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...