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.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft



Fully in its third wave (hopefully nearing its end), its fair to say steampunk has begun to exhaust itself.  We need a break for it to revitalize. Its components and devices have been deployed to the point of achieving stereotype status, and it has been combined in the majority of ways possible with other genres.  Gone are the days when steampunk was unaware it was steampunk, and originality along with it.  But every once in a while a book will poke its nose from the crowd and say: ‘Hey, novelty is still possible.  Steampunk is still viable.  Welcome to Josiah Bancroft’s wonderful debut Senlin Ascends (2013).

Set in the Silk Age, Senlin Ascends tells of the adventures of Thomas Senlin, a school headmaster from the countryside.  Falling in love and marrying the energetic, intelligent but younger Marya, the newlywed couple decide to take their honeymoon in a place Senlin has long studied and taught his students about but never visited: the tower of Babel.  Not the tower of biblical fame, the Silk Age’s tower is of a different age, but remains a massive structure rising into the clouds like layers on a cake.  The first days of the honeymoon not going as planned, Senlin is separated from Marya almost directly after arrival, forcing him to set out in search of her.  Following clues and bits of information provided by people who saw her, Senlins slowly ascends the ringdoms of the tower looking for his lost wife.  Its convolutions threatening to derail his quest at every step, Senlin must dig deep within himself to find the fortitude necessary to meet its challenges.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review of South of the Pumphouse by Les Claypool



Primus was one of the first bands I picked up as a young teenager looking to find music beyond the radio.  And I’ve stuck with them since.  To say the band are ‘unique’ is only to scratch the surface.  A cross of Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, The Meters, and something only Primus brings to the table, bizarro funkonautics hits a little closer to home—but still does not quantify.  While Larry Lelonde and Tim Alexander (and the various other talents which have been with the group over time) are singular in their own right, few would argue Les Claypool is not the driving force behind the band.  Leading the trio, working on solo projects, and collaborating with a number of other musicians, the man has a creativity at work which seems unstoppable.  In 2006 Claypool looked to extend his ripe imagination into the land of fiction, South of the Pumphouse the result.

One of the ongoing motifs in Primus’ music is fishing.  From “John the Fisherman” to “Fish On”, “The Ol’ Diamond Back Sturgeon” to “The Last Salmon Man”, Les and crew have regularly sung about their hobby.  Naturally, South of the Pumphouse is a tale about a couple guys plying the waters of San Francisco’s San Pablo Bay for the grand daddy of all sturgeons.  Two brothers, Earl from back woods California and Ed the younger brother who moved from the countryside to be in the big city, decide to go on a day-long fishing trip in the wake of their father’s death.  The reunion going well as the brothers drive to the Bay, buy bait, and prepare to launch the boat, things change when Earl’s friend Donny shows up to join them.  Donny a fun-loving, redneck extraordinaire, the fishing trip initially goes smoothly with joking and laughter, each party indulging in their drug of choice.  But as the day stretches long and the personalities begin to clash in the tight confines of the boat, things take a turn.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Review of Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick



Looking at Michael Swanwick’s oeuvre, one sees an interesting arc.  Opening in territory of a relatively realist nature (In the Drift), wandering for a time through science fantasy (almost magic realist) land (Stations of the Tide, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and The Dragons of Babel), before arriving in decidedly, fantastically non-realist territory (anything related to Darger and Surplus), the rocket of Swanwick’s imagination counting down, taking off and exploding is visible.  Vacuum Flowers, Swanwick’s second novel published in 1987, should be considered ignition.

Vacuum Flowers opens on a tense chapter drawn straight from Cyberpunk 101.  Rebel Mercedes Mudlark (yes, her real name) awakens in an unfamiliar body, tied down in a hospital bed.  Escaping with some neural-transmitter slight of hand, she meets a mysterious man disguised in wetware, who takes her to the home of a mysterious woman who informs Rebel she is sharing the strange body with its original owner, Eucrasia Walsh, and that the corporation funding the hospital Deutsche Nakasone wants both of them back, and badly.  Rebel going on the run, she tries to sort out her and Eucrasia’s situation while evading capture.  Is there anywhere in the solar system she can get help, however?

Console Corner: Review of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag



Though not the most common, pirates are certainly one of the more easily recognized motifs applied in books, films, and games.  From cartoony fun to treasure-seeking adventure, the success of these offerings depends on a lot of elements—approach, style, storyline, etc. among them.  There is a world of difference between Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Ubisoft’s 2013 entry into the world of video game pirating, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, is one of the best incarnations of the motif I’ve ever experienced, but is not without missed opportunities.

If the video gamer wants to go out pirating, there is nothing like Black Flag.  An open world (perhaps better phrased “open sea and archipelago”) game, it delivers pirating in spades.  You want a large number of places to travel and explore and sea to navigate, the game feels positively huge.  (It feels like the biggest game I’ve ever played, even though it may not be in reality.) You want ships blasting cannons at one another on the high seas, cutlass fights on deck, and swinging through the rigging on ropes, Black Flag delivers this, as well.  You want colonial Caribbean, from coconut palms to stone churches, shanty shacks to flintlock rifles, Black Flag offers oodles.  You want treasure hunts, plundering, and raiding for gold, Black Flag has numerous side missions and quests that have the player doing a lot of fun, interesting stuff that either contributes directly to the rpg elements (e.g. crafting for both the main character and his ship) or simply getting rich.  In short, in Black Flag Ubisoft have captured the overwhelming majority of the aspects that make pirating, pirating.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review of Dissidence by Ken Macleod



Ken Macleod is not a writer who burst onto the scene.  But his Fall Revolution tetraology eventually opened readers’ eyes to a new voice capable of evolving, or at least capably extending the field.  The tetraology a combination of politics and near-to-far future science fiction, its has a highly atypical structure that showed an eye for clever, cutting dialogue and plotting.  Macleod followed this up, however, with the Engines of Light trilogy, which in all fairness was largely a familiar sf experience.  Seven stand alone novels followed thereafter, some of which played within genre conventions, and some which were more challenging in intent.  Learning the World, Descent, The Night Sessions, and Newton’s Wake were shaded more toward core genre experiences, while The Execution Channel, The Restoration Game, and Intrusion showed a greater willingness to address socio-political ideas.  This all leads to the question, what would Macleod do in his next project, 2016’s Dissidence?

Volume one in the Corporation Wars trilogy, Dissidence is a difficult novel to review as most if not all of its major ideas and premise are left open ended.  The plot reaches a natural pause in a larger arc, but overall the book serves as an introduction to: setting, thematic agenda, and characters, and to set these balls rolling.  Carlos is a virtual operator revived a thousand years after his death to do what he does best: kill.  His consciousness revived ino a virtual environment, he is asked by the Locke Corporation to lead a small team of operatives commanding mech exoskeletons through space to take back a small moon.  The moon occupied by a group of robots who recently found group sentience, they seek to defend their new found autonomy with barriers both legal and physical.  The mission seems clear cut, but as the political alignment of Carlos’ team, the robots, and the wider galaxy begin to fray, things go haywire.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick



Documenting some of them himself (in a journal later published as an exegesis), the issues Philip K. Dick was dealing with in his personal life are known.  Hallucinations to transcendental visions, suicidal thoughts to drug use, marital troubles to metaphysical doubts, these elements were reflected in Dick’s fiction in direct and indirect form.  But they were always integrated in abstract, fictional fashion that made the story to hand, unique. That is, until 1981’s V.A.L.I.S.

The closest Dick got to autobiography in his fiction, VALIS is the personal and spiritual journey of Horselover Fat (‘Philip Dick’ if Greek is used to translate the first name and German the last), told through the eyes of his friend, the writer Philip Dick.  Lost in life at the start of the novel, Fat is dealing with a broken marriage, a suicidal friend, and lack of spiritual conviction regarding the reality of reality.  Events triggered when the friend eventually kills herself, Fat falls into a downward spiral.  Believing he is mad, Fat shares some of his ideas with his friends Philip and Ken, and starts keeping a journal of his thoughts on metaphysics and religion, particularly his belief that he was contacted by an alien god-mind in the form of a strange pink light.  In and out of mental institutions, Fat remains lost in life, that is until he learns he may not be the only one who has seen a pink light.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review of Age of Assassins by R. J. Barker



We are now somewhere in the middle of the fantasy shrapnel cloud that exploded some time around the release of the Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings films.  As pieces whiz by with greater frequency, the titles have become meaningless blurs—The Dragon’s Sword, A Warrior’s Oath, and Shield & Throne are titles I just invented but could easily be on the market somewhere.  Fantasy’s covers have stretched further and further apart—like a waistline after pasta and beer—as writers worldbuild ad nauseum.  Its clichés and stereotypes have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to the point subversion is almost meaningless.  Its low roads have been ridden hard, and its high roads occasionally explored.  It has been integrated with every other genre out there—romance, noir, mystery, horror, etc.—in attempts to be fresh and innovative.  And with self-publishing an option, it seems everybody and their brother is writing an epic fantasy trilogy.   How then to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the useless?  Trial and error, unfortunately.  With R.J. Barker’s Age of Assassins (2017), first in The Wounded Land trilogy, I can report the former more than the latter.

Given almost all fantasy book blurbs these days blend together into an empty nothingness, I’m tempted not to offer a plot summary of Age of Assassins.  So, short and simple: Girton is apprentice to the master assassin Merela in Castle Meriyanoc, and together they work to find the person who is trying to assassinate Aidor, heir to the throne.  Requiring Girton to go undercover among the kingdom’s knights-in-training, he learns the Castle is home to a lot more enmity than he ever imagined, and it will require all of his wits to stay alive, let alone catch the culprit.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review of The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King



I very rarely re-read novels.  There are maybe a dozen I have read more than once, meaning the reviews on this blog are the product of first-time reads, or a hearkening back from memory to pull what remains.  But with Stephen King’s 1987 Eyes of the Dragon it’s too far back.  Read in high school, not to mention with the mindset of a teenager, I’d like to think my critical reading skills have since evolved since, and as a result may result in a different view of the novel now.  Inspired by having just finished King’s writing guide/memoir On Writing, I decided to add another book to the dozen or so.

I remember Eyes of the Dragon in a positive light—not as the greatest novel ever written, but as something interesting, dark, unexpected, and cut from a different cloth than the other King novels I’d read at the time.  What then does my forty-year old brain, now riddled with hundreds and hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels, think?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I own two books titled Space Opera.  The first is Brian Aldiss’ 1974 anthology of bite-sized space drama from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The second is Jack Vance’s literal take: a 1965 novel about a musical troupe touring the Milky Way and the inter-cultural troubles they have on the way.  I now have a third to add to the group, Catherynne Valente’s 2018 Space Opera.  But how the hell to boil it down to such a simple summary?  “Wile E. Coyote” in space?  No… Universe's Got Talent?  No…  Glitterglam saves humanity?  No…

A combination of Aldiss’ figurative and Vance’s literal, Valente’s Space Opera is the story of the glitterpunk glamrock wonderboy Decibel Jones and his call to redeem humanity through song and save it from complete annihilation.  Decibel competing in the Megagalactic Grand Prix talent show alongside many other alien species, whoever comes in last will have their species wiped from their planet, the local biosphere left to rebuild itself.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop



I’ve read enough Philip K. Dick to recognize the elements common to most of his fiction. Quirky ideas imposed on quotidian settings, metaphysical twists on reality (drugs, technology, dogma, etc.), awkward prose, telekinesis/mind powers, and subtle and subversive political commentary can be found in most of his stories.  And while alternate history was not something he often explored, it is the biggest aspect of his best novel The Man in the High Castle.  Upon learning of Dick’s unexpected passing in 1982, Michael Bishop (of all the unexpected writers) decided to write a novel in honor of the man.  Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas is an immaculate tribute that any reader who appreciates Dick will likewise appreicate.

Reworking the constitution to allow for infinite presidencies, at the outset of Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas Tricky Dick is now nicknamed King Richard, and is in his fourth term of office.  As one might expect, he rules an America bogged down in his brand of conservatism.  Heavy travel restrictions have been placed on crossing state borders and people’s behavior, particularly first and second generation immigrants which are subject to regular nationalization.  Another restriction is cultural censors, including literature.  His early genre work still allowed on the market, the writer Philip K. Dick’s later, more subversive works, however, are banned.  But pet shop employee Cal Pickford doesn’t care.  Possessing a number of illicit copies of Dick’s novels, it comes as a slap in the face one day at work to come across the obituary of his favorite writer.  It’s an even greater slap in the face, however, to learn the disembodied spirit of Dick, a confused entity asking to be called Kai, has shown up at his wife’s psychology clinic shortly thereafter, requesting therapy.   King Richard may not be ready for Kai.

Console Corner: Review of Valiant Hearts



Where WWII and the related topics of fascism, genocide, and atomic warfare get far more media these days, WWI may have been, in fact, the grittier, dirtier war.  With the Age of Industry burgeoning, the relatively high-tech weapons deployed in WWII, particularly air weapons, were still a dream in WWI as trench warfare, running lines of soldiers into lines of soldiers, and brute force armaments were the norm.  Battles with thousands upon thousands of casualties were not uncommon, most the victim of bullets or bayonets from ground-level firefights.  The majority of WWI occurring on European soil (a continent whose cultures are so close in comparison to the global scene yet possessing centuries of history both peaceful and aggressive), the thin red line never meant so much.  Using these circumstances as a platform, Ubisoft developed Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014.  Possessing a unique, hand-drawn art style, it is a puzzle/action game highlighting the human side of war.

A streamlined run through a couple of major WWI events, in Valiant Hearts players will take on the role of one of four (and a half) characters.  Depending on the scene or setting, there is the Frenchman Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddie, a Belgian nurse Anna (and an unnamed dog Emile finds that players can control to some degree—the half).  Karl called into war by the German side which subsequently pulls him away from Emile and his daughter, the two men spend a good portion of the game trying to reunite the family.  Freddie a gung-ho sapper-type soldier, he befriends Emile in the early going, and together the two escape and must find their way through many difficult situations.  And lastly Anna, a young woman whose scientist father has been kidnapped by the Germans and put to work building advanced weapons, seeks to help the injured she encounters, as well as rescue her father.  The four’s stories, sometimes individual and sometimes intertwined, form threads in the overall mini-tapestry that is Valiant Hearts.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

State of Publishing: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fiction in 2018



In spare moments the past year or two I have been thinking about many aspects of the current state of science fiction, fantasy, and fiction at large.  A few things have been mulled numerous times.  First is the sheer volume of books being published today.  From the big, traditional publishers to individual self-publishing, indie publishers to vanity publishers, mid-tier publishers to the innumerable magazines, fiction is flooding the market from seemingly every conceivable source.  Regular readers, or at least myself, feel truly overwhelmed, even fatigued trying to stay abreast of all the books and stories.  (Perhaps for others it even leads to the anxiety of they are always missing out on something.) Where half a century ago there were maybe one or two hundred ‘books of genre interest’ being published each year, we now have more than a thousand.  It’s literally impossible to know about, let alone read everything being published.  In terms of quantity, we are in the second Golden Age of genre fiction--the epulp era.

In terms of quality, however, I’m not sure we have a Golden Age.  With greater quantity you naturally have a greater chance of getting high quality fiction, and indeed there are many good books coming available.  But the majority of what I see and read is middling to poor.  Most of these books don’t commit any overt sins of writing.  The prose is clean enough.  Plots are reasonably well thought out.  Overall cohesion is acceptable.  Premises have a unique idea or two.  The author appears to have some knowledge of what they are attempting.  And yet, most does not seem to make a lasting impression, almost as if the writers want to be writers more than they are writers.  ‘Soulless’ to ‘derivative’ is the spectrum I would say the majority of genre books on the market today fall on.  Fifty years ago editors were more judicious in their choices for publication given their limitations, but current publishing possibilities open the gates wide.  Yes, the riff-raff is getting through--at least in far greater numbers.

Non-fiction: Review of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King



I remember in high school that English teachers recommended we get Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  Not really interested in writing at the time, I got a copy but never read it (typical high school student).  Years later while attempting to put together some fiction myself, I found it on a bookshelf and started flipping through it.  I was soon engrossed in how helpful and precise the recommendations were.  Not a formula for success rather a framework to tighten up existing skills and produce better prose, it was somewhat humorous even more years later to read Stephen King in his 1999 On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reference Strunk & White’s little book.  (See kids, those teachers were right.) 

In what is a wonderfully candid yet brief look back at youth and the events that led King to be a writer, On Writing is indispensable for the Stephen King fan, as well as the would-be writer of popular fiction.  While not going into the detail many fans are hoping for, King nevertheless touches upon the circumstances, both personal and social, that led to the writing of some of his novels, as well as the thought processes and approaches taken to deliver the story desired.  Wary enough, King openly admits there is no formula to success but that following a few simple guidelines like: writing in active voice, being true to characters, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, trimming first drafts by 10%, and a few other smple steps can go a long way toward being a better writer, and possibly being published—nothing groundbreaking, just an affirmation hard work and precise attention to detail are necessary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker



Regardless top three, top four, whatever, time travel is inarguably one of the most popular plot devices in science fiction.  I sometimes feel as though I’ve encountered every possible iteration.  From David Gerrold’s metaphorical use in The Man Who Folded Himself to Lauren Beuke’s application in serial killer horror The Shining Girls, Isaac Asimov’s time police in The End of Eternity to H.G. Wells’ exploration of the future The Time Machine, Octavia Butler’s contrast of race perception in Kindred to Michael Bishop’s study of prehistoric man in No Enemy But Time—hell, the VandMeer’s even have a three-part anthology series devoted entirely to time travel short fiction.  Wilson Tucker’s 1970 The Year of the Quiet Sun falls somewhere in the middle of it all.

Brian Chaney is a biblical scholar pondering a new project after having just published a controversial book on the Dead Sea scrolls.  Relaxing on the Florida beach, he is approached by a government agent and given the proposition of working on a secret project.  Provided only enough details to entice, Chaney eventually accedes and makes his way to a secret military base where he learns that he, along with two other men, will be time traveling.  Though initially told he might have the opportunity to explore in person some of the work he covered in his Dead Sea scrolls research, an emergency request arrives from the President of the United States that supercedes all other work.  Into the future the three men go.

Console Corner: Review of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt



Fantasy being what it is, there are innumerable games, books, and movies set in a Medieval world featuring wizards and knights, castles and maidens, most of which inevitably see a clash of kingdoms that decides the fate of the world.  It’s cliché.  And yet it continues to be done time and again, some with more deviations from the formula, some with less.  Andrzej Sapkowski, when setting out to write his own fantasy book series The Witcher, knew the familiar elements he wanted to include.  Thankfully, he also knew what he wanted to be fresh and new.  In developing Sapkowski’s vision for gaming consoles, CD Projekt Red made the most of his deviation.  Capitalizing on the singularity of the Witcher’s character as a morally gray monster hunter haunted by demons as much personal as physical, all the while ensuring the traditional fantasy elements were as solid as could be, in 2015 they released the third chapter in Geralt’s story, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and in doing so created a masterpiece of action/rpg gaming.

The number of things to compliment about Witcher 3 feels endless; CD Project Red appear to have looked into seemingly every game element possible on modern consoles.  The world, as gorgeous as it is at sunset, is just as phenomenal at the detail level.  Erosion, rock formations, tree type and plant formation—all of these are as realistic as any video game has ever produced, just as much as the fantasy elements, like griffins and trolls, cyclops and sirens, look as realistic as possible.  The villages and farmland, cobblestone streets and markets all feel proper—dirty and lived in, from washing basins to hanging laundry, rickety fences to irregular rows.  Geralt requiring certain flora and fauna for the potions he needs to fight monsters, available in the world are a multitude of plants and animals.  In the early going I stopped counting how many different types of herbs it was possible to collect, just as I stopped counting how many unique little ways tiny elements of fantasy had been braided in—portals, living trees, haunted towers, and others.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier




The painter slaving away, surrounded by half-finished canvases and empty paint cans.  The writer sitting hunched under lamplight after midnight, pen grinding away at a notebook.  The guitar player, head bent, playing variations on a simply melody, endlessly stopping and restarting to find the right note.  These are classic images of the artist at work.  But what of the 21st century and the boom of video games as the most profitable form of art on the market?  What is its iconic image of the artist at work?  Jason Schreier’s 2017 Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories behind How Video Games Are Made takes a look at what that might be.

Case-based journalism, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels takes a look at the making of ten well-known video games over the past decade.  Personally interviewing and engaging with the game’s directors, creators, artists, CEOs, animators, technical leads, play testers, programmers, story writers, producers, etc. the book provides a comprehensive view of the obstacles, luck, quality choices, challenges, and limitations each game faced on its way to glory, infamy, and in one game’s case, nowhere.  Not a technical book (i.e. how to make a video game step-by-step), Schreier looks at the interlock of budget problems, time restraints, ambition, failed and kept promises, market concerns, publisher interference, lack of coherent teams, the value of strong vision, and a number of other topics, and how these combined to give us the games we are familiar with, for better or worse.  The people interviewed are amazingly candid, and the stories they tell and information they pass on makes for an honest look—not exposé—of the real concerns of video game developers in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review of 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill



Shedding the mantle of his father’s reputation, Joe Hill slowly built his name (har har) under that pseudonym.  The quality of the stories so good, however, I wonder whether it was even necessary.  Writing, it seems, is in his DNA.  Bringing together the best fifteen stories from the earliest part of Hill’s career (plus a hideen, bonus story), 20th Century Ghosts (2005) is a varied collection, with highs and lows, that gives every indication of the writer “Hill” has become thirteen years later and influence of the legacy he grew up with.

The collection opening on its strongest entry, “Best New Horror” is meta-horror if such a thing exists.  The story functions at three levels: pure fiction, fiction within fiction, and fiction in the context of reality (i.e. comes thisclose to the fourth wall).  About a horror editor who encounters an odd submission for an anthology he is putting together, the story goes on to briefly traverse the theoretical underpinnings of horror as a genre and horror fandom, before ending on strong note that both satisfies the story as a whole while recognizing where horror resides in the current cultural context. All in all a very difficult trck to pull off, but done so with flying colors.  Starting off a YA version of Kafka’s Metamorpheses, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” tells of a teenager who eats a radioactive bug and becomes a giant, mutant grasshopper himself.  Hill’s purpose in the story unclear, it’s possible he was attempting to address the school shooting issue in the US, but may be more of a portrayal of America’s dwindling domestic scene—or both or none at all. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Review of Song of Time by Ian Macleod



One aspect of the contemporary glut of fiction is book titles have evolved into a mindless flow.  Looking through lists of upcoming publications, award winners, recommended books, etc. and the titles all start to blend together.  In epic fantasy, for example, one can take a couple token words, add a pronoun and article or two, and you’ve got the next published series.  The Axe of the North, Dragon’s Fire, The Oath in Stone, etc. could easily exist, somewhere, such is the surfeit of fiction (and maybe they do, I haven’t checked).  Overall this is very unhealthy for readers, and the industry in general.  Quantity heavily outweighing quality, good perhaps even great books with titles that would have been standout fifty years ago are now being overlooked in the milieu.  I can’t help but feel Ian Macleod’s 2008 Song of Time is one such novel.

The name of a symphony inherent to the story (like “Cloud Atlas” in David Mitchell’s novel of the same name), Song of Time is the story of Roushana Maitland.  Half Hindi and half Irish, she grows up in a near-future Britain only slightly more evolved from our own.  Heavily affected by the death of her musically gifted brother, Roushana takes up the violin with fervor.  Other tragedies striking, both personal and global, she uses them to fuel her drive, or at least distract, going on to become a world class musician.  And that world is changing around her.  Europe goes through major political transformations, nature rears its ugly head in continental fashion, and technology only opens further possibilities.  Now in old age living alone by the Cornish sea, Roushana has made the decision to continue living even after her mortal body has passed.  But when a young man washes ashore, things change.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Review of The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees



We generally maintain the view we are in control of our lives despite the situations which pop up to remind us we are part of a larger web of cause and effect.  From random chance to forgotten inevitability, accidents happen and everything has its own ticking clock whether we hear it or not.  And yet we push on, making the day to day decisions that would direct our lives.  It’s a difficult question to answer: when are we pilots across the sea of life, and when are we just tossed by its waves?  Caught in the wash of this question is Gareth E. Rees’ highly personal and dark The Stone Tide: Adventures at the End of the World (2018, Influx Press). 

The Stone Tide is (uncoincidentally) the story of a writer named Gareth.  Leaving London and moving to the sea-side town of Hastings with his wife and children, they buy a fixer-upper and begin investing time and money renovating the house.  Gareth still dealing with the loss of a close friend, he ponders his unexpected death while wandering the streets, hills, and parks of Hastings with his dog, Hendrix.  Memories of childhood, ideas for stories, and historical knowledge of his new city likewise criss-crossing his mind, finding out he has problems with his prostate only further occupy Gareth’s mind, leaving him to wonder whether the life he’s lead is not as he thought it was.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams



Ahh middle ground, that oft traversed yet little expounded area of contemporary literature criticism yet, funnily enough, where the majority of fiction lies.  Much easier to give a thumbs up or thumbs down than precisely describe or recognize what makes a book average material, I hope my review of Walter Jon Williams’ 1990 space opera The Praxis, first in the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, holds to a different standard.

The few known alien species of the universe, humanity among them, have been united under an overlord race calling themselves the Shaa. Living for thousands of years and possessing unheard of technology, the Shaa enforce a draconian rule of law known as the Praxis that keeps all species living in relative harmony.  But something has come over the Shaa.  For several years they have been slowly killing themselves in announced, ritual ceremonies.  Now, only one remains, the Shaa of Shaas, and it too has scheduled its own death, which in turn will leave all races without a leader.  The Praxis is the first chapter telling of the resulting power vacuum.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley



John Crowley has long been one of the most contentious names in fantasy literature.  While lauded by critics and erudite readers, his popularity remains minimal in the mainstream.  And the reasons are clear.  Steering wide of melodrama, stereotype, contrived plots, and other familiar elements of popular fiction, Crowley has always utilized distant prose to grapple with abstract albeit human ideas.  Little, Big, Aegypt, and other such novels utilized elements of genre (faires, alternate history, etc.) in setting and plot, but focused their content on the value of stories, memory, and other such broad themes.  In 2017, however, Crowley set out to write a more accessible novel, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr being the result.  Thankfully, Crowley did not stray far from his roots.

Ka is foremost a frame story—or at least a story that begins in media res.  An unnamed elderly man finds Dar Oakley the crow in his backyard one day.  In poor health, the bird starts to relate his life story to the old man.  And it’s an amazing story.  Dar Oakley, or as he was originally known, Dar Oak of Lee, was born into a murder in the woods of primeval Wales.  Befriending a young native girl named Fox Cap, he watches as the girl grows up to become something of a shaman among her people.  Deciding to embark on a trip to the underworld to bring back a cauldron that will cure the mortality—wars, illness, old age—plaguing her people, Fox Cap asks Dar Oakley if he wants to go with her, and he agrees.  But things underground don’t go as planned.  Emerging back into the world, Dar Oakley finds himself caught in a loop of life and death that persists through the centuries, and, interestingly enough, at a prime viewing spot to see evolution of mankind through the branches below him.

Console Corner: Review of Wipeout: Omega Collection



To my knowledge, there is no consensus Playstation mascot, no iconic game that can easily be used to immediately remind people of the console in the same fashion as Mario does the Nintendo or Sonic, the Genesis.  There are games which have appeared on all four generations of the Playstation, for example Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Mortal Kombat, but none have become inextricably linked with the console.  (May be a good thing with Mortal Kombat…)  The closest thing the Playstation has to such an iconic image is the Wipeout series.  From the original Wipeout on PS1 to the latest Wipeout 2048 on the PS Vita, the game has appeared in one form or another throughout the years.  In 2017, the anti-gravity, futuristic racing game makes its debut (and likely last appearance) on the PS4 with Wipeout: Omega Collection.

Not a new game, rather a remaster/port of two previous titles Wipeout 2048 and Wipeout HD (including the Fury expansion), the Omega collection makes the latest gameplay available on the latest console.   Done the cheap way (which makes sense considering the game’s developer is out of business), the two games have been brought individually to the PS4, no synthesis of the titles.  This is a bit of a missed opportunity, but certainly not a show stopper.  At the opening menu, the player must choose which version of Wipeout to play: HD, 2048, or Fury, and from there play within that version’s modes, ship types, tracks, music, etc.  You cannot fly a 2048 ship on an HD Fury track, for example.  There are campaigns, but again, not across the titles.  This means three games in one, or a wasted opportunity to integrate the titles, depending on your view. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully by Jane McGonigal



Compared to literature, film, television, and the other forms of media we regularly consume, video games are the new kids on the block.  But they have taken the block by storm.  Their popularity only increasing as each generation’s thumbs develop left and right brain coordination, they are also the most lucrative form of media in terms of profits.  Despite the rise in popularity, misconceptions about video games persist.  They cause violence.  They isolate.  They addict.  And so on.  What real-world research has to say about video gaming is something entirely different, however.  Naturally, as with too much of anything, there can be problems, but as a whole the number of positives outweighs the negatives.  The world, in fact, is round.  In SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully (2016), Jane McGonigal takes advantage of the misconceptions by creating her own program: how “gaming” can improve our lives—without the need for a television or controller.

Aimed at people who are dealing with things from PTSD to procrastination, anxiety to loss, stress to motivational issues, depression to irrational fears, and a host of other problems, SuperBetter describes McGonigal’s program for tackling such issues in a manner heavily influenced by the science of games and cognitive behavior therapy.  The program possible to be approached individually, with friends, or with professional help, McGonigal takes the conclusions, empirical and cognitive, from game research and implements them in a new form. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear



Being the wise old man that I am, one of life’s lessons I keep close to hand is: avoid the things that you like the idea of more than you like the actual thing. Humans being humans, for whatever reason there are things we invest a great deal of hope, desire, even material wealth to acquire, only to quickly discard them, or be disappointed due to some misperceived incompatibility with our personalities, interests, or preferences.  Our eyes can be bigger than our plates in more ways than just food.  Books have great potential in this area.  Reviews make them seem interesting, commenters praise their glories, and awards apply a bright, neon-yellow highlight, meaning this wise old man does not always learn from his mistakes.  Such is the case with Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (2012), first in her Eternal Sky trilogy.

Looking back to my notes for Bear’s Undertow, I should not have invested in Range of Ghosts.  Flat, flat, flat prose that sucks the life out of what could have been an interesting story, Range of Ghosts indicates nothing has really changed in Bear’s style in the intervening years.  Under the microscope, there is nothing overtly wrong with the flow of words.  Syntax is correct, the words are descriptive, and the text moves the story forward.  And yet I perpetually struggle, paragraph after paragraph, line after line, to maintain focus—even in the so-called dramatic bits.  (The exact same thing I experience reading Daniel Abraham.)  I must continually rein my wandering mind in.  Needless to say, it’s an indication something is wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Slam by Lewis Shiner



Lewis Shiner’s first couple of novels, Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart, were, not too make things too general, character-oriented stories that highlighted individuals’ personal dramas—serious fiction, some might call it.   Looking to borrow a page from friend James Blaylock’s The Last Coin and take a break from gravitas, in 1990 Shiner released the caper-esque thriller, Slam.

We meet Dave being released from a Texas prison after serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion. Picked up by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, he is deposited at a beach house where a friend has found work for him housesitting for a recently deceased elderly woman.  Her will stating that the house be cared for precisely as she left it—twenty-three cats included—in order for the parameters of the will to be upheld, Dave’s post-prison life would seem to be cushy.  But such is not the case.  Neighbors and friends of all eccentric varieties stopping by in his first few days of freedom (a deaf and blind couple, a UFO cult leader, a pot-smoking granny, an orthodox parole officer, a group of skateboarders, a prison escapee), meeting the conditions of his parole and the old lady’s will gets difficult, very quickly.  If Dave doesn’t get control of the situation, his newfound freedom may be short-lived.