Friday, December 29, 2017

Best Books of 2017

Of the thousands of books published in speculative fiction in 2017, I read twenty-two, which is a slight drop compared to previous years.  Many of the books I wanted to read I was unable to get my hands on for whatever reason.  But there were still a number of good novels—Eleanor Lerman’s Stargazer’s Embassy, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, John Kessell’s The Moon and the Other, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and R. Scott Bakker’s The Unholy Consult among them.  As the year drew to a close without a clear front-runner, I was considering giving a joint award to Kessel and Yuknavitch’s books given the engaging, intelligent, and complementary pair they form.  But then in December I read a couple of books that had spotlights from the heavens shining down upon them...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Like the two world wars and the effect they had on everyday people trying to live everyday lives in the 20th century, one of the greater crises happening in the 21st is the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the effect there on normal people trying to live normal lives.  Western media often focusing only on the drama, violence, and terrorism, the lives of ordinary people who want no part of the conflict get overlooked.  That is, until they start appearing on Western shores in search of help.  Nailing this quotidian view in a fully human story is Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West.

The cultural climate being what is in the West today, it’s important to step in now and forestall any potential eye-rolling: ‘Here we go, another victim narrative…  In the strictest sense of the expression, yes, Exit West is a victim narrative, but it’s a victim narrative in the same vein as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—the American classic.  Prose and setting differ, but both Steinbeck and Hamid attempt to portray ordinary humans caught up in circumstances beyond their control who then try to retain a sense of normalcy and survive.  In Grapes, drought pushes the Joad family to leave Oklahoma for California, and in Exit West it’s war that pushes Saeed and Nadia to leave the Middle East for Europe.  But neither group of characters is utterly imprisoned by their circumstances.  Each uses what instinct and knowledge they have to attempt to carry on—to extend the normalcy as best they can in a new setting.  Thus Exit West, like Grapes of Wrath, is not a bleeding heart liberal narrative akin to a Fox News human interest story.  Hamid restraining himself, it is a story about real people (in the illustrative sense), nothing exaggerated or overstated.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of Strange Weather by Joe Hill

As that thimbleful of regular readers will know, I am largely dismissive of horror.  There are books that buck the trend, for certain, but generally I find it’s a restricted scene.  As such, there are many writers who go in one eye and out the other when looking at lists of upcoming publications, best ofs, or recommended reading lists.  Despite never having read anything by him, Joe Hill was one such writer.  But then I read “The Devil on the Staircase” in the anthology Stories: All New Tales.  Experimental in form and mythopoeic in substance, it’s a superbly written human story that made me ask myself whether I’m missing out on something by not reading Hill.  When his 2017 collection Strange Weather popped up on an upcoming publication list, I took the chance.  More than just the best collection of the year, I’m thinking of putting it as my best book published in 2017… 

A small collection in terms of quantity (only four stories), Strange Weather remains substantial given all are novellas (the collection totals 400+ pages).  In each, Hill wonderfully combines engaging storylines, tightly defined characters, relevant commentary on contemporary social and political issues, and meaningful outcomes—pretty much everything that tickles my reading fancy.  I would have to go back through my library, but suffice to say it’s been a while since I read a collection that was of such consistent yet dynamic quality.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In today’s cultural climate, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 The Underground Railroad is a difficult book to trust reviews of.  Many on the left are likely to blindly champion the book simply because it addresses race, while many on the right are likely to be equally blind, but out of a desire to distance themselves from race discussion.  Equally distrustful of both sides, I hope this review falls in the middle.

Cora is a young woman raised as a slave in Georgia in the mid-1800s at the start of The Underground Railroad.  Owned by a misanthrope who beats, rapes, kills, sells at will, and in general mistreats his slaves as he pleases, Cora’s upbringing is about as bad as we can imagine slavery to be.  And she becomes a little crazy for it.  Approaching womanhood finds Cora living alone, her fellow slaves wanting no part of her personal life.  But an opportunity to escape arises, and Cora jumps at it.  Catching a ride on the underground railroad out of the plantation, she discovers worlds she never knew existed—for slightly better and worst.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Pinball Arcade

Perhaps the last generation to have the opportunity, pinball was part of my growing up.  The latest fighting and racing games dominated the arcades in my area, but always in the corner were two or three dinging and flashing pinball machines.  I pumped many a quarter into The Addams Family, Terminator 2, and Lethal Weapon.  With Pinball Arcade on the Playstation 4 not only am I able to play those very tables and dozens of others, but can do so in as authentic a fashion as the virtual pinball allows.  FarSight Studios, developers of the game, clearly aimed to make the experience as 1:1 as possible, from scoring to sound, individual table characteristics to the different types of flippers and plungers, even the usage of forefingers (as opposed to thumbs) for gameplay.  

Pinball Arcade is available as a free download from the Playstation store.  However, there are only a couple of machines which can be played for free.  Available individually or in a bundle, the other machines can be played up to a point limit but must be purchased to have the full, unlimited experience.  (It is possible to join tournament mode and play tables that normally must be paid for, but this is limited to schedules and tables selected for the tournaments.)  For what it’s worth, the main table provided free with the game, Tales of the Arabian Knights, is phenomenal, offering hours and hours of twitching fingers—which, after all, is the addiction of pinball.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Nod by Adrian Barnes

Catastrophe fiction, so popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has in recent decades kind of, sort of, given way to post-apocalyptic fiction—what happens after rather than during the catastrophe.  Perhaps because all the obvious ideas have been taken—drought, floods, carnivorous plants eating people blinded by an alien meteorite shower—it’s a bit strange these days to see a book that reverts to so simple a premise.  But such is the case with Adrian Barnes’ 2012 Nod.  Like Ballard, however, Barnes (thankfully) focuses his book on something more human than the details of cataclysm.

Paul is a poor, introverted writer of quirky books about etymology who lives with his bread-winning girlfriend Tanya in Vancouver.  A golden dream visiting him one night as he sleeps, he wakes to discover that Tanya hadn’t slept a wink.  Arriving home from work that evening, Tanya reports that nobody else she knows slept the previous night either, that Paul is somehow part of a 1% of the population able to get a night’s rest.  A novelty at first, the situation worsens, however.  Night after night, only the tiniest fraction of humanity are able to sleep.  The insomnia getting so bad, the government makes the drastic decision to shut down all telecommunications in an effort to remove potential interference.  But nothing helps.  Cut off from the net and phones, society dissolves, leaving Paul to navigate a city of sleep-deprived madness, and survive.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Buying a sequel published several years after its wildly successful predecessor is a risky venture.  The reader never knows whether the writer is simply trying to cash in on the popularity (aka ‘desperately attempting to revive a flagging ouevre’), or has produced a story that genuinely fits within the context of the predecessor.  Examples can be found on both sides.  Thus, going in to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, first book in The Book of Dust (a prequel trilogy to the original His Dark Materials… trilogy), I didn’t really know what to expect.  About a quarter of the way through, my concerns were assuaged, however.  La Belle Sauvage is genuine.

La Belle Sauvage is the name of fourteen-year old Malcom’s canoe.  Son of an innkeeper in an alternate-world (steampunk-ish) Oxford, he’s a smart, good-mannered young man who helps his father around the inn, as well as the nuns in the priory across the river when time allows.  In the midst of serving a small influx of VIP guests at the inn, including some shadowy members of the Magisterium’s secret police, an infant is secretly brought to the nun’s priory for hiding and safe keeping.  A tiny little girl named Lyra, Malcom falls in love with her while helping the nuns one day.  Spring rains incessant, however, the river separating the inn from the priory swells, making Malcom’s trips across in La Belle Sauvage dangerous.  When Malcom witnesses a rough man with a hyena as a familiar attempt to kidnap Lyra from the priory one night, the action is on.  And when floods break out, it’s anybody’s guess as to the fate of the little girl.  Malcom’s canoe may prove just as precious if she is to survive.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of Stories: All New Tales ed. by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio

Given the sheer volume of text appearing online in the past ten years (not excluding this blog), it’s fair to say the answer to: ‘What makes a good story a good story?’ is different for many, many people.  For some, it’s the marriage of political or social themes to setting, event, or character, while for others it’s non-stop action.  But for certain, what all sides appreciate is flat out, good storytelling.  Well told stories simply resonate beyond the borders of genre taxonomy or reviews would put on them.  Attempting to capture this magic is editor Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantino’s 2010 anthology Stories: All-New Tales.

Dazzling with the stars and lights of a 20’s jazz club in the desert, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford A drop dead gorgeous bit of storytelling, is.  Ford proving mood matters, this tale perfectly captures the essence of action and romance without being either of those things. The neon of this story will burn in memory.  The shortest story in the collection, “Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers is about a dead twin trying to get back into the world through the writing hand of her sister.  Setting the tone for the collection (edgy, apparently), “Blood” by Roddy Doyle is about a everyday man who develops a thirst for blood—or at least seems to develop, the tendency possibly having been there all along.  The story walking a strange, unpredictable path (from raw meat to parallels with Ozzy Osbourne antics), the man is not able to keep his thirst a secret from his wife, but they do come to a common agreement, which is the biggest surprise of all.  About demon twins, “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates traces their paths through life from the very different dispositions they begin with.  One weak and frail the other strong and virile, it takes the ending of the story to confirm the relationship.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of fiction.  Subtlety its middle name, the book presents the quiet limitations we impose on ourselves (versus those imposed from external sources) in poignant, elegant fashion that speaks to the true nature of humanity.  The story of a butler so focused on his sense of duty that he denies himself the basic aspects of existence, it’s one of the main reasons Ishiguro recently won the Nobel for literature.  Equally subtle but less believable in execution, Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is another strong reason.

Plot-wise, Never Let Me Go is straight-forward: three young people grow up in what is essentially an orphanage, coming of age with the idea they are clones who will someday be organ donors for ordinary people.  The real meat of the novel is found, however, in the interaction of the three and the perspectives of the world as they evolve.

Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is highly introspective, integrating the tiny but telling details of quotidian life and relationships.  The story is told through the eyes of Cathy, an intelligent, sensitive young woman trying to fit in yet retain her identity among the other young people at their boarding home.  Having a troubled relationship with a fellow student Ruth, the two, through a series of events and compromises, form a strong but strange friendship.  The third primary character is an emotionally volatile young man named Tom who is initially bullied by the other boys, but after realizing certain things, comes into his own and is able to form stronger relationships with others.  The art the young people produce of odd importance to their overseers, Ishiguro slowly unveils the underlying logic to their situation in the boarding home, all the while the young attempt to reconcile their state state as clones with the wider world beyond and themselves.

Monday, December 4, 2017

2017: Starcraft 2 Year in Review

I had other plans this evening, but after reading Liquidpedia’s 2017 Starcraft 2 awards, I was called to action.  

Generally speaking, Liquidpedia got the year right.  In the past I have found myself sometimes blinking in surprise reading a mizenhauer write up, but given he was consolidating award input from Liquidpedia staff, the results are more balanced.  But not without some oversights I believe, hence the call to action.

The first award was to Special as ‘Breakout Player’.  My first instinct was that it didn’t feel right, but slowly came around to agree.  First, Special didn’t win anything.  His best showing was a top-4 at Blizzcon, which, to be fair, is a major accomplishment and indeed the best showing of his career.  Otherwise, he failed to get out of all the GSL round of 32s he qualified for and did not win any other Premier tournaments—Dreamhacks, IEMs, etc.  At the same time, none of the other options feels right either, for example Elazer, Gumiho, Stats, and Rogue.  An argument could be made for each in comparison to their past performances.  But in the end, I think the greatest distance covered was indeed by Special.  A new id for a new mindset, we now call him Special instead of Major.  And for sure he put in a huge effort this year, so good to recognize him.

'Strategy of the Year’, meh, whatever.  Better to give one per race, not one overall (if at all), but what do I know?  ‘Biggest News Event of the Year’ was awarded to Starcraft 2 being free to play.  Sure, why not?  It’s as good a pick as any—and beats “KESPA offices raided by police on suspicion of corruption”  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Since reading Cloud Atlas a few years ago, I have been on the David Mitchell bandwagon.  But there has always been a nagging sense of incompleteness, of rough edges in the novels I’ve read since.  For as singular the storyline of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, it has a little trouble blending its viewpoints and thus building a holistic plot.  Cloud Atlas is an superb mish-mash of fiction, but has some trouble distinguishing its character voices.  Ghostwritten is an excellent debut, but has issues balancing exuberant prose against focused theme.  With 2014’s The Bone Clocks, however, everything has finally come together, the edges smoothed, and a polished gem the result.  An extremely satisfying read that would seem to fulfill all of Mitchell’s potential, it might just be a masterpiece.

Structured like a pinwheel, the story of teenage-runaway Holly Sykes forms the center pin of The Bone Clocks, while the stories of an unprincipled Cambridge student who eventually faces the most difficult choice of his life, a curmudgeonly British writer who  must face declining sales, a war reporter who has trouble balancing his family life with being in the action, and a reincarnated therapist who must use her centuries of wisdom to combat an evil foe—all form the blades spiraling away from the center of the pinwheel.  Sykes’ story (in old age) forms the final section of the novel, forming a cycle by spinning full circle the events and characters,. Mitchell using this structure to great effect in terms of both plot and theme, The Bone Clocks is innately a questioning of contemporary culture while telling the highly engaging story of one woman’s anything-but-normal life.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Console Corner: Review of The Frozen Wilds (DLC for Horizon: Zero Dawn)

There are numerous rumblings and grumblings in the scene these days regarding video game developers’ practices for releasing DLC as some DLC seems more like key material from the base game released separately in an attempt to earn more money.  Regardless of opinion, the days of buying a complete game in a cartridge are past us.  But if there is anything the community does agree on, it’s that The Witcher 3 did DLC right.  Releasing two massive expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, each was reasonably priced and offered players a tangential rather than imperative experience in the Witcher world, all with a large amount of content delivered with the same attention to detail and plot as the original game.  The former at roughly 14 hours and the latter at a whopping 28, they are longer, or at least the same length as a lot of stand-alone games.  It thus makes me glad that Guerilla Games opted to follow CDProjekt Red’s lead when developing DLC for Horizon: Zero Dawn. 

The Frozen Wilds is everything the player who enjoyed H: ZD could hope for, and, perhaps more.  A massive new section of the map is opened up, new machines are unveiled, new weapons are available, new characters appear, and a new thread of story is introduced—a thread that ties into the main storyline of H: ZD while offering something entirely new.  Venturing into the snowy northeast, Aloy encounters a Banuk tribe dealing with daemonized machines.  The tribe tearing itself apart attempting to deal with the threat, Aloy becomes the key to unraveling the mystery and putting it to rest.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Review of Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

The (disc)world was Terry Pratchett’s oyster.  No subject too big or small to be tackled by his continent’s worth of trolls and humans, dwarves and exploding dragons, even after nearly fifty novels and Pratchett’s passing the possibilities still seem endless. He dealt with silent films in Moving Pictures to YA coming-of-age in the Tiffany Aching series, religion in Small Gods to the fallacy of economy in Making Money—Pratchett went anywhere his ripe imagination wanted.  Music inevitably popping up, in 1994 Soul Music, and all its glorious appreciation and humor regarding the evolution of rock ‘n roll, rolled onto the scene like Death on a Harley Davidson.

A poor, young guitarist named Imp Y Celyn comes to Anhk-Morpork looking for work.  When he discovers he needs a license from the musician’s guild to perform on the street, he joins forces with Glod Glodson, a dwarf who plays horn, and Lias Bluestone, a troll percussionist (aka rock beater), and the trio hold their first, illegal gig in a local tavern called The Mended Drum.  The improv performance drawing a more positive reaction than expected, a strangely disparate yet rebellious-minded group of people love the new music, and show their appreciation for the style they call ‘music with rocks in’ by inciting a small riot.  The night also has other implications.  Imp intended to die in the rioting, it’s only that Death was on existential hiatus that Imp remains alive.  ‘The Band with Rock In’ exploding popularity with every performance at the Drum thereafter, rock stardom is born, and the disc will never be the same. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Non-Fiction: Review of Requiem for the American Dream By Noam Chomsky

I was born, raised, and lived in the US until the age of twenty-four when a certain wanderlust took over.  That thirst since quenched, I have settled in Poland, and now only occasionally visit the country.  The result is a contrasting perspective whenever I visit: almost twenty years having passed, the US I grew up in is not the US I see now.  Besides technology, one of the biggest differences is the erosion of the middle-class into the lower-class—the upper class absorbing the gap in wealth.  On the surface you cannot see this: people still drive new cars and have the latest model cell phones.   It’s the knowledge that banks actually own the majority of this is where the difference lies.  The majority of Americans now living almost their entire lives in debt, a kind of neo-feudalism can be observed, bringing about the question: is the American Dream of owning the white picket fence, two car garage and a dog named Rover still alive?  Noam Chomsky in his Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (2016) takes his view.

A blunt critique of the American system, Requiem for the American Dream is a concise outlay of the American economic, financial, political, and social system as it stands today in relation to the past 100 years.  Chomsky postulating that the few contrive to maintain political and economic power over the many, the scene framed is difficult to deny.  Citing quotes from writers of the constitution all the way to Donald Trump, Chomsky lays down the ten principles he believes are key to ensuring the system predominantly benefits those in power.  From another perspective, it is Chomsky’s views distilled into the most basic elements. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

If you’ve come this far in the series, then there is no need for me to be coy introducing the third and final book in the Everness trilogy, Empress of the Sun (2013).  Picking up precisely where Be My Enemy left off, it’s a well-paced, exciting, and to some degree personal, conclusion that almost, but not quite wraps up the series.

A trend forming, Empress of the Sun sees Everett and the crew of the Everness dropped randomly into yet another parallel world.  Not a planet this time ‘round, however, the crew find themselves on a massive disc capable of containing millions of Earths.  But its inhabitants prove to be anything but human.  A lizard-esque race calling themselves the jiju, the crew have a bizarre run in with one of the them and subsequently get caught up in jiju Darwinian power struggles.  Meanwhile, the Villiers have used the tracking device planted on the Everness to track the airship.  Learning the airship is on the jiju world, they grow pale with fear.  The worlds colliding in spectacular fashion, Everett’s quest to find his lost father grows ever more complicated.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review of The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Formerly a locus of medical science, Edinburgh held one of the world’s leading positions in the area of biology and human anatomy in the early 19th century.  The city one of the first to lift legal restrictions on the usage of corpses for research, arriving at that point was not without a little drama, however.  A couple of enterprising men had moved beyond grave robbing into actively creating their own ‘research material’ in order to earn a few crowns.  Some of the guests at their communal house coming down with strange illnesses, disappearing, or outright dying, they made relatively profitable trade before authorities latched on and put an end to their ‘business venture’.  Set in Edinburgh of the same era and building a darkly fantastical narrative around the infamous Burke & Hare murders is Brian Ruckley’s The Edinburgh Dead (2011).

Once a soldier in the Napoleonic wars and bearing the scars to prove it, Adam Quire is now a sergeant in the Edinburgh police force.  A gruff, stubborn man, he has few friends in the force, and spends most of his time alone on the beat, investigating crimes in the district or trying to stop the rash of grave robberies that have broken out in the city. When a body turns up in a dark alley, murdered savagely, Quire starts to look into the matter, starting with the silver locket he found on the body bearing the name of one John Ruthven.  At the man’s house, Ruthven is polite but cold.  He thanks Quire for returning the locket but is elusive in his answers to questions regarding the identity of the murdered man.  Quire’s detective work turning up a business connection to Ruthven, he has little time to investigate before being attacked one night at his boarding house in the most bizarre fashion.  The attack turning up evidence that even the coroner cannot explain—the supposed expert on dead bodies at that, little does Quire know that he has been sucked into the dark underbelly of Edinburgh’s scientific research…

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner, first book in the YA trilogy Everness, was exactly the type of book I wish I had to read as a fourteen year-old.  Parallel worlds, airship battles, shadowy villains, and a strong sense of adventure, McDonald told an entertaining story that clipped along, setting the stage for additional story.  Everett Singh transported to an unknown world in pursuit of his lost father upon the conclusion, the follow up novel Be My Enemy (2012) sees the search continue even as the evil Villiers set the most horrifying person on Everett’s tale: an alter ego version of Everett himself, but with certain physical enhancements…

Be My Enemy thus opens on a confusing scene.  Everett describing strange mechanical abilities in his arms and legs and the dark power they can unleash, the storyline would appear to have jumped the rails: where is the Everret from Planesrunner? Parallel worlds being what they are, however, it isn’t long before the ‘real’ Everett, alongside the spunky Sen in the airship Everness, are once again center stage.  Stranded on a random parallel Earth after having jumped worlds to escape Charlotte Dilliers at the end of Planesrunner, Everett and Sen and the rest of he crew must do everything in their power to find a way back to the Earths they are familiar with, all the while the alter-Everett creeps closer to finding the real Everett and bringing him to the Villiers. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review of The Games by Ted Kosmatka

Ahh technology, stairway to utopia or spiral into hell—at least such would be the case in a lot of science fiction.  Middle ground so rarely addressed (yes, it is possible the television is both the source of all evil yet a highly informative, useful tool), many an sf novel has utilized one side of this dichotomy to tell its tale.  Genetic engineering its motif, Ted Kosmatka’s 2012 The Games is a downward spiral into hell.  

Silas is a gene constructor.  Not a gene designer (the distinction important), he has been given a genetic blueprint for the latest Olympic gladiator (a biological creation without human DNA to be put into cage combat) and tasked with bringing the creature into existence.  At the start of the story, the latest gladiator design is emerging from a cow womb, and very quickly the constructors and trainers realize they have something extraordinary on their hands.  The gene designer AI rather than human, the Olympic committee and scientists try to get at the optimized logarithms the AI used, a process which proves both fascinating and horrifying.  The monster growing quickly and intelligently, it isn’t long before Silas, and the world, must contend with the gladiator as it comes into its own.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of The Best of Subterranean ed. by William Schafer

At this point in my life I’ve read enough short stories to realize that the best form they arrive at my door in is the curated anthology.  Anthologies of originals and author collections often hit or miss, curated anthologies allow the editor to cherrypick from stories that have been on the market for some time.  Generally speaking, this means stories that were memorable—for a good reason.  Curated anthologies like Gardner Dozois’ The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, Gordon van Gelder’s The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary, or Kessel and Kelly’s series for Tachyon, for example, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, contain numerous good, quality stories that have weathered a bit of time.  William Schafer’s big, fat The Best of Subterranean (2017) is another example in support of my theory. 

Opening the anthology in very strong fashion is Lewis Shiner’s “Perfidia”.  Playing with similar but different ideas to his novel Glimpses, the story tells of a rare music collector named Frank and the seemingly unbelievable find that comes his way.  A music recording dated three days after Glen Miller was officially declared dead, Frank, with the blessing of his drastically ill father, heads to Paris to find the recording’s seller.  The characters and emotion written with Shiner’s deft hand, “Perfidia” is a powerful tale of one man trying to find redemption—the uncertainties surrounding Glen Miller’s mysterious disappearance a great launch pad.  I am torn on Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Game”.  Wonderfully well-written, “Game” tells of a lifelong tiger hunter returning to India in old age for one last hunt.  Dahvana Headley expertly interleaving the hunter’s past with his present, it’s slowly revealed that the hunt may not, in fact, be all that different from those of his younger days, despite the years that have passed.  The story taking a severe left turn upon the climax, readers will either be enthused or disappointed.  I fall on the latter, as I’m unconvinced the left turn actually enhances the story.  Everything (if not more) could have been accomplished had the story been kept ‘realist’.  A very good story, nonetheless.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Review of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

At one point in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, sheriff Tom Bell makes a comparison between the results of a survey issued to teachers in the 1950s and the same survey issued at the turn of the century.  Talking and chewing gum in class and shooting spitballs among the prime offences fifty years ago, they were replaced with rape, suicide, arson, and vandalism in the modern generation.  While the notion an apocalypse is nigh may be extreme, there is no denying the increased prevalence of vice and violence in the years since.  Using the Mexican drug trade as a backdrop, No Country for Old Men highlights this contrast in a story that is the envy of any crime novelist on the market.

Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope on the empty Texas plains one afternoon when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad.  Dead bodies and heroin lying everywhere, he finds a briefcase with millions of dollars and heads home.  But his conscience nags at him.  One of the men in the vehicles gasping for air but alive when he left, Moss makes the fateful decision to return in the middle of the night to bring water and see if the man is still alive.  But other dealers have arrived on the scene to hide the mess and recover the goods when Moss arrives.  And he barely escapes.  Forced to leave his truck behind, the dealers have a means of finding his name and address.  Little does Moss know but it is the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurgh who is put on his trail to recover the money at all costs.  Staying alive, let alone with the money, becomes anything but a foregone conclusion for Moss.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 More Than Human explored the possibility of a gestalt human mind in symbolic fashion; an unlikely group of six, each with their own unique powers, come together to form a more capable, collective mind.  The topic interesting (or More Than Human ultimately dissatisfying), Sturgeon returned to the subject in 1958 with The Cosmic Rape (aka To Marry Medusa). In some ways the counter-point to More Than Human, Sturgeon looked at a unified mind, in this case in a galaxy-spanning hive mind, in more human fashion—which made a huge difference, at least for this reviewer.

Though operating on a classic sf premise (an intergalactic alien hive mind seeks to subsume humanity’s minds), The Cosmic Rape is a fully human story.  Though the malcontent Dan Gurlick is linchpin to the novel, his story is interleaved by a handful of characters’ who couldn’t be more diverse.  Guido is a juvenile delinquent who, for reasons he doesn’t understand, hates music and feels the need to destroy it whenever he hears it.  Mentored by a patient policeman, he slowly softens.  Mbala is an African farmer who discovers someone is stealing yams from his garden at night.  Precisely who the culprit is is a surprise, forcing Mbala into a difficult decision.  Sharon is a four-year old girl riding with her family as they move house to a new city.  The family stopping for a break alongside the road, domestic hell breaks loose (Sturgeon does a superb job capturing the mini-dramas of children and parents), and as a result Sharon is accidentally left behind.  Her rescue is entirely unexpected.  Gurlick’s story told in and around these characters’ stories, the reader meets a true malcontent.   Thief, drunk, rapist—it’s the hive mind’s fate to have him as its first contact and first convert on Earth.  Tasking the vile man with gaining the knowledge and materials necessary to infiltrate and take over humanity’s minds, Gurlick is transformed by the alien mind, but not entirely…

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Whether it be koopa troopas (the duck-turtle things from Super Mario Brothers) or the endless robotic hordes of Contra, darknuts (red and blue varieties) from Legend of Zelda or the innocent looking crab things spitting glowing death balls from Sonic the Hedgehog, one constant in video gaming is the endless parade of enemies who. all. look. exactly. the. same.  Better to kill a faceless enemy than one with a wife and three children (George, Sophie, and Martina—as cute as can be).  Thus, to say video games are xenophobic (in terms of content, I mean) would be an understatement.  Having recently completed Naughty Dog’s 2007 action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I can only say the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Far advanced in graphics, music, story and otherwise beyond the days of Mario Bros., Contra, etc., that parade push of faceless enemies nevertheless continues, en force…

Uncharted opens with Nathan Drake (archeologist/explorer who happens to be good with a gun) dredging up the coffin of his long lost ancestor Sir Francis Drake off the coast of Panama.  The coffin is empty, but it does contain a secret book with enigmatic clues where he hid his treasure before dying (natch).  Pirates attack, and soon enough Drake, his right-hand man Sully, and the feisty reporter Elena are tracking through the jungles of a mysterious island, seeking an idol purportedly made of pure gold as enemies attack from all sides.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I was not a fan of the seventh installment in the Star Wars films, The Force Awakens.  Forced and imitative rather than natural or developmental, its producers and directors were clearly more interested in profits than the integrity of the franchise. Nearly everything about The Force Awakens has its direct analog in the original Star Wars films, and as such failed to push the Star Wars storyline ahead in any organic fashion.*  Not so with Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels that followed up the events of The Return of the Jedi.  A natural extension, in Zahn’s trilogy the Empire is waning as the Rebellion is waxing; Luke is rebuilding the Jedi, a new government is being set up along democratic lines, and with the Emperor dead, the dark side is pushed to the background.  There is some cleaning up to do, but overall things are looking brighter for the universe. Thus, the only logical hope the Empire have of getting back into the picture is that a brilliant tactician might be able to do something with what little they have left over.  Enter the blue-skinned, red-eyed alien Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

A very different villain than either the Emperor or Darth Vader, Thrawn used intelligence and rationale as a means to finding advantages, and as the events of Zahn’s trilogy play out, was nearly able to retake power for the Empire once again using just that tool.  In 2017 Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with the alien’s backstory, simply titled Thrawn.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of Railhead by Philip Reeve

I am not a big fan of the past several years’ glut of YA fiction.  Given that adults are the primary consumers, I see it largely as another symptom of the continued dumbing down of culture; “It’s ok, it’s YA” is the reason offered when confronted with what is often very formulaic material.  (And all this is without discussing the glut of YA fiction called ‘adult’ simply because of bad language and/or sex.) This is not to say everyone who reads YA fiction is juvenile, only that it’s a rare sight on the web that an adult reviews a work of YA fiction as such, rather than as any other piece of ‘adult’ fiction they read.  But there remain some really good YA titles on the market—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… series, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Diane Wynne Jones glorious Howl’s Moving Castle among them.  Not quite making this list (but almost) is Philip Reeve’s 2015 Railhead.

A ripping boys’ adventure, Railhead is the story of Zen Starlight.  Teenager living on a planet at the end of the line, he spends his days in petty thievery and riding k-trains that travel point-to-point instantaneously across the galaxy.  One day, after stealing a gold necklace from a street vendor, he notices that a girl and her drone are following him.  Giving them the slip at the k-train station, it’s even stranger when they turn up at his house the next day, asking questions.  Thinking they work for the street vendor, Zen flees his house and heads to the fence where he sold the necklace to get it back.  But when the police nab him and demand to know where the girl with the drone is, things get hectic.  Pulled inescapably into an exploit he’d rather have avoided, Zen is quickly in over his head as the shadowy leader of an underground resistance group wants him to commit an extreme crime.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Ernest Hemingway’s place in the canon of world literature is a contentious matter—at least to me.  While the author of the superb Old Man and the Sea (one of the greats of the American literary scene) and the accidentally great The Sun Also Rises (published at any time other it would have just been another novel), Hemingway is likewise responsible for a number of novels and stories, as well written as they may be, that are little more than operatic tragedies.  Say what you like about the undercurrents of For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and Into the Trees, and other of his most famous novels, their primary motifs are standard war drama and romance—motifs that novels like Gone with the Wind had been deploying for decades.  Peter Heller’s implementation of a Hemingway-style narrative in a post-apocalyptic setting, 2012’s The Dog Stars, is no less contentious.

Part of the 1% of the population to survive a massive pandemic, Hig is a former journeyman carpenter now living out his days with a blue heeler named Jasper at a small, abandoned airport at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Having set up a protected living space, his only other contacts are an aggressive former Navy Seal named Bangley who shares the airport with him and a group of infected Mennonites living in a nearby valley.  The pilot of a small Cessna, Hig regularly reconnoiters the area with Jasper, looking for scavengers and bandits that would seek to disrupt the relatively peaceful place he and Bangley have made for themselves.  But one day the monotony, coupled with a dramatic event, propel Hig to break the mold and seek the world beyond the airport. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

If there is anything the world never seems to tire of, it’s the murder mystery.  (If it were the US, I would say mass shootings...)  Likely the first form, if not the most basic form of genre, the number of iterations of: figuring out how someone died and apprehending the culprit may just occupy the largest percentage of books, film, and television in the West.  Dabbling in the murder mystery medium in Jack Glass, in 2017 Adam Roberts returns with another pop-sf effort in The Real-Town Murders.  And is it ever slaPdaSh.

More specifically a locked-room mystery (we even have sub-genres of murder), The Real-Town Murders opens with private investigator Alma on the scene of the crime.  An auto-mobile manufactory, she watches the security video of a car being 3D printed from raw materials on the factory floor, guided only by the hands of robots, yet a corpse somehow ending up in the car’s trunk at the end of the process.  The factory’s AI no help, Alma turns to interview the QA employee who found the body, but is quickly cut-off by a high-level government investigator.  Brought to the morgue, Alma is shown the corpse and politely informed she is off the case; the government will take over.  Upon returning home and discovering her data feed has been wiped of all information related to the case, Alma is contacted by a person who claims to have top secret information about the murder.  Meeting the shadowy man at a nearby cafĂ©, it isn’t long before Alma is dragged back into the case—if not just to find out how the murder was done.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of The Death of Grass by John Christopher

In the decades following the second world war, disaster/catastrophe fiction was something of a thing in British fiction.  From John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, a variety of scenarios, some more and some less believable, were imagined depicting the human reaction to massive and abrupt social and environmental change.  Wyndham’s falling-star blindness followed by mutant, carnivorous plants that just so happen to prey on the blind is beyond far-fetched, but Ballard’s The Burning World (aka The Drought) remains a realistic look at the psyche in response to mass water shortages—the only real science fictional element in fact being the premise.  Throwing his hat into the catastrophe ring in 1956 was Sam Youd (better known by his pen name, John Christopher) with The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass).  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies meets Ballard’s The Drought, Christopher produced an inconsistent, dramatic, and occasionally thought-provoking fashion story of an England turned upside down by lack of food.

A plot introduction to The Death of Grass is quite a simple affair: a 1950s’ era England deals with the effects of a plant virus that wipes out grain production and causes a major food shortage, in turn throwing the country into chaos.  The tale told through the eyes of one John Custance, the man must take a journey from ravaged London to his brother’s farm in the countryside where a well-protected valley promises safety and provisions for he, his family, and a small handful of hangers-on looking to escape the brutal realities of humanity gone feral. The majority of the novel’s content found in situations where John must make the most dire of decisions and the resulting ethical quandaries, often egged on by his brutal companion Pirri, to elaborate would spoil the story.  Suffice to say Christopher uses tight prose to depict scenes which put humanities’ atavistic and civilized aspects at odds with one another in provocative fashion.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig

Cute, charming, colorful, feel-good—it’s tough to find a toe-hold to open a review of Matt Haig’s 2013 The Humans.  Just intelligent enough to stray the right side of maudlin, it’s a story that confirms humanity’s foibles in a tried and true fashion, but does so at least with a bit of clever and endearing wit.  And that, I suppose, is where it’s value lies. 

Solving the Riemann hypothesis apparently the key to unlocking humanity’s spread across the universe, an alien race called the Vonnadorians find out that Earthlings are on the verge of discovering the solution and take steps to prevent this by sending one of their own to prevent it.  Killing and taking the form of math professor Andrew Martin, the Vonnadorian arrives on Earth with minimum knowledge and maximum loathing for humans.  He also arrives completely naked, and is forced through a gauntlet of police and newspaper stories to get back to some sense of domestic normalcy.  Cutting right to the chase, “Andrew” kills colleagues and acquaintances who are aware of his research into Riemann’s hypothesis, but slowly, through interaction with his wife, despondent teenage son, mistress, and friends, he learns what it means to be human.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review of The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss, certainly one of the tip-top science fiction writers of all time, passed away a couple weeks ago, and in honor I decided to pull one of my unread Aldiss novels off the shelf and have a go.  No two pieces of Aldiss’ fiction the same, it was impossible to predict what The Malacia Tapestry (1976) would be.  And the cover is zero help.  Unless the reader has read an adept review or two, then it’s very likely the pulp image would entirely misguide them.  But this is Aldiss we’re discussing, and The Malacia Tapestry is much more than Golden Age escapism.  In an interesting twist, Jack Vance might have played a hand, however…

The Malacia Tapestry is about Perian de Chirolo and what is likely the most formative year of his life.  Playboy actor working the stage in the Renassaince-ish, Italian-ish city of Malacia, he lives in poverty yet devotes his life to pleasures—chasing women, bumming a good meal, and getting drunk with equally lascivious friends.  A complete cad, Perian’s life takes a new direction (little to his knowledge) when he agrees to a job acting, rather posing, for scenes in a new type of still-life art created by a renegade inventor/artist named Bergstohn.  Bergstohn part da Vinci and part Wagner, he is a Progressive who has developed a zahnatascope (primitive camera) that he intends to use, under the sponsorship of a wealthy Malacian lord named Hoytola, to create a series of images that will tell a politically dissident story.  Hoytola’s daughter, the beautiful Armida, has likewise agreed to act in the still-life play, and Perian falls madly in love.  Bergstohn having many other subversive plans for Malacia, time will tell the effect on Perian as he is drawn deeper into Armida’s web.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


I’m pissed off—again yes, but this time more than usual.  Vegas, and yet another mass shooting in the USA.  Guns are not solely to blame; there are social and cultural issues that also played a role.  But dammit, guns are the main reason.  The guy had mental and social problems, clearly, and the type of free-gun society that exists in the US played right into his hands, along with the hands of the other crazy people who appear about every year or two doing exactly the same thing.  The availability of guns enabled rather than hindered his insane ideas, and there is no arguing around that.

For the record, I’m pro-hunting though I don’t hunt. (Anybody who eats meat or wears leather has no right to be anti-hunting.)  But I am for extremely strong regulations that force every person who wants a gun to go through rigorous testing—physical, psychological, etc.—in order to get a license.  Like the check-in process before getting on an airplane, I trust that the majority of people who use their guns for hunting and target shooting wouldn’t mind subjecting themselves to testing knowing that its ultimate purpose is to weed out the maligned, and would in the end make the US a safer place.  In the legal arena, anything that resembles automatic weaponry, or its accessories, should be prohibited from the market.  Guns should only be sold through official government shops that match gun registration numbers to registered licenses. There should be limits on the number of guns licensed people can own (two or three seems reasonable, unlike this).  And gun manufacturers should be limited in the volumes and types of weapons they are allowed to produce.  Yes, you heard me, no open market on the gun industry.  (Which is more valuable: national GDP or the thousands of people who die each year due to gun violence?)  Stronger regulations would not eliminate gun deaths, but would, if done properly, eventually bring the US into line with the majority of the Western world in terms of gun-death statistics.  

I am American but for the past eight years I have lived in Europe, a continent which is not immune to shootings but for which the frequency and death toll of those events when they occur is exponentially smaller (save Norway, of course).  Guess what, guns are heavily, heavily restricted here.  In Poland where I live the licensing process takes roughly a year, and includes a psychological evaluation, target practice (like a driver’s license test), background search and criminal record evaluation, a written exam, as well as interviews with authorities.  There is no reason why a similar process could not be implemented in the US.  Bad people would still be able to get guns, just like in Poland, but the average crazy guy would not be able to go to his local Walmart and with the flick of a credit card become a mass murderer.

God fucking dammit, almost sixty innocent killed and nearly 600 injured in Vegas, and still the message that GUNS ARE A PROBLEM continues to be ignored where it matters in the US!  It's crazy to me that people will buy more guns after this event, considering there is nothing about owning a gun that could prevented the situation.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the attack, but most especially the people in the future who will be victims, as, sure as rain it will happen again in a year or two unless something massive changes in gun regulations. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me 267 times, shame on the government and its politicians for being too weak to overcome the gun lobby and enact better laws that reduce the shame...