically balanced way to approach them. Thinking about this further I was greatly saddened at another thought:
Even if I dedicate every waking moment of every remaining day of my life to playing video games, I’ll never complete every game that I want to.
My life is littered with lost opportunities to finish games that I know I’ll never go back to: Okami, Super Mario Sunshine, Zelda Majora’s Mask, Call of Duty 2, Skies Of Arcadia…. it’s just depressing. Even if I excluded gaming’s long back catalogue and focused only on what’s out there right now, well, my Steam library is another boulevard of broken dreams. I never will get good at XCOM or the Anno series. Sigh. Fuck my life.
With books it’s even worse. That back catalogue stretches back hundreds of years and each month sees an awful lot more good new books than it does new games. Even if I read one Alexandre Dumas novel per week – which is basically a full time job – it would take a year and a half to finish his bibliography. And then there’s all the follow-up books other writers did in his literary universe… and how about Eiji Yoshikawa? He’s like Dumas all over again 
I reconciled myself to a depressing reality: I’ll never read every book that I’d like to.
The purpose of this pre-amble is to explain two proclivities I have in my selection of books to read:
- I’ll often read a short book I have mild interest in over a long book I have a strong interest in. This is for the OCD reason of wanting the satisfying closure of finishing a book more frequently. It is, however, a pendulum swing. After a few fast books, I’m thirsty for a big fat epic.
- I’ll often make impulse reads of books I encounter randomly knowing nothing about them but the covers. This is because I accept that it’s impossible to get a true overview of world literature so there’s no opportunity cost in knowledge by reading haphazardly. This too is a pendulum and sometimes I’ll got through a more structured reading list with a specific knowledge / entertainment goal in mind.
Am I boring you?
Right then, let’s get on topic. Douglas Fairbairn’s Shoot, written in 1973. I don’t even remember where I got this, I just found it in the bottom of a box when I was emptying out my storage locker in London a few years ago. I was in the mood for a fast haphazard book and this a mere 143 pages, from a writer I know nothing about. Pot luck. Here’s what the back cover said to lure me in:
“The Armalite and the Uzi and the Stoner and the Sten and the Beretta and a Schmeisser and the AR180 and plenty of ammo….
Why should six ordinary guys take that kind of hardware on a weekend hunting trip? When you’ve seen action in Korea or in Vietnam, you can get a thing about guns. For some men the war is never over….”
“That’ll put hairs on my chest” I thought, and settled down to read. I finished it the same day. Good book, very compelling.
The story is that a small group of firm friends and former war buddies are out hunting in the woods when, walking along a wide stream towards their lodge, they come across a similar group of men on the opposite bank. Inexplicably, one of the strangers raises his rifle and shoots. The group returns fire, killing the initial shooter. There’s a quick and fierce shoot out before the group withdraws. Luckily the man who caught the first bullet is not seriously hurt. On the drive home they are utterly confused as to why that other group opened fire.
A great narrative conceit is they never do find out why. This book is all about the reaction.
These guys are war vets and, in 1973, Vietnam was winding down but not yet over. Korea was a recent memory. They are a pack of closely-knit K-selects who are deeply resentful not so much at being shot at but at the insult of being chased out of their regular hunting ground. The narrator is the alpha male of the group and he’s not going to stand for it.
The entire book is about how he plans for the next weekend. He takes it for granted that they must go back and reclaim their territory. Before that he must do some recon on who shot at them and try to second guess what that group is doing. They did, after all, have a man down. It’s hardly likely they’ll let that lie.
As the book progresses we find the narrator, Rex, is actually a bit of a cunt. Although clearly a natural leader he’s also a philanderer and the type of alpha whose ego won’t let him back down from a challenge no matter how stupid. There is some dissension in the group including from Lou.
As far as Lou is concerned, it’s madness to go back. If they stay away, there’s no problem. Going back is just looking for trouble. Who cares? They don’t have any fallen comrades to avenge and they aren’t at war.
Rex paints Lou as a coward and the group expels him, making chicken noises as he begs to stay. Fairbairn subtly lets the reader know this is all headed for disaster. He’s not explicit in outlining Rex’s issues or the folly of seeking trouble. Rather, he uses the unreliable narrator technique giving us windows into Rex’s character based on how he treats people during the week of preparation. Fairbairn gets the socio-sexual hierarchy and how to write groups (and the women on their fringes).
Finally, the weekend arrives and Rex’s team drive out into the woods….. you see, Rex thinks of gun fights the way I think of video games. Once you’ve started one, you have to finish it.
I liked this book. The characters were believable, the story set-up was intriguing, and the plot moves along well. It’s a book that raises some interesting questions about group dynamics, hard choices, and whether bravery and folly are on the same side of the coin (and indeed if wisdom and cowardice on the other). It isn’t written as a gamma male screed of anti-alpha sentiment, rather it’s more like a thought experiment for alphas on questions of leadership and betas on questions of following.
Here’s the full movie.
Speaking of alpha males and leadership, I wrote a book called Daygame Infinite and the pick-up world is in agreement that it’s the bestest thing every and a veritable bargain at the price. Buy it here.
 I still stayed home and played Black Flag the next evening, though.
 Which mostly consisted of running around Rapture with a wrench seeing what he could smash.
 But with slanty eyes