Sunday, April 28, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Sapiens by Yuvel Noah Harari

I don’t normally start my reviews with post-reading discussion. I try to find an interesting point and lead into the book-at-hand’s premise or idea. But with Yuvel Noah Harari’s 2014 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I think it’s possible to start with the end, particularly one point of discussion I ended up having with my wife. It’s now almost two decades into the 21st century, and scientific research has reached the point where what was a variety of speculation the past couple centuries has slowly coalesced into surety in a lot of areas. There are things we no longer speak about as possible and likely, rather as understood and accepted facts. Certain details of evolution are still being investigated or may not be understood perfectly, but as a general theory it is now the de facto explanation for much of what has brought life on Earth to how it stands today. Only the irrational who don’t want it to be true, dismiss it as entirely false. This blanket of affirmed research is what has allowed Harari to write the grandest overview of humanity’s history to date.

Beginning with pre-historic humanity, and working its way through hunter-gatherer, agricultural, industrial, and scientifically revolutionized humanity, Sapiens describes our transition through known time from a bird’s eye view. A fascinating read, Harari sugar coats nothing. Finding the sweet spot between infotainment and formal research paper, Harari conveys information in a clear, direct manner and adds relevant examples and supporting material to color the proceedings. I daresay one of the reasons the books is so popular is the lucidity and sustained focus of Harari’s writing.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review of The Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker

If science fiction were the Catholic church, Rudy Rucker would be the patron saint of quantum cupcakes. Saint, indeed yes, such is the regard with which the community should hold Rucker. Trouble is, his area is of so little common interest (the majority of candles seem to be lit for the saints of commerce, i.e. space opera and heroic adventure) that it leaves a small but devoted cult chanting Rucker’s name and spouting his many mercies and blessings in tiny alcoves and reliquaries (ergo this blog). 2019’s The Million Mile Road Trip marks Rucker’s return after an eight year pilgrimage to the Plains of Crystal Sprinkles. Hands folded together in supplication, the man has still got everything worth lighting a candle for.

Telling the tale of high school surfer Villy, his trumpet playing girlfriend Zoe, and Villy’s annoying younger brother Scud, The Million Mile Road Trip is classic Rucker madcap genius. Going on a trans-galactic journey in a purple station wagon souped up with space magic, the trio, along with a revolving cast of wacky aliens, explores the ideas of parallel worlds, flatworlds, and of course, Rucker’s transreal special: ‘human development’. Quotation marks required, I don’t think there is anybody quite like the author to put characters through a grinder of alternate physical realities and have them come out changed people on the other side but still wholly and recognizably human.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review of Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

Dubbed by the author himself “Game of Domes”, Ian McDonald’s Luna series to date has taken readers on a science fiction journey in essence similar to George R.R. Martin’s famous series but wholly its own in terms of setting and character. The five dragons alive and kicking, McDonald’s families war over the ‘island’ of the moon, fighting with all tools at their disposal. From corporate maneuvering to outright hostility and assassination, life on Earth’s satellite offers the same quality soap opera drama without being imitative. 2019’s Luna: Moon Rising brings McDonald’s trilogy to a widespread, explosive, and entertaining conclusion.

The threads of story and character introduced in Luna: New Moon and frayed further in Luna: Wolf Moon are at last bound together in Luna: Moon Rising. Picking up events where Wolf Moon let off, the Cortas scramble to take control of the moon in the wake of Jonathan Keyode’s death. The McKenzies, having been bloodied, plot their revenge with Bryce now at the head. The Suns may be quiet, but there is belief behind the scenes the time has come for their zenith once again. Forever seemingly aloof, the Voronsov’s continue to build their infrastructure empire by playing all sides against the middle when profitable. And the Asamoahs continue to look the good guys all the while a select few family members put into action more sinister plans. But with powers on Earth having plans of their own for the moon, the five dragons may not see certain threats before it’s too late.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Review of A Hero Born by Jin Yong

It is a difficult thing to find Chinese fiction translated into English. A great deal of the classics (Zhuangzi, Confucius, Laozi), the ‘four novels of the Chinese canon’, and a fair amount of poetry have all made their way in translation, but modern and post-modern (and I assume now meta-modern) novels are few and far between. It is thus perhaps something of a significant moment that The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) has made its way across the lingual divide in an official translation from St. Martin’s Press, the first volume of which is A Hero Born.

A Hero Born doesn’t stop from the word go. Telling the story of the sworn brothers Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian, it is set against a backdrop of the Song-Jin dynasties (in what is roughly China today) and the rise of the Mongolian tribes to the north. In action-packed style, it tells the story of farmers Yang and Guo whose lives, caught at an unfortunate crossroads, take a fateful turn when a renegade Taoist monk who has recently killed a corrupt government official finds his way to their village. The army tracking him there, the fight turns ugly, and spins the lives of Yang and Guo’s families in different directions. A Hero Born is the story of those lives—or at least Act I.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun

I think it’s fair to say ninjas are a fascination of the West. Silent, acrobatic killers, masked, and wielding a variety of neat weapons and tools, they appear in all forms of media: books, movies, comics, tv, and beyond. And they are perfect for video games. From the early 2D action-platformer Ninja Gaiden to Sub Zero, Scorpion, and Reptile in Mortal Kombat, Shinobi 3D to all the games which feature the famous mutant, pizza-devouring turtles, ninjas have been captured in a variety of forms. But for all the games which have appeared, none seem to have captured their true aura. The original Ninja Gaiden and its later reboot perhaps coming closest, those games’ focus is heavily action, however, which prevents ninjas from being the sneaky, rooftop-crouching, bush-hiding, masked assassins. But the situation has been rectified. Combining action and stealth in an interactive environment that drips ‘ninja’ is Mimimi’s 2016 Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.

Set in feudal Japan, the storyline of Shadow Tactics is quite straight-forward. The new shogun, tired of ongoing rebellion in the provinces, sends a crack team to destroy the rebellion from within while making his military assault on the front. Players take on the roles of the five characters in that team (depending on the mission) and need to deploy the special skills each has in order to accomplish the missions’ objectives. Hayato has sword and shuriken, and can distract enemies by throwing stones. Mugen the big samurai can kill multiple enemies with a single swing of his katana and lure unsuspecting guards with a bottle of sake. Yuri is a small thief who can set traps and lure enemies (a la the Pied Piper) with her flute. Aiko is the master of disguises and has a sneezing powder that temporarily blinds guards. And Takuma is an elderly gentlemen good with gunpowder, including his marksman’s rifle and various explosives. Together, they help the shogun get to the bottom of the cabal and put an end to the rebellion. Trouble is, the rebellion may be closer to home than he realizes.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Review of Brasyl by Ian McDonald

I would guess that almost every bibliophile does it: postpone reading a book they know they will enjoy, saving it for some yet-unknown, special moment. I have done it countless times, and I know the books still sitting on my shelf waiting for that mysterious “right” moment to unveil itself (Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata, Jack Vance’s Alastor series, Until recently, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl (2007) was on that list. I almost don’t need to ask: was it worth the wait?
Brasyl is told in three distinct threads. The first is set in present day Rio de Janeiro (at least as of 2006) and features Marcelina Hoffman, an ambitious, less than morally scrupulous television producer bent on finding the next great reality tv show. Striking upon an idea she thinks is a winner, she sets out to find the goalie who lost the 1950 World Cup for Brazil and trap him in an interview. The second thread is set a couple decades in the future and features a petty criminal named Erdon. The future rife with Q-technology—technology that can undo the binding of matter and information, Erdon’s life on the street has added dimensions that give existence an edge, literally and figuratively, but particularly when a woman he thought dead reappears. And the third strand is set in the mid-18th century and features an Irish-Portuguese priest, Louis Quinn, heading deep into the Amazon jungle to find a mad vicar who is burning the land and killing natives. How McDonald ultimately links these three narratives is the makings of enjoyable, entertaining fiction.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Review of Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

In my youth, I was baffled by the persistence and popularity of horoscopes. They seemed leftover charlantism in a world that appeared to have moved on. But the older I got, the more I understood that the world, or more precisely people, had not evolved. The name on the door may be different (science, Christianity, corporate ladder, etc.), but for the majority of people some higher power is needed to offer faith, to provide structure or purpose in life. Katie William’s subtle but affecting Tell the Machine Goodnight (2018) takes a look at our society just a couple years down the road where a small DNA-driven device takes on the role of mother horoscope for many people.
While it’s easy to make a case that certain characters are prominent and others not, it’s impossible to say Tell the Machine Goodnight has a protagonist. A family in the spotlight, the novel shifts comfortably in and out of the lives of the unnamed group, telling the influence Apricity has on them. Apricity a small device into which a person enters a swab of cells from inside the mouth, it spits out a piece of paper that describes, sometimes in certain and sometimes in vague terms, what will make them happy. The divorcees Pearl and Elliot, their teenage son Rhett, Val (Elliot’s new wife), and others in their lives all react to the device’s cryptic scriving in different ways.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Koh-i-noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by Anita Anand & William Dalrymple

I do not consider myself a materialistic person. My only bodily ornamentations are a wedding ring and watch. My home is simply furnished, and organized for practicality. And my car is a Volkswagen Passat sedan, as average as might be. And yet when traveling, I want to see the most striking places in the world. I want to visit the best treasures of humanity’s past and see what the highest of culture has on offer. I can’t afford a five-star hotel, but I enjoy seeing how kings of old lived, their castles and thrones, and their fates, as dramatic or ordinary as they may be. I love being at places like Chichen Itza or Angkor Wat and imagining what life might have been like, their exoticism off the charts. That is my only explanation for wanting to read William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Kohinoor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (2016), as otherwise, I couldn’t give a damn.
History is parsed in different ways. From biographies to the evolution of countries or cultures, details of particular conflicts to people interviews, we learn about the past along different lines. With its biographical elements, rises and falls of empires, and numerous waypoints between, Dalrymple’s Kohinoor is a jagged line, a criss-crossing of more standard lines of history, and comes across quite engaging for it. Given the diamond spent the majority of its life in the Middle East and India in times far more uncertain and turbulent than now, not to mention opulent and grandiose, its history is filled with intrigue and excitement. For want of a better term, its history would fit snugly in the tabloids of Shah Jahan or the Persian courts.