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.