Friday, July 6, 2018

Blog sabbatical...

For that thimbleful of readers who semi-regularly visit my blog, you've probably noticed a decline in posts.  The reasons are two: I'm starting a new job that marks a major point in my career (if it can be called as such) and am dealing with some real life issues at home.  Rather than fool myself that I'm still an active blogger, it's best to go on "sabbatical" while sorting those things out.  I will be back, just don't know when...

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of Enterprise Software Architecture & Design by Dominic Duggan



I, like a lot of people, find themselves working in the IT sector despite previous work experience and education to the contrary.  While there is certainly a place for educated technicians and professionals to flourish and succeed, alongside me are a number of people with degrees and practice in vastly different fields—psychology, chemistry, humanties, etc.  That being said, having a strong technical background can make a huge difference.  And it is with that hope I embarked upon Dominic Duggan’s Enterprise Software Architecture & Design: Entities, Services, and Resources (2012).

And ‘embark’ is the correct word.  Not an Enterprise Architecture for Idiots, the book assumes a basic knowledge and understanding of the components and interaction of IT, goes about presenting its subject matter in dense, technical fashion, and assumes you will keep up.  There are brief examples, but the motherload of content is abstract in the descriptive sense.  Each word and sentence requires fitting together into the described structure or pattern, something which Duggan does effectively if not without many practical examples.  Likewise, the text requires revision to remind one’s self what certain acronyms mean, and likely for some with only a basic knowledge of IT, additional research online for some of the core principles.  With a good portion of the text bound in programming and protocol language, it is not for the faint of heart.  Here is an example:

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review of The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan



Caitlin Kiernan has published an immense number of short stories, and a good number of novels since the 90s.  And yet I retain the impression she remains largely unknown to the reading public.  Perhaps due to the initial focus on goth and punk and like motifs, nevertheless, she has become one of the best stylists in the game, not to mention delved ever deeper into the human facets of her stories regardless of motif—her 2009 The Red Tree a great example, and arguably her best novel to that point in time.  In 2012 Kiernan topped herself with The Drowning Girl, potentially penning her magnum opus and dark fantasy masterpiece, in the process.

Framed as a downward spiral, The Drowning Girl is the story of India Morgan Phelps—known as Imp to many.  Openly schizophrenic, Imp tells of her mother and grandmother’s mental issues, their demise in suicide, and her likely road to the same end.  One evening while out for a drive, Imp finds a hitchhiker named Eva Canning standing naked beside the road.  Reminding Imp of a girl from a painting she has loved since childhood, Imp provides Canning a bed for the night, and the next day sees the woman on her way.  Trouble follows.  Canning turning up at Imp’s work and at various points on her daily routine, it appears she has a stalker.  Dealing with relationship issues, Imp takes little notice.  But things start to crumble.  Other Cannings seeming to appear, her medication no longer having strong effect, her employment not going as planned—these and a variety of other matters force Imp into a new perspective on life.  Question is, is she able to survive?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review of 334 by Thomas Disch



Dystopias have been around for a long time—one might even successfully argue since Dante’s Inferno, perhaps even the Bible or others canonical texts.  Frankenstein is a strong qualifier, as is Gulliver’s Travels.  But it remains the likes of Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and other such novels to represent the focus on oppressive systems and the potential misuse of technology and position for authoritarian means in the modern socio-political context. Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood’s novels garner the lion’s share of the attention (thank you high school required reading), but there remain numerous high quality dystopias on the market worth every bit of the same attention.  From Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles to J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (or The Jagged Orbit, or The Sheep Look Up, or…), there are many other stories delving into the various ways in which humanity limits itself willing and unwillingly.  Another such novel/collection to add to the list of must-read dystopias is Thomas Disch’s 334.

The number of an apartment block in near-future New York City urban conglomerate, 334 is less a single story and more story strands.  Five novellas concluding upon a short novel that braids the novellas together, Disch remains focused on character throughout, highlighting the manner in which even the simplest change from our current system (or as it was in the late 60s and early 70s when Disch was writing the stories) can/will have widespread effect on social and personal standing for the ordinary Joe (and Josephine).  Like Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles, 334 is a subtle dystopia that the less discerning reader may have trouble parsing or appreciating. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts



Since encountering Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts’ second collection of short stories, I have been wholly engaged.  Quality overtaking quantity, Watts’ day job seems quite good at forcing him to spend time with each story, writing, re-writing, and ultimately ensuring each rings like a bell.  (Ted Chiang’s writing has a similar vibe.)  That being said, I felt Watts’ latest novel, Echopraxia, was a bit forced—more a tour of ideas than story integrating said ideas, and for certain fell short of its predecessor, Blindsight.  I was thus happy to see that for his next project Watts was again taking his time (four years), and, striking out in a new direction.  2018’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon) the result, it’s a far-far-future locked room that highlights one of Watts’ favorite motifs: the limitations of the human condition.

Sunday is a worker aboard the space ship Eriphoria traveling vast distances across the universe, creating wormhole ends and tying them together.  Cryogenically frozen and thawed as the ship’s AI, an entity called Chimp, deems necessary, Sunday passes thousands upon thousands of year or just a few days between work.  Awoken one day for the completion of a wormhole, Sunday discovers that all may not be well with Chimp.  Architectural details in the ship awry and people missing, it’s up to Sunday and his fellow workers to get to the bottom of the mystery, and do something about it.  If possible...

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review of Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill



Sentient bots are one of the most common science fiction plot devices, and in some cases, motifs.  Readers can go to stories written in the 19th century and find steam-powered men, just as almost anything written by Charles Stross in the 21st is guaranteed to blur the line between biological and digital existence into unrecognizability.  What then, is there to add to the field?  Robert Cargill’s answer in 2017’s Sea of Rust is a tried and true storyline with a bit of digging into the “human” side of machine intelligence.

A former caregiver, Brittle now wanders post-human (literally) wastelands collecting leftover pieces of bots and androids to sell for scrap.  Keeping a vigilant eye on the store of parts she keeps for her own bot body as it breaks down, hers is a lonely, anxious life.  Things take a turn, however, when a fellow scavenger with the same body type outright attacks Brittle.  Where the two once had an unspoken agreement not to scavenge from each other, any mutual autonomy is thrown out the window, putting Brittle on the run.  Escaping to a nearby city, things go from bad to worse when one of the ruling AIs sends a troop of drone bots to “recruit” her into the horde.  Once again, Brittle must head out into the wastelands to survive, this time with seemingly the whole world on her heels.

Console Corner: Review of Limbo



My review of Limbo will be quite short as I had the (relatively) unfortunate situation of playing it after having played Inside.  They are not identical games, comparable 1:1.  But the similarities far outweigh the differences, and Inside is simply the better game.  Had I played Limbo first, I think the positives, which there is no shortage of, would have shone all the brighter. 

Both Limbo and Inside are 2D side-scrolling dystopias depicted in a black and white color palette.  Both feature a boy trying to navigate lethal, platform-based puzzles that test the player’s lateral thinking and hand/eye coordination (more the former than the latter).   But where Limbo’s puzzles are unique and challenging individually, the whole fails to achieve the same degree of cohesion as Inside.  Another way of putting this is: Limbo is a brain-bending parade of puzzles that are challenging, and are fun and satisfying when they’re solved.  Inside is the same, plus the added degree that the puzzles are synthesized into a semi-story that gives rise to intriguing meta-questions about the game, and to some degree, life itself. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald



Contrary to popular opinion, I have enjoyed but not been a flag-waving fanatic of Ian McDonald’s recent novels.  The Dervish House, the Luna books thus far, and the Everness trilogy all received accolades and praise unlike any work from McDonald’s first three decades as a writer.  But there is the extremely strong impression it’s only because these books are the most mainstream of McDonald’s oeuvre—like he gave up trying to be original and just produced an abstraction of what the market wanted.  Gone is the gonzo imagination of Out on Blue Six.  Absent is the Walt Whitman approach to Hearts, Hands and Voices.  Nowhere is the magic realism and charm of Desolation Road.  Instead, the reader is given relatively familiar characters, setups, and straight-forward prose combined in very competent fashion—not a criticism, just an observation. Thus when learning McDonald had been commissioned to write a novella for Tor.com, my heart sank further: more standard, market stuff.  Having now read Time Was, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It’s far too early to say McDonald is back, but damn did he surprise with what may be the most affecting, sweeping story of his career.

I suppose Time Was is technically a frame story, though it should be known that the boundaries between the frame and its content are often blurred, and the frame itself occupies the majority of space.  The novella opens in the very-near-future with rare book seller Emmet Leigh searching the contents of a London dumpster for potential literary gold.  Coming across a semi-anonymous book of poetry, he takes a chance and picks it up.  Opening the leather-bound volume, a love letter falls out.  Written by one Tom Chappell to a Ben Seligman, the pair opine separation even as the exigencies of WWII press close.  Intrigued, Leigh begins digging deeper into the history of the two men, and discovers more than he could ever have imagined.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Console Corner: Review of The Last of Us



I have been putting off writing this review for some time, primarily because I don’t feel that any words I put down can do the experience that is The Last of Us, justice.  In short, it’s the only game in my life I finished with jaw literally dropped—not because of an epic final showdown, but precisely for how emotionally powerful the simple yet well-escalated the story drives into the climactic scene, then lays the player’s emotions bare.  I made a moral decision that in most other circumstances would have gone the other way.  I cared about the characters and thus went against my standard philosophies, which is not something I can say about any other game.  And I feel strange saying that (it’s just a game after all), which is why I believe there really is something about The Last of Us that makes it as powerful as some of my best reading experiences.  Zombie cliche, this is not...

One of the few survivors of an epidemic that has wiped out most of humanity, at the start of The Last of Us the player controls Joel, a gun smuggler living in a quarantine zone in Boston.  Caught sideways in a deal with another gunrunner and an underground rebel group called the Fireflies, Joel and his business partner Tess have no choice but to smuggle a young girl named Ellie to a point outside the quarantine zone.  Fate intervening in a dramatic way, Joel and Ellie find themselves on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of infected people and government forces, while getting themselves to safety. That is, until Ellie reveals her secret.   From a road trip to Pittsburgh to the mountains of Colorado and beyond, the pair’s relationship and will to survive are put to the test at every step as they try to make good on Ellie’s secret.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review of Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick



Michael Swanwick is one of the most inventive, non-conforming writers on the market.  Though starting his career with a fairly straight-forward novel (In the Drift), he has slowly and steadily turned his imagination and spirit loose, culminating most recently in the idea-explosion that is the Darger and Surplus novels.  It is thus in short fiction that one finds Swanwick at his most focused and careful.  And the relative limitations are beneficial.  I’m on the fence, but I would listen to arguments that short stories are, in fact, Swanwick’s greatest asset.  Tales of the Old Earth, Swanwick’s 2000 collection, is nineteen potential reasons.

Opening the collection is “The Very Pulse of the Machine”.  An abstract riff (natch) on a Wordsworth poem, the story tells of the astronaut Martha and what happens after her vehicle has an accident on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Io.  Her teammate dying in the crash, Martha elects to attempt to drag the body across the moon to their base.  Voices that are either the AI in the dead body’s vacsuit or in Martha’s head accompanying Martha every step of the way, things start to look dire no matter how much meth she huffs, the ground around her even seeming to come alive.  In perhaps the best written yet most Weird story in the collection, “Mother Grasshopper” tells of the strange happenings to a young man part of a colony on a space grasshopper (yes, space grasshopper).  Confronted by a magician/god one day, he is compelled to follow the man across the land, spreading pestilence and disease.  A fortuitous meeting one day changes his direction, but perhaps not his will.