Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review of Pretender by C.J. Cherryh

It perhaps goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: don’t read this review without having read the novels prior: spoilers.

I still clearly recall reading Foreigner, first novel in the Foreigner series. It starts out with a literal bang—an assassination attempt on the main character, Bren. But that’s it. There is no more action of a similar caliber (har har). The rest of the book is a dialogue/exposition-oriented story focusing on the social, political, and cultural concerns of human and atevi interaction. What I recall is the realization: “Oh, this is one of those types of books. Let’s see where Cherryh takes her exploration of Otherness.” And the slow pace continues in the next installments—I’m sure much to the chagrin of the legions of sf readers looking for action and simple drama. But for readers who understand and appreciate what Cherryh is doing with the Foreigner series, it is explicitly understood that Bren’s life will not mirror Tom Cruise’s. Enter Pretender (2006), second novel in the third sub-trilogy and eighth overall in the Foreigner series. It’s positively Mission: Impossible.

Pretender opens in the aftermath of the assassination attempt that closed Destroyer. Bren and what has now become the Foreigner cast of lead characters are left holed up in the country estate, fearful yet protective against further attempts. In the cleanup, Bren attempts to get his computer online to share with lord Tabini the results of their rescue mission into space and meeting with the Kyo. But with further assassination attempts looming, not to mention fresh news of changes in the assassin’s guild that happened while Bren was away, even so simple thing as a computer connection is anything but guaranteed. Once again having to keep a clear head in a tense situation, Bren must work with the atevi to escape the country estate and spread the word about the news of their mission to the whole planet.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy

What is a good written history? Is it something dry and formal, laying out all the potential facts in finite detail for the reader to make up their own mind—an entire display of the known? Or is it an interpretation and consolidation of potential facts into a likely narrative? The former certainly more appealing to scholars and the latter to casual readers, it rests in the hands of the writer at what point in the spectrum they would like to approach the historical material they are presenting. Let’s have a look at Buddy Levy’s Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008).

If anything, Conquistadores is a very focused work of history. More precisely, a tight look at a major transitional moment for two cultures in one setting. Levy begins the narrative just before Cortes arrives on modern day Mexican soil, details the steps he took to subdue the Aztec nation, and ends just after as New Spain is established. Levy fills in relevant details as they affect the steps of this transition, but by and large it’s a streamlined history of action-reaction, situation-decision, and opening-outcome, like a story. Another way of putting this is: one man’s dogged determination to take a nation for himself under the name of god and king.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review of Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Empire of Silence was an interesting mix of retro science fiction tropes and themes more contemporary—a contrast heightened by the length of the novel (600+ pages). In 2019 Ruochio returns with the second in the Sun Eater series (trilogy? tetralogy? more?), Howling Dark, to continue the tale begun in Empire of Silence, and contextualize its quality.

Picking up many years after the events of Empire of Silence, Hadrian Marlowe is now captain of a band of mercenaries, traipsing through the stars, trying to find the planet Vorgoss to return their cryo-cargo of alien Cielcin, and attempt to forge peace. At the outset of Howling Dark, Marlowe has come to the realization that the known Sollan universe does not hold what he seeks, and that in order to fulfill his mission, he must venture beyond into the worlds of the extra-solarians—worlds of strangely modified humans, to get what he needs. Exotic locales, colorful characters, and treachery abound, Marlowe’s quest to end the war is only more fraught with danger the further he gets from Sollan lands. And in the end, it may be that the cielcin come to him, rather than him going to them. But do they come in peace?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review of Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh

It is here and now I will officially abandon anything resembling a lithe and graceful intro to a book review of C.J. Cherryh’s ongoing (infinite?) Foreigner Universe; you wouldn’t be here unless you’ve read the first six books and thus would like to know whether Destroyer (2005), seventh overall novel and first in the third sub-set of trilogies (confused?) maintains the quality and consistency rendered to date. Short answer: yes. Detailed answer: keep reading.

Destroyer opens as the successful mission to rescue the thousands of human colonists stranded in deep space is returning to the Atevi homeworld. Despite two years traveling in voidspace, spirits aboard the ship are high. Peaceful first contact was made with the alien Kyo and all the colonists were picked up safe and sound. The only thing left is arrival. After the stressful events that led to this success, Bren Cameron, master linguist and diplomat, is ready for vacation once he gets planet-side. But all is not well upon arrival, (do not read other reviews if you want the reason spoiled), and once more Bren, alongside the Atevi dowager Ilsiliti and her grandson Cajeiri are forced to navigate delicate political, even militaristic waters if they want the peace that reigned upon their departure to once again exist in both Atevi and human societies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Like many I suppose, I was blown away by Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and years later by its (seeming) bookend The Dragons of Babel. Intelligent, imaginative, dynamic, human—the books tell coming-of-age tales of a young woman and man (respectively) in the most enticing, unique milieus of something that is generally fantasy/science fiction but so unidentifiably genre as to be almost magic realist or slipstream, something beyond taxonomy. If indeed bookends, this leads to a very valid question: what does Michael Swanwick think he can accomplish with 2019’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother?

Daughter to an aristocrat, Caitlin, pilot to one of her lands special sentient, robotic dragons lives according to the female pilot code which forbids, well, practically everything a free person considers the good life. Familial tragedy leading her in a new direction in life, however, Cat finds herself on the run, trying to clear her name, and—suddenly, in one moment—with the consciousness of a nursing home patient calling herself Helen floating in her mind. Caitlin's redemption taking her to all manner of places—corporate to faery, it's a story that can only be Swanwick's. (Playing to his strengths, there is something about the Babel setting which brings out the best in Swanwick...)

Console Corner: Review of The Sexy Brutale

Clue memes, while probably dying in the current generation, nevertheless maintain at least a toe hold in society. Mr. Mustard did it in the study with poison, one might say after hours of collecting clues. But what if you, the detective, had the ability to go beyond the evidence and reverse time to see how and when the murder happened, and stop it. Such is the premise of Cavalier Studio’s 2017’s comedically macabre The Sexy Brutale.

The meeting point of fiction, board games, and film, The Sexy Brutale feels part Agatha Christie parlor mystery, labyrinth, and Groundhog’s Day. Players start the game as Lafcadio Boone, a priest stuck in a time warp inside a sprawling New Orleans mansion. Able to go back and forth in time on a loop, Lafcadio is witness to how cordially the mansion’s hosts treat their guests: they murder them. Tasked by a mysterious angel to stop the deaths, Lafcadio sets about spying through key holes, tracking victims’ footsteps and their murderers through the mansion, and learning the environment to find the precise spot where he can put a proverbial wrench in the works, disrupting the hosts’ plans for murder.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review of Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I suppose that after more than a thousand reviews, it's fairly obvious this blog has a soft spot for literary novels which utilize the devices of fantastika. A full course meal with spice, most do not appear so profound on the surface, yet the more one unpacks the details, the deeper they become—a depth made more engaging for the touches of the impossible or not-yet-possible. Thus, while Brian Aldiss' 1968 Report on Probability A would seem a dull voyeurism, the more one seeks out the connections between its pieces, the broader is potential meaning spreads, and becomes a highly engaging thought piece.

Plot subtle and fragmented, Report on Probability A is not rip-roaring, space-faring, alien-shootin' science fiction. But I would say it writes the book (har-har) on parallel universe stories. Ostensibly about a group of people on one planet watching the lives of a handful of people living on one British street, it digs into another layer: the handful of residents likewise peer into the lives of those around them—reality through a fractured lens.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Review of Infinite Fantastika by Paul Di Filippo

There is, or at least once was, a lot humming and hawing about the differences between science fiction and fantasy. One is about the “impossible” and the other the “yet possible” I can even hear myself saying. But the subjective truth takes over: there is not always a clear line between the two. Sometimes it's just fantastika. But Paul Di Filippo already knew that. Enter his eighteenth collection of short—fantastikal—fiction, Infinite Fantastika (2018).

In a kind of self-rediscovery, the story kicking off the collection is one of the first Di Filippo had published and thought he'd lost forever after the manuscript disappeared, it wasn't until a scanned fanzine later appeared online that “Before and After Science” saw the virtual light of day, again. Lacking a compass, the story (if it can be called such) has a kind of inchoate brilliance that floats in interesting fashion. Seeming personal, it tells, as the title states, of a man’s life transformed by science, but in less than scientific fashion. Turning the dial up to eleven, “The Trail of the Creator, The Trial of Creation” by the below-the-genre-radar Paul di Filippo is the story of a motley crue of post humans who hunt the god that seeded the universe with their perverse variety. Add a mad scientist with a barrel of urschleim to the mix, and they’re off.

Console Corner: Review of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While not a return to the original Playstation’s Lara Croft, 2013’s reboot Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition did bring the archeologist cum gunslinger cum puzzler onto the modern generation of consoles with a splash. Focusing more on action and platforming than puzzles, the game was a rush of shooting and scrambling that kept the story’s pedal to the metal all the way to its fantastical ending. The follow up title, Rise of the Tomb Raider, looked to expand itself and slow things down a little. Upping the ante on environmental puzzles, the game likewise added a lot of geography by moving from linear to semi-open world, something which was ill-considered in my opinion. Caught on the fence, it couldn’t offer everything of what each form is good at. Players who enjoy open worlds and collectibles had a heyday, while those who wanted a pure story experience were often forced to participate in spurious activities and retrace ground they’d already covered (items a person could spend hours collecting in the world could just as easily be looted from dead bodies while pushing the main storyline forward). And this is all not to mention the facts that the game’s bad guys, Trinity, were as vanilla as can be, and the Siberia portrayed in the game rarely convinced of being a home to ancient, fantastical magic just waiting to be discovered. The Tomb Raider reboot originally conceived of as a trilogy, 2018’s third and final game in the series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, looks to complete Lara’s character arc: how the tomb raider became the tomb raider. Let’s take a look.

Shortly after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Lara on the heels of Trinity, this time in Cozumel, Mexico, where she and her partner Jonah believe they have pieced together enough of Lara’s father’s journals to be able to locate a special Mayan artifact. Finding the artifact just before Trinity, Lara is caught while escaping, and is forced to confront Dr. Dominguez, an archeologist working for Trinity who has dire warnings given that Lara has disturbed the artifact. A supernatural occurrence intervening, Lara has no choice but to continue her search for Mayan artifacts in the jungles of Peru, still on the heels of Trinity…

Console Corner: Review of Overcooked

My wife is a gamer—not a gamer-gamer whose life revolves around our console, but there are no problems picking up the controller if she has a couple free hours in the evening. (She’s been playing Witcher 3 for about a year.) For Christmas this past year we got a second controller, which means our house has new options. Looking through the lists of worthwhile couch co-op games (not a lot, it seems), I came across a few that were universally recommended. Among them was Overcooked, and seeing it on sale for dirt-cheap on the Playstation store one day, I picked it up. All I can say is: marriage therapy.

I have not checked, but I would guess Overcooked can be played single-player. But who would want to? All the game’s fun in interaction and team play, in Overcooked players play as chefs in various kitchens who must prepare and combine ingredients to meet customer’s orders, all against a clock. The first kitchen is pretty straight forward: players chop vegetables to prepare salads and serve the plates—typical restaurant kitchen activity. But after, things get wonky. The kitchens which follow change things up. Some feature moving counters, some split in half every minute, some are located on moving cars, some feature rats who steal ingredients, and so on. If working together to coordinate and prepare orders under the pressure of time is not enough, then the wacko-kitchens add a layer of complexity. On top of this, the orders become more complicated (salads are much easier to prepare than burgers or soups), all of which pushes the game toward that bouncy ball of chaos and fun “I need one more onion!” “Take the pot from the stove, it’s burning!” “Wait until I serve this meal!” “Wash some plates! I have nothing to put the burger on!” It’s when players reach flow state, moving in and out of each other’s paths with purpose, working in sync, and preparing orders at speed (i.e. they know where the bouncy ball will bounce next), that the game becomes extremely satisfying. Yes, marriage therapy.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Review of Total Conflict ed. by Ian Whates

Look at that cover—yes, look at it. I feel like a high school graphic design student could have done better. But don't let it fool you. Look at the editor's name. Where so many of his contemporaries are unable to get variety from their commissioned authors, Ian Whates is consistently able to deliver themed anthologies with enough material that strays beyond the core to make things interesting. Such is 2015's Total Conflict.

But the anthology does not open without giving readers what they expect based on the spacetroop—ahem, space marine “gracing” the cover. When a valued space marine falls in combat, his comrades hold an appropriate wake, complete with whiskey in “The Wake” by Dan Abnett. Abnett capturing grunt vernacular very nicely, the story still pans average—classic/generic sf, depending on your perspective. Largely the same as Abnett’s story (space marines wielding futuristic guns, engaging in bro talk while shooting at alien stuff), but without the style, “Psi.Copath” by Andy Remic ensures the cover image has been thoroughly dealt with.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is one of the most unique voices currently writing fantastika—an extremely difficult thing to accomplish given the sheer volume of material saturating the market. Having the knack for striking upon something out of the mainstream ordinary and developing it in a speculative setting with a hook or at least a barb), the talent also extends to short fiction, something the eighteen stories in his 2003 collection Adam Robots (not a narcissistic self-promotion) exemplify—at least, mostly.

Adam Robots opens on the wonderfully biblical yet utterly sacrilegious title story. It tells of a robot brought into the world and instructed never to touch a certain jewel atop a metal pole. Curiosity killed the cat, but does disobedience damn the robot? Wildly scientific, wildly implausible, and a wildly, enjoyably readable story, “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?”—as the title states—describes said problem with time travel, and of course, how to get around it—nuclear bombs, dinosaurs, and severed thumbs included.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Review of Crowfall by Ed McDonald

I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but given the amount of derivative bilge published today, the message bears repeating: stereotypes are ok; it's how you execute. Epic fantasy is a dead, beaten horse—but it's still possible to write effectively in the medium and create engaging, enjoyable stories. Enter Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark series. Nothing new here; it's pieces can all be found in multiple peers and ancestors. But McDonald delivers everything with color and edge, and evolves the pieces in a plot that simultaneously builds and surprises. But could McDonald maintain the success for the trilogy's conclusion, Crowfall (2019)? Let's find out.

Like Ravencry, Crowfall opens multiple years after the events of the prior novel. Ryhalt has gone off the grid, eking out an existence in the Misery. The blackness of the Misery seeping into his very soul, Ryhalt is cursed with magical powers he'd rather not have. But when a summons from his master arrives on his “doorstep”, Ryhalt must return to civilization to answer the call, and in doing so, encounters pieces of his old life he'd rather not. Society appearing on the verge of collapse under the weight of the Deep Kings, once again Ryhalt must bridge the gap. But is everything as it seems?

Friday, August 9, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Little Nightmares

Genetic disposition, environmental response, brain tuning—whatever the nature vs. nurture argument is, I love games like Limbo and Inside. A parade of bite-sized puzzles with a coherent art motif binding them all together, they are true brain candy. Offering more for the player so inclined, they likewise give tantalizing hints and clues about the larger world of the game, giving rise to questions about who, what, where, and, why. When hearing Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares (2017) was in this same vein, my radar pinged. Having now played the game, it’s still pinging.

Though having the same relative concept as Limbo and Inside, Little Nightmares is themed entirely differently. The player guides a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six through a ship full of bizarre traps, puzzles, and human-ish things wanting nothing more than to catch her. Skittering gnomes, leaky pipes, macabre effigies of humanity, dark corners, leech-like crawly things, creaking doors, the roll and pitch of the ship—all combine to give gameplay a surreal, horrific feel. A little girl trapped in a big person’s world, survival is not always guaranteed.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Snowman the Jimmy, Snowman the Jimmy, it’s such a pleasantly off-kilter name I can’t help but smile to myself every time I hear it. The Crakers, their car freshener body odor, periods of blue libido, and purr-healing providing a backdrop that only exacerbates the oddity. Snowman the Jimmy fits right in. And still MaddAddam (2013), third and concluding volume in Margarat Atwood’s Ory and Crake trilogy, manages to strike at the heart of the real humanity at stake in large chunks of contemporary socio-economic and technological reality.

MaddAddam picks up where events of each of the two previous novels left off. With Snowman the Jimmy (), it’s literally with the injury he had at the end of Oryx and Crake. In need of care, he gets it from Toby and Ren, the two women who had started a small community of humans and Crakers at the end of The Year of the Flood. Nursing the man back to health, the group try to rebuild some semblance of normal life in a world still threatened by painballers.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories ed. by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, as editor, met success upon pulling together his first anthology of short stories, Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Focusing on plot and storytelling, Chabon solicited an experienced array of authors, asking them to above all entertain, but in sophisticated, perhaps occasionally throwback fashion. The success snowballing, Chabon was commissioned with pulling together a second anthology of likewise engaging, throwback stories. Looking to a new array of authors (save the recurrence of Stephen King), McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004) matches the feat of Thrilling Tales.

Kicking off the anthology in devilish fashion is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae”. About a demoness who finds her own sense of peace, Atwood incorporates stories of yore while taking the pitchforks of angry villagers to a new level. Dynamic wordsmithery on display even in short form, “What You Do Not Know You Want’ by David Mitchell tells of a black market merchant in Hawaii trying to track down an obscure Japanese dagger from a man who recently committed suicide from a rooftop. While a relatively standard piece of contemporary noir, Mitchell’s diction elevates this story above the crowd (notwithstanding the ending). The opposite of Mitchell’s story, Jonathan Lethem’s “Vivian Relf” is the subdued tale of a man meeting a woman at two different times in his life, and the differences in perception, as well as subjectivity of memory that result (emphasis on subdued).

Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of Voice from the Edge Vol. 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan Ellison

Were he to have risen to popularity in the 21st century, Harlan Ellison would have been the king of speculative fiction’s edge lords. Unafraid of voicing opinion, controversial or otherwise, in the very least the man can be respected for walking his own path when so many are pressured to conform to an ever growing list of cultural standards. And it comes through in his fiction. Though the overwhelming majority of Ellison’s oeuvre is short story length, each selection nevertheless has a uniqueness, a singularity that, like his opinions, separates the author from the herd. Volume 2 in his Voice from the Edge series, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral brings together eleven of Ellison’s best stories, read by the author himself.

The premise of the collection’s opening story “In Lonely Lands” is quite simple: a blind man awaits the arrival of death with his Martian friend on the red planet. A mood piece, Ellison wonderfully captures the melancholy of the man’s final moments in both poetic and direct manner, opening the door to the collection that follows. A pastiche of alien invasions, “S.R.O.” sees a weak, poor New York City man in the middle of lying to a potential date interrupted by an alien invasion. Taking on absurdist tones, the invasion becomes a stage performance the man attempts to take advantage of for his own gain—a wonderful piss take on the strange manner in which some people seek entertainment.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Review of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales ed. by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s name is well known as a novelist. Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have all been universally recognized by pundits and readers alike. But editor? Taking the love for the pulps expressed in his novel Gentlemen of the Road and converting into commissions for short stories, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002) features a swathe of stories showcasing what can still be done in the 21st century with plot at the forefront.

A type of story that one encounters rarely these days, the anthology kicks off with “Tedford and the Megalodon” by Jim Shepard. Precisely why it is exceptional needs to be discovered by the reader, but this story of an Australian biologist working off the southern coast of Tasmania trying to discover a supposed great white shark is everything that short adventure fiction should be, and at the same time rarely is. A story based on a real life occurrence, “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter” by Glen David Gold tells of a late 18th century traveling circus proprietor and bizarre (read: murderous) circumstances surrounding a clown, an elephant, and revenge. A human portrait of a man trying to atone for years of drinking and leaving his family, “The Bees” by Dan Chaon describes precisely what happened when all those good intentions catch up.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest

Prolific’ is not a word to describe Christopher Priest. Taking his time with each creation, some stories or novels appear one after another, while at other periods, there can be gaps of years or even a decade between published works. An artist, the muse must, apparently, be at work. Bringing together five stories from the late 70s, An Infinite Summer (1979), the muse was, apparently, at work.

The five stories can essentially be split into two parts. Both examinations of the same idea (love through the lens of time), the first part are the title story and “Palely Loitering”. One capturing the idea with far more maturity and gravitas than the other, “Palely Loitering”, as the title indirectly suggests, is the mediocre of the two. About a boy who goes to a time-flux park with his family, he accidentally launches himself into the future where he meets himself, and is introduced to a young lady and told not to forget her before being sent back to his family. Nominated for a Hugo (undoubtedly due to the simplicity of the time hopping idea), the story has a lot of trouble bearing the weight of its theme given the lightness with which the emotions at stake are presented and the distraction of the time travel mechanic. “The Infinite Summer”, however, handles the idea with far more aplomb. Invoking in the reader the desired weight of theme it intended, it tells of a man travels ahead in time to witness the bombing of London by Germany in WWII. Emphasis shifted from the time travel mechanic toward the tableauxs the man is witness to, not to mention the role his personal life plays in his understanding of them, Priest is able to capture that unidentifiable something that tugs at the heart strings without being cheap.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets was one of the bright spots among speculative fiction anthologies and collections in 2017. Ken Liu bringing together a sampler of Chinese science fiction from some of its most popular writers, the effort was apparently a success beyond this blog as Liu re-upped for an informal sequel, expanding the West’s view into Chinese short stories with a broader spectrum of content in 2019’s Broken Stars.

A treatise on AI, particularly the Turing test which could help identify the break from robot intelligence, “Goodnight, Melancholy” by Xia Jia tells a wonderfully fragmented story that gets a bit heavy-handed with its Turing education, but rights itself the further it goes with a more subtle, indirect, and intelligent manner of presenting the subjectivity in the test, as it relates to a woman in the near-future possessing a kind of android-ish thing. Part of the Turing test based on human perception, Xia nicely gives the reader a chance to do the same.

Console Corner: Review of Far Cry 5

As previously mentioned, I literally spent decades away from video gaming, only returning with the console generation currently in place. Naturally, I missed a lot—a lot. I stopped when 3D gaming had just appeared and was therefore shocked to see how far it evolved; Tomb Raider on PS1 is an entirely different experience than Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition on PS4. It means I also missed the entire evolution of Far Cry games—almost a dozen, and counting. Seeing the most recent title had a chance at real world relevancy (gun-loving religious cult takes over a portion of rural America) and wanting to know how a franchise could arrive at its twelfth iteration (depending how you count) without falling apart somewhere along the line, I decided to have a go at Ubisoft’s 2018 Far Cry 5.

An open world, first person shooter, Far Cry 5 is at its core the infiltration and take down of the religious cult calling itself Project at Eden’s Gate (PEG). Led by the charismatic (in cable tv terms) Joseph Seed, the cult has steadily taken over Hope County, Montana using a combination of fundamentalist Christian ideology and an undying (har har) belief in the right to bear arms. PEG gaining followers (or corpses) via force, the federal government catches on and sends a squad to arrest Seed. The game opening on that arrest, things do not go as planned, and the player suddenly finds themselves alone in the mountains and forests of Montana with the cult and Seed hot on their heels. Let the fun begin.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Review of The Rider by Tim Krabbe

Road cycling, like many hobbies and enthusiasms, is one of those niche human interests that incites a hardcore passion in many, but whose details and inner workings remain a mystery to outsiders. We may see riders getting the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and may even know the word ‘peloton’ references an amorphous blob of riders hurtling along in a pack. But for most, the intricacies of gear size and diet, the strategies of team cycling, and the grueling devotion the world’s top riders have to compete in events thousands of kilometers in length is a whole other world. Giving the reader a glimpse of this world through the eyes of a Dutch cyclist in the 1970s, building a beautiful metaphor for the confidences, inferiorities, motivation, suffering, etc. we all feel along with our fellow ‘competitors’ in the process, is Tim Krabbe’s 1978 The Rider.

The Rider tells the story of one Tim Krabbe. Professional by day and road cyclist by weekend, he has some experience and success under his belt, devoting all of his free time to the sport, training and competing in events around Europe. While mixing in bits and pieces of Krabbe’s backstory as it relates to this experience and success, The Rider is the story of one particular 150km race in the Swiss Alps. Winning is important to Krabbe (the rider) as he struggles that day along with his fellow competitors, but of greater importance to Krabbe (the writer*) is Krabbe the rider’s psyche—the way the phases of physical effort changes his mindset, his opinions and feelings about the other riders as they evolve throughout the race, his ego direct and his ego as viewed by himself, his understanding of his own and others’ weaknesses and strengths, the meaning of competition, and other relative ideas.

Console Corner: Review of Mad Max

For those who missed it, the film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was a superb re-visioning of the 1979 cult classic Mad Max—even better, in my opinion. Finding a neat niche in the post-apocalyptic landscape where tribes driving wildly modified vehicles clash in the dry and dusty Australian outback, director Frank Miller reduced humanity to its bare frame, gave it fire-breathing monster trucks, and asked: what of the individual who has lost all including hope? Creating one of the best open world games of the PS4 generation, Avalanche Studios complemented the release of the 2015 film with the driving and fighting game called simply, Mad Max. (For the record, there is no connection between the film and the movie.)

Driving toward the Plains of Silence on a quest to find inner peace, Max Rockatansky is suddenly attacked by a passing convoy of heavily armed vehicles. He manages to get in a few shots at the convoy’s leader, Scabrous Scrotus, but ends up lying beside the road, naked, beaten, and without a car. Recovering, Max finds a corpse, loots the clothing, and ventures into a nearby cave for shelter where he finds Chumbucket, a semi-literate hunchback who dreams of building the greatest car the Outback has even seen, the Magnum Opus. Convincing Max of the dream, together the two start collecting parts so that Max can get his revenge on Scabrous and get on with his quest.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

One of the many brilliant scenes in Edward Burtynski’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes is a visit to an e-waste recycling site in eastern China. A village piled high with old computer mother boards, television sets, and various electronics, the locals spend their days with small hammers and pliers, manually separating the tiny bits of precious metals into small containers to be re-sold. The groundwater polluted to no end due to the mass presence of exotic metals, heaven on Earth these villages are not. Going a few years into the future and converting this scene into a novel is Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (2019). Too bad Jackie Chan was likewise invited along.

Silicon Isle is one of the major e-waste recycling site in China. The island more traditional than other major areas like Beijing or Shanghai, it is divided and controlled by local clans. Pollution a major issue, an American firm specializing in recycling decides to offer it services to the clans, represented by Scott Brindle. His translator, Chen Kaizong, is a young man who is returning to his home after many years away, and is experiencing a cultural crisis—where and what is home? Along with a migrant worker named Mimi caught up in the clan wars, these three characters find and fight their way through a rising tide (har har) of deceptions, conspiracies, and social and environmental injustices.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Review of Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is back—one of the greatest bits of speculative fiction news in 2019. Seventeen years since Chiang’s last collection Stories of Your Life and Others, the aged-wine approach the man uses writing has finally produced enough content to fill out a collection. Named Exhalation: Stories, let’s take a look at the vintages produced.

A Chiang version of a 1,001 Arabian Nights tale, “The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate” is the story of one Fuwaad ibn Abbas, and the encounter he has with a merchant in the bazaar one day. Passing through a gate that shifts time, ibn Abbas is never the same despite returning. But what does he ultimately make of it? Additional stories nested within his story, the whole is parables wrapped in a parable on the value of knowledge and the path to attaining knowledge, particularly the mindset regarding the passage of time and regret.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review of The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

If the exclamation points in the titles are not enough (Make Room! Make Room! and A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!), then it’s best to note that much of Harry Harrison’s early career is characterized by gonzo writing. From the cartoonish storytelling of the Deathworld series to the antics of the Stainless Steel Rat, Harrison didn’t often delve into the New Wave of science fiction happening at the same time as his rise to popularity. But his later years did soften him, including the Eden series, an odd trilogy of novels set on an Earth where not only did the dinosaurs survive, they developed sapient intelligence in parallel to humans. Harrison followed that series up with another major deviation from course, The Hammer & the Cross trilogy, co-authored with academic Tom Shippey (credited as John Holm). Likewise looking historically but rooting itself in more realistic soil, the series looks the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in 9th century England, and the clash for power and religion happening then.

While on paper a trope (farmboy rises to power), The Hammer & the Cross (the eponymous first volume of the trilogy, 1993) has a strong backdrop to flesh out the familiar story. Set at a time in England when Viking raids were still happening, the book features Shef, an Anglo-Saxon blacksmith slave, who finds himself living among Vikings. Religions at odds as much as cultures, he sees directly the manner in which the two sides wreak havoc on one another. And he decides to get something from it.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review of Lords & Ladies by Terry Pratchett

There are numerous things that people might associate with British culture, but certainly one of the larger ideas is monarchy, aristocracy, and the pomp and circumstance that goes hand in hand with place in society. Taking the piss out of this thinking in a way that only the Disc and its unique offerings can is Terry Pratchett’s fourteenth Discworld novel, Lords & Ladies (1992).

The Witches are in disarray—at least more than usual. Magrat Garlick has foregone her status as witch in order to marry king Verence in the (mini-)kingdom of Lancre. A gap left in the ranks, outsider Agnes Nitt uses the opportunity to gain a seat at the table, allowing she and cohort Diamanda Tockley to start their own coven. The coven discovered cavorting naked near a strange circle of stones, threatening to open a portal to the world of dark elves, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax decide to take action lest Magrat’s wedding be overtaken by supernatural events. The wizards, including Ridcully and Ponder Stibbins, invited to the wedding, a clash of pointy hats, kings, queens, elves, and one orangutan seems imminent.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Console Corner: Review of The Order: 1886

If there are any trends in the evolution of video games, one would certainly be the shift toward story-driven, cinematic experiences (perhaps best posterized by the Uncharted games). Essentially playable action/adventure movies, modern gamers think nothing of numerous cut scenes, alternate and transitioning camera angles, lengthy cinematography, and other film techniques blending gun fights and puzzle platforming—a la a Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan movie. Content that was once a reward for completing a game or level is now integrated with standard gameplay. And it makes sense. With the exponential advancement in console technology, it’s possible to include scenes of a similar quality to films and movies, so why not? One such game, and perhaps the best filmic/game experience to be had on the PS4, is The Order: 1886, a fine steampunk action title by Ready at Dawn.

The Order: 1886 is set in an alternate-history London in which an Order of Knights, a secret society, has been in place for centuries protecting the populace from half-breeds—werewolf creatures that attack humans. Players start the game in media res as Sir Galahad, one of the members of The Order. Cold, starving, and locked in a prison cell, he is being tortured for info. Flashing back to the beginning of the actual story in the midst of his escape, the player learns London is under attack by political rebels upset at the Queen’s lack of blue-collar sympathy in the face of sooty, back-breaking industrialization. Galahad and his fellow Knights must fight off the insurgents and get to the bottom of the cabal before things turn even uglier with the werewolves.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Manifest Destiny. It has taken almost two centuries for the rhetoric surrounding the fulfilment of this political ideal to go beyond its initial bluster and be put in proper perspective, even as some of the opposing rhetoric has gone extreme in the other direction—premeditated program for the extermination of the native races at the hands of evil white men. Fingers today pointed in all directions, it all still comes down to the individual and their place in the situation. Enter Dan Simmons’ novel Black Hills (2010), a character study with fingers pointed at the broadest version of human history.

Black Hills is the story of Paha Sapa. Born Lakota in the mid-19th century, he is raised on the open spaces and foothills of what are now called the Dakotas. Clairvoyant, he learns at a young age that by touching people he can see their pasts and futures. Fighting in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Paha Sapa accidentally touches the dying body of General Custer and takes on his ghost. The brash, babbling general living within him for the rest of his life, Paha Sapa must learn to deal with this burden even as the white man’s world to the East overtakes his beloved homeland to the West.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

If I made a list of science fiction-y writers in the world, Christopher Priest would be near the tip-top. Sublime prose, deft structure, probing ontological and metaphysical questions, intellectual engagement—books like The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Glamour, and others feature a writer who captures the art, imagination, and humanity inherently possible to writing. Continuing his run of success (and books with titles beginning with ‘The’), The Separation is both innately Priest yet something entirely fresh in his oeuvre.

Fish scales was the metaphor continuously popping into my head while reading The Separation—a strange thing considering the novel is a frame story. The book opens with pop historian Stuart Gratton searching for memoirs, testimonials, briefings—anything that can give him more information on a lesser-known British pilot from World War II named J.L. Sawyer. Having an identical twin, Sawyer competed in the 1936 Olympics in Germany alongside his brother in the coxless pairs, meeting some success. Rowing not a profitable enterprise, upon his return to England Sawyer pursued his second love in university, aircraft. Earning his pilot’s license and joining the RAF, his skills arrive just time in time for war to break out over Europe. Captain of numerous sorties over Germany, luck eventually catches up to Sawyer and he is shot down over the English Channel. Pulled from the sea by rescue craft, it is Sawyer’s convalescence which finds him trying to put the pieces, i.e. fish scales, back together.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Ghost Recon: Wildlands

If there is any difference between video games of old and new, it is the potential for immersion. Enhancements in technology now allow game developers to create ever more detailed environments that almost capture the illusion of being in the game’s world. Super Mario Brothers is fun, but it is nothing like the 3D, first-person experiences of Soma or Resident Evil 7. And this is not to even mention VR games. In short, players these days are thisclose to being the heroes or anti-heroes of their games. From apocalypse survivor to elven princess, WWII grunt to yakuza gangster, modern games are putting people in the shoes of characters like never before. Want to be a black ops operative working to stem the narcotics trade in Bolivia? 2017’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands puts you (and best played with, a handful friends) in those shoes.

Short on story, long on content, GR:W is a massive open world game filled with main and side missions in which the player infiltrates the Santa Blanca drug ring and takes out its leaders, region by region, until they arrive at the big boss El Sueno. Along the way, players will destroy cartel outposts, raid supply depots, assassinate targets, kidnap and interrogate cartel members, destroy comms infrastructure, assist local rebels, tag supplies like medicine and technology to be repurposed, hijack helicopters and airplanes, pilot gunboats—in general be a bad ass, black ops operative in an amazingly realistic rendition of Bolivia.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review of Ice by Anna Kavan

As most avid readers are aware, there are different novels for different moods and different occasions. We have the term ‘beach read’ for a reason, just as much as a quiet evening in bed with a glass of wine is a good time to really dig into a book—not story, novel, tale, but book. One that initially seems could be read for entertainment given the steady headway, cogent imagery, and erratic bursts of energy but in fact requires reflection to put the pieces together and examine what lays under the surface, Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) is a fine marriage of art and enjoyment, bed and beach.

In form, Ice is a triangle of characters that perpetually discombobulates itself while the world is slowly engulfed by a blanket of ice. An unnamed narrator pursuing an unnamed young woman protected by a man called the Warden, the trio move and shift across a landscape that is evolving underfoot due to the oncoming wall of ice and the socio-political climate of war it is driving ahead of itself. The narrator drawing ever closer to the woman as eco-disaster looms, it’s only a question of mindset whether he can hold on to his desire long enough.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Review of The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction ed. by Gardner Dozois

Best-of anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror almost feel a dime a dozen these days. Everybody’s grandma is producing one, each attempting to capture some portion of the market (a portion diminishing with each new best-of). But one of the first, in the 80s, was Gardner Dozois’ best science fiction of the year. And in the three decades since, Dozois produced an annual volume of what he considered stand out. In 2019, apparently it was time to narrow the field further, The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of The Year's Best Science Fiction the (semi-)retrospective result. (More on “semi-“, later.)

Containing a massive thirty-eight stories, stories that cover nearly the frequency and range of the genre, The Best of the Best is something that must be tackled like an elephant: one piece at a time. And so we go. One of Charles Stross’ best ever short pieces, “Rogue Farm” is likewise one of the oddest pieces of fiction the reader will ever try to get their head around. A weed-smoking dog, crops unlike any other, and a proposed trip that just doesn’t seem to add up, this vignette captures science fiction’s magical ability to present the oddest of futures while still being wholly enjoyable. Like an artist sketching things out before starting a masterpiece, “The Little Goddess” is a diamond from the tiara of the novel River of Gods. About a girl raised in a technology inundated India of 2047, this story follows a perfect arc and ends on an extremely satisfying note combining tech and plot and setting.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of Biohacked & Begging by Stephen Oram

Warning: the following review is going to be more subjective than usual. Read at your own risk.

In the past ten years, I have read a staggering amount of fiction (probably more than is healthy), and there are times I feel I’ve encountered it all—short, long, experimental, retro, modern, post-modern, meta-modern, epistolary, framed, second-person, and on and on and on. But for whatever reason, I’ve only read one or two pieces of flash fiction. Something that is relatively new in the taxonomy of story types, with Stephen Oram’s 2019 science fiction collection Biohacked & Begging I was struck head on by it.

Biohacked & Begging is short as a whole (+/- 150 pages) but seems it should be much longer given it contains 25 stories. One story is thirty pages and another literally a paragraph, but the rest need only about five-seven minutes to read, each. I normally stick to content in my reviews (and I will get to it shortly), but story-length is such an important aspect of the collection that it should be mentioned at the outset as it has a strong impact on the reading experience, particularly if the reader is looking for fully unpacked story ideas, well-developed characters, and other aspects of lengthier fiction. Like a box of chocolates, the reader is best off tasting a few of Oram’s tales and coming back the next day lest they devour half the box and become nauseated.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud & Ned Johnson

A recent issue in my family brought to a head a problem that had been bubbling unattended for years, and has set me on a quest to dig deeper into understanding a life and lives that I once thought I understood relatively well. Of course, it turns out there are layers I may have known existed in some vague way but severely underestimated the significance of. Long story short, thanks mom for helping me be who I wanted to be. That, in a nutshell, is the oh-so obvious yet not-so-obvious mantra of William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives (2018).

Looking around, you see it every day: parents, with the best of intentions, helping their children with some task or activity. ‘Help’ an intentionally vague term in my example, the manner in which these parents help varies greatly. Some sit back and watch, offering encouragement or support, while others do everything for the child, thinking them unable to accomplish the task themselves or afraid of them hurting themselves. An injured or hurt child is for the latter, somehow, a blight on the parent’s record. Highlighting the need to sever the child as extension of parent and allow the child to exist as an individual is at the heart of Stixrud and Johnson’s book. If you love someone you have to let them go applies to parenting, also.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The past twenty or thirty years of fantasy and science fiction have seen an increased mining of world mythologies for story material. Some of this entirely derivative, some of it informative, some inquisitive, some exploratory, some combinative, and some of it just looking to update the style for a modern audience, regardless, its increased presence on the market is clear. In what is clearly a tribute to his love for the Norse myths and a desire to bring said stories to a contemporary audience in a modern voice (much the same as John Steinbeck did with The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights), Neil Gaiman pulled together his version of the old stories in Norse Mythology (2018).

Odin, Thor, Loki—the names are familiar to most people with only a little knowledge of world mythologies and legends. And in Norse Mythology they are front and center—alongside a fair number of giants, trolls, ogres, elves, other gods, and the like. But where most may assume the trio spent their time battling these creatures in the mythology, nothing could be further from the truth. Engaged in battles of wit would be a better summary. Norse Mythology defines a handful of those battles.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Sapiens by Yuvel Noah Harari

I don’t normally start my reviews with post-reading discussion. I try to find an interesting point and lead into the book-at-hand’s premise or idea. But with Yuvel Noah Harari’s 2014 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I think it’s possible to start with the end, particularly one point of discussion I ended up having with my wife. It’s now almost two decades into the 21st century, and scientific research has reached the point where what was a variety of speculation the past couple centuries has slowly coalesced into surety in a lot of areas. There are things we no longer speak about as possible and likely, rather as understood and accepted facts. Certain details of evolution are still being investigated or may not be understood perfectly, but as a general theory it is now the de facto explanation for much of what has brought life on Earth to how it stands today. Only the irrational who don’t want it to be true, dismiss it as entirely false. This blanket of affirmed research is what has allowed Harari to write the grandest overview of humanity’s history to date.

Beginning with pre-historic humanity, and working its way through hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and scientifically revolutionized humanity, Sapiens describes our transition through known time from a bird’s eye view. A fascinating read, Harari sugar coats nothing. Finding the sweet spot between infotainment and formal research paper, Harari conveys information in a clear, direct manner and adds relevant examples and supporting material to color the proceedings. I daresay one of the reasons the books is so popular is the lucidity and sustained focus of Harari’s writing.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review of The Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker

If science fiction were the Catholic church, Rudy Rucker would be the patron saint of quantum cupcakes. Saint, indeed yes, such is the regard with which the community should hold Rucker. Trouble is, his area is of so little common interest (the majority of candles seem to be lit for the saints of commerce, i.e. space opera and heroic adventure) that it leaves a small but devoted cult chanting Rucker’s name and spouting his many mercies and blessings in tiny alcoves and reliquaries (ergo this blog). 2019’s The Million Mile Road Trip marks Rucker’s return after an eight year pilgrimage to the Plains of Crystal Sprinkles. Hands folded together in supplication, the man has still got everything worth lighting a candle for.

Telling the tale of high school surfer Villy, his trumpet playing girlfriend Zoe, and Villy’s annoying younger brother Scud, The Million Mile Road Trip is classic Rucker madcap genius. Going on a trans-galactic journey in a purple station wagon souped up with space magic, the trio, along with a revolving cast of wacky aliens, explores the ideas of parallel worlds, flatworlds, and of course, Rucker’s transreal special: ‘human development’. Quotation marks required, I don’t think there is anybody quite like the author to put characters through a grinder of alternate physical realities and have them come out changed people on the other side but still wholly and recognizably human.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

Dubbed by the author himself “Game of Domes”, Ian McDonald’s Luna series to date has taken readers on a science fiction journey in essence similar to George R.R. Martin’s famous series but wholly its own in terms of setting and character. The five dragons alive and kicking, McDonald’s families war over the ‘island’ of the moon, fighting with all tools at their disposal. From corporate maneuvering to outright hostility and assassination, life on Earth’s satellite offers the same quality soap opera drama without being imitative. 2019’s Luna: Moon Rising brings McDonald’s trilogy to a widespread, explosive, and entertaining conclusion.

The threads of story and character introduced in Luna: New Moon and frayed further in Luna: Wolf Moon are at last bound together in Luna: Moon Rising. Picking up events where Wolf Moon let off, the Cortas scramble to take control of the moon in the wake of Jonathan Keyode’s death. The McKenzies, having been bloodied, plot their revenge with Bryce now at the head. The Suns may be quiet, but there is belief behind the scenes the time has come for their zenith once again. Forever seemingly aloof, the Voronsov’s continue to build their infrastructure empire by playing all sides against the middle when profitable. And the Asamoahs continue to look the good guys all the while a select few family members put into action more sinister plans. But with powers on Earth having plans of their own for the moon, the five dragons may not see certain threats before it’s too late.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Review of A Hero Born by Jin Yong

It is a difficult thing to find Chinese fiction translated into English. A great deal of the classics (Zhuangzi, Confucius, Laozi), the ‘four novels of the Chinese canon’, and a fair amount of poetry have all made their way in translation, but modern and post-modern (and I assume now meta-modern) novels are few and far between. It is thus perhaps something of a significant moment that The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) has made its way across the lingual divide in an official translation from St. Martin’s Press, the first volume of which is A Hero Born.

A Hero Born doesn’t stop from the word go. Telling the story of the sworn brothers Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian, it is set against a backdrop of the Song-Jin dynasties (in what is roughly China today) and the rise of the Mongolian tribes to the north. In action-packed style, it tells the story of farmers Yang and Guo whose lives, caught at an unfortunate crossroads, take a fateful turn when a renegade Taoist monk who has recently killed a corrupt government official finds his way to their village. The army tracking him there, the fight turns ugly, and spins the lives of Yang and Guo’s families in different directions. A Hero Born is the story of those lives—or at least Act I.