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.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review of Intrusion by Ken Macleod

Dystopia has become one of the most ubiquitously utilized motifs in fiction. From science fiction to fantasy to mainstream fiction to literary fiction (and all the layers and permutations of those fuzzy sets), dark societies far removed or an eye-blink away from our own are being imagined left and right. While for most books dystopia is a device feeding drama or atmosphere, in others it is genuine thought experimentation looking to examine and analyze humanity from a hypothetical perspective to gain new insight. Playing with the full spectrum of “liberal” in a near-future Britain where genetic engineering allows for children to be born healthy as long as a pill is ingested during pregnancy, Ken Macleod’s 2012 Intrusion falls firmly into the category of the latter and makes for what is certainly one of the most unique dystopias ever written.

Hope and Hugh Morrison are just another couple living in near-future London, trying to make ends meet as best they can. Hugh has advanced science degrees but can find no employment, and spends his days, satisfied enough, as a joiner and carpenter. Likewise possessing advanced degrees yet working a low-end job (a service desk representative for Chinese company), Hope works the hours she can while fitting in their flat’s needs, including picking up and bringing their son Nick to the local school—a task the couple learn will soon be doubled as Hope is pregnant. But they have much bigger problems with the pregnancy. A law in effect that forces all pregnant women to take “the fix” (a pill ensuring babies are born genetically sound), Hope and Hugh don’t want to subject their unborn child to the small capsule for personal reasons yet have no legal recourse; the law leaves no room for exceptions save faith-based reasons, and the couple do not practice religion. As the days and weeks move on, mounting pressure from family agencies and the medical establishment push Hope to take the pill. Yet she doesn’t, meaning eventually something must give.

Console Corner: Review of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Before diving into my review of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I should state that I have not played the original Mass Effect trilogy. I have seen gameplay and read about the games when deciding whether to invest in Andromeda, but as a whole I have zero first-hand experience. I mention this as, the lack of experience with the original trilogy should make my review of Andromeda more objective than a lot of reviews I’ve seen. But all in due time…

If there is anything video games were seemingly made to do, it would be to realize the fantasies of science fiction. Exploring exotic planets, shoot outs with hostile aliens, space ship flight, seeing distant universes, human diaspora across the galaxies—these are some of the most imaginative areas of science fiction just waiting to be realized in interactive fun. And the sheer volume of such material in video games is proof. At the macro level, Bioware’s 2017 game Mass Effect: Andromeda captures these phenomena wonderfully; at the micro level, less often.

After hundreds of years of deep space flight, a fleet of allied ships, human and alien, has arrived in the Andromeda galaxy seeking a new home. From vast arks carrying racks and racks of people in cryosleep to a massive operational nexus, it’s a full mission. And it includes the exploratory ship The Tempest, led by the Pathfinder, you. In something like Star Trek: Next Generation-style, the player is tasked with meeting any aliens who might live in the galaxy, establishing peaceful relations, and finding new planets suitable for human colonization, if possible. Problem is, the first planet The Tempest lands on destroys any hope of a peaceful settlement. A hostile alien group known as the Kett open fire on the Pathfinder in an attempt to prevent access to a strange alien technology scattered across the planet. Neither Kett, human, or any other known alien species’, the technology, called Remnant, seems to hold the key to making the planet suitable for habitation. And thus you, the Pathfinder, must clear the Kett and unlock the secrets of the Remnants to pave the way for the thousands awaiting a new home. The Kett, however, with their foothold in the galaxy, have sinister plans for any alien species they encounter, including the Pathfinder…

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review of The Sex Sphere by Rudy Rucker

The more Rudy Rucker I read, the more I am convinced what a true, hidden gem of science fiction (and literature at large) the man is. I would stop short of saying inimitable, but at the same time I cannot think of anyone comparable. Robert Sheckley’s style comes closest; the wit and sense of fun, the light satire sprinkled with deft human observations, the whip-snap pacing, and the usage of counter-culture. But there remain undeniable differences. Where Sheckley’s fiction is largely humanist in aim, Rucker’s is more intangible, more “scientific” in demonstrating its humanism. Playing with theory in high-level, abstract fashion (read: not hard sf), Rucker’s quiet genius is more attuned to looking at known reality from an alternate perspective. Taking Edwin Abbott’s Flatland to the next dimension (literally), Rucker’s 1981 The Sex Sphere shifts from 3D to 4D in as wacky, and yet still somehow relatable, a way as possible.

When a physics experiment goes awry, sucking up the buxom Hungarian girlfriend of the eccentric scientist in charge of the research, little does the world know what is about to be unleashed upon it—including Alvin Bitter. Attending a conference in Rome with his family, Bitter makes the fateful decision to go out for a walk late one night. Ambushed on the street by a madman wielding a plastic ray gun, Bitter finds himself in the clutches of an underground Italian political cabal who want him to make a nuclear bomb. The madman likewise holding a small sphere shaped like a rubbery, naked woman, hell breaks loose when it suddenly finds itself in Bitter’s hands, his hormones going mad with lust, and the sphere opening itself to him…

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review of Ravencry by Ed McDonald

With the first book in a fantasy series published, many things have been established—mood, style, setting, characters, genre, etc. What remains a wide open question, however, is how the author will continue the story. Regardless whether they ended the first book on a cliffhanger or natural pause, an organic extension of the first volume is not always a guarantee—particularly in the glut of epic fantasy on the market today. Another way of putting this is, could Ed McDonald follow up upon his tightly-crafted, entertaining Blackwing with equal success in Ravencry (2018)?

Ravencry opens four years after the events of Blackwing. Galharrow has cleaned up slightly and is a major in the army. Rubbing elbows with the city’s elite is not to his liking but becomes a necessity when a mysterious meeting between spinners and darlings in the Misery comes onto his radar. Further complicating matters is that a powerful artifact from Galharrow’s master, Crowfoot, is stolen. Utterly destroying the calm of the whole city of Valengrad, however, are crystal missile attacks from the Misery targeting the Grand Spire. Becoming a quasi-detective, Galharrow begins digging into the layers of aristocracy to connect the dots, all the while trying to dodge the incoming missiles. He finds that matters which seemed to have been extinguished in Blackwing may have just been left smoldering… ()

Review of Blackwing by Ed McDonald

For readers reading fiction long enough, it becomes apparent that it’s not by default how original a book’s ideas are that make it successful, but how they are executed. The basics of writing—prose, structure, authorial voice, style, etc.—when done properly can transform the most mundane setting or premise into a solid, readable, even enjoyable book. Brandon Sanderson is full of original ideas, but his bloated stories and redundant prose turn what could be fun reads into slogs. Ed McDonald gets this. On the surface his 2017 Blackwing is not original. Post-apocalyptic wasteland populated with zombies and mutants. A nebulous dark force attacks a city of humans, soldiers and sorcerers fighting on both sides. A world weary but honorable mercenary captain drinks and fights his way to another day. It’s all been done before—and as of the state of publishing in 2018, many, many times over. Thing is, McDonald executes properly.

Ryhalt Galharrow (terrible name—harrowing, get it?) wants no part of his kingdom’s power structure, and instead chooses to spend his days collecting bounties on political subversives, earning coin for women and booze. His city of Valengrad powered by massive phosphorous engines, he is one of the few willing to go into the Misery—a vast nuclear-ish wasteland—to collect heads of those that would seek to destroy the engines and take the city down from the inside. Galharrow is a member of the Crowfeet, a mysterious group who answer to the beck and call of a nameless god, and after collecting a difficult set of bounties in the Misery one day he is called by his unseen master to a nearby city to meet a certain woman. The city attacked as he arrives, the trail of events that transpires finds Galharrow in debt to one of the kingdom’s most powerful sorcerers and in the midst of a war nobody knew was coming.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review of All the Bells on Earth by James Blaylock

James Blaylock’s so-called “Christian trilogy” (a poor nomer at best) is one of fantasy literature’s unheralded, and for most readers unheard of, classix. Laden with subtle wit and charm, they are novels for the more discerning reader looking for something beyond the mainstream. A “Christian trilogy” only in the sense that each of the three novels uses some element of the Bible to spin a tale of the fantastical intruding into contemporary American life (The Last Coin features the coins Judas received for selling Jesus to the Romans and The Paper Grail posits a unique take on the “Holy Grail”—read to find the reason for the quotes), each is, in fact, more humorously irreverent and picaresquely capering than religiously staid. And they are driven by wonderfully kooky, off-kilter characters that keep the stories dynamic and engaging. Looking at a classic Robert Johnson deal with devil through the lens of 90s money scams, All the Bells on Earth (1995) is the third novel in the “trilogy”.

The small, quiet Californian community of Santa Anna is turned upside down one evening when a madman climbs the tower of the local church, loosens one of the bells, then vandalizes the hell (pun intended—don’t’ judge me) out of the church’s sanctuary. The madman dying in the strangest of ways, his death is impossible not to be noticed by the small community, including Robert Argyle, a shady catalog merchant, and his competition, Walt Perkins, likewise a catalog salesman though one of clearer moral conscience. Investigating the remains of the madman’s house in the aftermath, Perkins turns up some very strange evidence, something which Argyle seems to have known about. Tension between the pair escalating, Santa Anna may never be a quiet community again.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Headlander

What was once cutting edge science fiction aesthetic—as seen in films like Forbidden Planet, Metropolis, Destination Moon, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, or on any Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov book cover—has fallen by the wayside in favor of images even more cutting edge. From futuristic grimdark (i.e. cyberpunk) of William Gibson and Blade Runner to fantastical extremes like Star Trek, Jupiter Ascending, or Star Wars, portrayal of the future has splintered over the past few decades. In fact, it’s gone so far that those sleek, shiny space ships and robots of decades ago are fashionable once again—in anything from books like Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill and Allen Steele’s revival of the Captain Future franchise to films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Mars Attacks. And video games are not immune. Capturing the retro, modernist aesthetic in playable form, Double Fine’s 2016 Headlander re-invigorates a classic sf motif in neon-colorful fashion. But do we see hints of dystopia around the edges?

A side-scrolling, action-puzzle game, Headlander puts the player into the shoes—err, helmet—of a disconnected head lost on a giant space ship. Jet propelled, the head is able to zoom around and connect itself to the various robot bodies wandering the ship, bodies which are in fact augmented humans transformed by the mysterious overlord Methuselah. The player’s head apparently the last unaugmented ‘human’ alive, the player must find their way along the ship’s labyrinthinian corridors, through guarded doors, and fight Methuselah’s security forces, all to reach his hideout and discover the reality of the situation. Minor rpg elements present in the game, the head is also able to dock with various computer systems which give upgrades, e.g. helmet shields, faster recovery, and a variety of other options. The puzzles often challenging and the action sequences laser hell, the gameplay alternates between twitchy thumbs (avoiding bouncing laser bolts), slow-paced exploration to find the robot bodies and materials necessary to get past security gates.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review of Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of science fiction’s, if not the broader cultural spectrum’s, most influential works. A novel wherein data and information and the ability to access them locked behind increasingly more advanced technologies are the highest value commodities, the dark, greedy, neon near-future he imagined has been rehashed innumerable times. Where Gibson gets praise in smaller circles, however, is for style and prose. Precise yet minimal, inventive yet familiar, real yet futuristic, borrowing his world is not as easy as borrowing his chic. Moving from east coast American urban sprawl to near-future Cape Town, South Africa, Lauren Beukes is, however, able to capture Gibson’s cyberpunk style while telling her own tale of the power of technology and its relationship to people in Moxyland (2008).

Moxyland shifting between four main characters, Kendra is a former art-school student now trying to make her way with analog photography in a digital world. Hoping that sponsorship will put her name in lights, she cuts a deal with a corporation that essentially makes her a walking advertisement in exchange for better health and mental focus that could just land her the break she needs to make the big time. Tendeka is one Cape Town’s key underground political subversives. Organizing an ever more aggressive campaign against the big, greedy corps, he soon discovers the limits of what could be considered peaceful resistance. Helping Tendeka is Lerato, a corporate worker who gives insider info while making her own way up the corporate ladder. And lastly is Toby, an egotistical vlogger always looking for ways to undermine the stability of his own life to be more dramatic and entertaining in an attempt to stand out in the sea of media and advertising.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review of The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

A name I’ve encountered several times but for whatever reason never read the fiction of, Nick Mamatas is, apparently, lighting things up in certain corners of science fiction and fantasy. Having now read his first collection of short fiction, The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), it’s clear those corners are occupied by political and genre savvy people with an eye to sharp wit and liberal charm. (I shall henceforth call them the ‘cool kids’.)

After reading all of Lovecraft’s correspondence and stories, an AI in “Walking with a Ghost” brings Lovecraft back to virtual life. I tend to bounce off Lovecraft and Lovecraftiana, but for those so steeped I guess there is worthwhile content lurking (har har) here. Steampunk Marxism, “Arbeitskraft” is the alternate-history story of Peter Engels and his eye out for the oppressed workers of his age—mechanically altered people who run on steam, aka a group of beleaguered matchstick girls. One of the more developed stories in the collection, not to mention a story that represents socialist (take that word at face value) views, it is also one of the best stories in the collection in terms of unpacking the premise.

Sabbatical's End...

Aaaaand, we're back - perhaps not in the form upon which I left, but we'll see... 

My intentions, for the moment, are to return to semi-normal with a couple posts per week, mostly book reviews with the occasional video game review, general book commentary, or travel piece.  I've been away, yes, and haven't been reading as much as I have the past several years, yes, but I did read some interesting books which I will slowly but surely post about. 

And so, without further ado...

Friday, July 6, 2018

Blog sabbatical...

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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

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

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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review of The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review of 334 by Thomas Disch

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

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

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review of Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill

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

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

Console Corner: Review of Limbo

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

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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald

Contrary to popular opinion, I have enjoyed but not been a flag-waving fanatic of Ian McDonald’s recent novels.  The Dervish House, the Luna books thus far, and the Everness trilogy all received accolades and praise unlike any work from McDonald’s first three decades as a writer.  But there is the extremely strong impression it’s only because these books are the most mainstream of McDonald’s oeuvre—like he gave up trying to be original and just produced an abstraction of what the market wanted.  Gone is the gonzo imagination of Out on Blue Six.  Absent is the Walt Whitman approach to Hearts, Hands and Voices.  Nowhere is the magic realism and charm of Desolation Road.  Instead, the reader is given relatively familiar characters, setups, and straight-forward prose combined in very competent fashion—not a criticism, just an observation. Thus when learning McDonald had been commissioned to write a novella for, 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.