Mass shootings have killed a lot of people and created a lot of mythology: trenchcoats; clocktowers; grassy knolls; lone wolves; false flags; crisis actors; radicalization; warning signs. It’s a congealed, gruesome mass of images and slang, a culture trying to decode a thing that’s deadly, fascinating, and incomprehensible. Moths might create similar mythology around flames, if they could.

One of the most common tropes is the second shooter. The earliest reports from mass shootings often describe two or more gunmen. This is usually proven false: the average mass shooter has no better odds of attracting an accomplice than he does a girlfriend. With two or three famous exceptions, mass shootings are conducted by one man, working alone. The second shooter appears to be a mostly psychoacoustic phenomenon – scared people mistaking echoes and richochets for additional gunmen, and so on – but it’s eerily common, enough that the advice everyone shares on Twitter includes the line “there’s almost never a second shooter“.

Nick Mamatas’s book has a strong hook: what if the second shooter was real? Michael Karras is a small-press hack-for-hire writing a book on the subject. His research isn’t going well…and then suddenly far too well, when he’s caught near the epicenter of a horrific (and strange) attack and witnesses the second shooter illusion first-hand. From there, things get weirder. His computer has been hacked. His research notes are being tampered with. Drones are following him.

I’ve read books on paranormal stuff (such as cryptids and UFOs) where it’s painfully obvious the writer stopped believing in it partway through. Karras is the opposite – a disbeliever converted by circumstance. But what can he do? He’s up against the same paradox inside every conspiracy theory: if there were malign forces at work who could manipulate physics at will, edit files on a disconnected laptop, and can make an entire person disappear…would you even try to expose them?

The story is pacey and well-written, with plenty of humor and a sharp eye for character. Great dialog, too. The Second Shooter has countless throwaway lines (“Of course we have the wifi”) that just sound contextually right in a way that’s hard to articulate. Mamatas has a fantastic ear for how people talk.

The Second Shooter is marketed as a thriller, but it eschews airport novel cliches for moments of real creativity and inspiration. The book is packed with odd and unusual ideas – important plot points involve a MUD, an Ikea table, and the fact that a certain character knows what a TV rerun is – and the plot’s serpentiform twists are as unpredictable as a real mass shooting. There’s a sense of eclecticism throughout, like a song made up of all the wrong chords.

Mass shootings are absurd as well as scary (Columbine’s farcical “revenge of the nerds” narrative really set the tone), and the associated culture of grifters and exploiters gives Mamatas a satirical target a mile wide. This is felt strongest in the character of Chris Bennett, a conspiracy-peddling shock jock (described as “having all the charisma of an empty chair”) who is clearly based upon Alex Jones. Bennett seems to view himself as Captain Ahab and Karras as Moby Dick, and there are loud hints that he might be involved in whatever’s happening to Karras. The two men are enemies, and Bennett never fails to be cartoonishly awful, but there are similarities between them, too. They both exploit fear for money. And they both exist inside a profit-driven media landscape that – fundamentally – does not want mass shootings to stop.

What Karras needed, he thought in darker moments, was another mass shooting […] Come on, special boy! Get angry! A slaughter close enough to drive to, with plenty of witnesses ready to talk about the tightly coordinated team of gunmen who had just torn through a school, or church, or shopping mall. He had the news on the radio, and the police scanner app running on his phone. Despite the shocking number of mass shootings out there, America was still a great big country, and on a daily basis a lot more people were dying of heart attacks and car accidents than they were at the hands of crazed gunmen.

I had a friend who was a kind of anti-evangelist for cryptocurrencies. He self-published a book about how Bitcoin etc are worthless pump-and-dump scams (blah blah)….and yet he himself owned cryptocurrencies. His rationalization went something like “well, if Bitcoin goes up in value, more people will want to read about it, so I’m increasing my own market”. He was joking, but money still perverts incentives in interesting ways. Karras isn’t evil. Nothing he does is especially wrong. But he still makes his bread with the filling of graves; even if he isn’t pulling the trigger himself. It’s a grim way to make a living.

The Second Shooter isn’t perfect. It’s not easy for a book to be too smart but Mamatas wanders close to the line sometimes. The dialog (though lively and believable) has a Whedonesque quality, with constant dry quipping that damages the tension. Karras is just the cleverest fucker in the world, making jokes about Vonnegut to 7-Eleven clerks and dropping Situationist quotes into casual conversation. There’s a gag near the beginning about how Karras has only gone to mass once in ten years – maybe we’re supposed to laugh at someone called “Karras” being a bad Catholic. If that’s a pop culture reference, the book didn’t need it.

I kept hoping The Second Shooter would become rawer, less sophisticated, and more of a punch to the gut. But in the end, it’s just not that kind of book. Its ideas are ultimately Marxist/post-Marxist ones: mass shootings aren’t just about blood in the streets: they’re also about power relations, dialectics, images, struggles, spectacles, and so on. These aren’t irrelevent egghead distractions: if you’ve ever held an Online Opinion(tm) about whether we should publicize the name and image of mass murderers (or does this glorify the killer?), you’re touching upon ideas DeBord and Baudrillard wrote about forty years ago. It’s rare to see a novel that tackles such stuff directly, but The Second Shooter’s academic inclinations definitely put distance between it and the standard thriller.

The ending is fascinating. Just when you’re ready for Mamatas to begin unwinding the complicated plot, he suddenly throws you into very deep waters. Like Neuromancer, The Second Shooter “resolves” itself in a way that’s actually more head-spinning than the original mystery. I liked the ending, but again, it probably won’t play well to those wanting a dumb action showdown while the hero explains what’s happening in monosyllables.

In an image-driven world, perception matters a lot, often more than the reality behind it. Once, it was fashionable to talk about Fake News, usually as a club to beat your political opponents with. But the biggest vectors of Fake News have always been your own eyes and ears. The second shooter phenomenon is proof of that. Even the clearest light and the purest sound still has to pass through your brain. If your brain thinks your genetic fitness could be boosted by perceiving something else, it stacks the deck.

After Hiroshima, John Hersey and Dr Takashi Nagai gathered testimony from a number of of “hibakusha”, or bomb survivors. Many claimed to have seen the bomb explode directly above their heads.[1]Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262 This is impossible – they would have instantly died. Most had probably been hundreds of meters or more from the hypocenter. But it shows the unreliability of first-hand experience. “I’ll believe it when I see it” used to be a skeptic’s battle cry; now it’s a credulous retreat back to faith. You can’t believe the things you see. So what, then, can you believe?

The Second Shooter is an unusual book about a sadly common thing. It’s about a broken society refracted in broken images across broken people, where fake becomes real and fantasy supplants reality. Hunter S Thompson got off easy next to Michael Karras. What would he have done if he’d stopped over at Barstow, slept and pissed all the grass and mescaline and acid and cocaine out of this system…and the bats were still in the sky?

(November 11th 2021, Solaris)

References

References
1 Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262
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Everything it needed to be, but still not enough.

The first two Age of Empires games (from 1997 and 1999) are childhood classics that I played for a literal age. Particularly the second one. I’m uncertain on this, but if you added up all the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II, I think you’d have a number equal to the hours I’ve spent playing Age of Empires II. The game was so satisfying, succeeding at everything it tried to do, with deep, economy-focused gameplay that took skill to master (the difference between a 1400 and 1600 ELO Age of Empires II player is just as large as in, say, chess) and visceral, kinetic battles.

The historic theme gave you context and a reason to care (“lead the Golden Horde against the Shah of Khwarazm” will always be cooler than “are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?”, for some reason) and the graphics were great, winning me over from Blizzard’s Starcraft, which was also fun but must rank as one of the ugliest games ever made. Age of Empires II’s matches played out a lot slower than Starcraft’s, but they had a bigger, higher build. Games with lots of players on a giant-sized map took on a deliriously epic quality, lasting for hours and hours, with backstabbing, politics, mounting desperation as resources dwindled, heroic last stands, ended friendships, etc. Think of all the fun things you’ve done and rank them from 1 to 10. Unless “eight player Age of Empires II LAN party where everybody’s drunk” is on the list, the most you’ve experienced is a 9.

2002’s Age of Mythology was step backward. It had some cute stuff and a lot of polish, but the new 3D engine didn’t look good and Ensemble Studios had some questionable ideas, like making higher-tier units take up multiple population spaces, causing you to hit your population cap the moment you tried to do anything fun (or so it seemed). And it was the start of the epoch where games coddled you, and didn’t allow you to make mistakes. For example, you can’t delete your town center. Not that you’d really want to, but I still feel philosophically that if I want to delete my own buildings I should be allowed to. Age of Empires I and II had a libertarian “anything goes” ethos to game design. Age of Mythology was like being artificially confined at every turn.

I played Age of Empires III for a few hours and uninstalled it. I’d seen enough; the home cities, card system, and so forth just screamed “artificial complication”, and the idiot-proof game design had hit new levels, with villagers that collected infinite resources and never needed to be moved. All the depth was gone from the core gameplay loop, leaving the sense that the game was mostly just playing itself. The colonial theme was dull particularly next to the largeness of the last two games. In Age of Empires you take cavemen at the dawn of history, and create Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. In Age of Empires II you take illiterate barbarians and guide them into the Renaissance. In Age of Empires III you take 17th century settlers and turn them into 18th century settlers. Oh my God, I paid for the entire seat when I’ll only need the edge! The campaign was actually laughable: why am I fighting Illuminati cultists for the fountain of youth in an Age of Empires game?

In 2009, Microsoft disbanded Ensemble Studios for unclear reasons (the company hadn’t put a foot wrong commercially: even Age of Empires III had sold millions of copies), sat on the license for a while, then licensed it out to other studios (particularly Hidden Path Entertainment and Forgotten Empires), who all did various things that I call “the same game, but now on Steam”. These include Age of Empires II HD Edition, Age of Empires Definitive Edition, Age of Empires II Definitive Edition, and a number of add-ons and expansions such as Forgotten Empires. Each “improved” the game from a technical perspective, but none seemed really necessary, and they also had the effect of fracturing the already-dwindling community – Age of Empires II DE players can’t play with Age of Empires II HD players, and custom maps developed for Age of Empires II are not compatible with any later versions. I kept playing my CD-Rom version of The Conquerors for a long time.

And now there’s a sequel. A sequel that I wasn’t aware of until it launched. While I have an amazing ability to dodge million dollar ad campaigns, it’s also possible the game didn’t get a million-dollar ad campaign. Quiet launches are normally a bad sign (developers don’t want their game to get beaten up too much by reviewers) but this isn’t the case: Age of Empires II is decent and well thought out.

The game is basically a collection of all the series’ best ideas – which are 90% from and II, honestly – and puts them in one package, with some new gameplay improvements. It sticks closely to the series’ main concept – you have a town center, train villagers from the town center, use them to build houses and gather resources, etc – but there are little touches that are nice. As with previous Age games, you advance through multiple “ages”, each of which unlocks additional units and technologies. But where in previous games this would lock down your town center for several minutes (pumping the brakes on the game’s momentum), AoE4 lets you continue using your town center even while advancing. It’s a small touch but it makes the game a lot faster.

Advancing to a new age now requires construction of a “landmark” – you have your choice of several per age, which each offer unique buffs and perks. Chinese, for example, can choose to Castle with either a Astronomical Clocktower (“Acts as a Siege Workshop. Produces siege engines with +50% health.”) or Imperial Palace (“Possesses a large sight radius. Activate to view the location of enemy Villagers for 10 seconds.”). This is the exact same mechanic as Age of Mythology’s minor gods, but it’s not a bad idea.

The eight civilizations (English, French, Mongol, Rus, Holy Roman Empire, Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, Abbasids) are pretty different in how they play – it’s almost like learning eight different games. The Mongols get a kind of abusive Oovoo building that allows you to build two units at once – I have a feeling this will be patched soon.

Also, I’m glad they finally added “attack move”, 1995’s hottest new feature.

Beloved mainstays of the series all return, such as the trebuchets, relics, and Black Forest (an absolutely obnoxious map that every noob picks because you can hold off pushes forever with a few walls). The monks don’t go “wolololo”, but at least there are war elephants. God damn they’re big. They’re the size of buildings.

The minor changes above aside, it just doesn’t feel like a sequel. It’s just Age of Empires II rebooted for the 3rd or 4th time. I won solo against 2 hard AIs on my first game because of how close it was to AoE2, despite the fact that none of my old hotkeys worked.

The graphics are surprisingly drab. The 2D Age of Empires games only had 256 colors, but they worked hard to make every unit distinct with sharp color contrasts and animation cycles. Here, armies just blur into a blob of indecipherable 3D men. The graphics are just technically unimpressive in general. The recommended graphics card? A GeForce 970. There’s no map editor, because why would there be.

It’s clear why they’d draw so much inspiration from AoE2, as it’s the only game in the franchise that still has legs. But it doesn’t do anything to move a stale genre forward. AoM was flawed but at least tried some new things. AoE4 is super safe and takes no risks. They probably wore kneepads and padded helmets while programming it.

The game is fun, but only in a faceless and bland way. I still remember the AoE2’s William Wallace campaign, with that hilarious fake Scottish accent. It was great. AoE4’s learning mission is about a faceless tribe of settlers fighting faceless enemies, while a woman issues instructions in her best “your call is important to us” voice. It was just dull.

And while I hate to sound like a 2014 Youtuber ranting abouty ESS JAY DUBYAS ruining vidya games, there’s no gore, no references to genocide (the Mongols are described as a “a disciplined civilization, recognized for changing history in connecting the East to the West”), and nothing remotely edgy or offensive at all (I liked how AoK:TC let you literally research the Inquisition as a tech). This works against its historical aspect. There are female soldiers, too. Can’t wait for the upcoming DLC adding transgender people and furries and whatever.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing it for. It’s fine. But one of the many ways the world has changed since 2003 is that the real-time strategy genre has completely fallen dead. Out of curiousity, I went on Twitch and viewed the top-viewed RTS games.

Age of Empires IV. Mobile scam game. Mobile scam game. Starcraft. Hearts of Iron 4. Age of Empires II. Starcraft II (uhh?).  Mobile scam game…

The top 20th RTS game was Command and Conquer: Red Alert. A game from 1996. And if you take out the contemptuous mobile shovelware and mislabelled wargames, it would have been in the top 10. You know a genre’s in healthy shape when its 10th most viewed game is an MS-DOS title from the middle of the Clinton presidency.

The last viable branch of the genre is probably MOBA games such as DOTA and League of Legends, whose click-heavy isometric style is a clear artifact from the real-time strategy genre. I don’t know why the genre stopped selling, but it’s probably going to take more than another remake to bring it back. Age of Empires IV feels like a slickly missed opportunity. The title is bitterly ironic: this series (and genre) is indeed showing its age.

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There’s a behavior called “wound-collecting” where a person takes every slight, insult, and injustice they’ve experienced and builds an identity out of it. “Look at how much I’ve suffered. Look at how much worse I’ve had it than you.” Their victim status becomes their defining attribute, the thing that makes them special. They can’t let their hurt go: they become slumbering dragons atop a hoard of pain, admiring their scars, wishing they had more.

I remember reading a feminist’s blog post, titled (and capitalized) something like “why i hate men”. It was a long list of every bad thing a man had every done to her, ranging from serious sexual assault to a stranger calling her a rude word on The Bird Site, written with pornographic detail and (to me) barely-disguised relish. I felt bad for her; are wounds all you have?

Wound-collecting probably starts in pre-adolescence – infants learn that if they stub a toe, adults will crowd around them, fussing and cooing. The attention feels nice. Sometimes better than the stubbed toe felt bad. More enterprising infants learn that if they scream and cry very loudly, they don’t need to stub their toe at all. One of the great wound-collectors of our time is James Frey, whose tearjerking, heart-rending, and fake account of drug addiction got him on Oprah (here’s John Dolan taking a bolt-gun to A Million Little Pieces in one of his cruelest and funniest reviews). Women are generally more prone to wound-collecting, but, as Frey proves, men can do it too. And children. And its.

Dave Pelzer was born to an insane alcoholic mother in 1960 and made a ward of the state in 1973. In the intervening twelve years, he experienced what fifth-grade teacher Steven E. Ziegler describes as “the third worse (sic) case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California.” …starved, stabbed, smashed face-first into mirrors, forced to eat the contents of his sibling’s diapers and a spoonful of ammonia, and burned over a gas stove…” Also, he probably got the middle seat in the family sedan and was never allowed to choose the pizza toppings.

In adulthood, Pelzer made a career as a kind of rah-rah-you-can-do-it motivational speaker, anchored by the experiences in A Child Called ‘It’. I don’t know to what extent he fits the wound-collector profile. Perhaps he doesn’t at all. But at the very least he’s a wound-displayer, performing fetishistic accounts of child abuse for money.

There’s a deceptive quality to books like this that has always chafed at me; this sense they’re not as they appear. Pelzer (or his publisher) describes A Child Called ‘It’ as an “inspirational story”: I must have missed the inspirational parts. Between stories of being locked in a garage for ten days without food and suffocated with bleach and clorox, Pelzer throws in some generic gloop (“I’m so blessed. The challenges of my past have made me immensely strong inside. […] Instead of dwelling on the past, I maintained the same focus that I had taught myself years ago in the garage, knowing the good Lord was always over my shoulder, giving me quiet encouragement and strength when I needed it most.”) that sounds as schmaltzy and fake as a Thomas Kinkade painting. The book – the real book – is marketed with the precision of a laser-guided bomb. It knows its audience of atrocity seekers very well: far better than they know themselves.

I’ll just say what I think: books like A Child Called ‘It’  sell millions of copies because they’re a safe, socially-acceptable way to read about a child being tortured. There’s a society hypocrisy here that’s seldom talked about: if you enjoy fictional child-torture stories you’re a depraved sicko who belongs on every government watchlist at once, but when that same story is packaged as “motivational lit” or “true crime” or “the news”, you can pretend your interest in it is wholesome, even virtuous. You’re becoming an Informed Person(tm). You’re learning about The Way The World Really Works(c).

Is this surprising? 1980s Evangelicals protested against heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons while themselves propping up a huge Satanic Panic media industry (Michelle Remembers, Satan Seller, Hell’s Bells) that was a code-shifted version of the same thing. Michael Warnke sold millions of books with passages like “[the Satanists] took this little girl and they killed her by cutting her sexual organs out while she was still alive, and after she was dead they cut her chest open, took out her heart and cut it up in little pieces and took communion on it,” and Jack Chick distributed hundreds of millions of tracts like “Lisa”, often to the same people who wanted Black Sabbath gone from the airwaves. This is because Black Sabbath was entertainment, while the tales of Satanic witches were supposedly real, offering plausible deniability to their consumers – why wouldn’t a concerned citizen want to learn about the black masses and human sacrifice rituals happening in the nation’s schools? Prudes and moralists like porn, but more than that, they like excuses.

I use the word porn with care. I don’t mean people literally get a sexual thrill out of stories like Pelzer’s (though for certain readers, who knows?). But there’s an pornlike element to Pelzer all the same. He’s pure object: an archetype, a totem, a lightning rod into which we can discharge our anguish, horror, and outrage – seething lizard-brain emotions we can barely understand or control. It’s a small but vital detail, for example, that Pelzer is a child, hitting the switch on the reader’s maternal/paternal instincts. Nobody would give a shit about a book titled The Senior Citizen Called ‘It’, despite elder abuse being a real thing that happens. People are far more excited when the victim is an adorable little boy.

And the excitement around this book was real and terrifying to witness. In the late 90s people around me were moved to ecstasy by it. “Oh my god, this is awful! That poor boy!”, always spoken in the tones of a junkie sky-high on a 20 dollar bill. On Reddit and Goodreads there are people asking for other books like A Boy Called ‘It’. Horrible book! Traumatized me for years! Give me more. The demand for child abuse lit is insatiable, and although the books are presented as tales of salvation and hope this is a formality, like how porn films wrap up the high-definition sex inside a dumb story about Mia Malkova’s car breaking down. The real point is the suffering. The pain. People want to see it. All of it. And when it’s over, they want more. And worse. It’s a hole through the Earth that leads, not to China, but directly out into blackest space.

I haven’t talked about the book at all.

First, it’s not a book, it’s sublimated fantasies arranged in the shape of a book. It’s badly written: if Pelzer had tried to get famous off prose instead of child abuse he would currently be An AutoZone Manager Called ‘It’.  “For awhile Mother banned Father from the house, and the only time we saw him was when we drove to San Francisco to pick up his paycheck. One time, on our way to get the check, we drove through Golden Gate Park. Even though my anger was ever present, I flashed back to the good times when the park meant so much to the whole family. My brothers were also silent that day as we drove through the park. Everybody seemed to sense that somehow the park had lost its glamour, and that things would never be the same again. I think that perhaps my brothers felt the good times were over for them too.”  Grammatical issues aside (“awhile” instead of “a while”, singular “time” applied to a recurring event, etc), why is there so much repetition of detail? We’re told he goes to San Francisco to pick up a check, then we’re told again. We’re told he’s at the Golden Gate Park, then we’re told again. Every paragraph in the book is too long by 10 to 20 percent.  Its narrative is structured oddly, beginning where it should have ended (with Pelzer’s rescue by Mr Ziegler). A Child Called ‘It’ would otherwise have had a thrilling “how will he get out of this?” compulsion, but instead we already know how he got out, because he told us. Pelzer’s imagery is corny and seems right out of a 70s romance novel: rivers of tears go pouring and/or streaming down young Pelzer’s face so often that it could almost become a drinking game. His writing sucks all the air out of the room…but could that be an intended effect? To make the book seem rougher, realer, and more believable?

This brings us to the elephant in the room, hinted at several times.

A problem with wound-collecting is the temptation to exaggerate or outright invent wounds; to feather your nest with shards of broken blue glass and call them sapphires. As I read Pelzer’s sad tale a certain feeling came over me – the feeling you get when you’re in a foreign country and your taxi driver says he’s taking the scenic route.

Pelzer’s stories individually edge against the line of believability and cumulatively cross over: I don’t believe that his mother held him beneath freezing water for “hours” (hypothermia would have killed a starving ten year old in minutes). I’m curious about whether his lacerations and stabbings left him with scars, and if these have photographed to corroborate his tale. I impaled my finger on a thorn when I was ten and the mark is still there. I’m also curious as to whether his mother actually said things like this, which sounds like dialog from a very bad movie.

“Well, Mr Ziegler says I should be so proud of you for naming the school newspaper. He also claims that you are one of the top pupils in his class. Well, aren’t you special?” Suddenly, her voice turned ice cold and she jabbed her finger at my face and hissed, “Get one thing straight, you little son of a bitch! There is nothing you can do to impress me! Do you understand me? You are a nobody! An It! You are nonexistent! You are a bastard child! I hate you and I wish you were dead! Dead! Do you hear me? Dead!”

I can tolerate dull writing and exploitative subject matter, but I don’t like being conned or taken for a ride.  When I learned from Wikipedia that three of Pelzer’s brothers (and his grandmother) have cast doubt on his story, I was unsurprised but still disappointed.

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