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?).