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.