Friday, March 30, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier

The painter slaving away, surrounded by half-finished canvases and empty paint cans.  The writer sitting hunched under lamplight after midnight, pen grinding away at a notebook.  The guitar player, head bent, playing variations on a simply melody, endlessly stopping and restarting to find the right note.  These are classic images of the artist at work.  But what of the 21st century and the boom of video games as the most profitable form of art on the market?  What is its iconic image of the artist at work?  Jason Schreier’s 2017 Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories behind How Video Games Are Made takes a look at what that might be.

Case-based journalism, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels takes a look at the making of ten well-known video games over the past decade.  Personally interviewing and engaging with the game’s directors, creators, artists, CEOs, animators, technical leads, play testers, programmers, story writers, producers, etc. the book provides a comprehensive view of the obstacles, luck, quality choices, challenges, and limitations each game faced on its way to glory, infamy, and in one game’s case, nowhere.  Not a technical book (i.e. how to make a video game step-by-step), Schreier looks at the interlock of budget problems, time restraints, ambition, failed and kept promises, market concerns, publisher interference, lack of coherent teams, the value of strong vision, and a number of other topics, and how these combined to give us the games we are familiar with, for better or worse.  The people interviewed are amazingly candid, and the stories they tell and information they pass on makes for an honest look—not exposé—of the real concerns of video game developers in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review of 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Shedding the mantle of his father’s reputation, Joe Hill slowly built his name (har har) under that pseudonym.  The quality of the stories so good, however, I wonder whether it was even necessary.  Writing, it seems, is in his DNA.  Bringing together the best fifteen stories from the earliest part of Hill’s career (plus a hideen, bonus story), 20th Century Ghosts (2005) is a varied collection, with highs and lows, that gives every indication of the writer “Hill” has become thirteen years later and influence of the legacy he grew up with.

The collection opening on its strongest entry, “Best New Horror” is meta-horror if such a thing exists.  The story functions at three levels: pure fiction, fiction within fiction, and fiction in the context of reality (i.e. comes thisclose to the fourth wall).  About a horror editor who encounters an odd submission for an anthology he is putting together, the story goes on to briefly traverse the theoretical underpinnings of horror as a genre and horror fandom, before ending on strong note that both satisfies the story as a whole while recognizing where horror resides in the current cultural context. All in all a very difficult trck to pull off, but done so with flying colors.  Starting off a YA version of Kafka’s Metamorpheses, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” tells of a teenager who eats a radioactive bug and becomes a giant, mutant grasshopper himself.  Hill’s purpose in the story unclear, it’s possible he was attempting to address the school shooting issue in the US, but may be more of a portrayal of America’s dwindling domestic scene—or both or none at all. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Review of Song of Time by Ian Macleod

One aspect of the contemporary glut of fiction is book titles have evolved into a mindless flow.  Looking through lists of upcoming publications, award winners, recommended books, etc. and the titles all start to blend together.  In epic fantasy, for example, one can take a couple token words, add a pronoun and article or two, and you’ve got the next published series.  The Axe of the North, Dragon’s Fire, The Oath in Stone, etc. could easily exist, somewhere, such is the surfeit of fiction (and maybe they do, I haven’t checked).  Overall this is very unhealthy for readers, and the industry in general.  Quantity heavily outweighing quality, good perhaps even great books with titles that would have been standout fifty years ago are now being overlooked in the milieu.  I can’t help but feel Ian Macleod’s 2008 Song of Time is one such novel.

The name of a symphony inherent to the story (like “Cloud Atlas” in David Mitchell’s novel of the same name), Song of Time is the story of Roushana Maitland.  Half Hindi and half Irish, she grows up in a near-future Britain only slightly more evolved from our own.  Heavily affected by the death of her musically gifted brother, Roushana takes up the violin with fervor.  Other tragedies striking, both personal and global, she uses them to fuel her drive, or at least distract, going on to become a world class musician.  And that world is changing around her.  Europe goes through major political transformations, nature rears its ugly head in continental fashion, and technology only opens further possibilities.  Now in old age living alone by the Cornish sea, Roushana has made the decision to continue living even after her mortal body has passed.  But when a young man washes ashore, things change.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Review of The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees

We generally maintain the view we are in control of our lives despite the situations which pop up to remind us we are part of a larger web of cause and effect.  From random chance to forgotten inevitability, accidents happen and everything has its own ticking clock whether we hear it or not.  And yet we push on, making the day to day decisions that would direct our lives.  It’s a difficult question to answer: when are we pilots across the sea of life, and when are we just tossed by its waves?  Caught in the wash of this question is Gareth E. Rees’ highly personal and dark The Stone Tide: Adventures at the End of the World (2018, Influx Press). 

The Stone Tide is (uncoincidentally) the story of a writer named Gareth.  Leaving London and moving to the sea-side town of Hastings with his wife and children, they buy a fixer-upper and begin investing time and money renovating the house.  Gareth still dealing with the loss of a close friend, he ponders his unexpected death while wandering the streets, hills, and parks of Hastings with his dog, Hendrix.  Memories of childhood, ideas for stories, and historical knowledge of his new city likewise criss-crossing his mind, finding out he has problems with his prostate only further occupy Gareth’s mind, leaving him to wonder whether the life he’s lead is not as he thought it was.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams

Ahh middle ground, that oft traversed yet little expounded area of contemporary literature criticism yet, funnily enough, where the majority of fiction lies.  Much easier to give a thumbs up or thumbs down than precisely describe or recognize what makes a book average material, I hope my review of Walter Jon Williams’ 1990 space opera The Praxis, first in the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, holds to a different standard.

The few known alien species of the universe, humanity among them, have been united under an overlord race calling themselves the Shaa. Living for thousands of years and possessing unheard of technology, the Shaa enforce a draconian rule of law known as the Praxis that keeps all species living in relative harmony.  But something has come over the Shaa.  For several years they have been slowly killing themselves in announced, ritual ceremonies.  Now, only one remains, the Shaa of Shaas, and it too has scheduled its own death, which in turn will leave all races without a leader.  The Praxis is the first chapter telling of the resulting power vacuum.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

John Crowley has long been one of the most contentious names in fantasy literature.  While lauded by critics and erudite readers, his popularity remains minimal in the mainstream.  And the reasons are clear.  Steering wide of melodrama, stereotype, contrived plots, and other familiar elements of popular fiction, Crowley has always utilized distant prose to grapple with abstract albeit human ideas.  Little, Big, Aegypt, and other such novels utilized elements of genre (faires, alternate history, etc.) in setting and plot, but focused their content on the value of stories, memory, and other such broad themes.  In 2017, however, Crowley set out to write a more accessible novel, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr being the result.  Thankfully, Crowley did not stray far from his roots.

Ka is foremost a frame story—or at least a story that begins in media res.  An unnamed elderly man finds Dar Oakley the crow in his backyard one day.  In poor health, the bird starts to relate his life story to the old man.  And it’s an amazing story.  Dar Oakley, or as he was originally known, Dar Oak of Lee, was born into a murder in the woods of primeval Wales.  Befriending a young native girl named Fox Cap, he watches as the girl grows up to become something of a shaman among her people.  Deciding to embark on a trip to the underworld to bring back a cauldron that will cure the mortality—wars, illness, old age—plaguing her people, Fox Cap asks Dar Oakley if he wants to go with her, and he agrees.  But things underground don’t go as planned.  Emerging back into the world, Dar Oakley finds himself caught in a loop of life and death that persists through the centuries, and, interestingly enough, at a prime viewing spot to see evolution of mankind through the branches below him.

Console Corner: Review of Wipeout: Omega Collection

To my knowledge, there is no consensus Playstation mascot, no iconic game that can easily be used to immediately remind people of the console in the same fashion as Mario does the Nintendo or Sonic, the Genesis.  There are games which have appeared on all four generations of the Playstation, for example Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Mortal Kombat, but none have become inextricably linked with the console.  (May be a good thing with Mortal Kombat…)  The closest thing the Playstation has to such an iconic image is the Wipeout series.  From the original Wipeout on PS1 to the latest Wipeout 2048 on the PS Vita, the game has appeared in one form or another throughout the years.  In 2017, the anti-gravity, futuristic racing game makes its debut (and likely last appearance) on the PS4 with Wipeout: Omega Collection.

Not a new game, rather a remaster/port of two previous titles Wipeout 2048 and Wipeout HD (including the Fury expansion), the Omega collection makes the latest gameplay available on the latest console.   Done the cheap way (which makes sense considering the game’s developer is out of business), the two games have been brought individually to the PS4, no synthesis of the titles.  This is a bit of a missed opportunity, but certainly not a show stopper.  At the opening menu, the player must choose which version of Wipeout to play: HD, 2048, or Fury, and from there play within that version’s modes, ship types, tracks, music, etc.  You cannot fly a 2048 ship on an HD Fury track, for example.  There are campaigns, but again, not across the titles.  This means three games in one, or a wasted opportunity to integrate the titles, depending on your view. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully by Jane McGonigal

Compared to literature, film, television, and the other forms of media we regularly consume, video games are the new kids on the block.  But they have taken the block by storm.  Their popularity only increasing as each generation’s thumbs develop left and right brain coordination, they are also the most lucrative form of media in terms of profits.  Despite the rise in popularity, misconceptions about video games persist.  They cause violence.  They isolate.  They addict.  And so on.  What real-world research has to say about video gaming is something entirely different, however.  Naturally, as with too much of anything, there can be problems, but as a whole the number of positives outweighs the negatives.  The world, in fact, is round.  In SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully (2016), Jane McGonigal takes advantage of the misconceptions by creating her own program: how “gaming” can improve our lives—without the need for a television or controller.

Aimed at people who are dealing with things from PTSD to procrastination, anxiety to loss, stress to motivational issues, depression to irrational fears, and a host of other problems, SuperBetter describes McGonigal’s program for tackling such issues in a manner heavily influenced by the science of games and cognitive behavior therapy.  The program possible to be approached individually, with friends, or with professional help, McGonigal takes the conclusions, empirical and cognitive, from game research and implements them in a new form. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Being the wise old man that I am, one of life’s lessons I keep close to hand is: avoid the things that you like the idea of more than you like the actual thing. Humans being humans, for whatever reason there are things we invest a great deal of hope, desire, even material wealth to acquire, only to quickly discard them, or be disappointed due to some misperceived incompatibility with our personalities, interests, or preferences.  Our eyes can be bigger than our plates in more ways than just food.  Books have great potential in this area.  Reviews make them seem interesting, commenters praise their glories, and awards apply a bright, neon-yellow highlight, meaning this wise old man does not always learn from his mistakes.  Such is the case with Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (2012), first in her Eternal Sky trilogy.

Looking back to my notes for Bear’s Undertow, I should not have invested in Range of Ghosts.  Flat, flat, flat prose that sucks the life out of what could have been an interesting story, Range of Ghosts indicates nothing has really changed in Bear’s style in the intervening years.  Under the microscope, there is nothing overtly wrong with the flow of words.  Syntax is correct, the words are descriptive, and the text moves the story forward.  And yet I perpetually struggle, paragraph after paragraph, line after line, to maintain focus—even in the so-called dramatic bits.  (The exact same thing I experience reading Daniel Abraham.)  I must continually rein my wandering mind in.  Needless to say, it’s an indication something is wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Slam by Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner’s first couple of novels, Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart, were, not too make things too general, character-oriented stories that highlighted individuals’ personal dramas—serious fiction, some might call it.   Looking to borrow a page from friend James Blaylock’s The Last Coin and take a break from gravitas, in 1990 Shiner released the caper-esque thriller, Slam.

We meet Dave being released from a Texas prison after serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion. Picked up by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, he is deposited at a beach house where a friend has found work for him housesitting for a recently deceased elderly woman.  Her will stating that the house be cared for precisely as she left it—twenty-three cats included—in order for the parameters of the will to be upheld, Dave’s post-prison life would seem to be cushy.  But such is not the case.  Neighbors and friends of all eccentric varieties stopping by in his first few days of freedom (a deaf and blind couple, a UFO cult leader, a pot-smoking granny, an orthodox parole officer, a group of skateboarders, a prison escapee), meeting the conditions of his parole and the old lady’s will gets difficult, very quickly.  If Dave doesn’t get control of the situation, his newfound freedom may be short-lived. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review of Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

There is certainly a portion of readers who read and enjoy short fiction, but equally certain is that novels get most of the love.  Those readers’ loss.  Writing a form of art that exists in different shapes and sizes, short fiction presents its own challenges and limitations, meaning that a truly good writer is master of all, and when the reader finds one who is particularly good at short and novel-length, all the better.  Jonathan Lethem is one such writer, and his latest collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories (2015) is an example why.

‘Dynamic’ one word to describe the collection, Lucky Alan is one unpredictable story after another.  Differing in style, prose, perspective, realism, setting, aim, etc., each story stands alone, which, in my opinion, is a great selling point to any collection or anthology.  Diversity keeping content fresh regardless of quality, the mystery of what comes next is often enough able to keep pages turning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula Le Guin

I first encountered the work of Ursula Le Guin seeking a topic for my Master’s Degree.  Eventually going on to write the thesis on the Earthsea cycle, in the process I became familiar with a wider swathe of her fiction, from the early Planet of Exile, through The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, to the later The Telling, as well as her non-fiction—Dancing at the Edge of the World and The Language of the Night among them.  Still a number of her novels and collections I’ve yet to read, upon hearing of her passing in January this year, I decided to pull A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, a short story collection from 1994, off the shelf and read as tribute.

Collecting eight stories and one essay, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is short fiction representing what I would call the middle, or transition period of Le Guin’s oeuvre.  Le Guin looking to revise her earlier approaches to theme, Tehanu, the Earthsea novel intended to entirely revision the original Earthsea trilogy, was published just a couple years prior as a strong starting point.  Busy developing greater emphasis on feminism, racism, and other social justice topics, in Fisherman one can find the fruits of this new perspective in short fiction form.  Whether or not there is synthesis between theme and the remaining of building blocks of fiction, however, depends on the story.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Among Thieves

Uncharted: Drake Fortune, the first game in the Nathan Drake series, was an average shoot ‘em up with mild bits of puzzle that was enjoyable in the moment but didn’t achieve a storyline or complex enough gameplay worth additional playthroughs.  A repetitive cycle of shooting up a hundred baddies than finding your way out of the area so you can shoot up more baddies, any sequel held a lot of potential for adding variety and depth to gameplay.   With Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, ask and ye shall receive (just not a bucketload).

A notably better game than Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves goes further down the Hollywood road.  It remains a repetitive cycle of platforming and gunfighting, but Among Thieves presents these elements with better visuals, more complex puzzles, and better cut scenes to create an experience closer to the Tom Cruise/Bruce Wills/Sly Stallone/   (fill-in-your-favorite-action-hero-here)    movie developers were aiming at.  There are still numerous, sometimes overlong scenes with shoot ‘em ups and platforming, but overall the level of idiosyncrasy increased significantly.  It’s still a juvenile game with gaping plot holes and ludonarrative dissonance, but it’s now slightly easier to ignore this factor.   

Monday, March 5, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

In my post-reading on Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude I came across a comment (somewhere that’s difficult to find again after an hour of web surfing) that anyone interested in further reading should check out Lethem’s 2005 collection of essays and assorted non-fiction The Disappointment Artist.  Taking the comment at face value, I invested.

Falling somewhere in the fuzzy arena of memoir, cultural reflection, and book and film commentary, The Disappointment Artist is, if anything, fully Jonathan Lethem.  Indeed linking directly and indirectly to The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem looks back at his youth in Brooklyn, the biographies of various artists, his evolving relationships with his family and friends, schoolmates and other people in his neighborhood, often through the lens of his artistic interests, and the music and movies that have informed his views, his craft and the person he was, is, and may become, making for an interesting collection for those with similar interests or curiosity about the man behind the fiction.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Most everybody knows the meme: ‘the great American novel’.  Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, DeLillo’s Underworld, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—these and others have been referred to as such.  And there is commonality among most: social and personal transitions within the past two centuries of history that in some way embody the American ‘rise from nothing’, all utilizing dense, typically quality prose.  The trajectory of this transition has shifted from ascending to descending the further into post-modernism we go, but in general remains in place.  Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is one such contender—granted an outside shot, but a contender nonetheless—for the epithet.

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, and their teenage and early adulthood years in Brooklyn and beyond throughout the 70s and into the 90s.  Dylan the introverted white son of an equally introverted artist, and Mingus the troubled son of a formerly successful soul singer now turned drug addict, neither boy has a strong mother figure in their lives either, meaning the streets are their greatest educators.  From the games children play to the wider contextualization of their racial and social positions, the two boys arc in and out of each other’s lives, through graffiti and music, pranks and pizza, as New York City and the US beyond, evolve around them.

Console Corner: Review of Bioshock

While the world of live-action film and computer generated graphics are essentially hand in hand these days, it remains the remit of video games to be 100% computer generated.  One of the things this means is that developers have near perfect control of every aspect of aesthetics.  Motifs to tiny details, all that matters is how well programmers and artists are able to capture the vision being sought (and, of course, the technical limitations of the console).  Developers can ask: what would the tap in a lunar colony toilet cubicle be like?  Or, how would a fantasy version of 19th century Japan look?  Or, as is the case with 2K Boston, what if we implemented an Ayn Rand socio-economic social vision in an underwater city?  2007’s Bioshock would be the result. (To be clear, I played the 2016 remastered version, but as much as I have read there is no difference to the original save graphical and speed improvements.)

Jack is flying innocently over the Atlantic Ocean one night when his plane suddenly goes down.  Left floating among burning wreckage, a nearby island lighthouse seems his only refuge.  Swimming to its steps, Jack enters the lighthouse to find a submersible vehicle which whisks him downward into the dark depths of the ocean.  The lights of a city appearing on the bottom, he is deposited in a leaky, neon tunnel with only a voice on a radio to guide him.  The man behind the voice is Atlas and he tells Jack the name of the city is Rapture, a former utopia now in dystopian disarray.  Soon after, Jack encounters people genetically upgraded to the point of agro-insanity and is forced to trust Atlas to guide him—the number of crazed people springing from doorways and hallways only seeming to increase.  From location to location Atlas guides Jack, trouble is, where is he being lead?