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…