Book Review: Freax (volume 1)

By Syntax & Polaris / Northern Dragons

Book Review: Freax (volume 1)
Author: Tomcat/Greenroom
Reviewers: Syntax / Northern Dragons
Polaris / Northern Dragons

Introduction Polaris

Hi there gang! When Adok asked me what kind of articles I could write for Hugi, a book review of Freax immediately came to mind. I had just received the book a few days before, care of a good friend that attended Assembly and mailed it for me. I proudly showed it off to my demo scene buddies here in the prairies, much to the envy of Syntax. I was on my way to finishing reading the book, when I got tied up with preparations for Pilgrimage.

Prior to leaving for Pilgrimage, I reserved a copy of Freax for Syntax, which I intended to pick up at the party. It turns out that Radman sold them while I was grabbing some snacks. True to his word, he shipped it to Syntax as soon as he arrived back home.

After some more conversations, Syntax and I decided to co-author this review. We have a unique demo scene history, as Syntax was born in the UK and I was born in Canada. My introduction to the demoscene occurred on the PC platform, where as his was on the Commodore platform. We thought it would be fun and relevant for us to share our thoughts and draw any contrasts.

Without further delay let's talk about the book!

Book Review 1 of 2 Syntax

My History - Grew up in the UK, Got a Commie 64 when I was 11, spent too long playing games and typing in programs out of magazines that sometimes didn't work. Got an Amiga 1500 at 14, more games, more programs, watched some demos. Then I had to get a PC for school and it gets a bit hazy from then on (it's the alcohol)... Ended up in Canada :)

Being part of the demoscene is a little strange. I mean, we spend a huge amount of time working on our computers, doing things most people can't or won't comprehend and we don't get huge rewards for all this, just the respect of our peers and the knowledge of a job well done. So, when people ask "what do you do in your free time?" and I say "oh, i'm involved in the demoscene" and then I get the usual blank\puzzled expression, like you'd just asked if you could spend 10 minutes alone with their car, a bottle of hand lotion in one hand and a fresh trout in the other hand.

Yes, it'd be nice if I could just pull out a book that would be easy to read and entertaining for non-sceners and say "see! read this! this is the kind of stuff I do/did!". Yes, it would be nice to have a book like that.

And now we have one. The book "Freax".

Written single-handedly by the long long long time scener Tomcat of Greenroom, the book takes the reader on an amazing journey from what (I guess) could be considered the roots of the scene in the 1950's with primitive graphics experiments all the way to the start of the 21st century, with computers such as the Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, Sinclair Spectrum and PC fitted into the timeline nicely.

The book is split into various sections, starting with the roots (1950's - 1981), the 64 era (1981 to ???? - its a little vague) and the Amiga Era (1987 to present day). There's a lot of material covered in the book, ranging from the roots of cracking, "copy parties", the formation of groups, the splitting of groups into cracking/demo sections, the international scene (outside of Europe - yes, there was/is one, you Eurotrash! ;) ), trackmos, diskmags, the setting up of parties, the evolution of demos, interviews with sceners and lots and lots of pretty pictures.

Obviously, the Commie 64 takes up a huge part of the book, as rightly so as it was the mainstay in the scene in the 1980's and still is among some sceners. What I found refreshing was the way different threads were wound together. For example, a history lesson about the Commodore corporation, discussion about the technology used in the 64/+4/+16, an interview with Bil Herd and discussion about the Commodore Scene all seem to seamlessly connect, it's really amazing what Tomcat has accomplished by pulling all this together.

There are a lot of interviews with sceners and other figures outside of the scene and you get a feeling while reading the interviews of the insanity and passion that the people had when those events were happening, whether it's Bil Herd discussing the Commodore Development Model (or lack of it, as it turns out) or Grendel/ByteRapers talking about the early scene, it's fascinating to find out those tidbits of information that you didn't know and probably wouldn't (The organizer of the News-Ersatz party in Germany got beaten up by the attendees after arriving late and locking the group out of the party area.)

The second part of the book covers the Commodore Amiga, and it itself is split into 2 sections, the OCS/ECS models (500,500+,600) and the AGA models (1200,4000) with a small backgrounder on the tech at the beginning and then launching straight into the story of the Amiga in the scene and the transfer of sceners from the 64 to the Amiga and the progression of the Amiga scene into 3D effects and texture mapping.

Obviously for a book about the demoscene, there is a lot of information about the scene, about the beginning of effects, how effects were generated and how they evolved. Lots of demos are mentioned (with screen captures!) and evaluated for their merits, which is a really good way to chart the history of the scene.

As the scene is a sub-culture and it itself has a lot of historical artifacts within it, there are mentions of mail-swappers, illegal phreaking, custom disk labels and BBS's. Lots of things maybe the new sceners of today aren't aware of, which is cool by itself, as well as the "foreign" scene (i.e. outside of the EU) which is smaller than the EU scene, but still alive. The book mentions the scene in North America, South America, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and Jordania. It's excellent to hear tales of the scene in remote parts and what people were up to there.

The book is a bit of a dense read and unless you devote at least a few uninterrupted hours to it, you won't get through it in one go, but it is relatively easy to just start at the beginning of a chapter and keep reading. For the non-scener or new scener, I can understand how it might be a bit too much to take in, so that gives you an excuse to read the book more than once ;)

Now the downside. Ok, I'll have to mention it - the translation. It's not the best in the world, but its still readable. The syntax (no pun) is a little off, so you might have to read a sentence more than once to get the full meaning. Also, the typeset wasn't correct as small boxes appeared in the place of certain characters (I'm guessing european chars like the o with the umlaut above it).

From my point of view as someone who grew up with the c64 and Amiga in Europe, this book brought back a lot of memories, a lot of recollections of (ahem) "blank" discs given to me by "friends", of PD company adverts in magazines, of weird looking screens appearing on my computer screen instead of the game title screen. Ah, those were the days and those days were good.

So, all things considered, this book is amazing and I'd recommend anyone even remotely interested in the scene to buy it. In fact, buy a few copies just to be safe :)

Book Review 2 of 2 Polaris

My History: Grew up in Canada, got an IBM PC Jr when I was seven, spent a long time playing games (The likes of Sierra!, Epix, and others). Started programming by typing in programs in Basic from Compute! Magazine. Upgraded to a 387 DX 33 in Secondary School, where I got introduced to the demoscene via disk swapping with friends. In University I upgraded to a 486 DX 66 and downloaded a great number of demos overnight care of the school's dial access ISP. Many nights of downloading later - and I grew into the demoscene addict I am today.

The most exciting thing about Freax... is that after lots of anticipation.. it's finally here. I was truly afraid that the book would never get published. I was registered to the mailing list... but often felt that it just plain wouldn't come together.

Demos have been mentioned before in the mainstream media. There is the obvious demo pamphlet / coffee table book called: "Demoscene: The art of real-time", published just last year. This however wasn't the first book to mention this art. The first mainstream media reference to the demoscene was many years ago by Phil Shatz in "Walkthroughs and Flyby's". The art of coding demos was the major focus of "PC Underground: Unconventional Programming Topics". While these have been good pieces - no book has ever attempted to bring together and document the international cultural phenomenon of the demo scene extensively. No book that is... until now.

Freax is extraodrinarly impressive at first glance. To say that the book is beautiful would be an understatement. Every page is glossy, colourful and high quality. It reminds me of the Time Life series of books on UFO's and the paranormal. Each page is well laid out and graphically meets every expectation.

The book starts out in a far more academic way than I expected. It starts at the beginning, discussing both graphics and sound. I was impressed it was included, but it is only brief. It then proceeds to tell an amazing tale of the C64, and the Amiga computers.

I would be dishonest to say that I wasn't a bit lost amongst the model numbers of the various machines and their meanings. The book does describe each of them however a clear evolution isn't provided... so it's difficult to understand how it evolved. I realize that this is mostly because of my background. Being PC centric, these machines don't immediately conjure up memories for me... so I have difficulty fully grasping their history.

Memories did flow in general about computing from the early 1980's. Modems the size of bricks... limited graphical resolution and depth... and yet these primitive machines "stole our hearts and our minds". What's truly special is that the book didn't hide the common history of cracking, warez and the demoscene. It tells it as it was; and does a great job explaining that era of hobby computing.

There are really only two other areas where you can feel let down. The spelling and typesetting are weak in the first few chapters. Odd boxes are here / there... and there are several misspellings. Perhaps the most problematic is the misspelling of aliases of demosceners.

Secondly, the book lacks characterization from time to time. In an effort to cover "it all", it ends up feeling like a loose soap opera of characters we barely know. I do sympathize that it would be difficult to bring all the characters to life... but having some more details about their personalities would be great. Too often, the reader gets told "This great coder made this demo"... but didn't talk about any characteristics of the individual that made them great. The bones seem to lack a certain flesh.

Even with all this, there are some brilliant moments. I especially appreciated the author's inclusion of several interviews and content from Disk Mags. If another author said it better, it's simply reproduced it in the book. It's a fantastic snapshot and shows the good confidence and common sense of the author.

The parties themselves seem to come alive in the text. I appreciated this more than the many individuals mentioned... each seemed to have a certain sprit... and it was easier to follow the growth and evolutions of the parties than the brief overview of the players in them.

The book really did help me make sense of the history of how the PC did (or better yet didn't) fit into the demoscene. It was a great education for me... to understand how reluctant the demoscene was to embrace it. My North American experience was PC centric... so this has really helped me to make sense of some of the stories and feelings of our friends across the pond. For my own history, I'm anxiously awaiting the second PC volume, and hoping that it will document some good things about the platform now that it reigns supreme.

In our time, this book is the best book ever created about the demoscene. It may not be perfect... however nothing else has ever come as close. Without a doubt... this is a book I'll be putting away for safekeeping. Perhaps one day, I'll be passing it along to a grandchild... in the hopes that they may gain some insight into our moment, our era, and our common culture as sceners. It's well worth the investment.

Wrap up and Conclusion Polaris

While Syntax and I enjoyed our childhood halfway across the world from each other; we can wax poetic about this book. We discuss Freax passionately while our wives simply look at each other pondering what planet we are from. We are both children of the demoscene; and have shared in its secret history. This book is our family album of those times, a snapshot of our history and heritage. Hopefully it will serve as a decoder ring for future generations... so our digital roots may not be forgotten.

Syntax and Polaris / Northern Dragons