Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Best of Books Published in 2019

2019, 2019, 2019, and the onslaught of fiction continues as never before in the history of mankind. The tide of books on the market somehow rises higher, such that it is impossible for any reader to take in even the majority, and evaluate the scene. This is all a long way of saying, despite the eighteen books I did read published in 2019, predominantly in the area of fantastika, I do not feel anywhere near spitting distance to pronounce “the best”. Thus, what follows must be taken as: “the best of what I read”. (For the best of what I read in 2019, regardless of year of publishing, see here.)

As always, there were books I wanted to get to, which may in turn have influenced the titles below, including Paul Kearney’s The Windscale Incident, Tim Powers’ More Walls Broken, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, Neal Stephenson’s Atmosphera Incognita, Lewis Shiner’s Outside the Gates of Eden, Ian McDonald’s Menace from Farside, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Stories. More importantly, due to the flood on the market there inevitably a number of books that should have been on my radar but weren’t, and will come to light once I start reading trusted reviewers and critics’ lists from 2019.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Review of Space Opera ed. by Brian Aldiss

There are, or at least were, a few readers/fans of science fiction who got their undies in a knot upon hearing Margaret Atwood dismiss science fiction as ‘squids in space’. Those people seemingly more patronized by Atwood’s literary leanings than willing to be open to understanding the context of her comment, a minor rift was born in the science fiction community. Or so it seemed at the time. Many had forgotten Jonathan Lethem, who in the 80s openly lamented the Nebula Award’s unwillingness to award a literary work of genre rather than the entertaining work of genre it actually did. Everyone seems to have forgotten Brian Aldiss, who in the introduction to the 1974 anthology he edited entitled Space Opera, openly dismisses the content that follows, calling the sub-genre low brow by default. The whims—ahem, winds of science fiction blow, and in which direction nobody knows…

Aldiss describes Space Opera as an anthology of sixteen stories which are lesser-known, i.e. not widely re-published (if at all) but yet retain the flavor of what readers expect seeing the words ‘space opera’. The likes of E.E. Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs set aside for the moment, Aldiss instead looks to writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Daniel Galouye, Thomas Scortia, and many others, not all of whom are typically associated with the sub-genre.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review of Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

I don’t know what it is. Amusement parks seem to provide a backdrop for a fair amount of drama and crime stories. Is it the anti-quotidian? Is it the closeness of fun thrills to horrific thrills? Or is it just the clowns, and all the fun and terror they bring to the table? Elizabeth Hand, in her 2019 Curious Toys, might argue it’s the bearded lady.

Curious Toys is the story of Pin, a carnie living and working at the Riverside amusement park in Chicago in 1915. A lover of pulp magazines and their flair for adventure and drama, when a real life murder happens on one of the park’s rides Pin becomes a little curious and a small-time detective herself. When it happens again, she starts to worry for her life…

Hand keeping the detective aspect of the book as realistic as possible, at no time does Pin become Nancy Drew or Angela Lansbury chasing down clues in this week’s episode of a show. Period Chicago evoked as needed, and multiple point-of-view characters filling out the storyline, her quest to get to the bottom of the murders feels more organic than contrived, something Hand achieves through the realistic (vs. larger than life) aspects of the people in the story.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Review of Stealing Light by Gary Gibson

Space opera has become an almost impossible thing to review. The quantity of material accumulating in the past half-century so vast, it’s virtually infeasible for books to poke their nose above the waters. Breaking any particular book down into its component parts starts to sound like a broken record: “aliens… space ship… lasers… unknown… planet… threat… universe…” And when you factor in the fact that every reader has their own preferred style, trusting a review to shine the light on a standout space opera book or series is not the easiest. So, simply put, Gary Gibson’s Stealing Light (2007), first of a trio of books in the Shoal Sequence, is standard but solid space opera.

Aliens, space ships, unknowns, planets, threats, universe—yes! Stealing Light is set some X thousand years in the future when humanity has started to explore the galaxy and… encountered a group of fish-like aliens called the Shoal exponentially more intelligent than we neo-chimps. Granting humanity a corner of the galaxy and limiting knowledge about faster-than-light travel, the Shoal prove beneficent if not mysterious overseers. The story centers around a woman named, Dakota. A machine-head, she operates on the fringes of society as a specialized ship pilot, earning money where and when opportunities arise. Receiving a commission she can’t refuse one day, Dakota finds herself in cahoots with one of the galaxy’s most evil-minded politicians, even as broader, unexplained events in the wider universe close in.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Priceless by Robert Wittman

Break into your local 7-11 to steal a few twenties from the cash register and a carton of Marlboros and society is sure to turn its nose up at you. Break into the New York Met and steal a Monet, however, and society’s reaction will be mixed. Disgust likely registered at the public’s loss of such an invaluable piece of art, there will, however, be a certain sense of awe or mystique that is given to the thief. Outsmarting guards and alarms and getting away with millions of dollars in goods, Thomas Crown is as much a hero as anti-hero. Demystifying the awe, Robert Wittman’s Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (2011) looks at the underworld of art theft and black market sales from an insider’s perspective.

Part memoir, part history, and part exposition on methodology, Priceless describes how Wittman joined the FBI, began investigating stolen art and artifacts, his ways of working, and the stories behind locating some of the world’s most famous stolen art and capturing the people who stole them. From recovering American civil war trophies in his early years to sniffing out the men behind the world’s biggest art theft (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery), Wittman provides a first-hand perspective to how certain pieces of art and cultural artifacts were returned to their rightful homes in public display cases.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Review of The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s 2019, more than half a century since space exploration began unlocking the secrets of the solar system. And what secrets there are, from the chemical composition of Uranus to the discovery of Neptune’s odd rotation, the impact of Jupiter on Earth’s history to the reasons behind Venus’ hothouse atmosphere. Also, sustaining human life on Mars has become a possibility with clarity unlike ever before. Spanning that half-century is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951).

In a meta twist, The Sands of Mars is the story of Martin Gibson, a well-known science fiction author. He has been invited to travel to Mars aboard the spaceship Ares, and at the outset of the story finds himself going through what a large number of sf heroes do at the beginning of their novels: learning about the novelties of spacecraft and spaceflight. Arrival on Mars doesn’t change the program; Gibson continues to learn what makes life on Mars different than Earth, and it isn’t long before he gets to put his own little stamp on the evolution of science on the red planet. (Sound sharp as a knife? No…)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Starcraft II - 2019 Year in Review

The confetti has fallen on Blizzcon, which means it's time to take a look back at Starcraft II in 2019. On one hand it was a fairly dramatic year with unique high and lows, but as the year closed out it had become very consistent: Zerg, Zerg, Zerg, which wasn't the most dramatic thing. So, as has become normal here at Speculiction, let's take a look at some awards, best matches, and how predictions came about.


The players...

Feel Good Moment of the Year
This absolutely has to go to Soo winning IEM Katowice. Nothing has drawn the SCII community together like that. Seeing the photo of all the Korean pro-gamers at a restaurant afterwards celebrating makes the heart feel good, just as much as soo's tears of relief and joy.

Best Korean Zerg
Korean points leader, GSL champion, and Blizzcon winner, can there be any doubt that Dark was the best Korean Zerg in 2019? Rogue and Soo had solid years winning premiere titles, but Dark just blew them out of the water.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Sonic Mania

I was fifteen years old when one of my close friends got a Super Nintendo for Christmas. I was blown away. The graphics, the graphics, the graphics!! Mario riding on Yoshi looked literally twice as good as my dull grey box, non-super Nintendo. I had to have me one, of course, so I started saving my allowances. At $5 a week and a $100 price tag, it took some time, and patience, and more patience, and more patience, and by the time I’d saved the money, I’d discovered Sega Genesis. I splashed the Benjamin, mailed in my proof of purchase (yes, that was a thing!!) to get a free copy of Sonic 2 to complement the original that came with the console, and four months later (a complete surprise considering I had completely forgotten about it—fifteen year old brain), got the freebie. For the next couple of years, I played countless hours of Sonic 1 and 2, the flow of the game and its music embedding themselves in my being forever. It was thus such a nostalgic joy to see a retro version—faithful to the original but new in content—appear on the PS4 in 2017, Sonic Mania.

A short review of Sonic Mania might thus run as follows: if you loved the original Sonic games on Sega Genesis/Megadrive and want more, no need to think twice, go get Sonic Mania. It scratches the itch (in ways you may have never known you were itching) in gushing, tributary, fresh fashion. From Green Hill Zone to the bell chimes of losing your rings, the *pop* of jumping on an enemy to the blur of whipping through an S-curve, it’s all wonderfully, gloriously, there. Buy it.

Console Corner: Review of Detroit: Become Human

If this blog is any testament, I was a library child. Along with trips to school libraries, my mother regularly brought me to the local public one. (I still recall the smell of the carpeting and the silence it emanated.) I wandered the quiet, shadowed aisles, looking at spines and grabbing books that took my fancy. I read the Princess and the Goblin books. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I read all the fifty-something Hardy Boy mysteries (and the Detective Handbook), and even started the Nancy Drew series. I tried almost all the How to Draw books (and still could never produce as nice a drawing as the directions would have it). And of course, I read all the Choose Your Own Adventures I could find. I still recall having all my fingers acting as bookmarks, flipping between story branches as one ended to see where a different choice would have brought me. QuanticDream’s 2018 Detroit: Become Human brought me back to my Choose Your Own Adventure books, at least somewhat; my fingers didn’t fit anywhere except the controller...

Much more Isaac Asimov I, Robot than William Gibson Neuromancer, Detroit: Become Human is set in the near future where androids are readily available on the market. Child care to street cleaning, shop assistants to bus drivers, construction workers to janitors, the human-like robots are peacefully interwoven throughout society in controlled, seemingly benevolent fashion to serve humanity. But there are signs not all is well. Inspector Connor (himself an android), is called to the scene of a murder. He discovers that the perpetrator is an android who has learned his owner intends to replace him with a newer model, and lashed out. As the story moves on, and murders by androids start piling up, it’s clear the incident is no fluke. Something must be done to prevent a robocalypse. But is this something humanity, with its own vices, can help with, or will it just get in the way?