Friday, November 27, 2020

Review of The Eye of the Heron by Ursula Le Guin

While for some Ursula Le Guin is the writer of the Earthsea series, and for others the creator of the gender-bender Left Hand of Darkness, I don’t often get the impression many online have taken the effort to read bigger chunks of Le Guin’s expansive oeuvre. Though having read almost if not all the Hainish stories, written a thesis on Earthsea, and dabbled in random novels, collections, and stories, I personally feel as I’ve only climbed half of Le Guin mountain. But from my current view, I have the feeling The Eye of the Heron (1978) is something of a summary representation of Le Guin, as overt as it may be.

Working with the British model of the 18th and 19th centuries, The Eye of the Heron is based on the idea of sending society’s criminals and otherwise unwanted to another place. In the novella’s case, it is another planet far from Earth. Colonized in two waves, the first wave established societal and cultural order built around the traditional Western idea—leaders, police, gender roles, etc. The second wave, however, went for something different: rule by referendum and common sense, underpinned by pacifism ideology. Pushed outside the established city, these Shanti-towners trade the food they grow to the city dwellers for metal, technology, and other critical items. But while trade may be a cyclical, balanced area, authority is not. The city-dwellers considering the Shanti-towners a lesser but necessary people, relations take a turn for the worse when a large group of Shanti-towners make the decision to strike out across the mountains to establish a new town closer to the sea.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Flamme Rouge: Peloton & Meteo

This review covers two expansions for Flamme Rouge: Peloton and Meteo. While I review them together, they must be purchased separately.

Flamme Rouge is a board game ripe with potential. Card-driven racing, the base game came with the possibility of four players challenging one another across a huge number of potential track layouts. Undoubtedly aware of their game’s potential but waiting to see if it caught fire (har har), the designers surely breathed a sigh of satisfaction when the game caught the market’s eye, and that potential could start to be realized. Peloton and Meteo are the two expansions which have since arrived on shelves.

Peloton adds a number of things that diversify gameplay immensely. Foremost, it adds two additional teams of racers, pushing the player count up to six. It also adds a couple, slightly modified rules for the game to handle up to twelve racers. Next, it adds a couple cards which allow for the usage of dummy teams. For a two player game, having these additional one or two (or more) teams of dummy racers on the board adds to the atmosphere and makes things more tense and exciting. Thirdly, the expansion adds roughly a dozen new track tiles, some with new terrain. Capturing the early-20th century feel of road cycling in Europe, many of these new tiles feature cobblestones, which slightly change how cyclists move and slipstream. Building on top of these new tiles, designers included a set of cards which simulate a tour de ____.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Review of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is one of those novels that, throughout the experience the reader is aware everything is set in reality, just not quite. There is a skew, an angle, a perspective to the events which does not wholly belie the reality you’ve come to know. But at the same time, there is nothing to put your finger on to say definitively ‘that is not reality’. I suppose there are some who would call this ‘slipstream fiction’, but regardless the nomenclature, it creates a wonderfully uncomfortable view to the proceedings that begs to be unraveled. I can’t help but feel precisely the same about M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020).

In the early going, The Sunken Land has the atmosphere of a stereotype: one of “those French novels” where people have trouble with relationships while grappling with the idea of existence (never in so direct terms, natch). Indeed Shaw and Victoria, and their obtuse interactions and dialogue, spawn a certain feeling that something is amiss in their relationship and world, even if they do not know what it is, the quotidian events of their daily lives taking on additional layers in the process. But as the story moves forward, certain patterns begin to emerge. At separate, individual times, strange coincidences occur that are just far enough over the line that the tire of reality is pricked by a pin. As the escaping air builds into the crescendo of a hiss, the reader comes to learn that not all is existentially French. Broader, Lovecraftian-esque (not Lovecraftian) events are shifting and moving beneath the waves that speak to Harrison’s true substance to the novel.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I can’t help it. I will start gushing—not at the conclusion of the review but at the beginning. Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one of the landmark novels of the 21st century, have waited sixteen years for Susanna Clarke’s follow up. And was the wait ever worth it. The time used to let every piece fall into its place, for every word to be to be precisely what the scene/motif/mood/story needed, and for the overarching idea to be relevant to both the human condition and the times, Clarke has achieved more in her 2020 novel Piranesi where there didn’t seem room to do so.

Ostensibly (emphasis on ‘ostensibly’) Piranesi is the story of a man whose life revolves around cataloging the endless, tide-washed halls of a timeless building littered with marble statues. Surviving on seaweed and fish, the only other inhabitant of the House is a man he calls The Other. The pair meeting weekly to compare notes on survival, a spanner is thrown into the works of their schedule when another person is reported to be walking the halls. Threat or friend, rumors and hearsay swirl, forcing the man to strike out on his own to learn the truth.

Cardboard Corner: Survive: Escape from Atlantis

Over the past couple of years I have encountered various people online, in forums, video reviews, comments sections, etc. who are sensitive to games with a “take-that” element or comment. Personal preference is, of course, unassailable—except by rampant criticism, cynicism, and upon occasion physical violence. And for that, nobody can say such games are ostensibly 'good' or 'bad'. But for that personality type who doesn't mind a little take that amid their shark-chomping, rescue raft fun, there may be no more an enduring board game than Survive: Escape from Atlantis.

In Survive: Escape from Atlantis, players try to get their meeples off a sinking island that is doing its best to kill them, and if the island doesn’t kill them, then surely the sharks, whales, sea dragons and fellow players will certainly have a stab at it. Players must do their best to remember the number hidden on the bottom of each of their ten meeples, trying to get those of highest value to safety first. Spoiler alert: given the riotous chaos that evolves, this philosophy devolves into: get any of my meeples to safety, regardless of value. The game’s win condition is total number of points from rescued meeples. (With my four-year old daughter, we sometimes just play total number of meeples still alive.) There are a few things to help the meeples, including boats and dolphins, but the sea is still a dangerous place, not every meeple seeing the end of game.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Review of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelly

I have occasionally tried to define my relationship to music. It’s not easy. I cannot say that I love reggae, or classic rock, or electronica. I own albums and music by artists who produce those types of music, but cannot outright say that I am a dyed in the wool reggae fan, for example. My feelings for jazz are the same. There are bits and pieces that I greatly enjoy; the majority, no. But I do own a dozen or so Thelonious Monk albums. Something about the man’s music attracts my ears, then soul. And with that I decided to pick up Robin D.G. Kelly’s biography to try and get a little deeper into what that “something” is in Monk’s music.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2010) focuses on three primary things: the details of Monk’s character and personal life (heritage, upbringing, personality, relationships, marriage, children, etc.), the evolution of Monk’s music, style, gigs he performed, and albums he recorded, and lastly the relationships and partnerships that formed the social fabric he wove (and unwove) in the musical, mostly jazz scene of his era. As with good biographies, a strong sense of the history that Monk made and passed through emerges in the process.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mice & Mystics

As a child, I loved Brian Jacques’ series of Redwall books. Watership Down with strong Arthurian overtones, they all featured a band of heroic rodents fighting the forces of evil, typically rats, snakes, weasels, foxes, and the like. Wonderfully vibrant and imaginative, these stories still live in my memory today. Coming across Plaid Hat Games’ Mice & Mystics was like discovering Redwall in board game form. While the tangibles of board games are limited when compared to the intangible horizons of books, I still could capture some of that feel, the feel of mice with swords battling evil in their own, small world.

Mice & Mystics is a cooperative game that plays out the story of Colin the Warrior, Tilda the Healer, Lily the Bowman, Filch the Scamp, Nez the Tinkerer and Maginos the Mystic in their fight against an evil queen who has taken their castle hostage. A light role playing game with miniatures, players traverse tiles and slay baddies while following story instructions in a gamebook. There are ranged and melee attacks, players can upgrade their characters, a variety of spells and items can be discovered, story achievements can be had, and a number of other details flesh out the mice’s adventures through the castle’s basements and sewers and in its dining halls and sleeping chambers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review of Protector by C.J. Cherryh

For this reviewer, Intruder, thirteenth novel in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, was one of the high points of the series thus far. In Machegi, there was finally an element of conflict to support what has become a rather boring behind-the-scenes-conspiracy that Cherryh seemed to continually pull out at opportune moments to keep ninjas on the field as threats to Bren without any real substance beyond. Machegi brought out the true diplomatic elements which made the first several Foreigner novels so engaging. 2013's Protector exists to ask the question: can Cherryh maintain the substance?

Well, if one is to judge by the cover, the answer is no. Bren guiding/protecting a group of children does not seem a promising concept. And for 75% of the novel, the answer rings true. In true Cherryh style, the narrative takes its sweet time building up. But when it hits, it hits. There is an extremely quickly escalation into the climax (at least in Cherryh's terms), and the backstory delivered is meaty. Indeed human guests from the space station arrive for Cajeri's felicitous ninth birthday, but behind that intrigues and cabals that have been bubbling for ages finally come to the surface.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Review of The Visible Man by Gardner Dozois

Say the name Gardner Dozois in 2020, and most are likely to tell you: that guy who edited decades of Year's Best science fiction anthologies. Indeed an editor of dozens upon dozens upon dozens of anthologies and collections, he will likely be remembered as one of the great editors of science fiction. But what most readers today are likely unaware of, including myself until recently, is that Dozois was a damn good writer of short fiction himself. The Visible Man (1977), Dozois' first collection of shorts, is an overlooked powerhouse of subtle speculative fiction.

The collection kicks off with the titular story. A classical sf premise if ever there were (not a familiar, derivative premise rather one that feels classic but retains its uniqueness), “The Visible Man” finds a convicted criminal being transported to a new location at the outset. Having paid a high price for his crimes, he has been given medication which renders him unable to see humans. Stuck in the backseat of a small space like a car, everything is ok. But when he escapes, the limits of his condition come to the forefront. While the resolution may not be as substantive as could have been, the manner in which Dozois puts the reader in the shoes of a person who cannot see people is interesting.

Cardboard Corner: Flamme Rouge

Flamme Rouge. Let’s say it together—properly now, no coarse American consonants: Flamme Rouge. And repeat: Flamme Rouge - Flamme Rouge. C’mon, roll that ‘r’—Flamme Rouge… Ok, now in English: Red Flame. Hmm, I see. Not as nice a ring. Seems good English publishers stuck with the French name. So much better than Bicycle Race, or Tour de Alpes, or Two Wheels through the Mountains, or—ok, ok. I’ll stop. On to the board game review.

Flamme Rouge is a 4-player, tactical bicycle racing game that has some delightful parallels to real world Tour de fill in your country___. Races held on modular courses that can be disassembled and re-built in a huge variety of ways, players draw and play cards to propel their two-cyclist teams toward the finish line and victory. Coordinating your small team a requirement, drafting sees cyclists gaining spaces for free, just as being at the front of the pack will find your cyclist taking exhaustion that will inevitably come back to haunt them in the latter stages of the race. Uphill and downhill sections changing the rules slightly, a player must be aware of what is ahead as much as where the other cyclists are if they want to win.

Console Corner: Review of Far: Lone Sails

Shorter Review: If FTL and Journey had a steampunk(ish) lovechild after the apocalypse.

Longer Review: Journey is one of my favorite Playstation games of all time. Simplicity equaling zen elegance in its case, the bare bones of the game's setup gives the player room for reflection on the state of the world you traverse and the purpose of your actions as they compile, leading to an overall experience that transcends most games. Rather than frenetic button-mashing, it's tranquility extends beyond the moment. Okomotive's 2019 Far: Lone Sails is quite different in terms of its world and gameplay, but offers something equally meditative.

Throwing players into the proverbial deep end of the pool, Lone Sails begins with the player controlling a hooded person inside a homemade contraption that is part boat, engine, land crawler, and behemoth. The 2D, cross-section allows the player to move around inside, controlling the engine, brakes, firehose, sails, winch, and fuel tank. Bits of post-apocalyptic debris litter the road, and need to be collected as fuel to propel the behemoth when it runs out. Death not possible, it's the players job to figure their way through the various , obstacles and puzzles, maintaining the behemoth momentum all the while.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Review of Made to Order: Robots and Revolution ed. by Jonathan Strahan

If ever there were a symbol of science fiction, the robot would have to be part of the holy trinity (alien, space ship, robot). Interesting, of that triumvirate, it is the only which doesn't require space travel: in essence, it's home grown, and for that perhaps more relative to humanity—anthropomorphism, ahem, ahem. But after a century+ of stories featuring mechanical people, what's left to say? Jonathan Strahan, editor of the 2020 anthology Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, says apparently something.

After a typical Strahan intro, musing on the philosophical depths of the subject he's picked for this anthology, the fiction opens with Vina Jie-Min Prasad's “A Guide for Working Breeds”. A light, airy, fairly insubstantial counterpoint to Strahan's intro note to kick things off, it is a fragmented conversation between 2 AIs. It has a fair number of pages, which don't travel far. I suppose the banter was supposed to be witty, and to some readers it may be. The story does, however establish the the anthology will be largely comedic in nature. Taking the integrity of the anthology up a notch is Peter Watts' “Test 4 Echo” A dense, taught story about robot-assisted exploration of the ocean of one of Saturn’s moon, Watts finds the gray areas (emphasis on plural) between human and machine intelligence. A solid story with a nice, organic twist at the climax.