Sunday, March 31, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Soma

Slightly off-center on the mental spectrum, Philip K. Dick was king of presenting the fuzzy area between reality and perceived reality in his fiction. Drugs, technology, mysticism, brainwashing, or just differences in personal viewpoint (e.g. Are we living in a mass hallucination?) were devices he used to illustrate the difference. All are troubling, but perhaps the scariest is technology. Differences in perception due to drugs, mysticism, brainwashing, etc. we can chalk up to inevitable aspects of being human, even technology to a large degree. But it is technology which has the potential to make permanent, irreversible changes to society’s perceptions. Exploring one technological possibility in what is thus far video gaming’s most intelligent, mature, and existential story is Frictional Games’ 2016 Soma.

At the start of Soma, the player is introduced to Simon Jarret. Recently in an auto accident that killed his girlfriend and left him with brain damage, Jarret has signed up for an experimental brain scan in an attempt to get to the root of the bleeding still plaguing him a month later. Seeming innocuous enough, he arrives at the graduate research clinic on the appointed morning, settles into the dentist-like chair, attaches the head device, and begins the scan…

Friday, March 29, 2019

Review of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

For me, there are two types of horror: superficial horror intended to get a temporary rise out of the consumer (Boo!—pun intended), and horror with depth—metaphorical, psychological, existential, slipstream, Weird, etc. The moment my brain encounters the former, it looks for something better to do, whereas the latter can set it tingling with uncomfortable interest, yet certainly interest. What then to say about Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)?

A frame story, The Woman in Black tells the tale of Arthur Kipps. Having a splendid Christmas time with his family, things take a strange turn when sitting around the hearth the family members are asked to tell the best ghost story they know. Kipps uncomfortable with the idea, he knows his story is not a story, but a memory he is still struggling with. As a young man just starting his career, Kipps was asked by his boss to go the country estate of a recently deceased woman and take account of her affairs. Arriving at the small village nearby, things start to take on an uncertain hue. Seeing things that may or may not exist, Kipps nevertheless is interested in spending the night in the deceased woman’s marshy home to get his commission over with. It is a decision he will doubt the rest of his life.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review of Why Call Them Back from Heaven? by Clifford Simak

There is a reputation, a certain line of opinion that holds science fiction to be that form of literature which abandons human reality in favor of the theoretically abstract. And while I would argue the majority is not per se, indeed there are numerous examples to support the perspective. Straddling the fence in frustrating and engaging fashion is Clifford Simak’s Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967).

The Forever Center is an Adam Smith dream come true. Storing frozen, dead bodies for a future time when the universe is ready for teeming billions of immortals, they have likewise convinced these “stockholders” to let the Forever Center handle their finances while in waiting. Accumulating a majority of the world’s wealth in the process, they are the corporation of corporations—the mother of them all. Their future selling point keeping them somewhat honest, a newspaper headline threatens to blow them wide open, however: the technology for immortality they claim to own may not actually exist.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The lives of spies and double-agents are the stuff of good cinema for the majority of people. Based on its very nature, it’s rare that espionage news with real-world import leaks into the public eye. Kim Philby or Mata Hari might be names known by a few, but certainly James Bond comes more readily to mind for the overwhelming majority. It’s thus that the average person has little knowledge of real international intelligence. Pulling together what he believes to be The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre’s 2018 The Spy and the Traitor tells the real life story of Oleg Gordievsky. Romance, drama, escape—Mr. Bond could not do any better.

Born into a KGB family (his father an administrator in Moscow and his brother an undercover international spy), Oleg Gordievsky would go on to follow in their footsteps. Trouble is, his own political views would get in the way. Stationed in Copenhagen early in his career, the difference in quality of life was too much for him to handle. Life in the West, with its freedom of speech, free market, and lack of paranoia were far more to not only his personal philosophy, but also what he believed was good for Russian people. Contacted by a British secret service agent soon thereafter, The Spy and the Traitor is Gordievsky’s absolutely amazing story.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Review of Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem famously isolated the moment the Science Fiction Writers of America association chose to award best novel of the year to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (in turn relegating Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to second tier) as a turning point in science fiction’s history. The opportunity for the genre to head in a more literary direction missed, Lethem lamented the association’s inability to recognize the moment and push science fiction toward higher standards. Walking the talk, Lethem himself has never been a popular genre figure precisely due to the fact his stories rarely if ever run anywhere near the middle of the road. Backing this idea up is his collection of short stories Men and Cartoons (2004).

A very brief collection, Men and Cartoons, as the dichotomy hints, would have the juvenile and mature natures of its characters examined in short fiction form. In “The Vision”, an irritable man attends a party where the guests are playing a social deduction game called Mafia (aka Werewolf). Unhappy with the game, he introduces something more to his liking into the group dynamic. Lethem biting off more than he can chew, “Access Fantasy” ostensibly tells of cyberpunk-ish future where a man living in his car enters the neighborhood of the affluent to investigate a murder. Possible that the story is full-on satire (versus my impression it is only partial satire), the setting is as close to middle-of-the-road sf as the collection gets, and if indeed only partially satire, does just an average job fleshing out the target of its derision.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray

John Gray’s Straw Dogs occupies a hallowed place in my library. As stark and bleak as its overview may be, it remains one of the books striking closest to anything that I personally might describe as a ‘fundamental reality to existence’. Anyone who has read the book will be aware that said reality is anything but concretely finite, nevertheless Gray has a way of cutting directly to the heart of matters (no Hegelian or Sartre-ian ramblings here) in his discussions on the nature of human nature, without flighty language. Straw Dogs published in 2002, Gray expands his worldview to include the nature of “non-belief” in 2019 with Seven Types of Atheism. (Do not, whatever you do, confuse this John Gray with John Gray, writer of Men Are From Mars, Women from Venus—or any of these other John Grays.)

While I can appreciate Gray was giving a nod to William Empson and Seven Types of Ambiguity, the book’s title Seven Types of Atheism is sure to put off a few readers who are unaware of the link. Not a dry, scientific breakdown of atheism’s taxonomy, the book is instead an erudite, dynamic presentation of the manifestations of atheism, from ancient times until now, and the consistencies and inconsistencies they purport. Everyone from Plato to Joseph Conrad are brought forth for discussion. Thus while the book is broken into seven basic types of atheism, the sections feed back and forth among one another toward making and defining the points on Gray’s agenda.

Console Corner: Review of The Last of Us DLC "Left Behind"

The Last of Us is considered by many one of the greatest games of all time, and by some, the greatest. A powerful cocktail of mature story, beautiful music, tense action, excellent design, and fun, engaging gameplay, it satisfies video gaming’s (unwritten) tenets from every facet. Developer Naughty Dog uncertain of the game until it was released, they were left scrambling to offer DLC content in the wake of its success. How to offer additional, meaningful gameplay to an experience that was already complete? Their answer: a combination backstory and in-story segue focusing on Ellie called “Left Behind” (2014).

Where The Last of Us drives its story in a straight line, “Left Behind” oscillates between two time periods: early-infection Boston and Colorado directly after Joel’s horrific injury at the University. Though very different in appearance, both story parts are set in abandoned shopping malls. In Boston, Ellie and her friend Riley have fun playing in the empty concourses, tinkering with arcade machines, and raiding abandoned shops. In Colorado, Ellie searches among the wreckage and abandoned shops of an outdoor mall, looking for medicine that will prevent Joel’s wound from becoming infected.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review of The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

Extensive cellars of the world’s best wines. Pristine slopes with no other skiers, the lifts at your disposal. A hotel kitchen with an endless supply of food that never spoils. The penthouse room available day in and day out for sleeping and leisure. Paradise calls, such is the tragedy of Graham Joyce’s touching 2010 The Silent Land.

British couple Zoe and Jake have decided to splurge at a four-star French hotel in the Alps, enjoying a week of skiing. Out on the slopes early one morning to get the freshest powder, the unthinkable happens, an avalanche. Jake lucky enough to find shelter among trees, he hears Zoe’s cries, and helps her from the packed snow. Arriving back in the village where their hotel is, however, the couple notice something strange; all lights are on but there are no people. Everything seemingly stuck in a time warp, the pair believe they have been left behind in the aftermath of the avalanche, and settle in to await contact with the outside world once again. At first everything seems wonderful—they have the wine, food, and slopes to themselves. But then they notice the lack of entropy. The fire in the hearth burning endlessly, the two start to question their situation...

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Review of Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

In the 1980s, the British pop group Talk Talk decided it had had enough of its heavily produced, saccharine sounds for the masses and decided to veer off in a new direction, self-producing their own album Spirit of Eden. A commercial failure yet something more sophisticated connoisseurs of music picked up on, the album is testament to the value of going with your heart and creating what’s real to yourself. With a history of only genre-oriented fiction in his wake, I can’t help but feel that Robert Jackson Bennett, with 2019’s Vigilance, is striking out on his own—at least in this instance. But perhaps most interesting is, Bennett striking out on his own is not what may polarize readers; it’s the story’s substance that’s likely to divide.

With Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Ursula Le Guin, and a variety of other writers standing—standing—on the wings applauding (Sheckley is probably cupping his hands and shouting “Encore!”), Vigilance tells the story of a near-future America that doesn’t feel entirely futuristic. With gun laws perpetuating themselves unaltered, mass shootings only increase in America, and the government decides to take advantage. Preying off fear and paranoia, they go with the flow and make entertainment of it. Each citizen required at all times to be ready for an active shooter, the ultimate reality television show is born: Vigilance.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Review of The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

It is an observance of the glut of contemporary publishing that sales tail off in series. Rare is the fantasy series whose most recent release sells as well as its first volume. While undoubtedly there are some human traits at work behind this observation (good intentions not always panning out, short attention spans, jumping trains for the next great thing, etc., etc.), there is likewise the idea that few authors are able to perpetually mine fresh excitement and interest from their initial premise to push momentum beyond the first volume. Such is for certain not the case with Josiah Bancroft’s The Hod King (2019).

A cattle prod jolting the ongoing Tower of Babel series, this, the third volume, delivers in all the surprising, unexpected ways a prospective reader could hope without abandoning any of the fundamental blocks the story’s main interest is built upon. Regardless whether Bancroft had the story mapped out all along or is just playing things by ear and going with the flow, this latest installment in Thomas Senlin’s adventures is superb, threatening, in fact, to push the series far above the madding crowd to become one of the greatest of said contemporary glut. Yes, The Hod King is that good.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Kong Off His Back: Triumph and Inspiration

Sometimes there are stories in life that just grab us, our fundamental human nature, and affect us in ways we can’t easily explain. Seeming to transcend existence, many of these stories find their way into interesting biographies or historical pieces, and some fall by the wayside, known and appreciated only by a select few. Searching for Sugar Man and Unbroken are two unbelievable stories that defy belief. And yet they happened, stirring feelings deep within us watching them unfold on the screen. There are lesser known but equally affecting stories like that of Zhang Dan’s—her fall, courage to continue, and reward for perseverance. Touching rarely visited places within us, these real-life stories give rise to complex, gratifying emotions, even though we are not the ones who had the experiences directly. This is one such story.

For that thimbleful of readers who regularly make their way to this blog, they will notice the occasional, odd post on an esport known as Starcraft 2. For the unaware, it is chess3. Not only do players move pieces around on a “board” and defend and attack, economies must be managed to even produce pieces, all the pieces can be upgraded, there is limited visibility where the opponent’s pieces are, and all decisions and movement are done real-time. Unlike chess, there is no stoppage after a move so the opponent can think about their riposte. Everything is fluid—action, reaction, strategy, tactics, advance, retreat, attack, defend. The number of mental balls a player must juggle at one time makes it the most difficult esport on the planet, and something only an extreme-extreme minority of people, master.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Review of Eternity and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

While his writing technique moved within a limited range, Lucius Shepard remains one of the most versatile writers ever to put words on the page in terms of substance. From science fiction to magic realism, fantasy to realism, horror to satire, literary to genre, Shepard’s oeuvre covers a wide range of subjects, modes, and material. It’s thus a shame that Shepard’s popularity spiked in the 80s and 90s given that some of his most mature and relevant work was published in the 21st century. Looking at a post-9-11 world, African despots, war in the Middle East, the American justice system, and other subjects, Eternity and Other Stories (2005) collects seven novelettes and novellas proving just how diverse Shepard’s portfolio truly is.

In the 80s, Shepard wrote several stories chastising American involvement in Central America from the soldiers’ points of view. From drugs to propaganda, the jungles of “Salvador”, “R&R”, and other stories complement their haunted worlds. In Eternity, Shepard updates the setting for the 21st century equivalent of Central America: our post 9-11 world. The drugs and propaganda remain. In “Only Partly There”, a manual laborer part of the crews removing the rubble of the World Trade Center spends time with his crewmates at a local bar after work. Drowning the sorrows of finding body parts, people’s personal effects, and working in a morass of endless debris, it’s a depressing escape, that is, until the young man reaches out to a corporate woman who frequents the bar. While at heart a standard tale, Shepard nevertheless deftly plays with imagination, metaphor, and reality in a fashion relevant to the sorrows and concerns of the city and nation.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Rise of the Tomb Raider

I am old enough to have played Tomb Raider when it first came out on the PS1. One of the few games I invested myself in (at the time) to complete, I loved the eerie atmosphere of the caves and loved even more working through the puzzles. I would say the game gave off a proper Indiana Jones, tomb raiding feel that defined Lara Croft and her world. Fast forward twenty years to the release of Tomb Raider (2013). While certainly technically and graphically enhanced, the game only partially echoed the original. Revamped for the modern Assassin’s Creed/Uncharted audience, Crystal Dynamics opted for a faster-paced, story-driven, action-adventure game. There were puzzles, but they were complementary rather than necessary. I would still say the transition was successful, however. More sophisticated than Uncharted and less convoluted than Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider (2013) held a nice balance across its elements that made for a fun, enjoyable gaming experience—so much so I invested in the follow up, Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015).

Where Tomb Raider (2013) aimed to be the origin story of how Lara Croft changed from university student to fledgling tomb taider, Rise of the Tomb Raider aims to be… I don’t know what to write here. I suppose it aims to be the next logical step: Lara’s digging into her father’s shadowy past as an explorer and adventurer, finding more about the mysterious ‘holy grail’ he sought, and moving her closer to the Tomb Raider (sound the gong) we are familiar with. The reason I say I’m not 100% sure what to write is that Rise of the Tomb Raider’s storyline is weak. I understand faceless enemies are the norm in video games, but Trinity and its minions are too many degrees separated from Lara’s relatively human story to be remotely relatable. (The treasure hunters in the original Tomb Raider still seem the most logical competition.) Secondly, there were too many times I felt I was just going through the action/adventure motions of uncovering secrets, being captured, discovering numinous objects, escaping, etc., etc. It was as if the story’s pieces lacked the proper setup to allow me to suspend my disbelief. And thirdly the storyline felt vanilla—like one I had seen or read several times before. (In fact, I believe Uncharted 2’s storyline may have been nearly identical…) There were few truly unique details or signature moments to distinguish it. Things evolve exactly as expected, no surprises. As story is one of the primary reasons to play the game, around the halfway point I was struggling to remain engaged.

Console Corner: Review of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

Tomb Raider was one of the few games I played on the first Playstation console, let alone completed. And I have distinct memories—the unique gameplay (for its time) and satisfaction of having finished it without assistance helping solidify this. (Online guides were still a thing of the future in 1996.) It was thus an interesting experience, twenty years later, to play Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Lara Croft for the 21st century, it was a lesson on how far games have both evolved and devolved.

One of my distinct memories of the first Tomb Raider is how much discovery and problem solving was involved, and the relative difficulty. There were various gun fights, but the majority of the game was focused on locating puzzle pieces, finding levers to open gates, moving bits of the environment to access other areas, locating switches that open certain doors, and coming upon the right ledge or tunnel to get to the next area. A lot of trial and error involved, progress was sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly just out of reach. I cannot say the same about Tomb Raider: DE—which is not a bad thing by default, just an observation.