Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Journey

Buddhism and video games, a workable combination?  I think most would scratch their heads being told such a thing.  But yet thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012) not only makes the combination work, but makes it work in such a fashion as to create one of gaming’s most powerfully unique experiences.  Despite the relative centuries (in video game terms) that have passed since its release, Journey is a game that transcends time, much like the ideology of Buddhism.

When I say Buddhism, it must be taken more in the abstract than literal.  Nowhere in Journey are there laughing Buddhas, wooden fish, monks, or any other item or icon commonly associated with the religion.  There are temples and ruins, scrolls and robes, but none of it can be directly tied to any Earthly incarnation of the religion.  Buddhism the philosophy is, in fact, the stronger inspiration.  From the tranquility of traversing gorgeous desert to Himalayan-esque mountains, the struggles instilled through gameplay to the open/closed mechanisms driving the game, the player finishes the game as contemplative as satisfied.  The title appropriate, navigating the 3D platform puzzles, free-falling through the air, sliding along the desert sands of a crumbling kingdom, working your way through a giant machine, facing stiff mountain winds as you climb, and then understanding the cyclical logic behind it all puts the player in a reflective mood that transcends the game, which, is something very, very few games can claim.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of Spacetime Donuts by Rudy Rucker

“Consciousness is paradox,” Moto-O was saying now at Waxy’s bar.  “But we exist in paradox.  I raise my finger and all the world is there.”
“I don’t see how you plan to program this into Phizwhiz, Moto-O,” Vernor responded, sipping a beer.

I do not normally open my reviews with a quote, but in the case of Rudy Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts (1981) I make an exception: if you do not find piss-taking on zen philosophy contrasted by a supercomputer named Phizwhiz funny, then the novel is likely not for you.

Wacky on the surface yet guided by an undeniable intelligence, Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts is hard sf in the same sense that Stanislaw Lem is the hardest sf writer thereis. Neither getting caught up in endless minutiae of worldbuilding, both cut straight to the heart of the issues at stake in abstract, theoretical fashion—“the place where science shades into fiction.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review of Lion of Macedon & Dark Prince by David Gemmell

My relationship with the work of David Gemmell is clear and straight forward.  A consistent writer in terms of story, content, and style, I do not need to research a Gemmell novel before reading it.  I know it will be heroic story set in a relatively generic fantasy setting with focus on action and decision in times of war and strife.  I also know the work will not tax my intellect; more beach or late night reading requiring little active participation.  Thus it was that his Greek duology—Lion of Macedon (1990) and Dark Prince (1991) threw me for a loop—a small loop, but a loop.

The small loop is setting; instead of a D&D-type fantasy land, we get an ancient Greece strongly analogous to real world history.  Opening in Sparta around 380 B.C., Lion of Macedon takes the life of the half Spartan, half Macedonian general Parmenion and spins it into a fantastical biography, concluding in the second volume, Dark Prince, that intertwines the life of Alexander the Great’s with Parmenion’s.  The story’s key points remain true to history (at least as far as I can tell), but into the insterstices are inserted elements of fantasy that utilize Greek myth.  Lion of Macedon largely the real world setup and Dark Prince the fantastical offshoot that synthesizes the two upon its conclusion, the duology is an imaginative revisioning of Permenion’s life. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy with Noam Chomsky

There is no question that Noam Chomsky, even into his ninth decade, remains one of the most important, knowledgeable voices in the areas of world history, culture, and domestic and international politics.  With hundreds of publications under his belt, the latest is a relatively unique affair: Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, published in 2017.  Rather than standard essay structure, the book instead features a series of interviews done by David Barsamian from the past few years, highlighting Chomsky is just as articulate and intelligent in person as he is with time to put words to paper.

An excellent overview of Chomsky’s views on most contemporary global and domestic issues, the twelve interviews in Global Discontents touch upon: the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East, efforts within US intelligence agencies, growing income disparity and the rising unhappiness of Americans in the face of it, thoughts on the first year of Trump’s presidency, as well as some personal reflections on Chomsky’s childhood, upbringing, and various places he visited—Laos, Cololmbia, Israel, etc.—in bygone years.  For readers who have never heard Chomsky speak or seen interviews with the man, the book really highlights the breadth of knowledge and understanding.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Photos from Sri Lanka - Part II

And here is Part 2 of our photos from Sri Lanka.  (Part 1 is here.)

Where the first 10 days of our trip were spent inland, exploring the cultural sites, hills, tea factories, national parks, etc., our last 10 days were spent in two locations on the coast: Tangalle and Hikkaduwa.  Here are some palms from Tangalle.

Photos from Sri Lanka - Part I

The following is Part 1 of photos from our recent trip to Sri Lanka.  I traveled with my wife and two small kids, as well as my brother-in-law and one of his sons, meaning a lot of the trip was focused on balancing the kids' needs and fun.  But there were still moments one of our hands were free to snap a photo or two.  Here are some:

After numerous comments that it was not worth the time, we skipped the capitol Colombo and went straight to the interior.  Our first stop was Polonnaruwa, which is basically Angkor Wat's smaller cousin.  Less grandeur, there were still spots of beauty, like this one.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review of Graft by Matt Hill

Cyberpunk is now roughly forty years old.  With relevant works from writers like James Tiptree Jr. and John Brunner appearing in the 60s and 70s, it coalesced into a recognizable trend in the early 80s—the four decades since having seen a full exploration of the idea of ‘cyberpunk’ through hundreds of stories and books.  Thus, in 2016, how does a writer do something original with the form?  With its imagery and characters, settings and ideas well established, there is probably only one way: deliver unique prose combined with a competent package.  Matt Hill, in his 2016 Graft, does precisely this. 

Set in a near-future England after economic collapse, Graft slips quickly and easily through four viewpoints: Roy (an agitated killer), Sol (a wiz mechanic), Mel (Sol’s former girlfriend who now runs a brothel), and Y (an indeterminate being seemingly living in an alternate world).  Roy in the wrong place and the wrong time, Sol agreeing to build one of the strangest vehicles he’s ever been requested of, Mel hiring a strange, almost inhuman bodyguard for brothel, and Y just trying to find herself, in a matter of days the four’s lives intertwine as a new threat settles onto the decayed landscape of Manchester.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Book introductions.  I’m sometimes fooled, but I keep going back to the well.  Whether written by the author, editor, or colleague, they typically give the reader something to look forward to, a perspective on what’s to come.  It can also be false hype/hope.  With Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) it is Gaiman himself who led me to believe his novel would be something of an examination of the underlying cultural gears driving my home country—not a scientific dissection, but at least a bit of insight into the tuning.  What I got instead was gamesmanship among a who’s who of stereotypes from the world’s pantheon of deities, played out against ‘modern gods’ like technology, media, globalization, etc. in a style heavily reminiscent of late Roger Zelazny.  Very light fare, indeed.

Feeling lucky, Shadow Moon is released from prison a few days earlier than scheduled.  But it’s only because his wife Laura has died—in a car accident giving a blow job to his best friend, Robbie.  Friendless and despondent on the streets after the funeral, Shadow is contacted by a grizzled old man named Wednesday who hires him as a bodyguard.  Introducing Shadow to his elderly friends—a cranky Slav, a drunken Irishman, a stylish black man, etc.—there seems little in the way of protection Wednesday actually needs.  Even stranger still, when the going gets tougher, Wednesday actually sends Shadow away to live by himself in a small Wisconsin town.  It seems Shadow is the one needing protection, and as he is hunted, his situation becomes more and more complicated.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Aaaaaaaand we're back...

After almost three weeks in Sri Lanka, I'm back.  The vacation was great.  The kids loved it, as did we, and I hope to post some photos in the coming weeks.  Enjoying everything there was to enjoy, as well as balancing the lives of two small children between fun and order occupied most of my time, and therefore I was only able to read one and a half books.  Matt Hill's Graft was the perfect vacation read.  It's familiar cyberpunk written in clever, off-kilter prose that can be picked up and put down easily.  Review to come.  A day or two before the vacation ended I started Rudy Rucker's Spacetime Donuts, and am still reading.   Undoubtedly I will finish it soon as it's a science fiction ice cream sundae with sprinkles on top.  (If it were a Ben & Jerry's flavor, it would be Shecklian Swirl.)  Ambitiously, I also had brought Iain Banks' A Song of Stone, but didn't get close to cracking the cover... 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Three-week hiatus...

For that thimbleful of readers who may care, there will be a brief hiatus while I go on vacation with my family to Sri Lanka.  I will be traveling with my three year-old son and one-and-a-half year-old daughter, so it should be a lot of fun with animal safaris, tuk-tuks, seafood, playing on the beach, and meeting a people we hope still retains some connection to its cultural roots.

Bored for reading material, have a look at the list of best speculative fiction published in 2017, as well as the list of best books I read in 2017 regardless of year published if you haven't already.  There are some really great books, particularly in the latter list.  Otherwise, be back soon, and hopefully I will find time to post some photos of the vacation.  -Jesse