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...)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review of Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s 2017 Empire of Silence is classic in every sense of Golden Age science fiction. Aliens, the Campbellian hero’s journey, galaxy spanning empires, court politics, sword duels, space ships, etc.—they all drive the story. And yet there is a sensitivity to culture, colonialism, and language that one rarely if ever finds in such material. The child of George Lucas and Ursula Le Guin, the novel makes for an interesting if not simplistic milieu.

Star Wars: A New Hope meets The Word for World is Forest, Empire of Silence is the story of Hadrian Marlowe. A nobleman exiled from home as a young man, Marlowe is forced to confront the exigencies of the wider universe with very, very little in his pockets. Relying on his wits and talents, Marlowe parlays his command of languages, sense of honor, and sword skills into new and exciting positions on a planet torn between fending off attacks by the alien Cielcin from the outside while inside battling the aggressive nature of the empire’s stifling religious order, the Chattny. Battles fought with the tongue as much as sword, Marlowe’s journey through the layers of this far-future Greek-ish empire is certainly one to tell his children.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Review of Wolves by Simon Ings

There is a tendency in science fiction to portray science/technology in dichotomy. Good or evil typically the options, a minority of books unpack their technological imaginings in balanced fashion. And this reflects the real world to some degree; most people’s opinion of television seem to fall on the side of either vital for existence or blight on humanity. Few seem to take in its full spectrum in one go—purveyor of the worst trash to groundbreakingly informative, and everything between. Simon Ings a spectrum viewer, his 2014 novel Wolves uses the life of one man as a lens to evolution in augmented reality.

Chopped up into interweaving timelines, Wolves is the story of Conrad. Bi-sexual and confused about it, not to mention the son of a bipolar mother, he clings to shreds of reality and belief throughout a tumultuous childhood. Culminating in a dramatic event in his teenage years, his worldview is only twisted further entering adulthood. His father working with emerging technology that helps veterans who lost all or a portion of their eyesight in war, Conrad comes in contact with virtual and augmented reality at a very early age. Sticking with the medium and getting lucky with a start-up business, in his 20s Conrad becomes a dependable technical lead, successfully advancing his knowledge as the technology surrounding Augmented Reality evolves. As it catches hold on the market and begins to shape people’s environments even bodies, Conrad’s uncertainties only evolve further, and ultimately threaten to overtake him.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review of Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is in the middle of what will likely turn out to be the most productive period of his career. Since 2012, Robinson has pumped out one big novel per year. Running an extensive gamut of ideas and settings, 2312 took a wide angle lens to human inhabitation of the solar system; Shaman went to prehistory, took the knowledge we have of it now, and crafted what is likely Robinson’s most plot-oriented novel; Aurora juxtaposed and paralleled the problems with human existence in a generation starship with life on a polluted Earth; and New York 2140 took a drowned Earth motif and married it to macro-economics in a multi-character presentation of a flooded Big Apple. Quantity seeming to slowly catch up with quality, in 2018 Robinson released his sixth novel in six years, the lunar spy ‘thriller’, Red Moon.

Fred Fredericks has been sent by his company to the moon to deliver the other half of a quantum entangled phone. The recipient a high level Chinese official, Fredericks sees for himself first-hand the initiative with which the Chinese have developed infrastructure on Earth’s largest satellite. But quickly things get turned upside down. Fredericks in the wrong place at the wrong time, an assassination occurs that implicates him as the perpetrator. Hidden away by an underground Chinese political group in the aftermath, it isn’t long before he is discovered, and goes on the run. As unrest develops on the Earth below—cryptocurrency threatening to upset the American economic machine even as Chinese migrant workers band together against their government—Fredericks discovers he may play a larger role in humanity’s fate than he ever thought.

Review of Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell

Deals with the devil are a literary staple—too innumerable to start listing here. Bartered with the fork-tailed angel in Craig Russell’s Black Bottle Man (2010) are the pregnancy of two women for the nomadism of their husbands and a teenage son. The three men not allowed to stay in one place longer than twelve days or meet certain death, the only way to eliminate the pact is to find a champion who can defeat the devil. Naturally, the devil gets to keep the soul of every failed champion, plopping it neatly into his black bottle. It’s a premise that makes only partial sense, but a premise nonetheless given the novel’s subtitle is A Fable

The majority of Black Bottle Man occurs in the Depression-era Midwest. Teenage Rembrandt wanders the countryside with his uncle and father, learning the ways of hobos, yet never staying in one place longer than twelve days. Life on the road is tough for him, particularly as drama after drama strikes he and his family. The fact they fail time and again to find a champion to defeat the devil doesn’t make things any easier.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Like most Hollywood films, I have a love/hate relationship with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games. They look spectacular, but don’t hang around in memory long after playing. The admission price seems justified by the fireworks, but become immemorable once the credits roll. Given how juvenile the storylines and premises are, it’s not a surprise. Like brain candy, however, I have played each of the three Uncharted titles to date, and given the praise surrounding Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, I unwrapped its cellophane as well, leading to the question: can it shake its Hollywood fa├žade to offer a deeper experience?

Like many a big screen action flick, Uncharted 4 starts off in media res. Drake and his brother Sam are in a boat, piloting through stormy ocean waters at night while a group of boats give chase. The action intense, gunfire lances across the waves, forcing Drake and Sam to defend themselves as they talk about making it to the mainland. As all hell breaks loose, the scene cuts back in time to Drake as a boy in an orphanage. A young delinquent, Drake escapes the orphanage to meet Sam for a night of joyriding. Cutting to yet a third scene (Drake and Sam in a Panama jail as adults, plotting their next big treasure haul) the game slowly connects the dots, making for what appears one last action/adventure for Drake.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review of The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

I don’t know how politically correct the term is, but I’m going to use it anyway as it illustrates my point precisely. I grew up in a poor, rural, 99% white area. But we had television, which meant a virtual connection to all things American that were not poor, rural and white, including rap and hip-hop. And for the portion of youth who felt no kinship to the country music, 4x4 trucks, and good-ol'-boy local culture, the urban world of beats, rhymes, and gangstas called to them through the tv screen. Not only listening to the music but imitating the styles and behaviors of their tv idols as well, they came to form their own loose social group. Some of them my friends, they nevertheless were called 'wiggers' in the way high schoolers can be cruel. I can’t think of a better metaphor for Anna Smith Spark’s 2017 The Court of Broken Knives—as cruel as it is.

Poseur’ I believe the politically correct version of the word, more often than not The Court of Broken Knives poses as grimdark epic fantasy rather than actually being grimdark. What is grimdark, well, I know the term is subjective once you start peeling the layers back, but suffice to say it’s clear Spark's novel is doing everything it can to take the batons of Abercrombie and Martin, Bakker and Lawrence and turn the dial up to eleven on gloom and doom (typically accomplished by staccato repetition of ‘death’, ‘blood’, or ‘dying’), and thinking itself original for doing so. The blond haired, blue-eyed, uber-powerful hero/anti-hero of the story can’t do anything without some dark similes over his shoulder. The priestess character comes from a religious order in which children are regularly sacrificed to fate. And every fight or battle involves entrails spilling, inanity, mud, gouts of blood, hopelessness, etc. Fully third generation, it’s grimdark that wants you to know it is grimdark and not to forget it.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Non-Fiction: Review of A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

Media being what it is these days, there is a lot of information being broadcast regarding the situation in North Korea, all of which must be taken with a grain of salt. What is stereotype and what is truth? What is veiled jingoism and what reflects reality? For certain it is understood North Koreans live under an oppressive regime, but to what extent does the oppression extend? It is Pol Pot Year Zero madness, or a milder version of socialism like that of Cold War Poland, for example? Told from the mouth of a man who lived for decades in the country and escaped, A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa sheds a first-hand light on the realities of life in North Korea the past half-century, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Caught between two cultures and therefore not belonging to either, Ishikawa was born to a Korean father and Japanese mother in Japan in the years immediately following WWII. Looked down upon as low caste by the Japanese, his family’s fortunes only change for the worse when they give in to pressure and decide to repatriot to North Korea to live in the socialist paradise said to be awaiting them. Called a ‘Japanese bastard’ by everyone upon arrival, Ishikawa quickly learns that no paradise awaits, only a hell far worse than the low caste existence his family had in Japan. All of the relative luxuries they owned—bicycles, washtubs, running water, etc.—now gone, in their place are leaky roofs, forced indoctrination, bent-back farming, and barely enough rice to feed the family, not to mention a social environment prone to backstabbing, paranoia, and generally scrabbling, egotistical behavior. Coming to terms with the life but never accepting it, A River in Darkness describes the arc of Ishikawa’s many years living in North Korea, and his eventual escape.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Review of Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood

There are certain moments throughout the year that I feel like just completely relaxing and reading a novel I don’t have to think about—one that I know will be entertaining, won’t treat me like an idiot, and yet be effortless enough I don’t have to work out a histogram of literary allusion to decipher meaning. (There are other moments of the year such novels beg.) It should be a novel I don’t care if it contains a bucket of tried and true material as long as the author executes with precision, style, and mood. It should grab me from the first and not let go until the last. And, most importantly, it should be true escape—a world or story so well-packaged as to taunt me when I’m not reading it. Such books typically defined by author (occasionally by surprise)—Paul Di Filippo, Elizabeth Hand, David Mitchell, Ian Macleod, and several others have never let me down. Neither has Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and his second Tom Fox novel, 2018’s Nightfall Berlin (written as Jack Grimwood), doesn’t break any trends.

It is summer 1986 and Tom Fox is on vacation in the Caribbean with his family. Licking mental and physical wounds, he hopes the time with his wife and son under the warm sun will help him recover from the cold, dramatic events of Moskva. (For the record, there is no need to have read Moskva to read Nightfall Berlin.) But if wishes were fishes… Contacted under urgent circumstances, Fox has been specifically named as the person to escort a high level British ex-diplomat who wants to leave exile in East Berlin and return to Britain to stand trial for treason. Reluctantly making the trip to glasnost GDR, Fox arrives on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall to do his duty. Trouble is, there are behind-the-scenes plans that have Fox pegged as merely collateral damage. His escort mission turned upside down in a matter of hours, Fox finds himself not only on his own in Soviet-occupied East Germany without diplomat papers but in desperate need of getting beyond the Wall. Need and certainty, however, are not always common bedfellows.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review of Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg

Shorter review: biblical robocalypse

Longer review: Androids in relation to legal rights, emotions, existence, life, etc. have been a feeding ground for science fiction for a long, long time (from the beginning even, if one takes Frankenstein’s monster as an android). Humanity’s human-like creations portrayed as everything from loyal servants to killers en masse, it’s easy to argue that books which delve into questions regarding sentience are the most sophisticated of the sub-genres sprouting from manufactured humanity. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Brian Aldiss’ “SupertoysLast All Summer Long”, and Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life are just a few of the more intelligent stories examining the humanity of synthetic life. Falling a bit shy of this crowd yet rising above Stephen King’s “Trucks” (short story which inspired Maximum Overdrive), Daniel Wilson’s Robocalypse, and Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is Robert Silverberg’s 1971 Tower of Glass.

It’s the 23rd century, and ultra-billionaire Simeon Krug has devised the creation of human-like androids. Biologically vat-produced to varying degrees of sophistication—gamma, beta, alpha, etc., his androids fit into various niches of society, from street cleaner to secretary, government adviser to sex slave. Yet at every outward appearance, they seem to display the same human range of thought and emotion. They are also employed as manual laborers, and Krug has a huge crew erecting a massive glass tower in the Arctic tundra which, when finished, will be used to attempt to communicate with aliens that are believed to be sending messages from across galaxy. The androids building a political platform seeking the same rights as humans, a proverbial powder keg explodes when one of the synthetic beings lobbies Krug and is shot. The Earth is never the same…

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Review of The Final Frontier ed. by Neil Clarke

When I was in high school, I was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I haven’t watched the show in literally decades, but I recall the variety of situations Picard, Ryker, Data and the rest of the Enterprise crew regularly got themselves into. Both external and internal, there were alien encounters of all varieties as they explored the unknown just as seemingly inexplicable things could happen onboard without any obvious peripheral stimuli (at least at the onset of the episode)—even the holodeck was a source of the uncanny. While the crew regularly changes with each story, it’s fair to say that editor Neil Clarke’s 2018 reprint anthology The Final Frontier captures the same Star Trek spirit.

Attempting to set the tone is “A Jar of Goodwill” by Tobias S. Buckell. A simplistic bit of science fiction that is perhaps more at home in a 1948 anthology than 2018 (an original episode of Star Trek versus Next Generation), one can almost feel the likes of Clifford Simak or Robert Heinlein leaning over Buckell’s shoulder writing this conventional bit of alien encounter (sans damsel in distress). Next is Ken Liu’s “Mono no aware.”  A story that presents an interesting view to American culture (“Then we’ll improvise,” Mindy says. “We’re Americans, damn it.  We never just give up.”), it hinges on a heroic act (natch) in a space mission gone wrong, including the cultural heritage of the main character, and how it plays into said heroic act. The import of the story seems more Hollywood than refined (hence the popular awards?).

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review of Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael Coney

Ahh, the English summer holiday. Time at the cottage, playing under the sun, taking the boat for a sail or two, watching for ice-devils—wait, what? Ice-devils? Is that British humor referring to the sea? But what about the lox? And the lorin—the hairy people? I thought everything seemed so familiar, now it doesn’t... Such is the alien strangeness of Michael Coney’s Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975). The internal conflicts it describes, unfortunately, are not…

At the outset of Hello Summer, Goodbye, Alika Drove seems like any other teenage boy getting ready to go on summer holiday with his parents. His mother frets over packing bags, just as his father grooms the family car readying it for the trip. Trying to stay out from underfoot, Drove argues with his parents about what he can and cannot bring on holiday, and whether or not he can meet up with a girl he had eyes for the previous summer, Brown-eyes, an innkeeper’s daughter who his parents look down upon for being lower class. Despite his father’s tight, prudish control over Drove’s behavior, the teen finds a big surprise upon arrival at the tourist island of Pallahaxi: his own skimmer boat. Thus, the summer holiday proves to be filled with adventure, romance, and drama where the water is your friend as much as foe (those ice-devils). It’s the intentions of the adults around you, however, that may not be as they appear.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Review of Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

We are living in expansive times. Genre fiction is abound. One can barely lift a rock without finding the remnants of a nuclear apocalypse or wisp of fairy hair. And where genres and sub-genres were once relatively insular, things are now blended together into one big smorgasbord of fantastika unlike fiction has ever seen. Cowboy robots, cyberpunk trolls, dystopian elves—there are seemingly no limits on what writers are doing in an effort to poke their noses above the genre tide inundating the current market. Wild west drowned Earth with nanotech, and biopunk, and mob bosses, and animal companions, and…? Why not, asks Sam Miller in his 2018 Blackfish City.

While that intro would seem to pave the way for Waterworld in book form, there is, in fact, a much stronger Klondike, Alaska feel to Blackfish City. Yes, global warming has taken its toll and flood waters have inundated the majority of civilization. Yes, most of the novel takes place aboard a city floating on the sea. And yes, there are bouts of Hollywood heroics and superhero action. But overall, the mass emigration west in the mid-19th century and resulting mix of culture and affluence, the search for a better life, and the relative lawlessness as people looked to (re)establish ‘civilization’ is a stronger analog to the premise of Blackfish City.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Review of Fuzzy Dice by Paul Di Filippo

Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles is one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. It’s not a perfect specimen of text. It doesn’t suck the reader in for drama and make them shed tears. You won’t be turning pages as fast as you can to see whodunit. It didn’t win any Pulitzers or Man Bookers. But it remains a singular work of imagination with human layers far beyond the average work of commercial fiction. Time and again Sheckley’s fine wit reconstructs reality (or our perception of reality) in some unique, clever way that has you both smiling at and pondering the profundity. Though their imaginations are distinctive, I do not doubt Sheckley’s novel was floating in the back of Paul Di Filippo’s mind as he wrote Fuzzy Dice (2003). Be it tribute, homage, or just stand-alone novel, regardless, it’s cut from the same discerning, droll clothe.

Middle-aged ex-hippy with unfulfilled yet unknown expectations in life, Paul Girard merely tolerates existence. A bookshop clerk, he spends his days surrounded by colorful pages and ideas, but just can’t seem to find any color in his own life. The great paradox of existence (aka the Ontological Pickle) hanging over him like a black cloud, Paul arrives at work one morning to find a sentient robot shrub from the multiverse awaiting him. Suffice to say, his life takes a new spin—a quantum spin. Given a free-pass to the multiverse (appropriately a yo-yo synced with his brain), the shrub instructs Girard to go and find the answer to the Pickle. The multiverse a wild and strange place (putting it lightly), Girard gets his question answered, but certainly not in anything resembling the manner or ease with which he’d hoped.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Review of Ahab's Return by Jeffrey Ford

The tsunami of fiction—long tale to long tail—on the market today is staggering, and with it come ever more inventive attempts at being original. One area rich for mining is the usage of popular characters of the past. Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, James Bond, Jane Eyre—these and others are finding second, third, and fourth lives under the guiding hand of new authors. Hit or miss, undoubtedly there is some grave-turning happening. While first flush may make the reader believe Jeffrey Ford has caused Herman Melville to take a turn or two, deeper examination reveals his 2018 Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage has legs of its own to stand on (har har—har?), and is certainly worth looking deeper into.

George Harrow is an early pulp writer living in New York City in 1853. The oddest of visitors showing up at his tabloid’s offices one day, the one and only Captain Ahab complete with whalebone leg comes clumping through the door. Ishmael a former copy editor for the tabloid, Harrow immediately recognizes the haggard sea captain from the novel, and sets to questioning him how he survived the white whale. Ahab spinning his tale, Harrow’s editor recognizes fictional gold when he hears it, and gives Harrow a stipend to help the returned captain find his wife and son on the condition Ahab allow Harrow to turn his recollections into stories for the tabloid. The search and stories going smoothly, things take a turn, however, when the unlikely pair learn that Ahab’s son is in the clutches of a street gang known for peddling opium, beatings, and outright murder. The plot, as they say, thickens as the gang’s nefarious leader comes into the light.

Console Corner: Review of "Blood & Wine" Witcher 3 Expansion

While it includes dwarves and elves, kings and dragons in a fantasy land, the Witcher world has never been about delivering run-of-the-mill high fantasy. Finding solid ground between familiar and unique material, there is no character like Geralt or his abilities in all of fiction or gaming, even as the Medieval land he fights his way through is, at least on the surface, recognizable. And this, interestingly, is what makes the final expansion for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt called “Blood & Wine”, so intriguing.

Opening a whole new setting in the Witcher 3 world, “Blood & Wine” visits a kingdom that, on the surface, appears a fairy tale. From the towers of Beauclair Palace to its beautiful duchess, its charming vineyards to plumed knights fighting for honor, it all would seem the most stereotypical fantasy world possible. But beneath it, however, lie many human realities. Highlighting the manner in which Sapkowski and CD Projekt Red have subverted the classic conception of high fantasy, this major expansion closes out the overall Witcher 3 experience in fine fashion.

Console Corner: Review of "Hearts of Stone" Witcher 3 Expansion

Looking at in-game statistics, I spent just shy of 100 hours completing Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Yes, almost 100 hours--months of time. I don’t know what the average length of a video game is these days, but such a length is rare. It’s the equivalent of sitting in a chair for four straight days, no food, no sleep, only gaming—err, witching. Developers having built a massive world, told a major story (as well as several quality side stories), and enriched it with a plethora of details, it is a veritable feast of a game. It was thus a big shock that CD Projekt Red came out with an expansion to Witcher 3 in 2016 called “Hearts of Stone”. I’ve since entirely broken the century mark …

Best played once the player has reached level 30-32 of the base game, “Hearts of Stone” is, in its most fundamental form, a major side quest to Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Responding to a note on one of the village’s notice boards, Geralt heads into the northern regions to talk with a man who wants a monster killed. Upon arrival, Geralt encounters a band of merry-makers one step shy of madness. Nevertheless he agrees with their leader, the drastically scarred Olgierd von Everec, to go to Oxenfurt and kill the monster hiding in its sewers. Everything going to plan (even getting some assistance from a medic named Shani) in the fight, the story spins sideways. Geralt’s trajectory going in an unexpected direction, he has to use his strength and wits (and dancing shoes) to get to the bottom of who cheated whom, and straighten what is otherwise a crooked situation.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Review of Galaxy Blues by Allen Steele

In the so-called Golden Age of American culture, there was such thing as young man’s adventure. Robert Heinlein now looked back upon as the king of this domain in science fiction, books like Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc. capture a sense of nostalgia for the innocence of the 50s when ‘snips and snail and puppydog tails’ played a greater role than facebook, internet porn, and meth (ha!) toward exciting young men’s minds. Attempting to capture that innocence in a 21st century novel is Allen Steele’s Galaxy Blues (2008).

A spin-off novel from Steele’s Coyote trilogy, Galaxy Blues is the story of Jules Truffaut. Illegal stowaway aboard the Robert E. Lee, Truffaut gets to Coyote the hard way. Imprisoned upon arrival at the colonial planet, Truffaut is set free under the condition he serve aboard the cargo transport ship of the millionaire Morgan Goldstein, an irksome man who is trying to corner the newly opened market with the alien hjadd. Things immediately smelling fishy after lift off, Truffaut discovers not all of the crew members are as they seem, including the lovely Rain Thompson, and the mission to deliver cargo may have ulterior motives.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Starcraft II 2018 - Year in Review

Blizzcon is over, a king has been crowned, and Starcraft II in 2018 is officially in the rearview mirror. Time to pause and reflect on what transpired, hand out some awards, take a look at the games of the year, and return to my predictions at the beginning of the year.

Firstly, I think 2018 was a great year for Starcraft II despite how repetitive it seemed to be in terms of the winner's circle. I loved Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, but for me Legacy of the Void is the best iteration of competitive Starcraft II, and 2018 continued to prove why. Gameplay forces players to control more units at a time with a speed of economy not seen earlier, leading to quick, massive engagements that are more often than not decided by skill rather than luck. I love a good cheese and there are moments bad luck still effects outcomes, but overall I believe players are forced to juggle an even greater number of balls in terms of tactics and at faster speeds if they are to win in the state of the game today. Watching Legacy of the Void games versus Wings of Liberty, the degree of higher complexity is noticeable. The average number of different unit types seen on the field in the climactic battle is typically a magnitude higher than say Parting vs. Marineking or MMA vs MC back in the day. We now talk about Terran and Zerg deathballs in the same tones we used to speak about the Protoss deathball. It's not strange for Maru or TY to walk into battle controlling ravens, vikings, and liberators in the air and marines, marauders, tanks, hellions, widow mines, and cyclones on the ground—in three or four different locations at the 15 minute mark. That's just what you've got to do to win. Whether or not Serral would beat MVP is a moot argument, but as a whole I think Starcraft II progamers in 2018 have had to show a higher degree of skill than those of 2011, which is, of course, to the viewers and fans' advantage.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review of The Future Is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente

Bright banner on the wall, neon letters on a billboard, cloud writing in the sky! Catherynne Valente is one of the great writers of the 21st century you’re not reading!! Go get some! But seriously. With eighteen novels, seven collections, and more than one-hundred short stories, why her writing is not spoken more widely I guess is due to the fact she writes outside the mainstream (and between the lines as much as in them, and thus often requires thought—god forbid), can make erudite in-references only people as well-read as she will understand, has a wit so sharp most people are unware they’ve been cut, and displays a range of prose only a handful of her contemporaries, if any, can match. No, Valente is much, much more than the average, modern writer of fantastika, as her 2018 collection The Future is Blue, proves.

One of the first things one must come to terms with and accept if they are to have a considered view of Valente’s world is her joy—her reveling—in language. “Two and Two Is Seven”, “Down and Out in R'lyeh”, “A Fall Counts Anywhere”—these are examples of stories gonzo with words. Dripping lexical gusto, if the reader cannot appreciate wordplay, wordsmithing, and word#$%^ (e.g. alliteration, inventiveness, and the indescribable), then they should stick to their work-a-day, golly gee whiz John Scalzis or Seanan McGuires. Valente practically assaults the reader with etymological agility, and if they are not ready or willing to take up the gauntlet and wade in, they should just move on. (But never, never say that it’s ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ writing.) Sometimes leaving the reader wondering whether Valente has a thesaurus no one else in the world possesses, stories like “A Fall Counts Anywhere” display how truly clever and diverse the English language can be used in its WWE battle royale between the baddest of the bad robots and the most fearsome fairies. Such a premise perhaps cheesy executed by any other writer, Valente makes the most of it with lingual play and manga imagery, the resulting riot literal and figurative.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review of 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson, essentially since the publication of Red Mars in 1984, has been one of science fiction’s most well-known, if not popular writers. Possessing a fertile imagination, yet one grounded in the sciences, his science fiction visions have been as vast as they have been credible. But given the awards and recognition, none seem to have captured readers like his 2013 novel 2312.

Robinson seeming to have premised himself with the concept: what could the solar system be like two hundred years from now?, 2312 is essentially the concept of the Mars trilogy expanded to our solar system, told in the mode of detective/romance (more later). The novel kicks off with the death of a prominent scientist living on Mercury. Mourning her death, a colleague, a woman named Swan, is contacted by a man named Wahram, asking if the scientist left any info for others to follow up on. None to be found, Wahram asks Swan to join him for a visit to one of Jupiter’s moons to inquire further with another scientist named Wang, a man who was equally involved in research on artificial intelligence. A nasty surprise waiting Swan when she returns to Mercury, there is a new twist on life in the solar system, and things may never be the same for mankind.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review of Infinity's End ed. by Jonathan Strahan

I have had a like/dislike (as opposed to love/hate) relationship with editor Jonathan Strahan’s ongoing Infinity series of science fiction anthologies (seven and counting). The introductions not always belying subsequent content, not to mention hard sf a medium that can drop the ball in terms of intellectual or emotional engagement, there is a lot of hit and miss. Regardless, there are many good, solid entries scattered throughout the anthologies, and I’ve never regretted reading one. Purporting to examine the limitless possibilities of our solar system as well as draw the Infinity series to a close is 2018’s Infinity’s End.

The anthology opens with “Foxy and Tiggs” by Justina Robson. A detective story starring a velociraptor and furry animal, the pair look for a murderer on a tourist pleasure planet. Essentially a poor man’s Darger & Surplus story, it feels far more post-human than hard sf, not to mention is highly dependent on the reader’s appreciation of Robson’s sense of humorous wit. A spot of YA space thriller, “Once on the Blue Moon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells of young Colette’s experiences on board the titular spaceship when it is attacked by pirates, and how she thwarts their evil intents a la Macaulay Culkin.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Green-faced: The State of Fantasy on the Market

My children have a book called Yummy, Yucky. (“Daddy, read the Umm-umm, Bleh book”, they say.) A simple affair, pictured on the left page is always a child eating something tasty and a caption like “Soup is yummy” and on the right page a child eating something less tasty—“Soap is yucky”. Looking at the last two pages, on the left one sees “Ice cream is yummy” with the smiling child ready to dig into a full bowl, but on the right reads “Too much ice cream is yucky”, the child’s face green and laying in the empty bowl. I think I feel the same bleh about epic fantasy on the market these days.

It’s quite easy to observe the market is simply flooded with fiction, let alone fantasy. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings films (and likely Terry Pratchett) kicking things into high gear at the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a floodtide of wizards, knights, dragons, and warring kingdoms since. Looking in places like NetGalley, the Locus Upcoming Books and Recommended Reading lists, Amazon’s new releases, book blogs, goodreads, ezines, publisher websites, etc. and there seems an infinite number of fantasy titles appearing. It’s literally impossible to keep up, let alone read the books. It’s gotten to the point, in fact, that all the books’ titles are blurring together—the dreaded, too-much-ice-cream green face.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Life and art, fedora-wearing gangster, the ring of grime around an unwashed bathtub, parent-echoing behavior, getting the girl and the money, silent yearning, meeting your long, lost friend on the same day you win the lottery, art and life… Given this is a post regarding Donna Tartt’s 2013 The Goldfinch, one may assume that is a nutshell review. Banish the notion (at least the details); it is, in fact, mood setting.

The Goldfinch is the story of two phases in the life of Theodore Decker: one early teens, the other mid-twenties. An intelligent young man just going through puberty at the start of the novel, Theo lives in a small Manhattan apartment with his mother—his alcoholic father having walked out on the family a year prior. A kind, caring, cosmopolitan woman, Theo’s mother is the anchor of his life. But one day she is taken from him, and replaced by a painting of a goldfinch. (Nothing fantastical; read to learn the details). The rug of life pulled out from under Theo, his anchor is gone. Left floating between relatives and family friends in the ensuing turmoil, Theo is pushed toward a life that will test him physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and he may not survive, let alone keep the painting a secret.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

There are numerous examples throughout media (regardless book, film, game, etc.) where the sequel is better than the original, and in the case of the Uncharted series the idea rang true, again. Naughty Dog addressing the gaps apparent in the first game and taking advantage of the opportunity to make the second better, Among Thieves was a noticeable improvement over Drake’s Fortune. Both were pulp action titles in line with Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, Tomb Raider, and any number of other world-circling, numinous-object-finding, buddy-buddy-joke-telling, gun fighting adventures. But the latter took major steps to tighten gameplay mechanics, expand storytelling, and create less simple puzzles. What then, are the ways Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, sequel to Among Thieves, expands on the franchise? 
Having now played the game, I would answer: not many—which is not by default a bad thing. Drake’s Deception is an extremely similar experience to Among Thieves. The storyline is completely different, but in broad terms does not move far from the Uncharted formula, i.e. there is a quest to find a magical place, bad guy wants to get to magical place before Drake, friendly banter, light romance, yada yada. But at the detail level, player participation is enhanced (what might have been cut scenes in Among Thieves become one-time events in Drake’s Deception), not to mention that the story experience is driven by different locations and objects. Instead of a quest for Tibetan Shangri-la, Drake seeks an Arabic Shangri-la called Ubar. Getting there takes him through Columbia, London, France, and Syria, and (natch) a variety of gunfights and shootouts, which are, after all, the Uncharted series’ bread and butter.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day

There it lies, a deer, spotted and innocent. It seems to have just settled down for the evening, perhaps in tall grass or leaves in the forest. Perhaps other deer lie nearby. It is a clearly recognizable thing, its posture, its form. But the jade green fur? It appears so natural to the eye, like with any deer. And yet the brain knows it is not, leading us to pause, then think. Such is the delicate power of the stories in Julie C. Day’s 2018 collection Uncommon Miracles.

In single-author collections I assume the author themselves played the greatest role in selecting the sequence, which in the case of Uncommon Miracles means a post-apocalyptic story wherein women become pregnant with rabbits via Immaculate Conception sets the tone. “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending” matches the cover image: at quick glance things appear genre ordinary: post-apocalypse, cross-country trip, shortage of supplies, etc. But pregnant with rabbits? That is the figurative jade green fur, and leads the character to reflect on the nature of pro-creation and existence, and likely the reader.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review of Haven by Adam Roberts

With the size of the current genre tsunami on the market, it could be said nearly every major sub-genre is likewise inundated. Zombies, grimdark, dystopia—all have more than a few examples on the market to say the least, let alone their parent genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. I haven’t done any research, but post-apocalypse/catastrophe is likely to be one of the top two or three motifs, I feel. Like a pair of brown loafers, it seems to fit with nearly everything—zombies, grimdark, and dystopia included. Running with the zeitgeist, Solaris have commissioned what for now are two novels in a shared, post-asteroid strike England. Adam Robert’s 2018 Haven is the second of these.

An unknown number of years after the Sisters (a group of asteroids) have struck Earth, the people of England look to pull themselves out of the proverbial mire and organize something resembling civilization once again. Davy is a thirteen year old boy living on a farm in a small community. Troubled with epilepsy, a rare condition few if any understand, his reputation as a visionary or mystic spreads beyond his small farm, including a territorial, women-only community in Wycombe. The leader of Wycombe wronged in the past, her main rival is a group led by Father John, an aggressive man who would seek to organize everyone under his authority and no one else’s. Both sides believing Davy holds answers for them, little does the thirteen year-old know of storm of possession he is about to be tossed upon when heading out for a walk one day.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review of Ports of Call and Lurulu by Jack Vance

Anyone who has read the autobiography Hey, It’s Me, Jack Vance! is aware the gregarious author was an avid world traveler. Embarking on lengthy international trips with his family, he used the time as both relaxation and work, writing many of his novels in exotic locations. And the evidence is there if one looks just an inch below the surface of his work; almost all of Vance’s novels and stories feature cultures at once familiar yet bizarre from our own. But none of the novels may capture the traveler’s life like Vance’s final two—a duology, in fact—Ports of Call (1998) and Lurulu (2004), both of which take all of the man’s 80-something years of travel experiences and distill them into a galactic tour as only Vance can write.

Myron Tany is a young man on a planet far from the center of the galaxy. From a poor family, he dreams of seeing exotic places he knows he never will. But a university degree in galactic economics and a wealthy but eccentric aunt change things. Dame Lajoie taking an interest in Myron’s life, she involves him in her aristocratic and social enterprises, even including him on an interplanetary trip to find a supposed fountain of youth. Matters going awry en route, Myron finds himself alone on a planet with only a suitcase and a few sols in his pocket. What happens next is up to him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review of 2001: An Odyssey in Words ed. by Ian Whates & Tom Hunter

By far the most common way of going about creating an anthology of short fiction is by theme. Whether it be something as expansive as horror or fantasy, or something more specific like women writers of the 19th century or alternate visions of London, the majority of anthologies on the market are tied to a broad theme in some fashion. There are a few, however, which look to collect stories along more specific lines. Jeff VanderMeer asked people to create stories based on four words: last, drink, bird, and head. George Sandison proposed writers look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four in the context of today in 2084. Patricia Bray said specifically steampunk vs. aliens. And there are many other examples. And then there is Ian Whates and Tom Hunter’s 2001: An Odyssey in Words (2018). Wanting to pay homage to the 100th anniversary of Arthur C. Clarke’s birth, the pair decided the best way would be not to give prospective writers a related theme, rather a broader but more concrete goal: any type of short science fiction at precisely 2,001 words in length. Becoming more than a gimmick, the tightness of the writing space resulted in the writers producing a surprisingly good selection of stories, a few truly standout. It goes without saying, none overstay their welcome.

In what I would not have picked as the anthology’s opener, Dave Hutchinson’s “Golgotha” tells of an alien’s first visit to Earth. As part of the experience, a priest introduces it to the sea, as well as a certain dolphin, all of which goes on to have dire consequences. Message fiction, it nevertheless is a good message, relatively well-framed by a classic sf conceit. Hutchinson’s story is followed by what should have been the first: Paul McAuley’s “The Monolith’s of Mars”. The best piece of McAuley fiction I’ve read, the story provides a virtual tour of Mars while somehow capturing a mood equally scientific and spiritual, something I think Clarke himself would have appreciated.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin is by now almost a household name. The success of the Song of Ice and Fire novels feeding into the even greater success of the television series, one hears the words ‘Winter is coming’ and ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ on the street. I assume most of these people, however, are unaware Martin began his career as a writer of short fiction in the 70s. Regular readers of this blog know my jaded nature toward a lot of popular fiction, and thus it should come as no surprise that I feel some of Martin’s early, more humanist work is, in fact, his best. Capturing a few of these stories, plus a handful of his more mainstream fiction, is the 1985 collection Nightflyers.

Containing only six stories (though two are long novellas), things kick off with the title story. Vampires in space, “Nightflyers” is the story of a mission gone horrifically wrong. Mysterious captain and mysterious happenings onboard make for a mysterious story that, for as well developed and suspenseful as it truly is, lacks any true depth beyond vampires and space. Undoubtedly, however, it will gain praise from mainstream sf&f fans. (Longer review can be found here.) “Nightflyers” is followed by another straight-forward but well executed sf horror story, “Override”. About a miner on a distant planet who uses remote controlled corpses to dig for valuable metals, when a rivalry turns sour, things quickly get out of hand for him.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Review of Intrusion by Ken Macleod

Dystopia has become one of the most ubiquitously utilized motifs in fiction. From science fiction to fantasy to mainstream fiction to literary fiction (and all the layers and permutations of those fuzzy sets), dark societies far removed or an eye-blink away from our own are being imagined left and right. While for most books dystopia is a device feeding drama or atmosphere, in others it is genuine thought experimentation looking to examine and analyze humanity from a hypothetical perspective to gain new insight. Playing with the full spectrum of “liberal” in a near-future Britain where genetic engineering allows for children to be born healthy as long as a pill is ingested during pregnancy, Ken Macleod’s 2012 Intrusion falls firmly into the category of the latter and makes for what is certainly one of the most unique dystopias ever written.

Hope and Hugh Morrison are just another couple living in near-future London, trying to make ends meet as best they can. Hugh has advanced science degrees but can find no employment, and spends his days, satisfied enough, as a joiner and carpenter. Likewise possessing advanced degrees yet working a low-end job (a service desk representative for Chinese company), Hope works the hours she can while fitting in their flat’s needs, including picking up and bringing their son Nick to the local school—a task the couple learn will soon be doubled as Hope is pregnant. But they have much bigger problems with the pregnancy. A law in effect that forces all pregnant women to take “the fix” (a pill ensuring babies are born genetically sound), Hope and Hugh don’t want to subject their unborn child to the small capsule for personal reasons yet have no legal recourse; the law leaves no room for exceptions save faith-based reasons, and the couple do not practice religion. As the days and weeks move on, mounting pressure from family agencies and the medical establishment push Hope to take the pill. Yet she doesn’t, meaning eventually something must give.

Console Corner: Review of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Before diving into my review of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I should state that I have not played the original Mass Effect trilogy. I have seen gameplay and read about the games when deciding whether to invest in Andromeda, but as a whole I have zero first-hand experience. I mention this as, the lack of experience with the original trilogy should make my review of Andromeda more objective than a lot of reviews I’ve seen. But all in due time…*

If there is anything video games were seemingly made to do, it would be to realize the fantasies of science fiction. Exploring exotic planets, shoot outs with hostile aliens, space ship flight, seeing distant universes, human diaspora across the galaxies—these are some of the most imaginative areas of science fiction just waiting to be realized in interactive fun. And the sheer volume of such material in video games is proof. At the macro level, Bioware’s 2017 game Mass Effect: Andromeda captures these phenomena wonderfully; at the micro level, less often.

After hundreds of years of deep space flight, a fleet of allied ships, human and alien, has arrived in the Andromeda galaxy seeking a new home. From vast arks carrying racks and racks of people in cryosleep to a massive operational nexus, it’s a full mission. And it includes the exploratory ship The Tempest, led by the Pathfinder, you. In something like Star Trek: Next Generation-style, the player is tasked with meeting any aliens who might live in the galaxy, establishing peaceful relations, and finding new planets suitable for human colonization, if possible. Problem is, the first planet The Tempest lands on destroys any hope of a peaceful settlement. A hostile alien group known as the Kett open fire on the Pathfinder in an attempt to prevent access to a strange alien technology scattered across the planet. Neither Kett, human, or any other known alien species’, the technology, called Remnant, seems to hold the key to making the planet suitable for habitation. And thus you, the Pathfinder, must clear the Kett and unlock the secrets of the Remnants to pave the way for the thousands awaiting a new home. The Kett, however, with their foothold in the galaxy, have sinister plans for any alien species they encounter, including the Pathfinder…