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.

Console Corner: Review of Mad Max

For those who missed it, the film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) was a superb re-visioning of the 1979 cult classic Mad Max—even better, in my opinion. Finding a neat niche in the post-apocalyptic landscape where tribes driving wildly modified vehicles clash in the dry and dusty Australian outback, director Frank Miller reduced humanity to its bare frame, gave it fire-breathing monster trucks, and asked: what of the individual who has lost all including hope? Creating one of the best open world games of the PS4 generation, Avalanche Studios complemented the release of the 2015 film with the driving and fighting game called simply, Mad Max. (For the record, there is no connection between the film and the movie.)

Driving toward the Plains of Silence on a quest to find inner peace, Max Rockatansky is suddenly attacked by a passing convoy of heavily armed vehicles. He manages to get in a few shots at the convoy’s leader, Scabrous Scrotus, but ends up lying beside the road, naked, beaten, and without a car. Recovering, Max finds a corpse, loots the clothing, and ventures into a nearby cave for shelter where he finds Chumbucket, a semi-literate hunchback who dreams of building the greatest car the Outback has even seen, the Magnum Opus. Convincing Max of the dream, together the two start collecting parts so that Max can get his revenge on Scabrous and get on with his quest.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

One of the many brilliant scenes in Edward Burtynski’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes is a visit to an e-waste recycling site in eastern China. A village piled high with old computer mother boards, television sets, and various electronics, the locals spend their days with small hammers and pliers, manually separating the tiny bits of precious metals into small containers to be re-sold. The groundwater polluted to no end due to the mass presence of exotic metals, heaven on Earth these villages are not. Going a few years into the future and converting this scene into a novel is Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (2019). Too bad Jackie Chan was likewise invited along.

Silicon Isle is one of the major e-waste recycling site in China. The island more traditional than other major areas like Beijing or Shanghai, it is divided and controlled by local clans. Pollution a major issue, an American firm specializing in recycling decides to offer it services to the clans, represented by Scott Brindle. His translator, Chen Kaizong, is a young man who is returning to his home after many years away, and is experiencing a cultural crisis—where and what is home? Along with a migrant worker named Mimi caught up in the clan wars, these three characters find and fight their way through a rising tide (har har) of deceptions, conspiracies, and social and environmental injustices.