Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Best of Books Published in 2019

2019, 2019, 2019, and the onslaught of fiction continues as never before in the history of mankind. The tide of books on the market somehow rises higher, such that it is impossible for any reader to take in even the majority, and evaluate the scene. This is all a long way of saying, despite the eighteen books I did read published in 2019, predominantly in the area of fantastika, I do not feel anywhere near spitting distance to pronounce “the best”. Thus, what follows must be taken as: “the best of what I read”. (For the best of what I read in 2019, regardless of year of publishing, see here.)

As always, there were books I wanted to get to, which may in turn have influenced the titles below, including Paul Kearney’s The Windscale Incident, Tim Powers’ More Walls Broken, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, Neal Stephenson’s Atmosphera Incognita, Lewis Shiner’s Outside the Gates of Eden, Ian McDonald’s Menace from Farside, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Stories. More importantly, due to the flood on the market there inevitably a number of books that should have been on my radar but weren’t, and will come to light once I start reading trusted reviewers and critics’ lists from 2019.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Review of Space Opera ed. by Brian Aldiss

There are, or at least were, a few readers/fans of science fiction who got their undies in a knot upon hearing Margaret Atwood dismiss science fiction as ‘squids in space’. Those people seemingly more patronized by Atwood’s literary leanings than willing to be open to understanding the context of her comment, a minor rift was born in the science fiction community. Or so it seemed at the time. Many had forgotten Jonathan Lethem, who in the 80s openly lamented the Nebula Award’s unwillingness to award a literary work of genre rather than the entertaining work of genre it actually did. Everyone seems to have forgotten Brian Aldiss, who in the introduction to the 1974 anthology he edited entitled Space Opera, openly dismisses the content that follows, calling the sub-genre low brow by default. The whims—ahem, winds of science fiction blow, and in which direction nobody knows…

Aldiss describes Space Opera as an anthology of sixteen stories which are lesser-known, i.e. not widely re-published (if at all) but yet retain the flavor of what readers expect seeing the words ‘space opera’. The likes of E.E. Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs set aside for the moment, Aldiss instead looks to writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Daniel Galouye, Thomas Scortia, and many others, not all of whom are typically associated with the sub-genre.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review of Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

I don’t know what it is. Amusement parks seem to provide a backdrop for a fair amount of drama and crime stories. Is it the anti-quotidian? Is it the closeness of fun thrills to horrific thrills? Or is it just the clowns, and all the fun and terror they bring to the table? Elizabeth Hand, in her 2019 Curious Toys, might argue it’s the bearded lady.

Curious Toys is the story of Pin, a carnie living and working at the Riverside amusement park in Chicago in 1915. A lover of pulp magazines and their flair for adventure and drama, when a real life murder happens on one of the park’s rides Pin becomes a little curious and a small-time detective herself. When it happens again, she starts to worry for her life…

Hand keeping the detective aspect of the book as realistic as possible, at no time does Pin become Nancy Drew or Angela Lansbury chasing down clues in this week’s episode of a show. Period Chicago evoked as needed, and multiple point-of-view characters filling out the storyline, her quest to get to the bottom of the murders feels more organic than contrived, something Hand achieves through the realistic (vs. larger than life) aspects of the people in the story.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Review of Stealing Light by Gary Gibson

Space opera has become an almost impossible thing to review. The quantity of material accumulating in the past half-century so vast, it’s virtually infeasible for books to poke their nose above the waters. Breaking any particular book down into its component parts starts to sound like a broken record: “aliens… space ship… lasers… unknown… planet… threat… universe…” And when you factor in the fact that every reader has their own preferred style, trusting a review to shine the light on a standout space opera book or series is not the easiest. So, simply put, Gary Gibson’s Stealing Light (2007), first of a trio of books in the Shoal Sequence, is standard but solid space opera.

Aliens, space ships, unknowns, planets, threats, universe—yes! Stealing Light is set some X thousand years in the future when humanity has started to explore the galaxy and… encountered a group of fish-like aliens called the Shoal exponentially more intelligent than we neo-chimps. Granting humanity a corner of the galaxy and limiting knowledge about faster-than-light travel, the Shoal prove beneficent if not mysterious overseers. The story centers around a woman named, Dakota. A machine-head, she operates on the fringes of society as a specialized ship pilot, earning money where and when opportunities arise. Receiving a commission she can’t refuse one day, Dakota finds herself in cahoots with one of the galaxy’s most evil-minded politicians, even as broader, unexplained events in the wider universe close in.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Priceless by Robert Wittman

Break into your local 7-11 to steal a few twenties from the cash register and a carton of Marlboros and society is sure to turn its nose up at you. Break into the New York Met and steal a Monet, however, and society’s reaction will be mixed. Disgust likely registered at the public’s loss of such an invaluable piece of art, there will, however, be a certain sense of awe or mystique that is given to the thief. Outsmarting guards and alarms and getting away with millions of dollars in goods, Thomas Crown is as much a hero as anti-hero. Demystifying the awe, Robert Wittman’s Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (2011) looks at the underworld of art theft and black market sales from an insider’s perspective.

Part memoir, part history, and part exposition on methodology, Priceless describes how Wittman joined the FBI, began investigating stolen art and artifacts, his ways of working, and the stories behind locating some of the world’s most famous stolen art and capturing the people who stole them. From recovering American civil war trophies in his early years to sniffing out the men behind the world’s biggest art theft (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery), Wittman provides a first-hand perspective to how certain pieces of art and cultural artifacts were returned to their rightful homes in public display cases.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Review of The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s 2019, more than half a century since space exploration began unlocking the secrets of the solar system. And what secrets there are, from the chemical composition of Uranus to the discovery of Neptune’s odd rotation, the impact of Jupiter on Earth’s history to the reasons behind Venus’ hothouse atmosphere. Also, sustaining human life on Mars has become a possibility with clarity unlike ever before. Spanning that half-century is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951).

In a meta twist, The Sands of Mars is the story of Martin Gibson, a well-known science fiction author. He has been invited to travel to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares, and at the outset of the story finds himself going through what a large number of sf heroes do at the beginning of their novels: learning about the novelties of spacecraft and spaceflight. Arrival on Mars doesn’t change the program; Gibson continues to learn what makes life on Mars different than Earth, and it isn’t long before he gets to put his own little stamp on the evolution of science on the red planet. (Sound sharp as a knife? No…)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Starcraft II - 2019 Year in Review

The confetti has fallen on Blizzcon, which means it's time to take a look back at Starcraft II in 2019. On one hand it was a fairly dramatic year with unique high and lows, but as the year closed out it had become very consistent: Zerg, Zerg, Zerg, which wasn't the most dramatic thing. So, as has become normal here at Speculiction, let's take a look at some awards, best matches, and how predictions came about.


The players...

Feel Good Moment of the Year
This absolutely has to go to Soo winning IEM Katowice. Nothing has drawn the SCII community together like that. Seeing the photo of all the Korean pro-gamers at a restaurant afterwards celebrating makes the heart feel good, just as much as soo's tears of relief and joy.

Best Korean Zerg
Korean points leader, GSL champion, and Blizzcon winner, can there be any doubt that Dark was the best Korean Zerg in 2019? Rogue and Soo had solid years winning premiere titles, but Dark just blew them out of the water.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Sonic Mania

I was fifteen years old when one of my close friends got a Super Nintendo for Christmas. I was blown away. The graphics, the graphics, the graphics!! Mario riding on Yoshi looked literally twice as good as my dull grey box, non-super Nintendo. I had to have me one, of course, so I started saving my allowances. At $5 a week and a $100 price tag, it took some time, and patience, and more patience, and more patience, and by the time I’d saved the money, I’d discovered Sega Genesis. I splashed the Benjamin, mailed in my proof of purchase (yes, that was a thing!!) to get a free copy of Sonic 2 to complement the original that came with the console, and four months later (a complete surprise considering I had completely forgotten about it—fifteen year old brain), got the freebie. For the next couple of years, I played countless hours of Sonic 1 and 2, the flow of the game and its music embedding themselves in my being forever. It was thus such a nostalgic joy to see a retro version—faithful to the original but new in content—appear on the PS4 in 2017, Sonic Mania.

A short review of Sonic Mania might thus run as follows: if you loved the original Sonic games on Sega Genesis/Megadrive and want more, no need to think twice, go get Sonic Mania. It scratches the itch (in ways you may have never known you were itching) in gushing, tributary, fresh fashion. From Green Hill Zone to the bell chimes of losing your rings, the *pop* of jumping on an enemy to the blur of whipping through an S-curve, it’s all wonderfully, gloriously, there. Buy it.

Console Corner: Review of Detroit: Become Human

If this blog is any testament, I was a library child. Along with trips to school libraries, my mother regularly brought me to the local public one. (I still recall the smell of the carpeting and the silence it emanated.) I wandered the quiet, shadowed aisles, looking at spines and grabbing books that took my fancy. I read the Princess and the Goblin books. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I read all the fifty-something Hardy Boy mysteries (and the Detective Handbook), and even started the Nancy Drew series. I tried almost all the How to Draw books (and still could never produce as nice a drawing as the directions would have it). And of course, I read all the Choose Your Own Adventures I could find. I still recall having all my fingers acting as bookmarks, flipping between story branches as one ended to see where a different choice would have brought me. QuanticDream’s 2018 Detroit: Become Human brought me back to my Choose Your Own Adventure books, at least somewhat; my fingers didn’t fit anywhere except the controller...

Much more Isaac Asimov I, Robot than William Gibson Neuromancer, Detroit: Become Human is set in the near future where androids are readily available on the market. Child care to street cleaning, shop assistants to bus drivers, construction workers to janitors, the human-like robots are peacefully interwoven throughout society in controlled, seemingly benevolent fashion to serve humanity. But there are signs not all is well. Inspector Connor (himself an android), is called to the scene of a murder. He discovers that the perpetrator is an android who has learned his owner intends to replace him with a newer model, and lashed out. As the story moves on, and murders by androids start piling up, it’s clear the incident is no fluke. Something must be done to prevent a robocalypse. But is this something humanity, with its own vices, can help with, or will it just get in the way?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Planets by Andrew Cohen & Brian Cox

I am a layman when it comes to astronomy. I have a high school education (largely retained), and decades of random reading about the heavens (perhaps less retained). But I am also a star gazer. It’s nice every now and then to go out at night, stare at the sky, and let the mind wander where it will. It’s precisely moments like that we forget about the minutiae of daily life and remember that Earth hurtles 30 km/sec through a void, not to mention that the myriad of life around us, billions of species, is not forever—that the greenhouse effect, regardless accelerated by humankind or not, will eventually burn everything to the ground, leaving only rock. Bringing to one place all the pertinent information on our solar system known as of 2019 is the BBC’s The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (2019). It is star gazing of the most informed variety.

BBC embarking on a similar planets project twenty years ago, the 2019 edition of The Planets integrates what was known then with the information that has come to life or gelled in the meantime, all to create the most detailed picture of our solar system to date. Why is Mercury’s orbit the most irregular? How did Venus’ ecosystem come to be so hellish? Is/was their life on Mars? What hope do Jupiter’s moons offer for human life occurring beyond Earth? What exactly are Saturn’s rings, and how did they come to be formed? These and many, many other fascinating topics and facts are related, in lucid, wonderfully structured fashion. If there is anyone on Earth who knows how to collect, organize, and present information in an interesting, engaging fashion, it is BBC. The material in the book is enough for a semester’s course providing the tightest summary of the solar system.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review of Full Throttle by Joe Hill

Confession time: Joe Hill has entered my ranks of authors whose books are able to be bought sight unseen. It’s thus I went into Full Throttle (2019) thinking: “Great title for a novel. Can’t wait to get into it.” Lo and behold, however, upon the first few pages, it was quickly apparent Full Throttle is not a novel, rather a collection. “Oh well,” my brain said, “has a chance of being just as good.

After one of the most heartfelt introductions to any book or collection I’ve read in a long time, Full Throttle settles into itself, opening on the story from which the title was taken: “Throttle”, written with Stephen King. A full-on biker story, it tells of a troubled father-son relationship, and the test it undergoes one day after a drug deal goes sour. The punchiest story in the collection to kick things off, there is a classic King tractor trailer truck involved, but character presentation and an extended chase sequence are what make it a success. But for as striking as “Throttle” is, the second story in the collection, “Dark Carousel”, falls into ruts all too familiar in horror. About high schoolers and a haunted fair ground, Hill is able to push the story with good characterization, but in the end, the reader is better off just reading Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley

Journey Beyond Tomorrow… Journey of Joenes… something that happens today on far, far fewer occasions, it was, however, relatively normal that back in the day, before Google et al, publishers sometimes had second thoughts, or wanted to try to inject new life into a novel whose initial sales didn’t go as planned, and therefore changed a book’s title for another print run. Such was Robert Sheckley’s 1962 sci-fi inspired (or peyote inspired?) counter-culture satire of those names. Journey of Joenes is the more applicable title, and will be used for the remainder of this review.

Interestingly utilizing the Pacific island region, Journey of Joenes is the fragmented biography of the eponymous Polynesian. Framed in 3000 AD, the book purports itself to be a history of a man whose beliefs and philosophies came to dominate what was left of the world. The purported history opens with Joenes arriving in hippy-ville San Franscisco. Ingesting psychedelics, giving an impromptu speech, and ending up on the run from the law in a matter of moments, Joenes goes on a journey of epic (read: political, satirical, and mythical) proportions. From robot oracles to fake map makers, disgruntled truck drivers to uncertified academia, and more, it’s a wild, surreal journey—always with one, often subtle tongue in cheek.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Abzu

Journey was a game that, on paper, should not have been a success. A faceless person traipsing through an empty desert and desolate mountains for three hours without interaction with anybody or anything. Only two buttons are used the whole game. And yet it is a big success. Finding zen in video game form, thatgamecompany was able to combine the rudiments of Buddhism with gameplay that overrides anything resembling a typical shoot ‘em up or action platformer to give the player a truly personal, meaningful experience that transcends the game. In 2016, the thatgamecompany continues to explore alternate forms of gaming by returning with a parallel zen experience, Abzu. If only there was a VR version…

The game’s idea taken from the cosmic ocean mythology common to many traditional religions and beliefs, Abzu is the underwater journey of a lone diver. Where Journey was set in dry deserts and desolate mountains, Abzu takes its faceless ‘hero’ on a journey of underwater discovery through many lush environments, mystical scenes, and a wide variety of fish and water life. Unlike Journey, the game’s environment is bursting with colors and life. Developers having researched thousands of varieties of fish, the game is filled with all manner of ocean life—goldfish, mackerel, dolphins, clownfish, sea turtles, rays, etc., etc.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman’s 2017 La Belle Sauvage was unexpected. Pullman seeming to have closed out the universe of His Dark Materials with 2000’s The Amber Spyglass, a new novel, let alone the first in a trilogy, was a surprise. A wonderful bit of storytelling that didn’t ostensibly seem to fit into the known storyline, the resulting intrigue begged the question: what’s next? 2019’s The Secret Commonwealth is precisely that. On top of extending the top-notch storytelling, Pullman only magnifies the intrigue surrounding the world of Dust while extending Lyra’s tale in original, surprising fashion.

The Secret Commonwealth takes an interesting turn from La Belle Sauvage. Where the latter novel featured Lyra in infancy, the former opens years after the events of His Dark Materials, Lyra now in her early twenties. Still living at Jordan College, the young woman presses onward with backroom alethiometer studies. However, due to her experiences in The Subtle Knife, her relationship with Pantalaimon is stretched thin. Neither comfortable in the presence of the other, it takes a chance witness to a major crime by Pantalaimon in the marshes around the College to kick start new experiences for Lyra. Drawing in threads of story from both La Belle Sauvage and His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth centers on Lyra’s homeworld and certain botanical knowledge that threatens to disrupt its entire scene.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review of Windhaven by George R.R.Martin and Lisa Tuttle

I would guess there are numerous people today who know George R.R. Martin for nothing but A Game of Thrones. Extremely popular on television and in print, it's fair to say Martin can retire without financial concerns. But decades ago when Martin was cutting his teeth in the 70s, he was writing solid fiction too, particularly short fiction. Working with then-wife Lisa Tuttle, together the pair co-authored a series of novellas that were put together, along with a prologue and epilogue to bind the whole, in the novel Windhaven (1981).

A phased biography, each of the three novellas tells of a period in the life of the woman Maris on the alien planet Windhaven. Humanity having crash landed but survived on the archipelagic planet, broken bits of the ship are re-used to construct gliders that people in turn use to fly messages back and forth between the disparate islands. The first novella tells of Maris in passionate, idealistic youth, fighting for something she believes in. The second finds her in middle age, still growing, however, now learning to deal with the past while accommodating the needs of herself and others in the present. And the third sees her in late middle-age, still learning, this time dealing with the cards of age the house dealer gives us all, inevitably.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Review of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I think it’s fair to say Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has entered the canon of dystopian fiction. Perpetually re-printed, taught in schools, filmed as a tv series, and mentioned in similar breaths to Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and the like, it’s a story that hasn’t faded—and likely won’t any time soon given the political climate as of 2019. Which, if I had to guess, is the reason why Atwood chose to revisit the setting with this year’s The Testaments.

A risk on Atwood’s part, it’s not common that a writer produces such a work as The Handmaid’s Tale, and then decades later revisits the scene. Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury did not return to their worlds. The closest relative I can think of is Le Guin returning to Earthsea after a mult-decade break with Tehanu—a novel that, while its intentions can be clearly scene, pushes an agenda in a very forced manner, something which Atwood likewise runs the risk of doing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid by Julianna Miner

I am a Generation X parent of a five- and three-year old. As a small child, I entertained myself with realia—blocks, figures, riding my bike, and various other tangible toys. As a twelve-year old, Nintendo entered my life, and from that day on, my fun time was split between the realia I had known and the virtual realia of video games. It’s not a surprise to me that after universe I essentially gave up on video games (only picking them back up again a couple years ago) given I was feeding my need for brain food with books, nature, and music, and I didn’t get a mobile phone until I was in my thirties. But what about my kids? They are essentially guinea pigs. First generation to have mobile devices, let alone console video games, in their lives from day one. What effect does that have? In Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age (2019), Julianna Miner tackles what we know to date in this ongoing experiment, and what is healthy for our kids.

First and foremost, Raising a Screen-Smart Kid is targeted at parents with kids ten and older. ‘Targeted’ not meaning what you think it might mean, in this case it means that kids less than ten shouldn’t have their own mobile devices given what is known, or have proven themselves exceptionally responsible. So, right off the bat, it’s not for myself and my children. Nevertheless, it proved fascinating preparation for the day (coming all too soon) that they will be starting to go going through puberty, establish their own identities through friends, and become independent users of technology.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review of The Wall by John Lanchester

It’s an understatement to say that the past decades of liberalization and globalization are receiving today strong push back from major conservative fronts in the Western World. A large portion of Americans would like to build a wall separating them from Mexico. Animosity against Otherness is open and aggressive, and in some cases, even supported by large organizations. Strong nationalist movements are springing up (and re-springing up) in many European and American countries. And the world’s greatest social and political experiment (aka the European Union) has taken its biggest blow: the UK voting to exit. Extrapolating upon these ideas in often successful and occasionally pretentious fashion is John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019).

A British novel that feels very British, The Wall tells of a young man conscripted to join the ranks of thousands of people who, for a mandatory two year stint, man the Wall. A concrete structure extending around the perimeter of the British Isles, Kavanagh stands guard every day, watching for invaders, and safe guarding a regimented regime. The story starting in classic, new-soldier fashion (meet the fellow cadets, form relationships, deal with the tough captain, get tested, etc.), Kavanaugh’s tale eventually takes a hard left turn, one that sends everything into the wildly unknown, and a turn on which Lanchester’s underlying political statement, rests.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review of Pretender by C.J. Cherryh

It perhaps goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: don’t read this review without having read the novels prior: spoilers.

I still clearly recall reading Foreigner, first novel in the Foreigner series. It starts out with a literal bang—an assassination attempt on the main character, Bren. But that’s it. There is no more action of a similar caliber (har har). The rest of the book is a dialogue/exposition-oriented story focusing on the social, political, and cultural concerns of human and atevi interaction. What I recall is the realization: “Oh, this is one of those types of books. Let’s see where Cherryh takes her exploration of Otherness.” And the slow pace continues in the next installments—I’m sure much to the chagrin of the legions of sf readers looking for action and simple drama. But for readers who understand and appreciate what Cherryh is doing with the Foreigner series, it is explicitly understood that Bren’s life will not mirror Tom Cruise’s. Enter Pretender (2006), second novel in the third sub-trilogy and eighth overall in the Foreigner series. It’s positively Mission: Impossible.

Pretender opens in the aftermath of the assassination attempt that closed Destroyer. Bren and what has now become the Foreigner cast of lead characters are left holed up in the country estate, fearful yet protective against further attempts. In the cleanup, Bren attempts to get his computer online to share with lord Tabini the results of their rescue mission into space and meeting with the Kyo. But with further assassination attempts looming, not to mention fresh news of changes in the assassin’s guild that happened while Bren was away, even so simple thing as a computer connection is anything but guaranteed. Once again having to keep a clear head in a tense situation, Bren must work with the atevi to escape the country estate and spread the word about the news of their mission to the whole planet.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy

What is a good written history? Is it something dry and formal, laying out all the potential facts in finite detail for the reader to make up their own mind—an entire display of the known? Or is it an interpretation and consolidation of potential facts into a likely narrative? The former certainly more appealing to scholars and the latter to casual readers, it rests in the hands of the writer at what point in the spectrum they would like to approach the historical material they are presenting. Let’s have a look at Buddy Levy’s Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008).

If anything, Conquistadores is a very focused work of history. More precisely, a tight look at a major transitional moment for two cultures in one setting. Levy begins the narrative just before Cortes arrives on modern day Mexican soil, details the steps he took to subdue the Aztec nation, and ends just after as New Spain is established. Levy fills in relevant details as they affect the steps of this transition, but by and large it’s a streamlined history of action-reaction, situation-decision, and opening-outcome, like a story. Another way of putting this is: one man’s dogged determination to take a nation for himself under the name of god and king.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review of Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Empire of Silence was an interesting mix of retro science fiction tropes and themes more contemporary—a contrast heightened by the length of the novel (600+ pages). In 2019 Ruochio returns with the second in the Sun Eater series (trilogy? tetralogy? more?), Howling Dark, to continue the tale begun in Empire of Silence, and contextualize its quality.

Picking up many years after the events of Empire of Silence, Hadrian Marlowe is now captain of a band of mercenaries, traipsing through the stars, trying to find the planet Vorgoss to return their cryo-cargo of alien Cielcin, and attempt to forge peace. At the outset of Howling Dark, Marlowe has come to the realization that the known Sollan universe does not hold what he seeks, and that in order to fulfill his mission, he must venture beyond into the worlds of the extra-solarians—worlds of strangely modified humans, to get what he needs. Exotic locales, colorful characters, and treachery abound, Marlowe’s quest to end the war is only more fraught with danger the further he gets from Sollan lands. And in the end, it may be that the cielcin come to him, rather than him going to them. But do they come in peace?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review of Destroyer by C.J. Cherryh

It is here and now I will officially abandon anything resembling a lithe and graceful intro to a book review of C.J. Cherryh’s ongoing (infinite?) Foreigner Universe; you wouldn’t be here unless you’ve read the first six books and thus would like to know whether Destroyer (2005), seventh overall novel and first in the third sub-set of trilogies (confused?) maintains the quality and consistency rendered to date. Short answer: yes. Detailed answer: keep reading.

Destroyer opens as the successful mission to rescue the thousands of human colonists stranded in deep space is returning to the Atevi homeworld. Despite two years traveling in voidspace, spirits aboard the ship are high. Peaceful first contact was made with the alien Kyo and all the colonists were picked up safe and sound. The only thing left is arrival. After the stressful events that led to this success, Bren Cameron, master linguist and diplomat, is ready for vacation once he gets planet-side. But all is not well upon arrival, (do not read other reviews if you want the reason spoiled), and once more Bren, alongside the Atevi dowager Ilsiliti and her grandson Cajeiri are forced to navigate delicate political, even militaristic waters if they want the peace that reigned upon their departure to once again exist in both Atevi and human societies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review of The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Like many I suppose, I was blown away by Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, and years later by its (seeming) bookend The Dragons of Babel. Intelligent, imaginative, dynamic, human—the books tell coming-of-age tales of a young woman and man (respectively) in the most enticing, unique milieus of something that is generally fantasy/science fiction but so unidentifiably genre as to be almost magic realist or slipstream, something beyond taxonomy. If indeed bookends, this leads to a very valid question: what does Michael Swanwick think he can accomplish with 2019’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother?

Daughter to an aristocrat, Caitlin, pilot to one of her lands special sentient, robotic dragons lives according to the female pilot code which forbids, well, practically everything a free person considers the good life. Familial tragedy leading her in a new direction in life, however, Cat finds herself on the run, trying to clear her name, and—suddenly, in one moment—with the consciousness of a nursing home patient calling herself Helen floating in her mind. Caitlin's redemption taking her to all manner of places—corporate to faery, it's a story that can only be Swanwick's. (Playing to his strengths, there is something about the Babel setting which brings out the best in Swanwick...)

Console Corner: Review of The Sexy Brutale

Clue memes, while probably dying in the current generation, nevertheless maintain at least a toe hold in society. Mr. Mustard did it in the study with poison, one might say after hours of collecting clues. But what if you, the detective, had the ability to go beyond the evidence and reverse time to see how and when the murder happened, and stop it. Such is the premise of Cavalier Studio’s 2017’s comedically macabre The Sexy Brutale.

The meeting point of fiction, board games, and film, The Sexy Brutale feels part Agatha Christie parlor mystery, labyrinth, and Groundhog’s Day. Players start the game as Lafcadio Boone, a priest stuck in a time warp inside a sprawling New Orleans mansion. Able to go back and forth in time on a loop, Lafcadio is witness to how cordially the mansion’s hosts treat their guests: they murder them. Tasked by a mysterious angel to stop the deaths, Lafcadio sets about spying through key holes, tracking victims’ footsteps and their murderers through the mansion, and learning the environment to find the precise spot where he can put a proverbial wrench in the works, disrupting the hosts’ plans for murder.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review of Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I suppose that after more than a thousand reviews, it's fairly obvious this blog has a soft spot for literary novels which utilize the devices of fantastika. A full course meal with spice, most do not appear so profound on the surface, yet the more one unpacks the details, the deeper they become—a depth made more engaging for the touches of the impossible or not-yet-possible. Thus, while Brian Aldiss' 1968 Report on Probability A would seem a dull voyeurism, the more one seeks out the connections between its pieces, the broader is potential meaning spreads, and becomes a highly engaging thought piece.

Plot subtle and fragmented, Report on Probability A is not rip-roaring, space-faring, alien-shootin' science fiction. But I would say it writes the book (har-har) on parallel universe stories. Ostensibly about a group of people on one planet watching the lives of a handful of people living on one British street, it digs into another layer: the handful of residents likewise peer into the lives of those around them—reality through a fractured lens.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Review of Infinite Fantastika by Paul Di Filippo

There is, or at least once was, a lot humming and hawing about the differences between science fiction and fantasy. One is about the “impossible” and the other the “yet possible” I can even hear myself saying. But the subjective truth takes over: there is not always a clear line between the two. Sometimes it's just fantastika. But Paul Di Filippo already knew that. Enter his eighteenth collection of short—fantastikal—fiction, Infinite Fantastika (2018).

In a kind of self-rediscovery, the story kicking off the collection is one of the first Di Filippo had published and thought he'd lost forever after the manuscript disappeared, it wasn't until a scanned fanzine later appeared online that “Before and After Science” saw the virtual light of day, again. Lacking a compass, the story (if it can be called such) has a kind of inchoate brilliance that floats in interesting fashion. Seeming personal, it tells, as the title states, of a man’s life transformed by science, but in less than scientific fashion. Turning the dial up to eleven, “The Trail of the Creator, The Trial of Creation” by the below-the-genre-radar Paul di Filippo is the story of a motley crue of post humans who hunt the god that seeded the universe with their perverse variety. Add a mad scientist with a barrel of urschleim to the mix, and they’re off.

Console Corner: Review of Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While not a return to the original Playstation’s Lara Croft, 2013’s reboot Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition did bring the archeologist cum gunslinger cum puzzler onto the modern generation of consoles with a splash. Focusing more on action and platforming than puzzles, the game was a rush of shooting and scrambling that kept the story’s pedal to the metal all the way to its fantastical ending. The follow up title, Rise of the Tomb Raider, looked to expand itself and slow things down a little. Upping the ante on environmental puzzles, the game likewise added a lot of geography by moving from linear to semi-open world, something which was ill-considered in my opinion. Caught on the fence, it couldn’t offer everything of what each form is good at. Players who enjoy open worlds and collectibles had a heyday, while those who wanted a pure story experience were often forced to participate in spurious activities and retrace ground they’d already covered (items a person could spend hours collecting in the world could just as easily be looted from dead bodies while pushing the main storyline forward). And this is all not to mention the facts that the game’s bad guys, Trinity, were as vanilla as can be, and the Siberia portrayed in the game rarely convinced of being a home to ancient, fantastical magic just waiting to be discovered. The Tomb Raider reboot originally conceived of as a trilogy, 2018’s third and final game in the series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, looks to complete Lara’s character arc: how the tomb raider became the tomb raider. Let’s take a look.

Shortly after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Lara on the heels of Trinity, this time in Cozumel, Mexico, where she and her partner Jonah believe they have pieced together enough of Lara’s father’s journals to be able to locate a special Mayan artifact. Finding the artifact just before Trinity, Lara is caught while escaping, and is forced to confront Dr. Dominguez, an archeologist working for Trinity who has dire warnings given that Lara has disturbed the artifact. A supernatural occurrence intervening, Lara has no choice but to continue her search for Mayan artifacts in the jungles of Peru, still on the heels of Trinity…

Console Corner: Review of Overcooked

My wife is a gamer—not a gamer-gamer whose life revolves around our console, but there are no problems picking up the controller if she has a couple free hours in the evening. (She’s been playing Witcher 3 for about a year.) For Christmas this past year we got a second controller, which means our house has new options. Looking through the lists of worthwhile couch co-op games (not a lot, it seems), I came across a few that were universally recommended. Among them was Overcooked, and seeing it on sale for dirt-cheap on the Playstation store one day, I picked it up. All I can say is: marriage therapy.

I have not checked, but I would guess Overcooked can be played single-player. But who would want to? All the game’s fun in interaction and team play, in Overcooked players play as chefs in various kitchens who must prepare and combine ingredients to meet customer’s orders, all against a clock. The first kitchen is pretty straight forward: players chop vegetables to prepare salads and serve the plates—typical restaurant kitchen activity. But after, things get wonky. The kitchens which follow change things up. Some feature moving counters, some split in half every minute, some are located on moving cars, some feature rats who steal ingredients, and so on. If working together to coordinate and prepare orders under the pressure of time is not enough, then the wacko-kitchens add a layer of complexity. On top of this, the orders become more complicated (salads are much easier to prepare than burgers or soups), all of which pushes the game toward that bouncy ball of chaos and fun “I need one more onion!” “Take the pot from the stove, it’s burning!” “Wait until I serve this meal!” “Wash some plates! I have nothing to put the burger on!” It’s when players reach flow state, moving in and out of each other’s paths with purpose, working in sync, and preparing orders at speed (i.e. they know where the bouncy ball will bounce next), that the game becomes extremely satisfying. Yes, marriage therapy.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Review of Total Conflict ed. by Ian Whates

Look at that cover—yes, look at it. I feel like a high school graphic design student could have done better. But don't let it fool you. Look at the editor's name. Where so many of his contemporaries are unable to get variety from their commissioned authors, Ian Whates is consistently able to deliver themed anthologies with enough material that strays beyond the core to make things interesting. Such is 2015's Total Conflict.

But the anthology does not open without giving readers what they expect based on the spacetroop—ahem, space marine “gracing” the cover. When a valued space marine falls in combat, his comrades hold an appropriate wake, complete with whiskey in “The Wake” by Dan Abnett. Abnett capturing grunt vernacular very nicely, the story still pans average—classic/generic sf, depending on your perspective. Largely the same as Abnett’s story (space marines wielding futuristic guns, engaging in bro talk while shooting at alien stuff), but without the style, “Psi.Copath” by Andy Remic ensures the cover image has been thoroughly dealt with.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Review of Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is one of the most unique voices currently writing fantastika—an extremely difficult thing to accomplish given the sheer volume of material saturating the market. Having the knack for striking upon something out of the mainstream ordinary and developing it in a speculative setting with a hook or at least a barb), the talent also extends to short fiction, something the eighteen stories in his 2003 collection Adam Robots (not a narcissistic self-promotion) exemplify—at least, mostly.

Adam Robots opens on the wonderfully biblical yet utterly sacrilegious title story. It tells of a robot brought into the world and instructed never to touch a certain jewel atop a metal pole. Curiosity killed the cat, but does disobedience damn the robot? Wildly scientific, wildly implausible, and a wildly, enjoyably readable story, “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?”—as the title states—describes said problem with time travel, and of course, how to get around it—nuclear bombs, dinosaurs, and severed thumbs included.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Review of Crowfall by Ed McDonald

I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but given the amount of derivative bilge published today, the message bears repeating: stereotypes are ok; it's how you execute. Epic fantasy is a dead, beaten horse—but it's still possible to write effectively in the medium and create engaging, enjoyable stories. Enter Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark series. Nothing new here; it's pieces can all be found in multiple peers and ancestors. But McDonald delivers everything with color and edge, and evolves the pieces in a plot that simultaneously builds and surprises. But could McDonald maintain the success for the trilogy's conclusion, Crowfall (2019)? Let's find out.

Like Ravencry, Crowfall opens multiple years after the events of the prior novel. Ryhalt has gone off the grid, eking out an existence in the Misery. The blackness of the Misery seeping into his very soul, Ryhalt is cursed with magical powers he'd rather not have. But when a summons from his master arrives on his “doorstep”, Ryhalt must return to civilization to answer the call, and in doing so, encounters pieces of his old life he'd rather not. Society appearing on the verge of collapse under the weight of the Deep Kings, once again Ryhalt must bridge the gap. But is everything as it seems?

Friday, August 9, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Little Nightmares

Genetic disposition, environmental response, brain tuning—whatever the nature vs. nurture argument is, I love games like Limbo and Inside. A parade of bite-sized puzzles with a coherent art motif binding them all together, they are true brain candy. Offering more for the player so inclined, they likewise give tantalizing hints and clues about the larger world of the game, giving rise to questions about who, what, where, and, why. When hearing Tarsier Studio’s Little Nightmares (2017) was in this same vein, my radar pinged. Having now played the game, it’s still pinging.

Though having the same relative concept as Limbo and Inside, Little Nightmares is themed entirely differently. The player guides a little girl in a yellow raincoat named Six through a ship full of bizarre traps, puzzles, and human-ish things wanting nothing more than to catch her. Skittering gnomes, leaky pipes, macabre effigies of humanity, dark corners, leech-like crawly things, creaking doors, the roll and pitch of the ship—all combine to give gameplay a surreal, horrific feel. A little girl trapped in a big person’s world, survival is not always guaranteed.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Review of MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

Snowman the Jimmy, Snowman the Jimmy, it’s such a pleasantly off-kilter name I can’t help but smile to myself every time I hear it. The Crakers, their car freshener body odor, periods of blue libido, and purr-healing providing a backdrop that only exacerbates the oddity. Snowman the Jimmy fits right in. And still MaddAddam (2013), third and concluding volume in Margarat Atwood’s Ory and Crake trilogy, manages to strike at the heart of the real humanity at stake in large chunks of contemporary socio-economic and technological reality.

MaddAddam picks up where events of each of the two previous novels left off. With Snowman the Jimmy (), it’s literally with the injury he had at the end of Oryx and Crake. In need of care, he gets it from Toby and Ren, the two women who had started a small community of humans and Crakers at the end of The Year of the Flood. Nursing the man back to health, the group try to rebuild some semblance of normal life in a world still threatened by painballers.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories ed. by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, as editor, met success upon pulling together his first anthology of short stories, Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Focusing on plot and storytelling, Chabon solicited an experienced array of authors, asking them to above all entertain, but in sophisticated, perhaps occasionally throwback fashion. The success snowballing, Chabon was commissioned with pulling together a second anthology of likewise engaging, throwback stories. Looking to a new array of authors (save the recurrence of Stephen King), McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004) matches the feat of Thrilling Tales.

Kicking off the anthology in devilish fashion is Margaret Atwood’s “Lusus Naturae”. About a demoness who finds her own sense of peace, Atwood incorporates stories of yore while taking the pitchforks of angry villagers to a new level. Dynamic wordsmithery on display even in short form, “What You Do Not Know You Want’ by David Mitchell tells of a black market merchant in Hawaii trying to track down an obscure Japanese dagger from a man who recently committed suicide from a rooftop. While a relatively standard piece of contemporary noir, Mitchell’s diction elevates this story above the crowd (notwithstanding the ending). The opposite of Mitchell’s story, Jonathan Lethem’s “Vivian Relf” is the subdued tale of a man meeting a woman at two different times in his life, and the differences in perception, as well as subjectivity of memory that result (emphasis on subdued).

Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of Voice from the Edge Vol. 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan Ellison

Were he to have risen to popularity in the 21st century, Harlan Ellison would have been the king of speculative fiction’s edge lords. Unafraid of voicing opinion, controversial or otherwise, in the very least the man can be respected for walking his own path when so many are pressured to conform to an ever growing list of cultural standards. And it comes through in his fiction. Though the overwhelming majority of Ellison’s oeuvre is short story length, each selection nevertheless has a uniqueness, a singularity that, like his opinions, separates the author from the herd. Volume 2 in his Voice from the Edge series, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral brings together eleven of Ellison’s best stories, read by the author himself.

The premise of the collection’s opening story “In Lonely Lands” is quite simple: a blind man awaits the arrival of death with his Martian friend on the red planet. A mood piece, Ellison wonderfully captures the melancholy of the man’s final moments in both poetic and direct manner, opening the door to the collection that follows. A pastiche of alien invasions, “S.R.O.” sees a weak, poor New York City man in the middle of lying to a potential date interrupted by an alien invasion. Taking on absurdist tones, the invasion becomes a stage performance the man attempts to take advantage of for his own gain—a wonderful piss take on the strange manner in which some people seek entertainment.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Review of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales ed. by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s name is well known as a novelist. Summerland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have all been universally recognized by pundits and readers alike. But editor? Taking the love for the pulps expressed in his novel Gentlemen of the Road and converting into commissions for short stories, McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2002) features a swathe of stories showcasing what can still be done in the 21st century with plot at the forefront.

A type of story that one encounters rarely these days, the anthology kicks off with “Tedford and the Megalodon” by Jim Shepard. Precisely why it is exceptional needs to be discovered by the reader, but this story of an Australian biologist working off the southern coast of Tasmania trying to discover a supposed great white shark is everything that short adventure fiction should be, and at the same time rarely is. A story based on a real life occurrence, “The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter” by Glen David Gold tells of a late 18th century traveling circus proprietor and bizarre (read: murderous) circumstances surrounding a clown, an elephant, and revenge. A human portrait of a man trying to atone for years of drinking and leaving his family, “The Bees” by Dan Chaon describes precisely what happened when all those good intentions catch up.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Review of An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest

Prolific’ is not a word to describe Christopher Priest. Taking his time with each creation, some stories or novels appear one after another, while at other periods, there can be gaps of years or even a decade between published works. An artist, the muse must, apparently, be at work. Bringing together five stories from the late 70s, An Infinite Summer (1979), the muse was, apparently, at work.

The five stories can essentially be split into two parts. Both examinations of the same idea (love through the lens of time), the first part are the title story and “Palely Loitering”. One capturing the idea with far more maturity and gravitas than the other, “Palely Loitering”, as the title indirectly suggests, is the mediocre of the two. About a boy who goes to a time-flux park with his family, he accidentally launches himself into the future where he meets himself, and is introduced to a young lady and told not to forget her before being sent back to his family. Nominated for a Hugo (undoubtedly due to the simplicity of the time hopping idea), the story has a lot of trouble bearing the weight of its theme given the lightness with which the emotions at stake are presented and the distraction of the time travel mechanic. “The Infinite Summer”, however, handles the idea with far more aplomb. Invoking in the reader the desired weight of theme it intended, it tells of a man travels ahead in time to witness the bombing of London by Germany in WWII. Emphasis shifted from the time travel mechanic toward the tableauxs the man is witness to, not to mention the role his personal life plays in his understanding of them, Priest is able to capture that unidentifiable something that tugs at the heart strings without being cheap.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets was one of the bright spots among speculative fiction anthologies and collections in 2017. Ken Liu bringing together a sampler of Chinese science fiction from some of its most popular writers, the effort was apparently a success beyond this blog as Liu re-upped for an informal sequel, expanding the West’s view into Chinese short stories with a broader spectrum of content in 2019’s Broken Stars.

A treatise on AI, particularly the Turing test which could help identify the break from robot intelligence, “Goodnight, Melancholy” by Xia Jia tells a wonderfully fragmented story that gets a bit heavy-handed with its Turing education, but rights itself the further it goes with a more subtle, indirect, and intelligent manner of presenting the subjectivity in the test, as it relates to a woman in the near-future possessing a kind of android-ish thing. Part of the Turing test based on human perception, Xia nicely gives the reader a chance to do the same.

Console Corner: Review of Far Cry 5

As previously mentioned, I literally spent decades away from video gaming, only returning with the console generation currently in place. Naturally, I missed a lot—a lot. I stopped when 3D gaming had just appeared and was therefore shocked to see how far it evolved; Tomb Raider on PS1 is an entirely different experience than Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition on PS4. It means I also missed the entire evolution of Far Cry games—almost a dozen, and counting. Seeing the most recent title had a chance at real world relevancy (gun-loving religious cult takes over a portion of rural America) and wanting to know how a franchise could arrive at its twelfth iteration (depending how you count) without falling apart somewhere along the line, I decided to have a go at Ubisoft’s 2018 Far Cry 5.

An open world, first person shooter, Far Cry 5 is at its core the infiltration and take down of the religious cult calling itself Project at Eden’s Gate (PEG). Led by the charismatic (in cable tv terms) Joseph Seed, the cult has steadily taken over Hope County, Montana using a combination of fundamentalist Christian ideology and an undying (har har) belief in the right to bear arms. PEG gaining followers (or corpses) via force, the federal government catches on and sends a squad to arrest Seed. The game opening on that arrest, things do not go as planned, and the player suddenly finds themselves alone in the mountains and forests of Montana with the cult and Seed hot on their heels. Let the fun begin.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Review of The Rider by Tim Krabbe

Road cycling, like many hobbies and enthusiasms, is one of those niche human interests that incites a hardcore passion in many, but whose details and inner workings remain a mystery to outsiders. We may see riders getting the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and may even know the word ‘peloton’ references an amorphous blob of riders hurtling along in a pack. But for most, the intricacies of gear size and diet, the strategies of team cycling, and the grueling devotion the world’s top riders have to compete in events thousands of kilometers in length is a whole other world. Giving the reader a glimpse of this world through the eyes of a Dutch cyclist in the 1970s, building a beautiful metaphor for the confidences, inferiorities, motivation, suffering, etc. we all feel along with our fellow ‘competitors’ in the process, is Tim Krabbe’s 1978 The Rider.

The Rider tells the story of one Tim Krabbe. Professional by day and road cyclist by weekend, he has some experience and success under his belt, devoting all of his free time to the sport, training and competing in events around Europe. While mixing in bits and pieces of Krabbe’s backstory as it relates to this experience and success, The Rider is the story of one particular 150km race in the Swiss Alps. Winning is important to Krabbe (the rider) as he struggles that day along with his fellow competitors, but of greater importance to Krabbe (the writer*) is Krabbe the rider’s psyche—the way the phases of physical effort changes his mindset, his opinions and feelings about the other riders as they evolve throughout the race, his ego direct and his ego as viewed by himself, his understanding of his own and others’ weaknesses and strengths, the meaning of competition, and other relative ideas.