Saturday, June 15, 2019

Console Corner: Review of The Order: 1886


If there are any trends in the evolution of video games, one would certainly be the shift toward story-driven, cinematic experiences (perhaps best posterized by the Uncharted games). Essentially playable action/adventure movies, modern gamers think nothing of numerous cut scenes, alternate and transitioning camera angles, lengthy cinematography, and other film techniques blending gun fights and puzzle platforming—a la a Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan movie. Content that was once a reward for completing a game or level is now integrated with standard gameplay. And it makes sense. With the exponential advancement in console technology, it’s possible to include scenes of a similar quality to films and movies, so why not? One such game, and perhaps the best filmic/game experience to be had on the PS4, is The Order: 1886, a fine steampunk action title by Ready at Dawn.

The Order: 1886 is set in an alternate-history London in which an Order of Knights, a secret society, has been in place for centuries protecting the populace from half-breeds—werewolf creatures that attack humans. Players start the game in media res as Sir Galahad, one of the members of The Order. Cold, starving, and locked in a prison cell, he is being tortured for info. Flashing back to the beginning of the actual story in the midst of his escape, the player learns London is under attack by political rebels upset at the Queen’s lack of blue-collar sympathy in the face of sooty, back-breaking industrialization. Galahad and his fellow Knights must fight off the insurgents and get to the bottom of the cabal before things turn even uglier with the werewolves.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons


Manifest Destiny. It has taken almost two centuries for the rhetoric surrounding the fulfilment of this political ideal to go beyond its initial bluster and be put in proper perspective, even as some of the opposing rhetoric has gone extreme in the other direction—premeditated program for the extermination of the native races at the hands of evil white men. Fingers today pointed in all directions, it all still comes down to the individual and their place in the situation. Enter Dan Simmons’ novel Black Hills (2010), a character study with fingers pointed at the broadest version of human history.

Black Hills is the story of Paha Sapa. Born Lakota in the mid-19th century, he is raised on the open spaces and foothills of what are now called the Dakotas. Clairvoyant, he learns at a young age that by touching people he can see their pasts and futures. Fighting in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Paha Sapa accidentally touches the dying body of General Custer and takes on his ghost. The brash, babbling general living within him for the rest of his life, Paha Sapa must learn to deal with this burden even as the white man’s world to the East overtakes his beloved homeland to the West.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest


If I made a list of science fiction-y writers in the world, Christopher Priest would be near the tip-top. Sublime prose, deft structure, probing ontological and metaphysical questions, intellectual engagement—books like The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Glamour, and others feature a writer who captures the art, imagination, and humanity inherently possible to writing. Continuing his run of success (and books with titles beginning with ‘The’), The Separation is both innately Priest yet something entirely fresh in his oeuvre.

Fish scales was the metaphor continuously popping into my head while reading The Separation—a strange thing considering the novel is a frame story. The book opens with pop historian Stuart Gratton searching for memoirs, testimonials, briefings—anything that can give him more information on a lesser-known British pilot from World War II named J.L. Sawyer. Having an identical twin, Sawyer competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany alongside his brother in the coxless pairs, meeting some success. Rowing not a profitable enterprise, upon his return to England Sawyer pursued his second love in university, aircraft. Earning his pilot’s license and joining the RAF, his skills arrive just time in time for war to break out over Europe. Captain of numerous sorties over Germany, luck eventually catches up to Sawyer and he is shot down over the English Channel. Pulled from the sea by rescue craft, it is Sawyer’s convalescence which finds him trying to put the pieces, i.e. fish scales, back together.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Ghost Recon: Wildlands


If there is any difference between video games of old and new, it is the potential for immersion. Enhancements in technology now allow game developers to create ever more detailed environments that almost capture the illusion of being in the game’s world. Super Mario Brothers is fun, but it is nothing like the 3D, first-person experiences of Soma or Resident Evil 7. And this is not to even mention VR games. In short, players these days are thisclose to being the heroes or anti-heroes of their games. From apocalypse survivor to elven princess, WWII grunt to yakuza gangster, modern games are putting people in the shoes of characters like never before. Want to be a black ops operative working to stem the narcotics trade in Bolivia? 2017’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands puts you (and best played with, a handful friends) in those shoes.

Short on story, long on content, GR:W is a massive open world game filled with main and side missions in which the player infiltrates the Santa Blanca drug ring and takes out its leaders, region by region, until they arrive at the big boss El Sueno. Along the way, players will destroy cartel outposts, raid supply depots, assassinate targets, kidnap and interrogate cartel members, destroy comms infrastructure, assist local rebels, tag supplies like medicine and technology to be repurposed, hijack helicopters and airplanes, pilot gunboats—in general be a bad ass, black ops operative in an amazingly realistic rendition of Bolivia.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review of Ice by Anna Kavan


As most avid readers are aware, there are different novels for different moods and different occasions. We have the term ‘beach read’ for a reason, just as much as a quiet evening in bed with a glass of wine is a good time to really dig into a book—not story, novel, tale, but book. One that initially seems could be read for entertainment given the steady headway, cogent imagery, and erratic bursts of energy but in fact requires reflection to put the pieces together and examine what lays under the surface, Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) is a fine marriage of art and enjoyment, bed and beach.

In form, Ice is a triangle of characters that perpetually discombobulates itself while the world is slowly engulfed by a blanket of ice. An unnamed narrator pursuing an unnamed young woman protected by a man called the Warden, the trio move and shift across a landscape that is evolving underfoot due to the oncoming wall of ice and the socio-political climate of war it is driving ahead of itself. The narrator drawing ever closer to the woman as eco-disaster looms, it’s only a question of mindset whether he can hold on to his desire long enough.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Review of The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois


Best-of anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror almost feel a dime a dozen these days. Everybody’s grandma is producing one, each attempting to capture some portion of the market (a portion diminishing with each new best-of). But one of the first, in the 80s, was Gardner Dozois’ best science fiction of the year. And in the three decades since, Dozois produced an annual volume of what he considered stand out. In 2019, apparently it was time to narrow the field further, The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction the (semi-)retrospective result. (More on “semi-“, later.)

Containing a massive thirty-eight stories, stories that cover nearly the frequency and range of the genre, The Best of the Best is something that must be tackled like an elephant: one piece at a time. And so we go. One of Charles Stross’ best ever short pieces, “Rogue Farm” is likewise one of the oddest pieces of fiction the reader will ever try to get their head around. A weed-smoking dog, crops unlike any other, and a proposed trip that just doesn’t seem to add up, this vignette captures science fiction’s magical ability to present the oddest of futures while still being wholly enjoyable. Like an artist sketching things out before starting a masterpiece, “The Little Goddess” is a diamond from the tiara of the novel River of Gods. About a girl raised in a technology inundated India of 2047, this story follows a perfect arc and ends on an extremely satisfying note combining tech and plot and setting.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of Biohacked & Begging by Stephen Oram


Warning: the following review is going to be more subjective than usual. Read at your own risk.

In the past ten years, I have read a staggering amount of fiction (probably more than is healthy), and there are times I feel I’ve encountered it all—short, long, experimental, retro, modern, post-modern, meta-modern, epistolary, framed, second-person, and on and on and on. But for whatever reason, I’ve only read one or two pieces of flash fiction. Something that is relatively new in the taxonomy of story types, with Stephen Oram’s 2019 science fiction collection Biohacked & Begging I was struck head on by it.

Biohacked & Begging is short as a whole (+/- 150 pages) but seems it should be much longer given it contains 25 stories. One story is thirty pages and another literally a paragraph, but the rest need only about five-seven minutes to read, each. I normally stick to content in my reviews (and I will get to it shortly), but story-length is such an important aspect of the collection that it should be mentioned at the outset as it has a strong impact on the reading experience, particularly if the reader is looking for fully unpacked story ideas, well-developed characters, and other aspects of lengthier fiction. Like a box of chocolates, the reader is best off tasting a few of Oram’s tales and coming back the next day lest they devour half the box and become nauseated.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud & Ned Johnson


A recent issue in my family brought to a head a problem that had been bubbling unattended for years, and has set me on a quest to dig deeper into understanding a life and lives that I once thought I understood relatively well. Of course, it turns out there are layers I may have known existed in some vague way but severely underestimated the significance of. Long story short, thanks mom for helping me be who I wanted to be. That, in a nutshell, is the oh-so obvious yet not-so-obvious mantra of William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives (2018).

Looking around, you see it every day: parents, with the best of intentions, helping their children with some task or activity. ‘Help’ an intentionally vague term in my example, the manner in which these parents help varies greatly. Some sit back and watch, offering encouragement or support, while others do everything for the child, thinking them unable to accomplish the task themselves or afraid of them hurting themselves. An injured or hurt child is for the latter, somehow, a blight on the parent’s record. Highlighting the need to sever the child as extension of parent and allow the child to exist as an individual is at the heart of Stixrud and Johnson’s book. If you love someone you have to let them go applies to parenting, also.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman


The past twenty or thirty years of fantasy and science fiction have seen an increased mining of world mythologies for story material. Some of this entirely derivative, some of it informative, some inquisitive, some exploratory, some combinative, and some of it just looking to update the style for a modern audience, regardless, its increased presence on the market is clear. In what is clearly a tribute to his love for the Norse myths and a desire to bring said stories to a contemporary audience in a modern voice (much the same as John Steinbeck did with The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights), Neil Gaiman pulled together his version of the old stories in Norse Mythology (2018).

Odin, Thor, Loki—the names are familiar to most people with only a little knowledge of world mythologies and legends. And in Norse Mythology they are front and center—alongside a fair number of giants, trolls, ogres, elves, other gods, and the like. But where most may assume the trio spent their time battling these creatures in the mythology, nothing could be further from the truth. Engaged in battles of wit would be a better summary. Norse Mythology defines a handful of those battles.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Sapiens by Yuvel Noah Harari


I don’t normally start my reviews with post-reading discussion. I try to find an interesting point and lead into the book-at-hand’s premise or idea. But with Yuvel Noah Harari’s 2014 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I think it’s possible to start with the end, particularly one point of discussion I ended up having with my wife. It’s now almost two decades into the 21st century, and scientific research has reached the point where what was a variety of speculation the past couple centuries has slowly coalesced into surety in a lot of areas. There are things we no longer speak about as possible and likely, rather as understood and accepted facts. Certain details of evolution are still being investigated or may not be understood perfectly, but as a general theory it is now the de facto explanation for much of what has brought life on Earth to how it stands today. Only the irrational who don’t want it to be true, dismiss it as entirely false. This blanket of affirmed research is what has allowed Harari to write the grandest overview of humanity’s history to date.

Beginning with pre-historic humanity, and working its way through hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and scientifically revolutionized humanity, Sapiens describes our transition through known time from a bird’s eye view. A fascinating read, Harari sugar coats nothing. Finding the sweet spot between infotainment and formal research paper, Harari conveys information in a clear, direct manner and adds relevant examples and supporting material to color the proceedings. I daresay one of the reasons the books is so popular is the lucidity and sustained focus of Harari’s writing.