Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune



Whether it be koopa troopas (the duck-turtle things from Super Mario Brothers) or the endless robotic hordes of Contra, darknuts (red and blue varieties) from Legend of Zelda or the innocent looking crab things spitting glowing death balls from Sonic the Hedgehog, one constant in video gaming is the endless parade of enemies who. all. look. exactly. the. same.  Better to kill a faceless enemy than one with a wife and three children (George, Sophie, and Martina—as cute as can be).  Thus, to say video games are xenophobic (in terms of content, I mean) would be an understatement.  Having recently completed Naughty Dog’s 2007 action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I can only say the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Far advanced in graphics, music, story and otherwise beyond the days of Mario Bros., Contra, etc., that parade push of faceless enemies nevertheless continues, en force…

Uncharted opens with Nathan Drake (archeologist/explorer who happens to be good with a gun) dredging up the coffin of his long lost ancestor Sir Francis Drake off the coast of Panama.  The coffin is empty, but it does contain a secret book with enigmatic clues where he hid his treasure before dying (natch).  Pirates attack, and soon enough Drake, his right-hand man Sully, and the feisty reporter Elena are tracking through the jungles of a mysterious island, seeking an idol purportedly made of pure gold as enemies attack from all sides.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn



I was not a fan of the seventh installment in the Star Wars films, The Force Awakens.  Forced and imitative rather than natural or developmental, its producers and directors were clearly more interested in profits than the integrity of the franchise. Nearly everything about The Force Awakens has its direct analog in the original Star Wars films, and as such failed to push the Star Wars storyline ahead in any organic fashion.*  Not so with Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels that followed up the events of The Return of the Jedi.  A natural extension, in Zahn’s trilogy the Empire is waning as the Rebellion is waxing; Luke is rebuilding the Jedi, a new government is being set up along democratic lines, and with the Emperor dead, the dark side is pushed to the background.  There is some cleaning up to do, but overall things are looking brighter for the universe. Thus, the only logical hope the Empire have of getting back into the picture is that a brilliant tactician might be able to do something with what little they have left over.  Enter the blue-skinned, red-eyed alien Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

A very different villain than either the Emperor or Darth Vader, Thrawn used intelligence and rationale as a means to finding advantages, and as the events of Zahn’s trilogy play out, was nearly able to retake power for the Empire once again using just that tool.  In 2017 Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with the alien’s backstory, simply titled Thrawn.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of Railhead by Philip Reeve



I am not a big fan of the past several years’ glut of YA fiction.  Given that adults are the primary consumers, I see it largely as another symptom of the continued dumbing down of culture; “It’s ok, it’s YA” is the reason offered when confronted with what is often very formulaic material.  (And all this is without discussing the glut of YA fiction called ‘adult’ simply because of bad language and/or sex.) This is not to say everyone who reads YA fiction is juvenile, only that it’s a rare sight on the web that an adult reviews a work of YA fiction as such, rather than as any other piece of ‘adult’ fiction they read.  But there remain some really good YA titles on the market—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… series, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Diane Wynne Jones glorious Howl’s Moving Castle among them.  Not quite making this list (but almost) is Philip Reeve’s 2015 Railhead.

A ripping boys’ adventure, Railhead is the story of Zen Starlight.  Teenager living on a planet at the end of the line, he spends his days in petty thievery and riding k-trains that travel point-to-point instantaneously across the galaxy.  One day, after stealing a gold necklace from a street vendor, he notices that a girl and her drone are following him.  Giving them the slip at the k-train station, it’s even stranger when they turn up at his house the next day, asking questions.  Thinking they work for the street vendor, Zen flees his house and heads to the fence where he sold the necklace to get it back.  But when the police nab him and demand to know where the girl with the drone is, things get hectic.  Pulled inescapably into an exploit he’d rather have avoided, Zen is quickly in over his head as the shadowy leader of an underground resistance group wants him to commit an extreme crime.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller



Ernest Hemingway’s place in the canon of world literature is a contentious matter—at least to me.  While the author of the superb Old Man and the Sea (one of the greats of the American literary scene) and the accidentally great The Sun Also Rises (published at any time other it would have just been another novel), Hemingway is likewise responsible for a number of novels and stories, as well written as they may be, that are little more than operatic tragedies.  Say what you like about the undercurrents of For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and Into the Trees, and other of his most famous novels, their primary motifs are standard war drama and romance—motifs that novels like Gone with the Wind had been deploying for decades.  Peter Heller’s implementation of a Hemingway-style narrative in a post-apocalyptic setting, 2012’s The Dog Stars, is no less contentious.

Part of the 1% of the population to survive a massive pandemic, Hig is a former journeyman carpenter now living out his days with a blue heeler named Jasper at a small, abandoned airport at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Having set up a protected living space, his only other contacts are an aggressive former Navy Seal named Bangley who shares the airport with him and a group of infected Mennonites living in a nearby valley.  The pilot of a small Cessna, Hig regularly reconnoiters the area with Jasper, looking for scavengers and bandits that would seek to disrupt the relatively peaceful place he and Bangley have made for themselves.  But one day the monotony, coupled with a dramatic event, propel Hig to break the mold and seek the world beyond the airport. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts



If there is anything the world never seems to tire of, it’s the murder mystery.  (If it were the US, I would say mass shootings...)  Likely the first form, if not the most basic form of genre, the number of iterations of: figuring out how someone died and apprehending the culprit may just occupy the largest percentage of books, film, and television in the West.  Dabbling in the murder mystery medium in Jack Glass, in 2017 Adam Roberts returns with another pop-sf effort in The Real-Town Murders.  And is it ever slaPdaSh.

More specifically a locked-room mystery (we even have sub-genres of murder), The Real-Town Murders opens with private investigator Alma on the scene of the crime.  An auto-mobile manufactory, she watches the security video of a car being 3D printed from raw materials on the factory floor, guided only by the hands of robots, yet a corpse somehow ending up in the car’s trunk at the end of the process.  The factory’s AI no help, Alma turns to interview the QA employee who found the body, but is quickly cut-off by a high-level government investigator.  Brought to the morgue, Alma is shown the corpse and politely informed she is off the case; the government will take over.  Upon returning home and discovering her data feed has been wiped of all information related to the case, Alma is contacted by a person who claims to have top secret information about the murder.  Meeting the shadowy man at a nearby cafĂ©, it isn’t long before Alma is dragged back into the case—if not just to find out how the murder was done.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of The Death of Grass by John Christopher



In the decades following the second world war, disaster/catastrophe fiction was something of a thing in British fiction.  From John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, a variety of scenarios, some more and some less believable, were imagined depicting the human reaction to massive and abrupt social and environmental change.  Wyndham’s falling-star blindness followed by mutant, carnivorous plants that just so happen to prey on the blind is beyond far-fetched, but Ballard’s The Burning World (aka The Drought) remains a realistic look at the psyche in response to mass water shortages—the only real science fictional element in fact being the premise.  Throwing his hat into the catastrophe ring in 1956 was Sam Youd (better known by his pen name, John Christopher) with The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass).  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies meets Ballard’s The Drought, Christopher produced an inconsistent, dramatic, and occasionally thought-provoking fashion story of an England turned upside down by lack of food.

A plot introduction to The Death of Grass is quite a simple affair: a 1950s’ era England deals with the effects of a plant virus that wipes out grain production and causes a major food shortage, in turn throwing the country into chaos.  The tale told through the eyes of one John Custance, the man must take a journey from ravaged London to his brother’s farm in the countryside where a well-protected valley promises safety and provisions for he, his family, and a small handful of hangers-on looking to escape the brutal realities of humanity gone feral. The majority of the novel’s content found in situations where John must make the most dire of decisions and the resulting ethical quandaries, often egged on by his brutal companion Pirri, to elaborate would spoil the story.  Suffice to say Christopher uses tight prose to depict scenes which put humanities’ atavistic and civilized aspects at odds with one another in provocative fashion.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig



Cute, charming, colorful, feel-good—it’s tough to find a toe-hold to open a review of Matt Haig’s 2013 The Humans.  Just intelligent enough to stray the right side of maudlin, it’s a story that confirms humanity’s foibles in a tried and true fashion, but does so at least with a bit of clever and endearing wit.  And that, I suppose, is where it’s value lies. 

Solving the Riemann hypothesis apparently the key to unlocking humanity’s spread across the universe, an alien race called the Vonnadorians find out that Earthlings are on the verge of discovering the solution and take steps to prevent this by sending one of their own to prevent it.  Killing and taking the form of math professor Andrew Martin, the Vonnadorian arrives on Earth with minimum knowledge and maximum loathing for humans.  He also arrives completely naked, and is forced through a gauntlet of police and newspaper stories to get back to some sense of domestic normalcy.  Cutting right to the chase, “Andrew” kills colleagues and acquaintances who are aware of his research into Riemann’s hypothesis, but slowly, through interaction with his wife, despondent teenage son, mistress, and friends, he learns what it means to be human.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review of The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss



Brian Aldiss, certainly one of the tip-top science fiction writers of all time, passed away a couple weeks ago, and in honor I decided to pull one of my unread Aldiss novels off the shelf and have a go.  No two pieces of Aldiss’ fiction the same, it was impossible to predict what The Malacia Tapestry (1976) would be.  And the cover is zero help.  Unless the reader has read an adept review or two, then it’s very likely the pulp image would entirely misguide them.  But this is Aldiss we’re discussing, and The Malacia Tapestry is much more than Golden Age escapism.  In an interesting twist, Jack Vance might have played a hand, however…

The Malacia Tapestry is about Perian de Chirolo and what is likely the most formative year of his life.  Playboy actor working the stage in the Renassaince-ish, Italian-ish city of Malacia, he lives in poverty yet devotes his life to pleasures—chasing women, bumming a good meal, and getting drunk with equally lascivious friends.  A complete cad, Perian’s life takes a new direction (little to his knowledge) when he agrees to a job acting, rather posing, for scenes in a new type of still-life art created by a renegade inventor/artist named Bergstohn.  Bergstohn part da Vinci and part Wagner, he is a Progressive who has developed a zahnatascope (primitive camera) that he intends to use, under the sponsorship of a wealthy Malacian lord named Hoytola, to create a series of images that will tell a politically dissident story.  Hoytola’s daughter, the beautiful Armida, has likewise agreed to act in the still-life play, and Perian falls madly in love.  Bergstohn having many other subversive plans for Malacia, time will tell the effect on Perian as he is drawn deeper into Armida’s web.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Vegas...



I’m pissed off—again yes, but this time more than usual.  Vegas, and yet another mass shooting in the USA.  Guns are not solely to blame; there are social and cultural issues that also played a role.  But dammit, guns are the main reason.  The guy had mental and social problems, clearly, and the type of free-gun society that exists in the US played right into his hands, along with the hands of the other crazy people who appear about every year or two doing exactly the same thing.  The availability of guns enabled rather than hindered his insane ideas, and there is no arguing around that.

For the record, I’m pro-hunting though I don’t hunt. (Anybody who eats meat or wears leather has no right to be anti-hunting.)  But I am for extremely strong regulations that force every person who wants a gun to go through rigorous testing—physical, psychological, etc.—in order to get a license.  Like the check-in process before getting on an airplane, I trust that the majority of people who use their guns for hunting and target shooting wouldn’t mind subjecting themselves to testing knowing that its ultimate purpose is to weed out the maligned, and would in the end make the US a safer place.  In the legal arena, anything that resembles automatic weaponry, or its accessories, should be prohibited from the market.  Guns should only be sold through official government shops that match gun registration numbers to registered licenses. There should be limits on the number of guns licensed people can own (two or three seems reasonable, unlike this).  And gun manufacturers should be limited in the volumes and types of weapons they are allowed to produce.  Yes, you heard me, no open market on the gun industry.  (Which is more valuable: national GDP or the thousands of people who die each year due to gun violence?)  Stronger regulations would not eliminate gun deaths, but would, if done properly, eventually bring the US into line with the majority of the Western world in terms of gun-death statistics.  

I am American but for the past eight years I have lived in Europe, a continent which is not immune to shootings but for which the frequency and death toll of those events when they occur is exponentially smaller (save Norway, of course).  Guess what, guns are heavily, heavily restricted here.  In Poland where I live the licensing process takes roughly a year, and includes a psychological evaluation, target practice (like a driver’s license test), background search and criminal record evaluation, a written exam, as well as interviews with authorities.  There is no reason why a similar process could not be implemented in the US.  Bad people would still be able to get guns, just like in Poland, but the average crazy guy would not be able to go to his local Walmart and with the flick of a credit card become a mass murderer, which would reduce the number of such instances drastically.

God fucking dammit, almost sixty innocent killed and nearly 600 injured in Vegas, and still the message that GUNS ARE A PROBLEM continues to be ignored where it matters in the US!  It's crazy to me that people will buy more guns after this event, considering there is nothing about owning a gun that could prevented the situation save the lack of guns.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the attack, but most especially the people in the future who will be victims, as, sure as rain it will happen again in a year or two unless something massive changes in gun regulations. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me 267 times, shame on the government and its politicians for being too weak to overcome the gun lobby and enact better laws that prevent shame...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Horizon: Zero Dawn



While eating breakfast or late in the evening before sleep, I will sometimes watch video game reviews and trailers.  I like to see what’s out there to play, or what’s coming.  But after a while, it all starts to blend together.  Fall Cry, Battle Duty, Destiny Effect, Elder Divinity, Last Walking Dead—there seems an endless progression of scenarios intended to maximize the potential for shooting and stabbing in a world rendered unique by some premise or another.  With more three decades of video games in the rearview, unique has become relative, and coming up with a quality, original IP is very difficult.  But not impossible.  Grounding itself in fundamental gameplay, ensuring the little details are correct, and building off said three decades of wisdom, Guerilla Games’ 2017 Horizon: Zero Dawn delivers a unique world and a quality, enjoyable experience.

But watching the trailers for H:ZD, I initially had doubts.  Fighting robot dinosaurs in a primitive world, how cheesy’ was my first thought.  But after watching some of the gameplay, noticing some of the subtle details and quality of the graphics, learning the storyline was actually post-apocalyptic rather than old-world primitive, and seeing the potential of the combat system, I was intrigued.  When early reviews from across the gaming community all came back positive, I thought why not?  Having now completed the game, why not indeed?