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.