Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review of Pretender by C.J. Cherryh

It perhaps goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: don’t read this review without having read the novels prior: spoilers.

I still clearly recall reading Foreigner, first novel in the Foreigner series. It starts out with a literal bang—an assassination attempt on the main character, Bren. But that’s it. There is no more action of a similar caliber (har har). The rest of the book is a dialogue/exposition-oriented story focusing on the social, political, and cultural concerns of human and atevi interaction. What I recall is the realization: “Oh, this is one of those types of books. Let’s see where Cherryh takes her exploration of Otherness.” And the slow pace continues in the next installments—I’m sure much to the chagrin of the legions of sf readers looking for action and simple drama. But for readers who understand and appreciate what Cherryh is doing with the Foreigner series, it is explicitly understood that Bren’s life will not mirror Tom Cruise’s. Enter Pretender (2006), second novel in the third sub-trilogy and eighth overall in the Foreigner series. It’s positively Mission: Impossible.

Pretender opens in the aftermath of the assassination attempt that closed Destroyer. Bren and what has now become the Foreigner cast of lead characters are left holed up in the country estate, fearful yet protective against further attempts. In the cleanup, Bren attempts to get his computer online to share with lord Tabini the results of their rescue mission into space and meeting with the Kyo. But with further assassination attempts looming, not to mention fresh news of changes in the assassin’s guild that happened while Bren was away, even so simple thing as a computer connection is anything but guaranteed. Once again having to keep a clear head in a tense situation, Bren must work with the atevi to escape the country estate and spread the word about the news of their mission to the whole planet.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy

What is a good written history? Is it something dry and formal, laying out all the potential facts in finite detail for the reader to make up their own mind—an entire display of the known? Or is it an interpretation and consolidation of potential facts into a likely narrative? The former certainly more appealing to scholars and the latter to casual readers, it rests in the hands of the writer at what point in the spectrum they would like to approach the historical material they are presenting. Let’s have a look at Buddy Levy’s Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008).

If anything, Conquistadores is a very focused work of history. More precisely, a tight look at a major transitional moment for two cultures in one setting. Levy begins the narrative just before Cortes arrives on modern day Mexican soil, details the steps he took to subdue the Aztec nation, and ends just after as New Spain is established. Levy fills in relevant details as they affect the steps of this transition, but by and large it’s a streamlined history of action-reaction, situation-decision, and opening-outcome, like a story. Another way of putting this is: one man’s dogged determination to take a nation for himself under the name of god and king.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review of Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Empire of Silence was an interesting mix of retro science fiction tropes and themes more contemporary—a contrast heightened by the length of the novel (600+ pages). In 2019 Ruochio returns with the second in the Sun Eater series (trilogy? tetralogy? more?), Howling Dark, to continue the tale begun in Empire of Silence, and contextualize its quality.

Picking up many years after the events of Empire of Silence, Hadrian Marlowe is now captain of a band of mercenaries, traipsing through the stars, trying to find the planet Vorgoss to return their cryo-cargo of alien Cielcin, and attempt to forge peace. At the outset of Howling Dark, Marlowe has come to the realization that the known Sollan universe does not hold what he seeks, and that in order to fulfill his mission, he must venture beyond into the worlds of the extra-solarians—worlds of strangely modified humans, to get what he needs. Exotic locales, colorful characters, and treachery abound, Marlowe’s quest to end the war is only more fraught with danger the further he gets from Sollan lands. And in the end, it may be that the cielcin come to him, rather than him going to them. But do they come in peace?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review of Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh

It is here and now I will officially abandon anything resembling a lithe and graceful intro to a book review of C.J. Cherryh’s ongoing (infinite?) Foreigner Universe; you wouldn’t be here unless you’ve read the first six books and thus would like to know whether Destroyer (2005), seventh overall novel and first in the third sub-set of trilogies (confused?) maintains the quality and consistency rendered to date. Short answer: yes. Detailed answer: keep reading.

Destroyer opens as the successful mission to rescue the thousands of human colonists stranded in deep space is returning to the Atevi homeworld. Despite two years traveling in voidspace, spirits aboard the ship are high. Peaceful first contact was made with the alien Kyo and all the colonists were picked up safe and sound. The only thing left is arrival. After the stressful events that led to this success, Bren Cameron, master linguist and diplomat, is ready for vacation once he gets planet-side. But all is not well upon arrival, (do not read other reviews if you want the reason spoiled), and once more Bren, alongside the Atevi dowager Ilsiliti and her grandson Cajeiri are forced to navigate delicate political, even militaristic waters if they want the peace that reigned upon their departure to once again exist in both Atevi and human societies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Like many I suppose, I was blown away by Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and years later by its (seeming) bookend The Dragons of Babel. Intelligent, imaginative, dynamic, human—the books tell coming-of-age tales of a young woman and man (respectively) in the most enticing, unique milieus of something that is generally fantasy/science fiction but so unidentifiably genre as to be almost magic realist or slipstream, something beyond taxonomy. If indeed bookends, this leads to a very valid question: what does Michael Swanwick think he can accomplish with 2019’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother?

Daughter to an aristocrat, Caitlin, pilot to one of her lands special sentient, robotic dragons lives according to the female pilot code which forbids, well, practically everything a free person considers the good life. Familial tragedy leading her in a new direction in life, however, Cat finds herself on the run, trying to clear her name, and—suddenly, in one moment—with the consciousness of a nursing home patient calling herself Helen floating in her mind. Caitlin's redemption taking her to all manner of places—corporate to faery, it's a story that can only be Swanwick's. (Playing to his strengths, there is something about the Babel setting which brings out the best in Swanwick...)

Console Corner: Review of The Sexy Brutale

Clue memes, while probably dying in the current generation, nevertheless maintain at least a toe hold in society. Mr. Mustard did it in the study with poison, one might say after hours of collecting clues. But what if you, the detective, had the ability to go beyond the evidence and reverse time to see how and when the murder happened, and stop it. Such is the premise of Cavalier Studio’s 2017’s comedically macabre The Sexy Brutale.

The meeting point of fiction, board games, and film, The Sexy Brutale feels part Agatha Christie parlor mystery, labyrinth, and Groundhog’s Day. Players start the game as Lafcadio Boone, a priest stuck in a time warp inside a sprawling New Orleans mansion. Able to go back and forth in time on a loop, Lafcadio is witness to how cordially the mansion’s hosts treat their guests: they murder them. Tasked by a mysterious angel to stop the deaths, Lafcadio sets about spying through key holes, tracking victims’ footsteps and their murderers through the mansion, and learning the environment to find the precise spot where he can put a proverbial wrench in the works, disrupting the hosts’ plans for murder.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review of Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I suppose that after more than a thousand reviews, it's fairly obvious this blog has a soft spot for literary novels which utilize the devices of fantastika. A full course meal with spice, most do not appear so profound on the surface, yet the more one unpacks the details, the deeper they become—a depth made more engaging for the touches of the impossible or not-yet-possible. Thus, while Brian Aldiss' 1968 Report on Probability A would seem a dull voyeurism, the more one seeks out the connections between its pieces, the broader is potential meaning spreads, and becomes a highly engaging thought piece.

Plot subtle and fragmented, Report on Probability A is not rip-roaring, space-faring, alien-shootin' science fiction. But I would say it writes the book (har-har) on parallel universe stories. Ostensibly about a group of people on one planet watching the lives of a handful of people living on one British street, it digs into another layer: the handful of residents likewise peer into the lives of those around them—reality through a fractured lens.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Review of Infinite Fantastika by Paul Di Filippo

There is, or at least once was, a lot humming and hawing about the differences between science fiction and fantasy. One is about the “impossible” and the other the “yet possible” I can even hear myself saying. But the subjective truth takes over: there is not always a clear line between the two. Sometimes it's just fantastika. But Paul Di Filippo already knew that. Enter his eighteenth collection of short—fantastikal—fiction, Infinite Fantastika (2018).

In a kind of self-rediscovery, the story kicking off the collection is one of the first Di Filippo had published and thought he'd lost forever after the manuscript disappeared, it wasn't until a scanned fanzine later appeared online that “Before and After Science” saw the virtual light of day, again. Lacking a compass, the story (if it can be called such) has a kind of inchoate brilliance that floats in interesting fashion. Seeming personal, it tells, as the title states, of a man’s life transformed by science, but in less than scientific fashion. Turning the dial up to eleven, “The Trail of the Creator, The Trial of Creation” by the below-the-genre-radar Paul di Filippo is the story of a motley crue of post humans who hunt the god that seeded the universe with their perverse variety. Add a mad scientist with a barrel of urschleim to the mix, and they’re off.

Console Corner: Review of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While not a return to the original Playstation’s Lara Croft, 2013’s reboot Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition did bring the archeologist cum gunslinger cum puzzler onto the modern generation of consoles with a splash. Focusing more on action and platforming than puzzles, the game was a rush of shooting and scrambling that kept the story’s pedal to the metal all the way to its fantastical ending. The follow up title, Rise of the Tomb Raider, looked to expand itself and slow things down a little. Upping the ante on environmental puzzles, the game likewise added a lot of geography by moving from linear to semi-open world, something which was ill-considered in my opinion. Caught on the fence, it couldn’t offer everything of what each form is good at. Players who enjoy open worlds and collectibles had a heyday, while those who wanted a pure story experience were often forced to participate in spurious activities and retrace ground they’d already covered (items a person could spend hours collecting in the world could just as easily be looted from dead bodies while pushing the main storyline forward). And this is all not to mention the facts that the game’s bad guys, Trinity, were as vanilla as can be, and the Siberia portrayed in the game rarely convinced of being a home to ancient, fantastical magic just waiting to be discovered. The Tomb Raider reboot originally conceived of as a trilogy, 2018’s third and final game in the series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, looks to complete Lara’s character arc: how the tomb raider became the tomb raider. Let’s take a look.

Shortly after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Lara on the heels of Trinity, this time in Cozumel, Mexico, where she and her partner Jonah believe they have pieced together enough of Lara’s father’s journals to be able to locate a special Mayan artifact. Finding the artifact just before Trinity, Lara is caught while escaping, and is forced to confront Dr. Dominguez, an archeologist working for Trinity who has dire warnings given that Lara has disturbed the artifact. A supernatural occurrence intervening, Lara has no choice but to continue her search for Mayan artifacts in the jungles of Peru, still on the heels of Trinity…

Console Corner: Review of Overcooked

My wife is a gamer—not a gamer-gamer whose life revolves around our console, but there are no problems picking up the controller if she has a couple free hours in the evening. (She’s been playing Witcher 3 for about a year.) For Christmas this past year we got a second controller, which means our house has new options. Looking through the lists of worthwhile couch co-op games (not a lot, it seems), I came across a few that were universally recommended. Among them was Overcooked, and seeing it on sale for dirt-cheap on the Playstation store one day, I picked it up. All I can say is: marriage therapy.

I have not checked, but I would guess Overcooked can be played single-player. But who would want to? All the game’s fun in interaction and team play, in Overcooked players play as chefs in various kitchens who must prepare and combine ingredients to meet customer’s orders, all against a clock. The first kitchen is pretty straight forward: players chop vegetables to prepare salads and serve the plates—typical restaurant kitchen activity. But after, things get wonky. The kitchens which follow change things up. Some feature moving counters, some split in half every minute, some are located on moving cars, some feature rats who steal ingredients, and so on. If working together to coordinate and prepare orders under the pressure of time is not enough, then the wacko-kitchens add a layer of complexity. On top of this, the orders become more complicated (salads are much easier to prepare than burgers or soups), all of which pushes the game toward that bouncy ball of chaos and fun “I need one more onion!” “Take the pot from the stove, it’s burning!” “Wait until I serve this meal!” “Wash some plates! I have nothing to put the burger on!” It’s when players reach flow state, moving in and out of each other’s paths with purpose, working in sync, and preparing orders at speed (i.e. they know where the bouncy ball will bounce next), that the game becomes extremely satisfying. Yes, marriage therapy.