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.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Taking notes while reading, the deeper I get I start to gain a picture of what a novel is about, and subsequently how I will shape the review. I stood no chance with Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon (2017). Constantly evolving in unpredictable directions, it wasn’t until the closing sections for each character that I started to gain a fuzzy picture. Cyberpunk dystopia? Humanist plea? Expression regarding the power of semantics and story? Lexical playground? Pulp apologetics? Reservations about technology? Political rant? My fuzzy picture is that it is likely all of them.

In its birthday suit, Gnomon is about Diana Hunter, a politically deviant woman who is brought to a government facility to have her mind read as part of a Witness investigation. Dying on the operating table, Investigator Neith comes in to determine the cause. Naturally looking into the thoughts and memories the Witness machine picked up before Hunter’s death, the investigator is surprised to find a collection of personages inside Hunter’s mind. One a Greek finance magnate caught in the country’s early 21st century economic woes, another an Ethiopian painter who now finds himself helping his daughter with the graphic design of her video game, the third an ancient Greek alchemist having herself to investigate a seemingly impossible death, and the fourth a demon (or djinn) who pops in and out in devilish fashion. And above all of these characters floats a future entity, a hive mind calling itself Gnomon. Seemingly able to travel through time and the data sphere, its presence is shadowy as much as the sharks haunting the lives of the other people in Hunter’s head. Neith’s investigation takes her places the all-knowing government Witness system would have it, and more interestingly, places it wouldn’t, the result is a surprising cause to Hunter's death.

Console Corner: Review of The Deadly Tower of Monsters

A couple of years ago I watched the film Jupiter Ascending with jaw dropped. The special effects, as with most big-budget sf films this generation, were spectacular. But that was certainly not the reason. I was agape at how stereotypical, how blatantly cheesy, how utterly cheap the film was. Damsel in distress, galactic takeover scheme, Cinderella heroine, overpowered hero, terrible one-liners—it was as if the past fifty years of films and books deconstructing precisely that type of narrative never existed. This leads, interestingly, to ACE Team’s 2016 The Deadly Tower of Monsters—but not for the same reasons.
A throwback to 50s b-movie science fiction, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a game that intentionally presents an extremely stereotypical experience. Maximizing fun through parody, gameplay is framed as a b-movie and overlain with ‘director’s commentary’ that converts the colorful, puzzle platforming/action one expects of ray guns and aliens into a very humorous experience.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters tells of intrepid spacefarer Dick Starspeed (great name) after he crash lands on a strange planet. Navigating a village of apes and dinosaurs, he meets up with Scarlett Nova, rebellious daughter to the planet’s evil emperor, and is subsequently kidnapped by a giant gorilla—one of the emperor’s twisted pets. Scarlett rescues Starspeed, and together the two find the deadly tower. Monsters and aliens attacking from all sides, the two climb their way higher and higher into its reaches to defeat the evil emperor and his minions.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review of Thirteen Phantasms by James Blaylock

It’s cherrypicking, I know. But sometimes an author introduces their collection in such an organic, telling fashion that it’s impossible not to jump on for the ride. Starting with a giant wooden carving of dogs worth $500 encountered as a child, and moving to the other random, exotic things encountered in his life for sale for $500, Blaylock, in the introduction to his 2000 collection Thirteen Phantasms, draws a parallel to not only the parallel manner in which the subsequent stories’ are also of arbitrary natures and substances, but likewise to the ebb and flow of life, and how it shapes the stories we write or tell in memory. Covering a gamut of material, times, settings, and possibilities, the metaphor is extremely apt—hence I’m shamelessly rehashing it. (But do read Blaylock’s intro; it’s miles better.)

Twenty-three years in the making, Thirteen Phantasms is Blaylock’s first collection of short stories. Not a prolific writer of short fiction, the timing is appropriate given the collection brings together every, single piece Blaylock published between 1977 and 1999. A mix, it includes three stories from the popular Langdon St. Ives steampunk universe, one from his Land of Dreams setting, two pieces co-written with Tim Powers, and variety of individual stories that cover everything from pulp fiction nostalgia to dwarf merchants, UFOs to men finding better ways of behaving toward their wives. Despite the paucity of numbers, Blaylock possesses a good touch for short fiction given the stories in Thirteen Phantasms are collectively more engaging than some of his novels.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Review of Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Marcel Theroux’s first overtly science fiction novel Far North received a bit of attention in 2009 when it was released. Post-apocalyptic fiction missing that special something to make the whole a tight, cohesive package, it nevertheless gave hope of greater things to come given the human focus. The follow up, 2013’s Strange Bodies, embodies the hope—and more.

Nicholas Slopen is an uptight British academic whose life and work is focused on the poet Samuel Johnson. Salary and family spurned for time in dusty libraries and conservatories poring over old letters and manuscripts, when he receives an offer from a rich celebrity to verify the authenticity of a collection of Johnson letters, he jumps at the chance. Saliva forming in his mouth hearing that some of the letters may never before have been published, Slopen becomes hopeful, that is, until the actual examination. Though appearing to be written in Johnson’s hand, the details of the letters don’t seem to stack up—including the backstory of the shady Soviet man seeking to sell the papers. Slopen’s life—lives, in fact—going down an entirely unintended road thereafter, academia may have to wait.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Review of An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories by Andy Duncan

I sometimes think of Andy Duncan and Ted Chiang as two peas in a pod. Anti-prolific, each seems to take immense pride and joy in the act of writing a story. They take their sweet time developing an idea and polishing and polishing until it shines. It’s thus no surprise they produce only one or two short fiction gems per year. Perhaps knowing a decade would be needed, neither has produced a novel to date, meaning we readers get to experience the fruits of their approach more frequently. Six years since Duncan’s last collection (natch), 2018’s An Agent of Utopia remains strong proof quality over quantity is the preferred road in the glut of contemporary publishing.

The subtitle New & Selected Stories, An Agent of Utopia aims to be a retrospective scattered with uncollected material. Bringing back into print several of Duncan’s best stories from previous collections (something badly needed considering they are out of print), it likewise brings together a handful which were published since. Not collecting the handful which were published since, a few are missing, most notably the collaborative novella with Ellen Klages “Wakulla Springs”. (I assume this is due to copyright issues...)