Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of Adam Robots by Adam Roberts


Adam Roberts is one of the most unique voices currently writing fantastika—an extremely difficult thing to accomplish given the sheer volume of material saturating the market. Having the knack for striking upon something out of the mainstream ordinary and developing it in a speculative setting with a hook or at least a barb), the talent also extends to short fiction, something the eighteen stories in his 2003 collection Adam Robots (not a narcissistic self-promotion) exemplify—at least, mostly.

Adam Robots opens on the wonderfully biblical yet utterly sacrilegious title story. It tells of a robot brought into the world and instructed never to touch a certain jewel atop a metal pole. Curiosity killed the cat, but does disobedience damn the robot? Wildly scientific, wildly implausible, and a wildly, enjoyably readable story, “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?”—as the title states—describes said problem with time travel, and of course, how to get around it—nuclear bombs, dinosaurs, and severed thumbs included.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Review of Crowfall by Ed McDonald


I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but given the amount of derivative bilge published today, the message bears repeating: stereotypes are ok; it's how you execute. Epic fantasy is a dead, beaten horse—but it's still possible to write effectively in the medium and create engaging, enjoyable stories. Enter Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark series. Nothing new here; it's pieces can all be found in multiple peers and ancestors. But McDonald delivers everything with color and edge, and evolves the pieces in a plot that simultaneously builds and surprises. But could McDonald maintain the success for the trilogy's conclusion, Crowfall (2019)? Let's find out.

Like Ravencry, Crowfall opens multiple years after the events of the prior novel. Ryhalt has gone off the grid, eking out an existence in the Misery. The blackness of the Misery seeping into his very soul, Ryhalt is cursed with magical powers he'd rather not have. But when a summons from his master arrives on his “doorstep”, Ryhalt must return to civilization to answer the call, and in doing so, encounters pieces of his old life he'd rather not. Society appearing on the verge of collapse under the weight of the Deep Kings, once again Ryhalt must bridge the gap. But is everything as it seems?

Friday, August 9, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Little Nightmares


Genetic disposition, environmental response, brain tuning—whatever the nature vs. nurture argument is, I love games like Limbo and Inside. A parade of bite-sized puzzles with a coherent art motif binding them all together, they are true brain candy. Offering more for the player so inclined, they likewise give tantalizing hints and clues about the larger world of the game, giving rise to questions about who, what, where, and, why. When hearing Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares (2017) was in this same vein, my radar pinged. Having now played the game, it’s still pinging.

Though having the same relative concept as Limbo and Inside, Little Nightmares is themed entirely differently. The player guides a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six through a ship full of bizarre traps, puzzles, and human-ish things wanting nothing more than to catch her. Skittering gnomes, leaky pipes, macabre effigies of humanity, dark corners, leech-like crawly things, creaking doors, the roll and pitch of the ship—all combine to give gameplay a surreal, horrific feel. A little girl trapped in a big person’s world, survival is not always guaranteed.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood


Snowman the Jimmy, Snowman the Jimmy, it’s such a pleasantly off-kilter name I can’t help but smile to myself every time I hear it. The Crakers, their car freshener body odor, periods of blue libido, and purr-healing providing a backdrop that only exacerbates the oddity. Snowman the Jimmy fits right in. And still MaddAddam (2013), third and concluding volume in Margarat Atwood’s Ory and Crake trilogy, manages to strike at the heart of the real humanity at stake in large chunks of contemporary socio-economic and technological reality.

MaddAddam picks up where events of each of the two previous novels left off. With Snowman the Jimmy (), it’s literally with the injury he had at the end of Oryx and Crake. In need of care, he gets it from Toby and Ren, the two women who had started a small community of humans and Crakers at the end of The Year of the Flood. Nursing the man back to health, the group try to rebuild some semblance of normal life in a world still threatened by painballers.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories ed. by Michael Chabon


Michael Chabon, as editor, met success upon pulling together his first anthology of short stories, Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Focusing on plot and storytelling, Chabon solicited an experienced array of authors, asking them to above all entertain, but in sophisticated, perhaps occasionally throwback fashion. The success snowballing, Chabon was commissioned with pulling together a second anthology of likewise engaging, throwback stories. Looking to a new array of authors (save the recurrence of Stephen King), McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004) matches the feat of Thrilling Tales.

Kicking off the anthology in devilish fashion is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae”. About a demoness who finds her own sense of peace, Atwood incorporates stories of yore while taking the pitchforks of angry villagers to a new level. Dynamic wordsmithery on display even in short form, “What You Do Not Know You Want’ by David Mitchell tells of a black market merchant in Hawaii trying to track down an obscure Japanese dagger from a man who recently committed suicide from a rooftop. While a relatively standard piece of contemporary noir, Mitchell’s diction elevates this story above the crowd (notwithstanding the ending). The opposite of Mitchell’s story, Jonathan Lethem’s “Vivian Relf” is the subdued tale of a man meeting a woman at two different times in his life, and the differences in perception, as well as subjectivity of memory that result (emphasis on subdued).

Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of Voice from the Edge Vol. 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan Ellison


Were he to have risen to popularity in the 21st century, Harlan Ellison would have been the king of speculative fiction’s edge lords. Unafraid of voicing opinion, controversial or otherwise, in the very least the man can be respected for walking his own path when so many are pressured to conform to an ever growing list of cultural standards. And it comes through in his fiction. Though the overwhelming majority of Ellison’s oeuvre is short story length, each selection nevertheless has a uniqueness, a singularity that, like his opinions, separates the author from the herd. Volume 2 in his Voice from the Edge series, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral brings together eleven of Ellison’s best stories, read by the author himself.

The premise of the collection’s opening story “In Lonely Lands” is quite simple: a blind man awaits the arrival of death with his Martian friend on the red planet. A mood piece, Ellison wonderfully captures the melancholy of the man’s final moments in both poetic and direct manner, opening the door to the collection that follows. A pastiche of alien invasions, “S.R.O.” sees a weak, poor New York City man in the middle of lying to a potential date interrupted by an alien invasion. Taking on absurdist tones, the invasion becomes a stage performance the man attempts to take advantage of for his own gain—a wonderful piss take on the strange manner in which some people seek entertainment.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Review of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales ed. by Michael Chabon


Michael Chabon’s name is well known as a novelist. Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have all been universally recognized by pundits and readers alike. But editor? Taking the love for the pulps expressed in his novel Gentlemen of the Road and converting into commissions for short stories, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002) features a swathe of stories showcasing what can still be done in the 21st century with plot at the forefront.

A type of story that one encounters rarely these days, the anthology kicks off with “Tedford and the Megalodon” by Jim Shepard. Precisely why it is exceptional needs to be discovered by the reader, but this story of an Australian biologist working off the southern coast of Tasmania trying to discover a supposed great white shark is everything that short adventure fiction should be, and at the same time rarely is. A story based on a real life occurrence, “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter” by Glen David Gold tells of a late 18th century traveling circus proprietor and bizarre (read: murderous) circumstances surrounding a clown, an elephant, and revenge. A human portrait of a man trying to atone for years of drinking and leaving his family, “The Bees” by Dan Chaon describes precisely what happened when all those good intentions catch up.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest


Prolific’ is not a word to describe Christopher Priest. Taking his time with each creation, some stories or novels appear one after another, while at other periods, there can be gaps of years or even a decade between published works. An artist, the muse must, apparently, be at work. Bringing together five stories from the late 70s, An Infinite Summer (1979), the muse was, apparently, at work.

The five stories can essentially be split into two parts. Both examinations of the same idea (love through the lens of time), the first part are the title story and “Palely Loitering”. One capturing the idea with far more maturity and gravitas than the other, “Palely Loitering”, as the title indirectly suggests, is the mediocre of the two. About a boy who goes to a time-flux park with his family, he accidentally launches himself into the future where he meets himself, and is introduced to a young lady and told not to forget her before being sent back to his family. Nominated for a Hugo (undoubtedly due to the simplicity of the time hopping idea), the story has a lot of trouble bearing the weight of its theme given the lightness with which the emotions at stake are presented and the distraction of the time travel mechanic. “The Infinite Summer”, however, handles the idea with far more aplomb. Invoking in the reader the desired weight of theme it intended, it tells of a man travels ahead in time to witness the bombing of London by Germany in WWII. Emphasis shifted from the time travel mechanic toward the tableauxs the man is witness to, not to mention the role his personal life plays in his understanding of them, Priest is able to capture that unidentifiable something that tugs at the heart strings without being cheap.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu


Invisible Planets was one of the bright spots among speculative fiction anthologies and collections in 2017. Ken Liu bringing together a sampler of Chinese science fiction from some of its most popular writers, the effort was apparently a success beyond this blog as Liu re-upped for an informal sequel, expanding the West’s view into Chinese short stories with a broader spectrum of content in 2019’s Broken Stars.

A treatise on AI, particularly the Turing test which could help identify the break from robot intelligence, “Goodnight, Melancholy” by Xia Jia tells a wonderfully fragmented story that gets a bit heavy-handed with its Turing education, but rights itself the further it goes with a more subtle, indirect, and intelligent manner of presenting the subjectivity in the test, as it relates to a woman in the near-future possessing a kind of android-ish thing. Part of the Turing test based on human perception, Xia nicely gives the reader a chance to do the same.

Console Corner: Review of Far Cry 5


As previously mentioned, I literally spent decades away from video gaming, only returning with the console generation currently in place. Naturally, I missed a lot—a lot. I stopped when 3D gaming had just appeared and was therefore shocked to see how far it evolved; Tomb Raider on PS1 is an entirely different experience than Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition on PS4. It means I also missed the entire evolution of Far Cry games—almost a dozen, and counting. Seeing the most recent title had a chance at real world relevancy (gun-loving religious cult takes over a portion of rural America) and wanting to know how a franchise could arrive at its twelfth iteration (depending how you count) without falling apart somewhere along the line, I decided to have a go at Ubisoft’s 2018 Far Cry 5.

An open world, first person shooter, Far Cry 5 is at its core the infiltration and take down of the religious cult calling itself Project at Eden’s Gate (PEG). Led by the charismatic (in cable tv terms) Joseph Seed, the cult has steadily taken over Hope County, Montana using a combination of fundamentalist Christian ideology and an undying (har har) belief in the right to bear arms. PEG gaining followers (or corpses) via force, the federal government catches on and sends a squad to arrest Seed. The game opening on that arrest, things do not go as planned, and the player suddenly finds themselves alone in the mountains and forests of Montana with the cult and Seed hot on their heels. Let the fun begin.