Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2019

Review of Crowfall by Ed McDonald

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

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

Friday, August 9, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Little Nightmares

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

Review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

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

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

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

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

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

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

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

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

Friday, July 26, 2019

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest

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

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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu

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

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

Console Corner: Review of Far Cry 5

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

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

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Review of The Rider by Tim Krabbe

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

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

Console Corner: Review of Mad Max

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

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

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

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

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

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Review of Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

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

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

Thursday, June 27, 2019

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review of Lords & Ladies by Terry Pratchett

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

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

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Console Corner: Review of The Order: 1886

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

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Black Hills by Dan Simmons

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

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

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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Ghost Recon: Wildlands

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

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review of Ice by Anna Kavan

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

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

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

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

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of Biohacked & Begging by Stephen Oram

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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

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

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Sapiens by Yuvel Noah Harari

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

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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review of The Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker

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

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2019

Review of A Hero Born by Jin Yong

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

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

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...