Monday, November 12, 2018

Review of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson, essentially since the publication of Red Mars in 1984, has been one of science fiction’s most well-known, if not popular writers. Possessing a fertile imagination, yet one grounded in the sciences, his science fiction visions have been as vast as they have been credible. But given the awards and recognition, none seem to have captured readers like his 2013 novel 2312.

Robinson seeming to have premised himself with the concept: what could the solar system be like two hundred years from now?, 2312 is essentially the concept of the Mars trilogy expanded to our solar system, told in the mode of detective/romance (more later). The novel kicks off with the death of a prominent scientist living on Mercury. Mourning her death, a colleague, a woman named Swan, is contacted by a man named Wahram, asking if the scientist left any info for others to follow up on. None to be found, Wahram asks Swan to join him for a visit to one of Jupiter’s moons to inquire further with another scientist named Wang, a man who was equally involved in research on artificial intelligence. A nasty surprise waiting Swan when she returns to Mercury, there is a new twist on life in the solar system, and things may never be the same for mankind.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review of Infinity's End ed. by Jonathan Strahan

I have had a like/dislike (as opposed to love/hate) relationship with editor Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing Infinity series of science fiction anthologies (seven and counting). The introductions not always belying subsequent content, not to mention hard sf a medium that can drop the ball in terms of intellectual or emotional engagement, there is a lot of hit and miss. Regardless, there are many good, solid entries scattered throughout the anthologies, and I’ve never regretted reading one. Purporting to examine the limitless possibilities of our solar system as well as draw the Infinity series to a close is 2018’s Infinity’s End.

The anthology opens with “Foxy and Tiggs” by Justina Robson. A detective story starring a velociraptor and furry animal, the pair look for a murderer on a tourist pleasure planet. Essentially a poor man’s Darger & Surplus story, it feels far more post-human than hard sf, not to mention is highly dependent on the reader’s appreciation of Robson’s sense of humorous wit. A spot of YA space thriller, “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells of young Colette’s experiences on board the titular spaceship when it is attacked by pirates, and how she thwarts their evil intents a la Macaulay Culkin.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Green-faced: The State of Fantasy on the Market

My children have a book called Yummy, Yucky. (“Daddy, read the Umm-umm, Bleh book”, they say.) A simple affair, pictured on the left page is always a child eating something tasty and a caption like “Soup is yummy” and on the right page a child eating something less tasty—“Soap is yucky”. Looking at the last two pages, on the left one sees “Ice cream is yummy” with the smiling child ready to dig into a full bowl, but on the right reads “Too much ice cream is yucky”, the child’s face green and laying in the empty bowl. I think I feel the same bleh about epic fantasy on the market these days.

It’s quite easy to observe the market is simply flooded with fiction, let alone fantasy. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films (and likely Terry Pratchett) kicking things into high gear at the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a floodtide of wizards, knights, dragons, and warring kingdoms since. Looking in places like NetGalley, the Locus Upcoming Books and Recommended Reading lists, Amazon’s new releases, book blogs, goodreads, ezines, publisher websites, etc. and there seems an infinite number of fantasy titles appearing. It’s literally impossible to keep up, let alone read the books. It’s gotten to the point, in fact, that all the books’ titles are blurring together—the dreaded, too-much-ice-cream green face.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Life and art, fedora-wearing gangster, the ring of grime around an unwashed bathtub, parent-echoing behavior, getting the girl and the money, silent yearning, meeting your long, lost friend on the same day you win the lottery, art and life… Given this is a post regarding Donna Tartt’s 2013 The Goldfinch, one may assume that is a nutshell review. Banish the notion (at least the details); it is, in fact, mood setting.

The Goldfinch is the story of two phases in the life of Theodore Decker: one early teens, the other mid-twenties. An intelligent young man just going through puberty at the start of the novel, Theo lives in a small Manhattan apartment with his mother—his alcoholic father having walked out on the family a year prior. A kind, caring, cosmopolitan woman, Theo’s mother is the anchor of his life. But one day she is taken from him, and replaced by a painting of a goldfinch. (Nothing fantastical; read to learn the details). The rug of life pulled out from under Theo, his anchor is gone. Left floating between relatives and family friends in the ensuing turmoil, Theo is pushed toward a life that will test him physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and he may not survive, let alone keep the painting a secret.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

There are numerous examples throughout media (regardless book, film, game, etc.) where the sequel is better than the original, and in the case of the Uncharted series the idea rang true, again. Naughty Dog addressing the gaps apparent in the first game and taking advantage of the opportunity to make the second better, Among Thieves was a noticeable improvement over Drake’s Fortune. Both were pulp action titles in line with Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, Tomb Raider, and any number of other world-circling, numinous-object-finding, buddy-buddy-joke-telling, gun fighting adventures. But the latter took major steps to tighten gameplay mechanics, expand storytelling, and create less simple puzzles. What then, are the ways Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, sequel to Among Thieves, expands on the franchise? 
 
Having now played the game, I would answer: not many—which is not by default a bad thing. Drake’s Deception is an extremely similar experience to Among Thieves. The storyline is completely different, but in broad terms does not move far from the Uncharted formula, i.e. there is a quest to find a magical place, bad guy wants to get to magical place before Drake, friendly banter, light romance, yada yada. But at the detail level, player participation is enhanced (what might have been cut scenes in Among Thieves become one-time events in Drake’s Deception), not to mention that the story experience is driven by different locations and objects. Instead of a quest for Tibetan Shangri-la, Drake seeks an Arabic Shangri-la called Ubar. Getting there takes him through Columbia, London, France, and Syria, and (natch) a variety of gunfights and shootouts, which are, after all, the Uncharted series’ bread and butter.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day

There it lies, a deer, spotted and innocent. It seems to have just settled down for the evening, perhaps in tall grass or leaves in the forest. Perhaps other deer lie nearby. It is a clearly recognizable thing, its posture, its form. But the jade green fur? It appears so natural to the eye, like with any deer. And yet the brain knows it is not, leading us to pause, then think. Such is the delicate power of the stories in Julie C. Day’s 2018 collection Uncommon Miracles.

In single-author collections I assume the author themselves played the greatest role in selecting the sequence, which in the case of Uncommon Miracles means a post-apocalyptic story wherein women become pregnant with rabbits via Immaculate Conception sets the tone. “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending” matches the cover image: at quick glance things appear genre ordinary: post-apocalypse, cross-country trip, shortage of supplies, etc. But pregnant with rabbits? That is the figurative jade green fur, and leads the character to reflect on the nature of pro-creation and existence, and likely the reader.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review of Haven by Adam Roberts

With the size of the current genre tsunami on the market, it could be said nearly every major sub-genre is likewise inundated. Zombies, grimdark, dystopia—all have more than a few examples on the market to say the least, let alone their parent genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I haven’t done any research, but post-apocalypse/catastrophe is likely to be one of the top two or three motifs, I feel. Like a pair of brown loafers, it seems to fit with nearly everything—zombies, grimdark, and dystopia included. Running with the zeitgeist, Solaris have commissioned what for now are two novels in a shared, post-asteroid strike England. Adam Robert’s 2018 Haven is the second of these.

An unknown number of years after the Sisters (a group of asteroids) have struck Earth, the people of England look to pull themselves out of the proverbial mire and organize something resembling civilization once again. Davy is a thirteen year old boy living on a farm in a small community. Troubled with epilepsy, a rare condition few if any understand, his reputation as a visionary or mystic spreads beyond his small farm, including a territorial, women-only community in Wycombe. The leader of Wycombe wronged in the past, her main rival is a group led by Father John, an aggressive man who would seek to organize everyone under his authority and no one else’s. Both sides believing Davy holds answers for them, little does the thirteen year-old know of storm of possession he is about to be tossed upon when heading out for a walk one day.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of Ports of Call and Lurulu by Jack Vance

Anyone who has read the autobiography Hey, It’s Me, Jack Vance! is aware the gregarious author was an avid world traveler. Embarking on lengthy international trips with his family, he used the time as both relaxation and work, writing many of his novels in exotic locations. And the evidence is there if one looks just an inch below the surface of his work; almost all of Vance’s novels and stories feature cultures at once familiar yet bizarre from our own. But none of the novels may capture the traveler’s life like Vance’s final two—a duology, in fact—Ports of Call (1998) and Lurulu (2004), both of which take all of the man’s 80-something years of travel experiences and distill them into a galactic tour as only Vance can write.

Myron Tany is a young man on a planet far from the center of the galaxy. From a poor family, he dreams of seeing exotic places he knows he never will. But a university degree in galactic economics and a wealthy but eccentric aunt change things. Dame Lajoie taking an interest in Myron’s life, she involves him in her aristocratic and social enterprises, even including him on an interplanetary trip to find a supposed fountain of youth. Matters going awry en route, Myron finds himself alone on a planet with only a suitcase and a few sols in his pocket. What happens next is up to him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review of 2001: An Odyssey in Words ed. by Ian Whates & Tom Hunter

By far the most common way of going about creating an anthology of short fiction is by theme. Whether it be something as expansive as horror or fantasy, or something more specific like women writers of the 19th century or alternate visions of London, the majority of anthologies on the market are tied to a broad theme in some fashion. There are a few, however, which look to collect stories along more specific lines. Jeff VanderMeer asked people to create stories based on four words: last, drink, bird, and head. George Sandison proposed writers look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four in the context of today in 2084. Patricia Bray said specifically steampunk vs. aliens. And there are many other examples. And then there is Ian Whates and Tom Hunter’s 2001: An Odyssey in Words (2018). Wanting to pay homage to the 100th anniversary of Arthur C. Clarke’s birth, the pair decided the best way would be not to give prospective writers a related theme, rather a broader but more concrete goal: any type of short science fiction at precisely 2,001 words in length. Becoming more than a gimmick, the tightness of the writing space resulted in the writers producing a surprisingly good selection of stories, a few truly standout. It goes without saying, none overstay their welcome.

In what I would not have picked as the anthology’s opener, Dave Hutchinson’s “Golgotha” tells of an alien’s first visit to Earth. As part of the experience, a priest introduces it to the sea, as well as a certain dolphin, all of which goes on to have dire consequences. Message fiction, it nevertheless is a good message, relatively well-framed by a classic sf conceit. Hutchinson’s story is followed by what should have been the first: Paul McAuley’s “The Monolith’s of Mars”. The best piece of McAuley fiction I’ve read, the story provides a virtual tour of Mars while somehow capturing a mood equally scientific and spiritual, something I think Clarke himself would have appreciated.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin is by now almost a household name. The success of the Song of Ice and Fire novels feeding into the even greater success of the television series, one hears the words ‘Winter is coming’ and ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ on the street. I assume most of these people, however, are unaware Martin began his career as a writer of short fiction in the 70s. Regular readers of this blog know my jaded nature toward a lot of popular fiction, and thus it should come as no surprise that I feel some of Martin’s early, more humanist work is, in fact, his best. Capturing a few of these stories, plus a handful of his more mainstream fiction, is the 1985 collection Nightflyers.

Containing only six stories (though two are long novellas), things kick off with the title story. Vampires in space, “Nightflyers” is the story of a mission gone horrifically wrong. Mysterious captain and mysterious happenings onboard make for a mysterious story that, for as well developed and suspenseful as it truly is, lacks any true depth beyond vampires and space. Undoubtedly, however, it will gain praise from mainstream sf&f fans. (Longer review can be found here.) “Nightflyers” is followed by another straight-forward but well executed sf horror story, “Override”. About a miner on a distant planet who uses remote controlled corpses to dig for valuable metals, when a rivalry turns sour, things quickly get out of hand for him.