Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review of Dissidence by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod is not a writer who burst onto the scene.  But his Fall Revolution tetraology eventually opened readers’ eyes to a new voice capable of evolving, or at least capably extending the field.  The tetraology a combination of politics and near-to-far future science fiction, its has a highly atypical structure that showed an eye for clever, cutting dialogue and plotting.  Macleod followed this up, however, with the Engines of Light trilogy, which in all fairness was largely a familiar sf experience.  Seven stand alone novels followed thereafter, some of which played within genre conventions, and some which were more challenging in intent.  Learning the World, Descent, The Night Sessions, and Newton’s Wake were shaded more toward core genre experiences, while The Execution Channel, The Restoration Game, and Intrusion showed a greater willingness to address socio-political ideas.  This all leads to the question, what would Macleod do in his next project, 2016’s Dissidence?

Volume one in the Corporation Wars trilogy, Dissidence is a difficult novel to review as most if not all of its major ideas and premise are left open ended.  The plot reaches a natural pause in a larger arc, but overall the book serves as an introduction to: setting, thematic agenda, and characters, and to set these balls rolling.  Carlos is a virtual operator revived a thousand years after his death to do what he does best: kill.  His consciousness revived ino a virtual environment, he is asked by the Locke Corporation to lead a small team of operatives commanding mech exoskeletons through space to take back a small moon.  The moon occupied by a group of robots who recently found group sentience, they seek to defend their new found autonomy with barriers both legal and physical.  The mission seems clear cut, but as the political alignment of Carlos’ team, the robots, and the wider galaxy begin to fray, things go haywire.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Documenting some of them himself (in a journal later published as an exegesis), the issues Philip K. Dick was dealing with in his personal life are known.  Hallucinations to transcendental visions, suicidal thoughts to drug use, marital troubles to metaphysical doubts, these elements were reflected in Dick’s fiction in direct and indirect form.  But they were always integrated in abstract, fictional fashion that made the story to hand, unique. That is, until 1981’s V.A.L.I.S.

The closest Dick got to autobiography in his fiction, VALIS is the personal and spiritual journey of Horselover Fat (‘Philip Dick’ if Greek is used to translate the first name and German the last), told through the eyes of his friend, the writer Philip Dick.  Lost in life at the start of the novel, Fat is dealing with a broken marriage, a suicidal friend, and lack of spiritual conviction regarding the reality of reality.  Events triggered when the friend eventually kills herself, Fat falls into a downward spiral.  Believing he is mad, Fat shares some of his ideas with his friends Philip and Ken, and starts keeping a journal of his thoughts on metaphysics and religion, particularly his belief that he was contacted by an alien god-mind in the form of a strange pink light.  In and out of mental institutions, Fat remains lost in life, that is until he learns he may not be the only one who has seen a pink light.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review of Age of Assassins by R. J. Barker

We are now somewhere in the middle of the fantasy shrapnel cloud that exploded some time around the release of the Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings films.  As pieces whiz by with greater frequency, the titles have become meaningless blurs—The Dragon’s Sword, A Warrior’s Oath, and Shield & Throne are titles I just invented but could easily be on the market somewhere.  Fantasy’s covers have stretched further and further apart—like a waistline after pasta and beer—as writers worldbuild ad nauseum.  Its clichés and stereotypes have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to the point subversion is almost meaningless.  Its low roads have been ridden hard, and its high roads occasionally explored.  It has been integrated with every other genre out there—romance, noir, mystery, horror, etc.—in attempts to be fresh and innovative.  And with self-publishing an option, it seems everybody and their brother is writing an epic fantasy trilogy.   How then to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the useless?  Trial and error, unfortunately.  With R.J. Barker’s Age of Assassins (2017), first in The Wounded Land trilogy, I can report the former more than the latter.

Given almost all fantasy book blurbs these days blend together into an empty nothingness, I’m tempted not to offer a plot summary of Age of Assassins.  So, short and simple: Girton is apprentice to the master assassin Merela in Castle Meriyanoc, and together they work to find the person who is trying to assassinate Aidor, heir to the throne.  Requiring Girton to go undercover among the kingdom’s knights-in-training, he learns the Castle is home to a lot more enmity than he ever imagined, and it will require all of his wits to stay alive, let alone catch the culprit.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review of The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

I very rarely re-read novels.  There are maybe a dozen I have read more than once, meaning the reviews on this blog are the product of first-time reads, or a hearkening back from memory to pull what remains.  But with Stephen King’s 1987 Eyes of the Dragon it’s too far back.  Read in high school, not to mention with the mindset of a teenager, I’d like to think my critical reading skills have since evolved since, and as a result may result in a different view of the novel now.  Inspired by having just finished King’s writing guide/memoir On Writing, I decided to add another book to the dozen or so.

I remember Eyes of the Dragon in a positive light—not as the greatest novel ever written, but as something interesting, dark, unexpected, and cut from a different cloth than the other King novels I’d read at the time.  What then does my forty-year old brain, now riddled with hundreds and hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels, think?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I own two books titled Space Opera.  The first is Brian Aldiss’ 1974 anthology of bite-sized space drama from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The second is Jack Vance’s literal take: a 1965 novel about a musical troupe touring the Milky Way and the inter-cultural troubles they have on the way.  I now have a third to add to the group, Catherynne Valente’s 2018 Space Opera.  But how the hell to boil it down to such a simple summary?  “Wile E. Coyote” in space?  No… Universe's Got Talent?  No…  Glitterglam saves humanity?  No…

A combination of Aldiss’ figurative and Vance’s literal, Valente’s Space Opera is the story of the glitterpunk glamrock wonderboy Decibel Jones and his call to redeem humanity through song and save it from complete annihilation.  Decibel competing in the Megagalactic Grand Prix talent show alongside many other alien species, whoever comes in last will have their species wiped from their planet, the local biosphere left to rebuild itself.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop

I’ve read enough Philip K. Dick to recognize the elements common to most of his fiction. Quirky ideas imposed on quotidian settings, metaphysical twists on reality (drugs, technology, dogma, etc.), awkward prose, telekinesis/mind powers, and subtle and subversive political commentary can be found in most of his stories.  And while alternate history was not something he often explored, it is the biggest aspect of his best novel The Man in the High Castle.  Upon learning of Dick’s unexpected passing in 1982, Michael Bishop (of all the unexpected writers) decided to write a novel in honor of the man.  Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas is an immaculate tribute that any reader who appreciates Dick will likewise appreicate.

Reworking the constitution to allow for infinite presidencies, at the outset of Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas Tricky Dick is now nicknamed King Richard, and is in his fourth term of office.  As one might expect, he rules an America bogged down in his brand of conservatism.  Heavy travel restrictions have been placed on crossing state borders and people’s behavior, particularly first and second generation immigrants which are subject to regular nationalization.  Another restriction is cultural censors, including literature.  His early genre work still allowed on the market, the writer Philip K. Dick’s later, more subversive works, however, are banned.  But pet shop employee Cal Pickford doesn’t care.  Possessing a number of illicit copies of Dick’s novels, it comes as a slap in the face one day at work to come across the obituary of his favorite writer.  It’s an even greater slap in the face, however, to learn the disembodied spirit of Dick, a confused entity asking to be called Kai, has shown up at his wife’s psychology clinic shortly thereafter, requesting therapy.   King Richard may not be ready for Kai.

Console Corner: Review of Valiant Hearts

Where WWII and the related topics of fascism, genocide, and atomic warfare get far more media these days, WWI may have been, in fact, the grittier, dirtier war.  With the Age of Industry burgeoning, the relatively high-tech weapons deployed in WWII, particularly air weapons, were still a dream in WWI as trench warfare, running lines of soldiers into lines of soldiers, and brute force armaments were the norm.  Battles with thousands upon thousands of casualties were not uncommon, most the victim of bullets or bayonets from ground-level firefights.  The majority of WWI occurring on European soil (a continent whose cultures are so close in comparison to the global scene yet possessing centuries of history both peaceful and aggressive), the thin red line never meant so much.  Using these circumstances as a platform, Ubisoft developed Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014.  Possessing a unique, hand-drawn art style, it is a puzzle/action game highlighting the human side of war.

A streamlined run through a couple of major WWI events, in Valiant Hearts players will take on the role of one of four (and a half) characters.  Depending on the scene or setting, there is the Frenchman Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddie, a Belgian nurse Anna (and an unnamed dog Emile finds that players can control to some degree—the half).  Karl called into war by the German side which subsequently pulls him away from Emile and his daughter, the two men spend a good portion of the game trying to reunite the family.  Freddie a gung-ho sapper-type soldier, he befriends Emile in the early going, and together the two escape and must find their way through many difficult situations.  And lastly Anna, a young woman whose scientist father has been kidnapped by the Germans and put to work building advanced weapons, seeks to help the injured she encounters, as well as rescue her father.  The four’s stories, sometimes individual and sometimes intertwined, form threads in the overall mini-tapestry that is Valiant Hearts.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

State of Publishing: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fiction in 2018

In spare moments the past year or two I have been thinking about many aspects of the current state of science fiction, fantasy, and fiction at large.  A few things have been mulled numerous times.  First is the sheer volume of books being published today.  From the big, traditional publishers to individual self-publishing, indie publishers to vanity publishers, mid-tier publishers to the innumerable magazines, fiction is flooding the market from seemingly every conceivable source.  Regular readers, or at least myself, feel truly overwhelmed, even fatigued trying to stay abreast of all the books and stories.  (Perhaps for others it even leads to the anxiety of they are always missing out on something.) Where half a century ago there were maybe one or two hundred ‘books of genre interest’ being published each year, we now have more than a thousand.  It’s literally impossible to know about, let alone read everything being published.  In terms of quantity, we are in the second Golden Age of genre fiction--the epulp era.

In terms of quality, however, I’m not sure we have a Golden Age.  With greater quantity you naturally have a greater chance of getting high quality fiction, and indeed there are many good books coming available.  But the majority of what I see and read is middling to poor.  Most of these books don’t commit any overt sins of writing.  The prose is clean enough.  Plots are reasonably well thought out.  Overall cohesion is acceptable.  Premises have a unique idea or two.  The author appears to have some knowledge of what they are attempting.  And yet, most does not seem to make a lasting impression, almost as if the writers want to be writers more than they are writers.  ‘Soulless’ to ‘derivative’ is the spectrum I would say the majority of genre books on the market today fall on.  Fifty years ago editors were more judicious in their choices for publication given their limitations, but current publishing possibilities open the gates wide.  Yes, the riff-raff is getting through--at least in far greater numbers.

Non-fiction: Review of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I remember in high school that English teachers recommended we get Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  Not really interested in writing at the time, I got a copy but never read it (typical high school student).  Years later while attempting to put together some fiction myself, I found it on a bookshelf and started flipping through it.  I was soon engrossed in how helpful and precise the recommendations were.  Not a formula for success rather a framework to tighten up existing skills and produce better prose, it was somewhat humorous even more years later to read Stephen King in his 1999 On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reference Strunk & White’s little book.  (See kids, those teachers were right.) 

In what is a wonderfully candid yet brief look back at youth and the events that led King to be a writer, On Writing is indispensable for the Stephen King fan, as well as the would-be writer of popular fiction.  While not going into the detail many fans are hoping for, King nevertheless touches upon the circumstances, both personal and social, that led to the writing of some of his novels, as well as the thought processes and approaches taken to deliver the story desired.  Wary enough, King openly admits there is no formula to success but that following a few simple guidelines like: writing in active voice, being true to characters, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, trimming first drafts by 10%, and a few other smple steps can go a long way toward being a better writer, and possibly being published—nothing groundbreaking, just an affirmation hard work and precise attention to detail are necessary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

Regardless top three, top four, whatever, time travel is inarguably one of the most popular plot devices in science fiction.  I sometimes feel as though I’ve encountered every possible iteration.  From David Gerrold’s metaphorical use in The Man Who Folded Himself to Lauren Beuke’s application in serial killer horror The Shining Girls, Isaac Asimov’s time police in The End of Eternity to H.G. Wells’ exploration of the future The Time Machine, Octavia Butler’s contrast of race perception in Kindred to Michael Bishop’s study of prehistoric man in No Enemy But Time—hell, the VandMeer’s even have a three-part anthology series devoted entirely to time travel short fiction.  Wilson Tucker’s 1970 The Year of the Quiet Sun falls somewhere in the middle of it all.

Brian Chaney is a biblical scholar pondering a new project after having just published a controversial book on the Dead Sea scrolls.  Relaxing on the Florida beach, he is approached by a government agent and given the proposition of working on a secret project.  Provided only enough details to entice, Chaney eventually accedes and makes his way to a secret military base where he learns that he, along with two other men, will be time traveling.  Though initially told he might have the opportunity to explore in person some of the work he covered in his Dead Sea scrolls research, an emergency request arrives from the President of the United States that supercedes all other work.  Into the future the three men go.

Console Corner: Review of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Fantasy being what it is, there are innumerable games, books, and movies set in a Medieval world featuring wizards and knights, castles and maidens, most of which inevitably see a clash of kingdoms that decides the fate of the world.  It’s cliché.  And yet it continues to be done time and again, some with more deviations from the formula, some with less.  Andrzej Sapkowski, when setting out to write his own fantasy book series The Witcher, knew the familiar elements he wanted to include.  Thankfully, he also knew what he wanted to be fresh and new.  In developing Sapkowski’s vision for gaming consoles, CD Projekt Red made the most of his deviation.  Capitalizing on the singularity of the Witcher’s character as a morally gray monster hunter haunted by demons as much personal as physical, all the while ensuring the traditional fantasy elements were as solid as could be, in 2015 they released the third chapter in Geralt’s story, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and in doing so created a masterpiece of action/rpg gaming.

The number of things to compliment about Witcher 3 feels endless; CD Project Red appear to have looked into seemingly every game element possible on modern consoles.  The world, as gorgeous as it is at sunset, is just as phenomenal at the detail level.  Erosion, rock formations, tree type and plant formation—all of these are as realistic as any video game has ever produced, just as much as the fantasy elements, like griffins and trolls, cyclops and sirens, look as realistic as possible.  The villages and farmland, cobblestone streets and markets all feel proper—dirty and lived in, from washing basins to hanging laundry, rickety fences to irregular rows.  Geralt requiring certain flora and fauna for the potions he needs to fight monsters, available in the world are a multitude of plants and animals.  In the early going I stopped counting how many different types of herbs it was possible to collect, just as I stopped counting how many unique little ways tiny elements of fantasy had been braided in—portals, living trees, haunted towers, and others.