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.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Looking forward to in 2019....

I suppose it’s possible to apply the term hey-day, though I would waffle on whether such a relatively positive word can be attached to the glut of books and stories discharging itself from the guts of humanity these days. Indeed, explosion seems a more fitting term describing the unprecedented quantity of fiction available as 2018 turns into 2019. Humanity has never before experienced such a deluge, which means there are going to be too many titles desirable to read yet not enough time. Nevertheless, I will attempt to outline the books I know are coming in 2019 which strike interest of some sort, starting with the many risky books planned.

I believe Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale has entered society’s mindset of being among the tip-top dystopias ever published. Alongside Nineteen Eighty-four, We, and Brave New World, it has become one of the defining bleak thought experiments of the 20th century. With 2019’s The Testament, Atwood will attempt to continue Offred’s tale after the events of A Handmaid’s Tale. Will it be as good, or at least be complementary in quality fashion, one can only hope Atwood thought to publish a sequel after having a knock out idea. Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel form a wonderful, complementary pair. The former the story of young woman trying to find herself in an existence twisted by Swanwick’s quasi-fantasy, quasi-magic-realist pen, and the second the tale of a young man undergoing his own journey of self-discovery through an equally dynamic and colorful setting, it remains to be seen what the upcoming The Iron Dragon’s Mother can add to the pair, or at least the former. Threatening to split up the highly complementary nature of the pair (no husband likes to have an interfering mother-in-law, natch), one can at least hope Swanwick brings to the game an equally prodigious bit of imagination. The third risky book on my list is Tim Powers’ More Walls Broken. Powers seeming to have lost the mojo for the unique ideas he had at the beginning of this career and fallen back on allowing quality prose to propel relatively conventional stories, More Walls Broken doesn’t seem to want to break the trend. About a group of scientists who enter a graveyard to raise the dead, stereotype flags are waving high, and only reading the story will tell whether they are worth heeding.

Review of Brothers of the Head by Brian Aldiss

Siamese-twin pop stars. As of 2019 and the flood of fiction on the market, those words don’t cause anyone to bat an eye; the quest to be unique has pushed any barriers, real or perceived, aside as writers try to capture the last remaining bits of dry ground. But in 1977, undoubtedly it was an eyebrow-raising premise. Aldiss stating that it came to him in a dream, Brothers of the Head (1977) somehow even today can’t help but leave an impression.

It’s the 70s, and in an attempt to push the envelope for pop music, producers in the UK get wind of a pair of Siamese twins looking for life beyond their home on a desolate point of headland in Norfolk, and take a chance. Thus are Tom and Barry (and the third, lifeless head attached to Tom’s shoulder) brought to the big city and taught how to play music and sing. The experiment a success, within a year the pair have a band, The Bang Bang, and a couple hit singles. It’s the reality beyond their success, however, that matters.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review of 84k by Claire North

I’ve written enough reviews that coming up with an introductory paragraph has become the hardest part. Seemingly all the good ideas taken, setting the stage in a new way is a difficult, sometimes desperate affair. As such, I know how writers of dystopian fiction must feel as of 2018. The lowest hanging as well as the highest hanging fruit all picked, the tree of story premise is bare. Peering behind leaves and feeling around branches for something others may have missed, Claire North’s 84k (2018) takes a look at a near-future England where crime is an economically punitive affair.

Theo Miller works for the Criminal Audit Office. All crime assigned a monetary value, it is his job to analyze and define the financial indemnity the offender owes in compensation to the victim or their family, no jail-time required. Can’t pay your debt, well, off to exploitative community service for you—the patty lines. Corporations valued above all else, white collar offences and offences wherein corporations are victim hold the highest monetary values, while incidents on the street among common folk wield significantly less. Calloused by his work, crime comes to mean little to Theo, that is, until a case appears on his desk involving a former lover. The woman murdered, tallying up the value of her life in numbers touches something inside Theo. When another person from his past appears threatening to blackmail him, however, he has no choice but to dig deeper into the details of the murder. What he finds changes everything for himself, and Britain.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review of The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente

Whatever you read about Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) beforehand (except this review, natch), ignore it. It’s not superhero fiction. It’s not at heart tragic stories of women being treated poorly by men. It’s not a lot of boo-hooing, woe-is-me, where-is-my-recognition from the ladies who prepared all the feasts in Lord of the Rings. What it is, is vigorous, engrossing, human, and yes, fateful stories of everyday women, with the sugar and confetti of superhero tropes sprinkled over their lives in excellent, metaphorical fashion. (In comic books, the opposite is typically true.) Written in Valente’s vibrant/hilarious/cynical/delightful diction, it’s also a superb set of stories.

The perfect opener, “Paige Embry Is Dead” sets the scene by telling Embry’s disastrous story. A promising research student, Embry makes the mistake of showing off some of her work on volatile metals to her boyfriend, mutating him into Kid Mercury in the process. Evil lurking in the lab’s wings unbeknownst to Embry, her research is cut short by tragedy—one that even Kid Mercury cannot help with. What is likely the best story in the collection, “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Pauline Ketch” tells the story of a self-destructive person chasing what’s even worse for them. The bad girl riding with the wrong crowd and too proud to think differently, Pauline Ketch is the girl with starry eyes for James Dean on a motorcycle through her version of hell. Valente capturing lightning in a bottle, the character voice in this tale is pitch perfect.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

More than forty years of age. A couple thousand books read. Hundreds of science fiction novels in my library. And yet, I still had not read Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). That is, until now.

Arthur Dent awakes one day to find bulldozers outside his front door, waiting to plow his house under to make room for a new freeway. A man named Ford Prefect approaching, he convinces Dent to go out for some fresh air as the world is going to end in five minutes anyway, and that it would be best to spend those five minutes with Prefect as he has an escape route. The prophecy coming true, Dent finds himself aboard a space ship as the Earth disappears in a cloud of dust—the alien Vogons having cleared the planet to make room for a new intergalactic highway. Picaresque the only word to describe it, Dent’s subsequent adventures zipping across the galaxy involve a morose robot, Prefect’s two-headed (and wonderfully named) cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the only other person to survive Earth’s destruction, Tricia McMillan. Let the fun begin!

As one can inherently feel while reading, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on a stage production. A tongue-in-cheek, dialogue-based adventure moving from scene to scene, Hitchhiker’s Guide is at times laugh-out-loud funny and always unpredictable. Despite all the years of not having read the book, I now see the appeal (as well as one of Terry Pratchett’s main inspirations). Adams’ sense of humor—from similes to one-liners—is wholly British, and wholly uproarious. Dent a true fish out of water, the opportunities are capitalized upon in wonderful ways.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Best Reads of 2018

Regardless of year published (see here for 2018’s books, specifically), fiction or non-fiction, or novel or collection, the following are the roughly twenty books that stuck out in 2018. In no particular order, they are:

A Fortress in Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – An extraordinary bildungsroman, Lethem takes elements of his own Brooklyn upbringing and melds them into the story of Dylan Ebdus’ growth and development into adulthood. Brooklyn evolving literally under Dylan’s feet, it’s a clash of cultures, race, class, and domestic life with a soft heart that leaves its mark on the reader for its brutal honesty.

Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day – A dynamic, wonderful collection of short stories, Day’s deceptively simple hand guides readers through a forest of scarred hope and silver linings. The focus on humanity throughout, themes such as loss, personal paradigm shifts, and domestic issues permeate this superb collection.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan – Kiernan’s magnum opus (to date, at least—she is capable of topping herself), she takes the main premise of The Red Tree and develops what was a good book into a great one. Entirely shifting settings, this story of a seemingly schizophrenic woman tossed on the waves of uncertainty and bad decision has all of the fine mystery between allegory and reality a humanist novel could have.

334 by Thomas Disch – A collection of novellas interwoven through a fictional NYC apartment building, what Disch’s near future lacks in terms of action and drama it doubles down on examining the potential effects of technology on the commonalities of urban life, and by extension all humanity. Deceivingly simple, this collection/novel slowly builds momentum into its collage of life that is the final novella.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Review of Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod’s entrance onto the science fiction stage was a happy marriage of space opera and futuristic politics. The Fall Revolution a non-linear tetralogy of branching stories and timelines, it kept glancing back at our reality while pushing its unique narrative forward. The follow up, the Engines of Light trilogy, took itself less seriously, dipping into many familiar stereotypes of space fiction. In 2004 Macleod disengaged with series and went the stand-alone route, Newton’s Wake the result. Combining the politics of the Fall Revolution with the tried-n-true space opera fireworks of the Engines of Light, it comes across as a leaner version of an Iain Banks’ novel, which is not bad company.

Lucinda Carlyle and her team of scavengers emerge from a wormhole on the planet Eurydice to investigate anything worth looting. Though encountering a baffling array of technology so advanced as to appear alien, they have no time to investigate, the local (human) militia swooping in and grabbing them. Taken prisoner, Carlyle and her team are brought to the capitol city and learn they are the biggest news the planet has ever had. Despite all of its technical prowess and know-how, the people of Eurydice believed they were the lone survivors of a Singularity event thousands of years prior that supposedly destroyed all humanity. Carlyle and her team proving otherwise, a new light is put upon the alien technology. But things really break wide open when another faction of humanity arrives. No small team of scavengers, a massive ship lands and effectively takes over the planet, that is, unless the local Eurydiceans, and perhaps Lucinda, have something to say about it.

Console Corner: Review of Titanfall 2

In my slow journey back into video games, I’m discovering interesting byways—lesser walked paths of online media—that are proving more valuable for trustworthy, consistent content than the mainstream outlets. As such, games the mainstream media do not cover, or cover poorly, are being brought to my attention—sleepers, future cult classics, and indie hits. Included in this list are good games that, for whatever reason, got the short end of the stick upon release, and therefore did not gain the popularity they deserved. Rarely discussed in the same light as such repetitive titles as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Destiny, etc, is Respawn Entertainment’s 2016 Titanfall 2. Possibly the best first-person shooter ever developed, likely many gamers aren’t aware of it, but should be.

Titanfall 2 is a two mode game: single and multi-player. My internet connection is shit, not to mention I tend to gravitate toward single-player experiences, which means I did not try the multi-player mode. I would say, however, it appears the game was designed to primarily be a multi-player experience, not to mention the single-player impressed me so much that I thought of trying to log in. More later…

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best of 2018's Books

Due to a variety of issues, 2018 was odd. But I still managed to read twenty books published in the year, and as always missed a number that I wanted to read but for one reason or another, didn’t. Overall in terms of fiction (I mostly read speculative fiction), 2018 was a solid year. Beyond, well... and sigh...

Choosing a best novel up until December was a highly equivocal affair. There were several good, intelligent books to choose from. But none stood out as ‘best’, I am novel, hear me roar. None said “Hey, look at me!” like Exit West last year, or Version Control the previous. I even flirted with the idea of No Award. But again, like 2017, it was the final month which delivered the year’s best.