Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Starcraft II - 2019 Year in Review


The confetti has fallen on Blizzcon, which means it's time to take a look back at Starcraft II in 2019. On one hand it was a fairly dramatic year with unique high and lows, but as the year closed out it had become very consistent: Zerg, Zerg, Zerg, which wasn't the most dramatic thing. So, as has become normal here at Speculiction, let's take a look at some awards, best matches, and how predictions came about.

Awards

The players...

Feel Good Moment of the Year
This absolutely has to go to Soo winning IEM Katowice. Nothing has drawn the SCII community together like that. Seeing the photo of all the Korean pro-gamers at a restaurant afterwards celebrating makes the heart feel good, just as much as soo's tears of relief and joy.

Best Korean Zerg
Korean points leader, GSL champion, and Blizzcon winner, can there be any doubt that Dark was the best Korean Zerg in 2019? Rogue and Soo had solid years winning premiere titles, but Dark just blew them out of the water.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Sonic Mania


I was fifteen years old when one of my close friends got a Super Nintendo for Christmas. I was blown away. The graphics, the graphics, the graphics!! Mario riding on Yoshi looked literally twice as good as my dull grey box, non-super Nintendo. I had to have me one, of course, so I started saving my allowances. At $5 a week and a $100 price tag, it took some time, and patience, and more patience, and more patience, and by the time I’d saved the money, I’d discovered Sega Genesis. I splashed the Benjamin, mailed in my proof of purchase (yes, that was a thing!!) to get a free copy of Sonic 2 to complement the original that came with the console, and four months later (a complete surprise considering I had completely forgotten about it—fifteen year old brain), got the freebie. For the next couple of years, I played countless hours of Sonic 1 and 2, the flow of the game and its music embedding themselves in my being forever. It was thus such a nostalgic joy to see a retro version—faithful to the original but new in content—appear on the PS4 in 2017, Sonic Mania.

A short review of Sonic Mania might thus run as follows: if you loved the original Sonic games on Sega Genesis/Megadrive and want more, no need to think twice, go get Sonic Mania. It scratches the itch (in ways you may have never known you were itching) in gushing, tributary, fresh fashion. From Green Hill Zone to the bell chimes of losing your rings, the *pop* of jumping on an enemy to the blur of whipping through an S-curve, it’s all wonderfully, gloriously, there. Buy it.

Console Corner: Review of Detroit: Become Human


If this blog is any testament, I was a library child. Along with trips to school libraries, my mother regularly brought me to the local public one. (I still recall the smell of the carpeting and the silence it emanated.) I wandered the quiet, shadowed aisles, looking at spines and grabbing books that took my fancy. I read the Princess and the Goblin books. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I read all the fifty-something Hardy Boy mysteries (and the Detective Handbook), and even started the Nancy Drew series. I tried almost all the How to Draw books (and still could never produce as nice a drawing as the directions would have it). And of course, I read all the Choose Your Own Adventures I could find. I still recall having all my fingers acting as bookmarks, flipping between story branches as one ended to see where a different choice would have brought me. QuanticDream’s 2018 Detroit: Become Human brought me back to my Choose Your Own Adventure books, at least somewhat; my fingers didn’t fit anywhere except the controller...

Much more Isaac Asimov I, Robot than William Gibson Neuromancer, Detroit: Become Human is set in the near future where androids are readily available on the market. Child care to street cleaning, shop assistants to bus drivers, construction workers to janitors, the human-like robots are peacefully interwoven throughout society in controlled, seemingly benevolent fashion to serve humanity. But there are signs not all is well. Inspector Connor (himself an android), is called to the scene of a murder. He discovers that the perpetrator is an android who has learned his owner intends to replace him with a newer model, and lashed out. As the story moves on, and murders by androids start piling up, it’s clear the incident is no fluke. Something must be done to prevent a robocalypse. But is this something humanity, with its own vices, can help with, or will it just get in the way?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Planets by Andrew Cohen & Brian Cox


I am a layman when it comes to astronomy. I have a high school education (largely retained), and decades of random reading about the heavens (perhaps less retained). But I am also a star gazer. It’s nice every now and then to go out at night, stare at the sky, and let the mind wander where it will. It’s precisely moments like that we forget about the minutiae of daily life and remember that Earth hurtles 30 km/sec through a void, not to mention that the myriad of life around us, billions of species, is not forever—that the greenhouse effect, regardless accelerated by humankind or not, will eventually burn everything to the ground, leaving only rock. Bringing to one place all the pertinent information on our solar system known as of 2019 is the BBC’s The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (2019). It is star gazing of the most informed variety.

BBC embarking on a similar planets project twenty years ago, the 2019 edition of The Planets integrates what was known then with the information that has come to life or gelled in the meantime, all to create the most detailed picture of our solar system to date. Why is Mercury’s orbit the most irregular? How did Venus’ ecosystem come to be so hellish? Is/was their life on Mars? What hope do Jupiter’s moons offer for human life occurring beyond Earth? What exactly are Saturn’s rings, and how did they come to be formed? These and many, many other fascinating topics and facts are related, in lucid, wonderfully structured fashion. If there is anyone on Earth who knows how to collect, organize, and present information in an interesting, engaging fashion, it is BBC. The material in the book is enough for a semester’s course providing the tightest summary of the solar system.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review of Full Throttle by Joe Hill


Confession time: Joe Hill has entered my ranks of authors whose books are able to be bought sight unseen. It’s thus I went into Full Throttle (2019) thinking: “Great title for a novel. Can’t wait to get into it.” Lo and behold, however, upon the first few pages, it was quickly apparent Full Throttle is not a novel, rather a collection. “Oh well,” my brain said, “has a chance of being just as good.

After one of the most heartfelt introductions to any book or collection I’ve read in a long time, Full Throttle settles into itself, opening on the story from which the title was taken: “Throttle”, written with Stephen King. A full-on biker story, it tells of a troubled father-son relationship, and the test it undergoes one day after a drug deal goes sour. The punchiest story in the collection to kick things off, there is a classic King tractor trailer truck involved, but character presentation and an extended chase sequence are what make it a success. But for as striking as “Throttle” is, the second story in the collection, “Dark Carousel”, falls into ruts all too familiar in horror. About high schoolers and a haunted fair ground, Hill is able to push the story with good characterization, but in the end, the reader is better off just reading Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley


Journey Beyond Tomorrow… Journey of Joenes… something that happens today on far, far fewer occasions, it was, however, relatively normal that back in the day, before Google et al, publishers sometimes had second thoughts, or wanted to try to inject new life into a novel whose initial sales didn’t go as planned, and therefore changed a book’s title for another print run. Such was Robert Sheckley’s 1962 sci-fi inspired (or peyote inspired?) counter-culture satire of those names. Journey of Joenes is the more applicable title, and will be used for the remainder of this review.


Interestingly utilizing the Pacific island region, Journey of Joenes is the fragmented biography of the eponymous Polynesian. Framed in 3000 AD, the book purports itself to be a history of a man whose beliefs and philosophies came to dominate what was left of the world. The purported history opens with Joenes arriving in hippy-ville San Franscisco. Ingesting psychedelics, giving an impromptu speech, and ending up on the run from the law in a matter of moments, Joenes goes on a journey of epic (read: political, satirical, and mythical) proportions. From robot oracles to fake map makers, disgruntled truck drivers to uncertified academia, and more, it’s a wild, surreal journey—always with one, often subtle tongue in cheek.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Abzu


Journey was a game that, on paper, should not have been a success. A faceless person traipsing through an empty desert and desolate mountains for three hours without interaction with anybody or anything. Only two buttons are used the whole game. And yet it is a big success. Finding zen in video game form, thatgamecompany was able to combine the rudiments of Buddhism with gameplay that overrides anything resembling a typical shoot ‘em up or action platformer to give the player a truly personal, meaningful experience that transcends the game. In 2016, the thatgamecompany continues to explore alternate forms of gaming by returning with a parallel zen experience, Abzu. If only there was a VR version…

The game’s idea taken from the cosmic ocean mythology common to many traditional religions and beliefs, Abzu is the underwater journey of a lone diver. Where Journey was set in dry deserts and desolate mountains, Abzu takes its faceless ‘hero’ on a journey of underwater discovery through many lush environments, mystical scenes, and a wide variety of fish and water life. Unlike Journey, the game’s environment is bursting with colors and life. Developers having researched thousands of varieties of fish, the game is filled with all manner of ocean life—goldfish, mackerel, dolphins, clownfish, sea turtles, rays, etc., etc.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman


Philip Pullman’s 2017 La Belle Sauvage was unexpected. Pullman seeming to have closed out the universe of His Dark Materials with 2000’s The Amber Spyglass, a new novel, let alone the first in a trilogy, was a surprise. A wonderful bit of storytelling that didn’t ostensibly seem to fit into the known storyline, the resulting intrigue begged the question: what’s next? 2019’s The Secret Commonwealth is precisely that. On top of extending the top-notch storytelling, Pullman only magnifies the intrigue surrounding the world of Dust while extending Lyra’s tale in original, surprising fashion.

The Secret Commonwealth takes an interesting turn from La Belle Sauvage. Where the latter novel featured Lyra in infancy, the former opens years after the events of His Dark Materials, Lyra now in her early twenties. Still living at Jordan College, the young woman presses onward with backroom alethiometer studies. However, due to her experiences in The Subtle Knife, her relationship with Pantalaimon is stretched thin. Neither comfortable in the presence of the other, it takes a chance witness to a major crime by Pantalaimon in the marshes around the College to kick start new experiences for Lyra. Drawing in threads of story from both La Belle Sauvage and His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth centers on Lyra’s homeworld and certain botanical knowledge that threatens to disrupt its entire scene.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of Windhaven by George R.R.Martin and Lisa Tuttle


I would guess there are numerous people today who know George R.R. Martin for nothing but A Game of Thrones. Extremely popular on television and in print, it's fair to say Martin can retire without financial concerns. But decades ago when Martin was cutting his teeth in the 70s, he was writing solid fiction too, particularly short fiction. Working with then-wife Lisa Tuttle, together the pair co-authored a series of novellas that were put together, along with a prologue and epilogue to bind the whole, in the novel Windhaven (1981).

A phased biography, each of the three novellas tells of a period in the life of the woman Maris on the alien planet Windhaven. Humanity having crash landed but survived on the archipelagic planet, broken bits of the ship are re-used to construct gliders that people in turn use to fly messages back and forth between the disparate islands. The first novella tells of Maris in passionate, idealistic youth, fighting for something she believes in. The second finds her in middle age, still growing, however, now learning to deal with the past while accommodating the needs of herself and others in the present. And the third sees her in late middle-age, still learning, this time dealing with the cards of age the house dealer gives us all, inevitably.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Review of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood


I think it’s fair to say Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has entered the canon of dystopian fiction. Perpetually re-printed, taught in schools, filmed as a tv series, and mentioned in similar breaths to Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and the like, it’s a story that hasn’t faded—and likely won’t any time soon given the political climate as of 2019. Which, if I had to guess, is the reason why Atwood chose to revisit the setting with this year’s The Testaments.

A risk on Atwood’s part, it’s not common that a writer produces such a work as The Handmaid’s Tale, and then decades later revisits the scene. Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury did not return to their worlds. The closest relative I can think of is Le Guin returning to Earthsea after a mult-decade break with Tehanu—a novel that, while its intentions can be clearly scene, pushes an agenda in a very forced manner, something which Atwood likewise runs the risk of doing.