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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

I think it’s fair to say ninjas are a fascination of the West. Silent, acrobatic killers, masked, and wielding a variety of neat weapons and tools, they appear in all forms of media: books, movies, comics, tv, and beyond. And they are perfect for video games. From the early 2D action-platformer Ninja Gaiden to Sub Zero, Scorpion, and Reptile in Mortal Kombat, Shinobi 3D to all the games which feature the famous mutant, pizza-devouring turtles, ninjas have been captured in a variety of forms. But for all the games which have appeared, none seem to have captured their true aura. The original Ninja Gaiden and its later reboot perhaps coming closest, those games’ focus is heavily action, however, which prevents ninjas from being the sneaky, rooftop-crouching, bush-hiding, masked assassins. But the situation has been rectified. Combining action and stealth in an interactive environment that drips ‘ninja’ is Mimimi’s 2016 Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.

Set in feudal Japan, the storyline of Shadow Tactics is quite straight-forward. The new shogun, tired of ongoing rebellion in the provinces, sends a crack team to destroy the rebellion from within while making his military assault on the front. Players take on the roles of the five characters in that team (depending on the mission) and need to deploy the special skills each has in order to accomplish the missions’ objectives. Hayato has sword and shuriken, and can distract enemies by throwing stones. Mugen the big samurai can kill multiple enemies with a single swing of his katana and lure unsuspecting guards with a bottle of sake. Yuri is a small thief who can set traps and lure enemies (a la the Pied Piper) with her flute. Aiko is the master of disguises and has a sneezing powder that temporarily blinds guards. And Takuma is an elderly gentlemen good with gunpowder, including his marksman’s rifle and various explosives. Together, they help the shogun get to the bottom of the cabal and put an end to the rebellion. Trouble is, the rebellion may be closer to home than he realizes.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Review of Brasyl by Ian McDonald

I would guess that almost every bibliophile does it: postpone reading a book they know they will enjoy, saving it for some yet-unknown, special moment. I have done it countless times, and I know the books still sitting on my shelf waiting for that mysterious “right” moment to unveil itself (Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, Jack Vance’s Alastor series, Until recently, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (2007) was on that list. I almost don’t need to ask: was it worth the wait?
Brasyl is told in three distinct threads. The first is set in present day Rio de Janeiro (at least as of 2006) and features Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious, less than morally scrupulous television producer bent on finding the next great reality tv show. Striking upon an idea she thinks is a winner, she sets out to find the goalie who lost the 1950 World Cup for Brazil and trap him in an interview. The second thread is set a couple decades in the future and features a petty criminal named Erdon. The future rife with Q-technology—technology that can undo the binding of matter and information, Erdon’s life on the street has added dimensions that give existence an edge, literally and figuratively, but particularly when a woman he thought dead reappears. And the third strand is set in the mid-18th century and features an Irish-Portuguese priest, Louis Quinn, heading deep into the Amazon jungle to find a mad vicar who is burning the land and killing natives. How McDonald ultimately links these three narratives is the makings of enjoyable, entertaining fiction.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review of Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

In my youth, I was baffled by the persistence and popularity of horoscopes. They seemed leftover charlantism in a world that appeared to have moved on. But the older I got, the more I understood that the world, or more precisely people, had not evolved. The name on the door may be different (science, Christianity, corporate ladder, etc.), but for the majority of people some higher power is needed to offer faith, to provide structure or purpose in life. Katie William’s subtle but affecting Tell the Machine Goodnight (2018) takes a look at our society just a couple years down the road where a small DNA-driven device takes on the role of mother horoscope for many people.
While it’s easy to make a case that certain characters are prominent and others not, it’s impossible to say Tell the Machine Goodnight has a protagonist. A family in the spotlight, the novel shifts comfortably in and out of the lives of the unnamed group, telling the influence Apricity has on them. Apricity a small device into which a person enters a swab of cells from inside the mouth, it spits out a piece of paper that describes, sometimes in certain and sometimes in vague terms, what will make them happy. The divorcees Pearl and Elliot, their teenage son Rhett, Val (Elliot’s new wife), and others in their lives all react to the device’s cryptic scriving in different ways.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Koh-i-noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by Anita Anand & William Dalrymple

I do not consider myself a materialistic person. My only bodily ornamentations are a wedding ring and watch. My home is simply furnished, and organized for practicality. And my car is a Volkswagen Passat sedan, as average as might be. And yet when traveling, I want to see the most striking places in the world. I want to visit the best treasures of humanity’s past and see what the highest of culture has on offer. I can’t afford a five-star hotel, but I enjoy seeing how kings of old lived, their castles and thrones, and their fates, as dramatic or ordinary as they may be. I love being at places like Chichen Itza or Angkor Wat and imagining what life might have been like, their exoticism off the charts. That is my only explanation for wanting to read William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Kohinoor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (2016), as otherwise, I couldn’t give a damn.
History is parsed in different ways. From biographies to the evolution of countries or cultures, details of particular conflicts to people interviews, we learn about the past along different lines. With its biographical elements, rises and falls of empires, and numerous waypoints between, Dalrymple’s Kohinoor is a jagged line, a criss-crossing of more standard lines of history, and comes across quite engaging for it. Given the diamond spent the majority of its life in the Middle East and India in times far more uncertain and turbulent than now, not to mention opulent and grandiose, its history is filled with intrigue and excitement. For want of a better term, its history would fit snugly in the tabloids of Shah Jahan or the Persian courts.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Soma

Slightly off-center on the mental spectrum, Philip K. Dick was king of presenting the fuzzy area between reality and perceived reality in his fiction. Drugs, technology, mysticism, brainwashing, or just differences in personal viewpoint (e.g. Are we living in a mass hallucination?) were devices he used to illustrate the difference. All are troubling, but perhaps the scariest is technology. Differences in perception due to drugs, mysticism, brainwashing, etc. we can chalk up to inevitable aspects of being human, even technology to a large degree. But it is technology which has the potential to make permanent, irreversible changes to society’s perceptions. Exploring one technological possibility in what is thus far video gaming’s most intelligent, mature, and existential story is Frictional Games’ 2016 Soma.

At the start of Soma, the player is introduced to Simon Jarret. Recently in an auto accident that killed his girlfriend and left him with brain damage, Jarret has signed up for an experimental brain scan in an attempt to get to the root of the bleeding still plaguing him a month later. Seeming innocuous enough, he arrives at the graduate research clinic on the appointed morning, settles into the dentist-like chair, attaches the head device, and begins the scan…

Friday, March 29, 2019

Review of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

For me, there are two types of horror: superficial horror intended to get a temporary rise out of the consumer (Boo!—pun intended), and horror with depth—metaphorical, psychological, existential, slipstream, Weird, etc. The moment my brain encounters the former, it looks for something better to do, whereas the latter can set it tingling with uncomfortable interest, yet certainly interest. What then to say about Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)?

A frame story, The Woman in Black tells the tale of Arthur Kipps. Having a splendid Christmas time with his family, things take a strange turn when sitting around the hearth the family members are asked to tell the best ghost story they know. Kipps uncomfortable with the idea, he knows his story is not a story, but a memory he is still struggling with. As a young man just starting his career, Kipps was asked by his boss to go the country estate of a recently deceased woman and take account of her affairs. Arriving at the small village nearby, things start to take on an uncertain hue. Seeing things that may or may not exist, Kipps nevertheless is interested in spending the night in the deceased woman’s marshy home to get his commission over with. It is a decision he will doubt the rest of his life.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review of Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford Simak

There is a reputation, a certain line of opinion that holds science fiction to be that form of literature which abandons human reality in favor of the theoretically abstract. And while I would argue the majority is not per se, indeed there are numerous examples to support the perspective. Straddling the fence in frustrating and engaging fashion is Clifford Simak’s Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967).

The Forever Center is an Adam Smith dream come true. Storing frozen, dead bodies for a future time when the universe is ready for teeming billions of immortals, they have likewise convinced these “stockholders” to let the Forever Center handle their finances while in waiting. Accumulating a majority of the world’s wealth in the process, they are the corporation of corporations—the mother of them all. Their future selling point keeping them somewhat honest, a newspaper headline threatens to blow them wide open, however: the technology for immortality they claim to own may not actually exist.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The lives of spies and double-agents are the stuff of good cinema for the majority of people. Based on its very nature, it’s rare that espionage news with real-world import leaks into the public eye. Kim Philby or Mata Hari might be names known by a few, but certainly James Bond comes more readily to mind for the overwhelming majority. It’s thus that the average person has little knowledge of real international intelligence. Pulling together what he believes to be The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre’s 2018 The Spy and the Traitor tells the real life story of Oleg Gordievsky. Romance, drama, escape—Mr. Bond could not do any better.

Born into a KGB family (his father an administrator in Moscow and his brother an undercover international spy), Oleg Gordievsky would go on to follow in their footsteps. Trouble is, his own political views would get in the way. Stationed in Copenhagen early in his career, the difference in quality of life was too much for him to handle. Life in the West, with its freedom of speech, free market, and lack of paranoia were far more to not only his personal philosophy, but also what he believed was good for Russian people. Contacted by a British secret service agent soon thereafter, The Spy and the Traitor is Gordievsky’s absolutely amazing story.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Review of Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem famously isolated the moment the Science Fiction Writers of America association chose to award best novel of the year to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (in turn relegating Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to second tier) as a turning point in science fiction’s history. The opportunity for the genre to head in a more literary direction missed, Lethem lamented the association’s inability to recognize the moment and push science fiction toward higher standards. Walking the talk, Lethem himself has never been a popular genre figure precisely due to the fact his stories rarely if ever run anywhere near the middle of the road. Backing this idea up is his collection of short stories Men and Cartoons (2004).

A very brief collection, Men and Cartoons, as the dichotomy hints, would have the juvenile and mature natures of its characters examined in short fiction form. In “The Vision”, an irritable man attends a party where the guests are playing a social deduction game called Mafia (aka Werewolf). Unhappy with the game, he introduces something more to his liking into the group dynamic. Lethem biting off more than he can chew, “Access Fantasy” ostensibly tells of cyberpunk-ish future where a man living in his car enters the neighborhood of the affluent to investigate a murder. Possible that the story is full-on satire (versus my impression it is only partial satire), the setting is as close to middle-of-the-road sf as the collection gets, and if indeed only partially satire, does just an average job fleshing out the target of its derision.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

John Gray’s Straw Dogs occupies a hallowed place in my library. As stark and bleak as its overview may be, it remains one of the books striking closest to anything that I personally might describe as a ‘fundamental reality to existence’. Anyone who has read the book will be aware that said reality is anything but concretely finite, nevertheless Gray has a way of cutting directly to the heart of matters (no Hegelian or Sartre-ian ramblings here) in his discussions on the nature of human nature, without flighty language. Straw Dogs published in 2002, Gray expands his worldview to include the nature of “non-belief” in 2019 with Seven Types of Atheism. (Do not, whatever you do, confuse this John Gray with John Gray, writer of Men Are From Mars, Women from Venus—or any of these other John Grays.)

While I can appreciate Gray was giving a nod to William Empson and Seven Types of Ambiguity, the book’s title Seven Types of Atheism is sure to put off a few readers who are unaware of the link. Not a dry, scientific breakdown of atheism’s taxonomy, the book is instead an erudite, dynamic presentation of the manifestations of atheism, from ancient times until now, and the consistencies and inconsistencies they purport. Everyone from Plato to Joseph Conrad are brought forth for discussion. Thus while the book is broken into seven basic types of atheism, the sections feed back and forth among one another toward making and defining the points on Gray’s agenda.

Console Corner: Review of The Last of Us DLC "Left Behind"

The Last of Us is considered by many one of the greatest games of all time, and by some, the greatest. A powerful cocktail of mature story, beautiful music, tense action, excellent design, and fun, engaging gameplay, it satisfies video gaming’s (unwritten) tenets from every facet. Developer Naughty Dog uncertain of the game until it was released, they were left scrambling to offer DLC content in the wake of its success. How to offer additional, meaningful gameplay to an experience that was already complete? Their answer: a combination backstory and in-story segue focusing on Ellie called “Left Behind” (2014).

Where The Last of Us drives its story in a straight line, “Left Behind” oscillates between two time periods: early-infection Boston and Colorado directly after Joel’s horrific injury at the University. Though very different in appearance, both story parts are set in abandoned shopping malls. In Boston, Ellie and her friend Riley have fun playing in the empty concourses, tinkering with arcade machines, and raiding abandoned shops. In Colorado, Ellie searches among the wreckage and abandoned shops of an outdoor mall, looking for medicine that will prevent Joel’s wound from becoming infected.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review of The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

Extensive cellars of the world’s best wines. Pristine slopes with no other skiers, the lifts at your disposal. A hotel kitchen with an endless supply of food that never spoils. The penthouse room available day in and day out for sleeping and leisure. Paradise calls, such is the tragedy of Graham Joyce’s touching 2010 The Silent Land.

British couple Zoe and Jake have decided to splurge at a four-star French hotel in the Alps, enjoying a week of skiing. Out on the slopes early one morning to get the freshest powder, the unthinkable happens, an avalanche. Jake lucky enough to find shelter among trees, he hears Zoe’s cries, and helps her from the packed snow. Arriving back in the village where their hotel is, however, the couple notice something strange; all lights are on but there are no people. Everything seemingly stuck in a time warp, the pair believe they have been left behind in the aftermath of the avalanche, and settle in to await contact with the outside world once again. At first everything seems wonderful—they have the wine, food, and slopes to themselves. But then they notice the lack of entropy. The fire in the hearth burning endlessly, the two start to question their situation...

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Review of Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

In the 1980s, the British pop group Talk Talk decided it had had enough of its heavily produced, saccharine sounds for the masses and decided to veer off in a new direction, self-producing their own album Spirit of Eden. A commercial failure yet something more sophisticated connoisseurs of music picked up on, the album is testament to the value of going with your heart and creating what’s real to yourself. With a history of only genre-oriented fiction in his wake, I can’t help but feel that Robert Jackson Bennett, with 2019’s Vigilance, is striking out on his own—at least in this instance. But perhaps most interesting is, Bennett striking out on his own is not what may polarize readers; it’s the story’s substance that’s likely to divide.

With Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Ursula Le Guin, and a variety of other writers standing—standing—on the wings applauding (Sheckley is probably cupping his hands and shouting “Encore!”), Vigilance tells the story of a near-future America that doesn’t feel entirely futuristic. With gun laws perpetuating themselves unaltered, mass shootings only increase in America, and the government decides to take advantage. Preying off fear and paranoia, they go with the flow and make entertainment of it. Each citizen required at all times to be ready for an active shooter, the ultimate reality television show is born: Vigilance.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review of The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

It is an observance of the glut of contemporary publishing that sales tail off in series. Rare is the fantasy series whose most recent release sells as well as its first volume. While undoubtedly there are some human traits at work behind this observation (good intentions not always panning out, short attention spans, jumping trains for the next great thing, etc., etc.), there is likewise the idea that few authors are able to perpetually mine fresh excitement and interest from their initial premise to push momentum beyond the first volume. Such is for certain not the case with Josiah Bancroft’s The Hod King (2019).

A cattle prod jolting the ongoing Tower of Babel series, this, the third volume, delivers in all the surprising, unexpected ways a prospective reader could hope without abandoning any of the fundamental blocks the story’s main interest is built upon. Regardless whether Bancroft had the story mapped out all along or is just playing things by ear and going with the flow, this latest installment in Thomas Senlin’s adventures is superb, threatening, in fact, to push the series far above the madding crowd to become one of the greatest of said contemporary glut. Yes, The Hod King is that good.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Kong Off His Back: Triumph and Inspiration

Sometimes there are stories in life that just grab us, our fundamental human nature, and affect us in ways we can’t easily explain. Seeming to transcend existence, many of these stories find their way into interesting biographies or historical pieces, and some fall by the wayside, known and appreciated only by a select few. Searching for Sugar Man and Unbroken are two unbelievable stories that defy belief. And yet they happened, stirring feelings deep within us watching them unfold on the screen. There are lesser known but equally affecting stories like that of Zhang Dan’s—her fall, courage to continue, and reward for perseverance. Touching rarely visited places within us, these real-life stories give rise to complex, gratifying emotions, even though we are not the ones who had the experiences directly. This is one such story.

For that thimbleful of readers who regularly make their way to this blog, they will notice the occasional, odd post on an esport known as Starcraft 2. For the unaware, it is chess3. Not only do players move pieces around on a “board” and defend and attack, economies must be managed to even produce pieces, all the pieces can be upgraded, there is limited visibility where the opponent’s pieces are, and all decisions and movement are done real-time. Unlike chess, there is no stoppage after a move so the opponent can think about their riposte. Everything is fluid—action, reaction, strategy, tactics, advance, retreat, attack, defend. The number of mental balls a player must juggle at one time makes it the most difficult esport on the planet, and something only an extreme-extreme minority of people, master.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review of Eternity and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

While his writing technique moved within a limited range, Lucius Shepard remains one of the most versatile writers ever to put words on the page in terms of substance. From science fiction to magic realism, fantasy to realism, horror to satire, literary to genre, Shepard’s oeuvre covers a wide range of subjects, modes, and material. It’s thus a shame that Shepard’s popularity spiked in the 80s and 90s given that some of his most mature and relevant work was published in the 21st century. Looking at a post-9-11 world, African despots, war in the Middle East, the American justice system, and other subjects, Eternity and Other Stories (2005) collects seven novelettes and novellas proving just how diverse Shepard’s portfolio truly is.

In the 80s, Shepard wrote several stories chastising American involvement in Central America from the soldiers’ points of view. From drugs to propaganda, the jungles of “Salvador”, “R&R”, and other stories complement their haunted worlds. In Eternity, Shepard updates the setting for the 21st century equivalent of Central America: our post 9-11 world. The drugs and propaganda remain. In “Only Partly There”, a manual laborer part of the crews removing the rubble of the World Trade Center spends time with his crewmates at a local bar after work. Drowning the sorrows of finding body parts, people’s personal effects, and working in a morass of endless debris, it’s a depressing escape, that is, until the young man reaches out to a corporate woman who frequents the bar. While at heart a standard tale, Shepard nevertheless deftly plays with imagination, metaphor, and reality in a fashion relevant to the sorrows and concerns of the city and nation.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Rise of the Tomb Raider

I am old enough to have played Tomb Raider when it first came out on the PS1. One of the few games I invested myself in (at the time) to complete, I loved the eerie atmosphere of the caves and loved even more working through the puzzles. I would say the game gave off a proper Indiana Jones, tomb raiding feel that defined Lara Croft and her world. Fast forward twenty years to the release of Tomb Raider (2013). While certainly technically and graphically enhanced, the game only partially echoed the original. Revamped for the modern Assassin’s Creed/Uncharted audience, Crystal Dynamics opted for a faster-paced, story-driven, action-adventure game. There were puzzles, but they were complementary rather than necessary. I would still say the transition was successful, however. More sophisticated than Uncharted and less convoluted than Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider (2013) held a nice balance across its elements that made for a fun, enjoyable gaming experience—so much so I invested in the follow up, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015).

Where Tomb Raider (2013) aimed to be the origin story of how Lara Croft changed from university student to fledgling tomb taider, Rise of the Tomb Raider aims to be… I don’t know what to write here. I suppose it aims to be the next logical step: Lara’s digging into her father’s shadowy past as an explorer and adventurer, finding more about the mysterious ‘holy grail’ he sought, and moving her closer to the Tomb Raider (sound the gong) we are familiar with. The reason I say I’m not 100% sure what to write is that Rise of the Tomb Raider’s storyline is weak. I understand faceless enemies are the norm in video games, but Trinity and its minions are too many degrees separated from Lara’s relatively human story to be remotely relatable. (The treasure hunters in the original Tomb Raider still seem the most logical competition.) Secondly, there were too many times I felt I was just going through the action/adventure motions of uncovering secrets, being captured, discovering numinous objects, escaping, etc., etc. It was as if the story’s pieces lacked the proper setup to allow me to suspend my disbelief. And thirdly the storyline felt vanilla—like one I had seen or read several times before. (In fact, I believe Uncharted 2’s storyline may have been nearly identical…) There were few truly unique details or signature moments to distinguish it. Things evolve exactly as expected, no surprises. As story is one of the primary reasons to play the game, around the halfway point I was struggling to remain engaged.

Console Corner: Review of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

Tomb Raider was one of the few games I played on the first Playstation console, let alone completed. And I have distinct memories—the unique gameplay (for its time) and satisfaction of having finished it without assistance helping solidify this. (Online guides were still a thing of the future in 1996.) It was thus an interesting experience, twenty years later, to play Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Lara Croft for the 21st century, it was a lesson on how far games have both evolved and devolved.

One of my distinct memories of the first Tomb Raider is how much discovery and problem solving was involved, and the relative difficulty. There were various gun fights, but the majority of the game was focused on locating puzzle pieces, finding levers to open gates, moving bits of the environment to access other areas, locating switches that open certain doors, and coming upon the right ledge or tunnel to get to the next area. A lot of trial and error involved, progress was sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly just out of reach. I cannot say the same about Tomb Raider: DE—which is not a bad thing by default, just an observation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review of Distrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson

I imagine there are many readers who came to the work of William Gibson long after he had made a name for himself, only to be disappointed. The hype did not match the fiction. And yet for those readers, I would guess the stories linger longer than they expected. Some fundamental understanding, some raw human relationship to technology and culture was present in Gibson’s novels in ways they may not have consciously realized. Bringing that understanding to the surface is Gibson’s 2012 collection of non-fiction Distrust That Particular Flavor.

A myriad, Distrust That Particular Flavor delivers a wide-wide variety of writing. Not only essays, the book likewise collects speeches, magazine articles, newspaper copy, interviews, autobiography, book introductions, travel pieces—all from such disparate sources as Wired, The Observer, Forbes, Rolling Stone, New York Times Magazine, The Whole Earth Catalog, and many others. Covering a span of approximately sixteen years, the twenty-six pieces of non-fiction are all short yet profound in some fashion; the quiet intelligence and insight into human existence underlying Gibson’s novels is here openly revealed for what readers have suspected all along.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review of The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest

Setting is one of the foundational stones in any fictional wall, yet there are times that authors create places so malleable and adaptable as to be perpetually open to further creation. Epic fantasy worlds have, of course, spawned innumerable volumes, not to mention a hero or set of characters have propelled many a series into multiple volumes. But like arrows shot into an apple tossed into the sky, what we’re talking specifically about here are places where individual stories have been told and completed, only for the author to return some time later and tell a entirely separate tale. Different characters, different themes, some classic examples include Michael Bishop’s Catacomb Years, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, Ian Macleod’s Aether stories, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris works, Thomas Disch’s 334, and essentially anything by William Gibson. To this list of quality fiction we must certainly add Christopher Priest’s The Dream Archipelago.

A twenty year gap, the stories in The Dream Archipelago were all published individually between 1978 and 1980 yet were not collected (in English) until 1999. (The French, in their infinite wisdom, collected the stories in 1981.) In honor of the English publication, Priest wrote a fictional introduction. More scene than story, “The Equatorial Moment” describes an airman’s experience as he crosses over a horizon point in the dream archipelago. Priest deploying his powers of description subtly, it belays the leaving behind of the real world and sets the stage for further revelatory experiences.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review of Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle

Shorter review: initially a splash of fresh of water, which slowly becomes murkier and murkier …

Longer review: Writing reviews means a few things more than pure reading for pleasure. One of the primary differences is: to finish or not to finish? For pleasure, a person can simply abandon a book when it no longer pleases them. For a blog, there is a certain sense of obligation to push on to have the complete view for a complete review; it’s difficult to write an opinion about a whole if only a piece is known. It thus happens that reading can sometimes become a chore for a blogger. Such is my experience with Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles (1999).

Possessing a wonderfully atmospheric opening, one that draws the reader in and begs them to read further, Rats and Gargoyles, unfortunately, begins to unravel after its opener. The tight sense of setting and purpose begins to dilute itself in less than wholly meaningful character interaction, stabs at humor, and a plot and character list that show few signs of reducing themselves in size. Each step forward gets harder and harder…

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

There are several writers in the world who I am familiar with their name, and given particular reviews, feel instinctively that I would like, perhaps even love, only for one reason or another I still have not gotten around to reading them. Graham Joyce was always one such writer. Respected by other authors whose work I admire and reviewed highly by more sophisticated readership, he remained unread for reasons only the gods can perceive. That is, until now: Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012) has been read, and it’s easy to say, my instincts regarding Joyce have been utterly and thoroughly vetted.

After twenty years away and her family and friends thinking her dead, Tara Martin walks back into the family home one Christmas day. Her mother fainting to the floor, everyone, including Tara’s brother Pete, are in shock. Not looking a day older than when they last saw her, Tara’s appearance matches her story—that she was kidnapped by fairies just six months ago, but overall just doesn’t add up to the real world of loss, heartache, and pain the past two decades have brought to those closest to her. And that’s only the first few chapters…

Console Corner: Review of Shadow of the Colossus

As highlighted previously, I am a person who is dipping back into video games after having been away for two decades. The explosion of the gaming industry happening in my extended afk, there are numerous, numerous titles I missed. Trying to focus on those which have had the greatest staying power, I’ve slowly been picking up games which still seem relevant despite the advances in technology, graphics, etc. Some of these games have met expectations in spades (The Last of Us, Journey, etc.) while some have been fun but not so spectacular (Uncharted, Bioshock, etc.). It’s at least been an interesting and eye-opening return journey. Near the top, or at the top of many players’ ‘greatest games of all time’ lists, is SIE Japan Studio’s Shadow of the Colossus. So when it was announced a remastered version was coming for the PS4, I was all ears. Released in February 2018, I bought a copy, have now played it, and…

Firstly, Shadow of the Colossus, if nothing else, deserves recognition for daring to walk its own road, and as a result be an inimitable game. Where most action-adventures feature a cycle of gun/sword combat, followed by a boss battle, followed by exploration/puzzle sections where players must find their way to the next gun/sword fight, SotC bucks this trend. Combining all those aspects into one, the game is simply sixteen boss battles, each of which presents its own set of puzzley-combat difficulties in a variety of environments.
Set in a decaying land of craggy mountains and open fields, deep lakes and stony cliffs, ruined temples and blowing deserts, players start the game as Wander, a young man on a quest to revive a girl named Mono who was killed for being cursed. Wander’s only companion his horse Agro, he arrives at the Temple of the Kormin where he learns in order to resurrect Mono, he must take down sixteen colossi hidden in the surrounding mountains. The catch is, he must be prepared to sacrifice something, himself.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Review of The Gradual by Christopher Priest

If there is anything we have an evolving relationship with in life it is time. Small children essentially ignorant of the concept and the elderly perhaps all too aware, our perception of time changes throughout our lives. Sometimes by sub-conscious degree and other times as the result of dramatic events, who we are—our identities—are closely linked to our understanding and relationship with the clock. (How was that for a Proustian review intro?) Engaging with this evolution in highly intriguing fashion is Christopher Priest’s 2016 The Gradual.

Alessandro Suskind has the misfortune of being born in the country of Glaund. A totalitarian, oppressive country persistently at war, many of its best sons are whisked away in the military draft, including his brother, Jacj, and never seen again. Due to a lull in the fighting, when Alessandro comes of age he avoids a similar fate and is able to develop his true passions in life, music and composing. Finishing university and getting his feet wet in the field at an early age, it isn’t long before he has some success. Publishing a couple of minor symphony and orchestral arrangements, his name becomes known even beyond Glaund. Asked one day to participate in a ten-week musical tour to a group of neighboring islands, Alessandro gets his first taste of life outside his oppressive Glaund and sees for himself the Dream Archipelago—the far off inspiration for some of his music. His troubles immediately set in, however, upon his return: his wristwatch not matching Glaund time, Suskind has a few pieces of his life to pick up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends was a delightful debut novel. Full of warmth and adventure, it borrowed a few tropes from steampunk but made its own world: a massive, bizarre tower featuring ringdoms of differing cultures and peoples. Bancroft generating the warmth through one man’s quest to find his lost wife amid the tower’s ringdoms, as well as the simple yet charming sense of the surreal imbuing the search, getting swallowed in Thomas Senlin’s quest was easy enough. Ending with his wife Marya still out of reach, Arm of the Sphinx (2015) picks up where the first left off, continuing Senlin’s search.

Now Thomas Mudd, captain of the stolen ship the Stone Cloud, and surrounded by a small but multi-talented crew, Arm of the Sphinx starts in the skies. Tensions among the crew spilling over from the climax of Senlin Ascends, Thomas must put to use all the skills from his days as a schoolmaster to attempt to bring harmony among them. Chased by tower officials, he and his crew are pirates as needs may require, fight when the odds are good, and flee when there is nothing to be had. But one encounter with the government’s mothership puts Thomas on his heels. It might also have put him on the right path to his beloved Marya…

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (and "Foxtales" expansion)

I am a gamer who loves seeing the popularity of indie games rise, or, from another perspective, the production of small-developer games persist. Experiences that hearken back to yesteryear gaming while offering gameplay that is potentially as exciting and engaging as the big AAA titles on today’s market, yes, pixel-art and other such visually simple games can be just as viable and enjoyable as games which maximize the technical possibilities of modern consoles with massive budgets and development teams. At times, they can even be better. I find games like Inside and Soma offer something more intelligent and sophisticated than games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition despite the significant gap in development budget. Recently playing Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) from Upper One Games (2016) and its expansion “Foxtales” only confirms this belief.

At heart a side-scrolling, 2D puzzle platformer, in Never Alone players take control of the Inupiaq girl Nuna, and a white fox who comes to her aid, as she tries to stop a raging blizzard that is tearing her Arctic village to pieces. Forced to help each other traverse the tricky terrain, Nuna and the fox navigate a variety of obstacles and traps with the help of Inupiaq spirits. Never Alone can be played solo, switching between Nuna and the fox, or co-op with one player controlling Nuna and the other, the fox. Teamwork between the two required, it’s impossible to complete Never Alone with just one character.