Friday, September 25, 2020

Review of the Alastor trilogy by Jack Vance

After almost ten years, I've finally, and patiently, and sadly reached the end of Jack Vance's oeuvre. Aware of the fact, I've put off reading the Alastor trilogy for several years, waiting for the right moment. I don't know the specific trigger, but the “moment” arrived a couple weeks ago, and the cover was cracked. How does it fair in comparison to the dozens of other novels and collections Vance published throughout his more than 90 years? (Answer: across the spectrum.)

The Alastor trilogy opens with Trullion. An extremely fast-paced story, it tells of Glinnes and his return to his home planet after ten years in the galaxy's police force. Far from the prodigal son, he returns to broken circumstances: one brother is missing, presumably murdered, his other brother has sold the family estate, his sister is carefree, and his mother no longer has any interest in the family. To top it all off, there doesn't appear to be any way to get the estate back, and there is a troupe of gypsies camped in their back lawn that don't want to leave. Getting to the bottom of what happened while he was away takes all his sleuthing skills, a little good luck, and a lot of time playing the planet's favorite sport, hussade. Things skipping along apace (too fast, in fact), Vance keeps the pedal pinned to the floor getting through the plot, leaving the reader wishing for a little more meat as the final pages turn.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review of Minority Report by Philip K. Dick

There may be no more divisive writer in my library than Philip K. Dick. Such engaging, engaging ideas that truly get the ol' gray matter churning, his “style” (aka dump words on a page and never look back) prevents them from achieving something grander to my mind. And I think it's here that Hollywood has in fact done Dick a favor: iron out the wrinkles of writing. Collecting the short stories which have been made into movie (as of 2002) is the collection: Minority Report.

This collection published on the heels of the Spielberg/Cruise production, “Minority Report” tells of Anderton, a man working in crime precognition, who one day has his name identified as a future murderer. The movie unveiling the concept much better, softening Dick's jagged edges, the story, however, captures PKD's paranoia better. The short story a mess, it does a fair amount of handwaving to get the reader to buy into the concept, waving more furiously to get them through the climax. Cheap but entertaining, “Impostor” is a fast—oh so fast—slice of wacko existentialism. About a researcher who is planning a peaceful weekend with his wife, he is suddenly snatched up by secret agents and identified as an alien impostor. PKD antics ensue. (“Electric Ant”, a story later in this colelction, does this story type better.)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Review of Empire Dreams by Ian McDonald

In this reviewer's humble opinion, Ian McDonald has quietly crept his way into the top ten—or at least twenty (I'd have to sit down and take a look)—writers of science fiction of all time. The breadth of styles he has successfully put onto the page, the spread of truly unique ideas (predominantly in the first twenty years), the sustained success, and above all the ability to integrate a fully human agenda with sensawunda, when a reader picks up a McDonald story they know that it will be well written, colorfully imaginative, and contain wholly relevant aspects of life and society. Empire Dreams (1988), McDonald's first collection, highlights everything he would become.

The collection's title story tells of a young man battling a terminal illness with the latest technology: video games. His family also having experienced a tragedy, McDonald paints a picture wherein technology eases the soul, and while the most overt conception in the collection, nevertheless touches the reader's sentiment. In an almost effortless piece of engaging worldbuilding, “Scenes from a Shadowplay” conjures a steampunk-ish, horror-ish, Venetian-ish world in a matter of sentences. Regal without the standard adornments, horrorific without the stereotypical entrapments, it tells of a rich composer who wants revenge on a rival in a style highly reminiscent of Tanith Lee—a superb compliment.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser is a lightning point of fiction. For most readers of fantasy, however, the strike is in the desert. The writer's brand of fiction is too abstract, too myriad, too interpretive for quotidian genre readers. Many such voices rail against Margaret Atwood's portrayal of genre fantastika as 'squids in space', yet when faced with material the likes of a Millhauser short story—something wholly fantastical yet unfamiliar—they will generally falter. Which leaves Millhauser's readership in the interstices of sophisticated, literary readership that doesn't mind an injection of unreality—a minor group, unfortunately. The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998) is yet another piece of evidence why Millhauser is one the unheralded writers of contemporary American letters.

Likely the most approachable in the collection, the title story develops a simple premise that climaxes upon a simple aspect of the human condition. About a knife-throwing act coming to a small town, it works with the expectation, fear, and ultimately fascination that accompanies the danger and show, all in evocative fashion. A delicately poised story, “The Visit” is caught between a number of points. The story tells of a “not happy but not unhappy” man who gets an unexpected invitation to visit an old friend in the countryside. Things seem normal at first, until they aren’t; and the steady churn of quotidian life absorbs a new point upon which to delicately poise itself for the man.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Console Corner: Review of Unravel

While there are today games featuring pixel cavemen pew-pewing squares at one another, 2D platformers have existed in video game form almost since the dawn of time. Super Mario Bros the spark setting off the powder keg, since then hundreds if not thousands of side-scrolling shoot ‘em ups, beat ‘em ups, and figure ‘em out ups, have graced (and disgraced) the screen. I think it’s fair to say, however, that it isn’t until the past decade or so that puzzle-platformers have carved a niche for themselves among the Streets of Rage, Contras, Hollow Knights, Shovel Knights, and the like. Limbo, Little Nightmares, and Inside are good examples of games that require more active brains than twitchy thumbs given players must think their way through a game rather than shoot or punch. Entering this arena with a family friendly, bittersweet spot of fun is Unravel.

In Unravel, players take on the role of a yarny, a small stick figure made of yarn, who uses his string to lasso, swing, swoop, jump, and otherwise navigate his way through a variety of big person settings. Rural and urban, players are ostensibly chasing a series of mementos that the yarny attaches to a photo album with the completion of each level's puzzles. Collect all the mementos, and you win.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Review of Intruder by C.J. Cherryh

With the Foreigner series back on track after a few miscues upon Bren’s return to Ateva, it’s time to see what comes of Cherryh’s rediscovered traction in Intruder (2012). Where there is reason to have strong praise for Betrayer’s return to the ingredients, focus, and substance that made the original trilogy so impactful, it is up to Intruder to ensure it is no fluke. Review spoiler: it does.

In short, Intruder has all the politics, diplomacy, and constant tension of walking a cultural high wire that identifies the first Foreigner trilogies so strongly. Bren’s twitchy negotiations with Machegi in Betrayer now must come to fruition. Another way of putting this is, negotiation is one thing, but realizing the terms brings about another layer of reality and risk that words over a table only point toward. And Cherryh fully capitalizes on this. Bren returns to Shajitown, along with Cajeri, to once again set up shop in the capital. The Dowager is off organizing things in the north, and Tabini is looking to keep domestic issues from spilling into the public eye and undermining the upcoming international meeting. As more details come to light within these parties, tension ramps up for Machegi’s arrival to sign the trade agreement. For certain, not everything will go according to Bren’s plan.