Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Review of The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories ed. by Tom Shippey

What if you were handed the following task: survey the whole spectrum of science fiction short stories, and from that select the most representative stories (“representative” in the standard sense, not the politically correct sense) such as to create an anthology of reasonable length. Such was the task handed to Tom Shippey by Oxford Press in 1992. Undoubtedly your list would be different than Shippey's given the thousands of stories that must be boiled down to a couple dozen, but is his representative? Let's take a look at The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

I ordinarily do not comment on anthology introductions, but Shippey does an excellent job positioning sf in literature, culture, and society. There is no hyperbole, nor is there a condescending view—something quite easy given the baby steps sf once needed taking. He also offers a few nice tidbits for thought, something that this jaded sf reader still found interesting after a decade+ of ingesting innumerable such tidbits. (For example, Shippey avers that short fiction is the most natural form of science fiction.) And perhaps most importantly, he goes about positioning each of the stories—indirectly explaining why each was selected for the anthology.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Vacation time!!

 

As with every summer, it's vacation time!  As such, there will be a two-week hiatus on the blog as I enjoy the sun (hopefully!) and free time with my family.  Haven't chosen any books yet.  Maybe Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue?  Maybe Brian Aldiss' Greybeard?  Maybe both?  We'll see.  Hope you also have a chance to relax.

Review of The Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine: A 40th Anniversary Anthology ed. by Edward L. Ferman

For the unaware, there is small handful of magazines which have clung tight to the decades of evolving genre, sustaining their presence in readers' mailboxes and hands. While dozens have risen and fallen, the Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine has held strong. And the reason is quality. Able to steadily produce quality Best of anthologies as a result, the Fortieth Anniversary (1989) proves no exception.

Kicking off the anthology is Fritz Leiber's “The Cat Hotel”—a catty story with a catty mystery. Matching witches with felines in the modern world, the main character is a cat who needs to get to the bottom of some strange, veterinary behavior. Building its own, unique setting, “Slow Birds” by Ian Watson tells of a family feud in a future/fantasy world in which sailing races on glass are a prominent social feature. Needing fleshing out (novella-length would have been better), Watson nevertheless puts in place the skeleton of the idea regarding humanity's blindness in the moment vs. ideology.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Raptor

Like most people who play board games I assume, I sometimes look in awe at games that large swathes of people fall in love with while ignoring games that seem better on many fronts. Agricola, for example, feels more like a forced farming experience rather than a fun, family farmsteading experience, but yet… As such, there are a number of games I feel fly under the radar. Bruno Cathala’s (2015) Raptor is certainly one.

An asymmetrical two-player game, Raptor sees one player taking control of a mama raptor and her five babies, and the other player a team of ten scientists. There are a couple win conditions, but generally the scientists want to either kidnap three babies or tranquilize mama, and the mama raptor wants to get three of her babies to safety or eat all the scientists. Gameplay takes places on a small, six-piece modular board with rocks obscuring sight in various directions. Action is driven by a simple card mechanism. Each player has a deck of nine cards, each card numbered one through nine. At the beginning of a round, each player draws up to three cards, chooses one, then players simultaneously reveal. The player with the lowest number gets to take the action depicted on the card, for example the mama raptor can scare a scientist, remove a tranquilizer dart, leave the board and re-appear elsewhere, etc. The scientists can shoot a tranquilizer dart, create a fire barrier, kidnap a baby, etc. The highest number gets to take as many actions as the number difference with the opponent's cards. If the raptor player played a 3 and the scientists played a 7, the scientists would have four actions, of which there is another selection per side. The game playing quickly (+/- 30 min), the last man (or dinosaur!) standing, wins.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Review of Fractal Paisleys by Paul Di Filippo

If you want to get off the beaten path of speculative fiction, then get out your machete and have a crack at a Paul Di Filippo book. While he has published several novels, dozens upon dozens of short stories have seen print, meaning it's most likely a collection, . One example is Fractal Paisleys (1997). Eclectic to say the least, it is not the best Di Filippo collection, but it certainly has the reader hacking at uncharted territory with every story.

There are stories, regardless of genre or taxonomy, which seem to derive from such a uniquely imaginative place that nothing could ever explain their source or inspiration. The story kicking off this collection, “Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer Meet the Groove Thang”, is that. About two laid back guys in a van who come in contact with a pleasure alien, adventure, to say the very very least, ensues. The title story “Fractal Paisleys” starts in the Lil' Bear Inn, but ends up in a place more picaresque. About a trailer park man and his bartender girlfriend having the night of their lives after discovering a piece if fantastical technology, it asks: want to re-write your environment with a remote control?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Review of The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

While its star has faded in the past decade as the middle class slowly descend into the lower and culture wars have taken center stage, there is still an element of entrepreneurial spirit in the US. The tabula rasa mentality of early American settlers still exists in spots today. Examining this spirit—wait, that’s putting it too lightly. Holding this spirit over a fire until its breaking point is Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast. The Ayn Rand dream? Let’s see.

The Mosquito Coast is told through the eyes of fourteen year-old Charlie Fox. But it’s his father, the wildly eccentric Allie Fox, who is the center of the show. Cantankerous, self-righteous, nominally racist, deeply intelligent, and innovative, Allie rants and raves about the shortcomings of American culture—Chinese-made this, and inflation that—while putting his money where his mouth is by inventing his own gadgets and technology. Keeping Charlie, his three siblings, and their mother off the grid, the children are home-schooled in luddite conditions, raising their own crops for sustenance. One day, after yet another of his gadgets fails on the market, Allie has enough and decides to move the family to Honduras to start again. The mosquito-thick jungles of the Central American country offering Allie what he’s looking for, the family goes on to set up a homestead in the countryside. And much more. Unable to escape his ideological conflicts, Charlie soon finds his father ranting and raving about the local situation as well. Eventually, something has to give.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Chabyrinthe

I will start by saying, after four years of regular board games at my house Chabyrinthe is still the biggest surprise in our collection. Coming in a small tin only slightly bigger than those in which they sell mints, inside is a game I have played more than any other with my small son. Playful yet intelligent, simple yet requiring lateral thinking, those cute cats just need to find a way through the labyrinth of roof drains and street canals to a new home.

Boiled down to a single thing, Chabyrinthe is a logic game. A 4x4 grid of cards is laid out on the table. Each card has a water drain of some type. Some are intersections, some are curved, some go over/under, etc. At points around the perimeter are laid two homes and two cats, and it is the players’ job to align the labyrinth of drains and canals such that a cat has a path to a home. Each player having two moves on their turn, they can twist or shift the cards to realign the labyrinth, trying to create a path. Each cat has a number of points printed on it (3 through 5), and the player who collects the most points by getting cats to homes is the winner. The whole game takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on the age of the people playing—the older, the shorter.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Remembering Science Fiction: Q1 of the 21st Century

I recently finished reading Tom Shippey's The Oxford Book of Science Fiction (1992). One of the analogies that came to mind while trying to summarize the anthology was the idea of a line being drawn through the center-point of each phase of the genre as it evolved through time. There were pulp selections, silver age, new wave, cyberpunk, etc. It was like a museum tour. And on the right we have a miniature recreation of Isaac Asimov, posed as the Lincoln Memorial—a god of sorts. See how delightedly the sideburns flare... It started me thinking: how will the current phase of science fiction be remembered? What pieces would/could appear in the museum of the early 21st century and why?

Short response: it's not as easy to answer that question as it once was. It seems clear that the primary state of the genre the past two decades is ubiquity. As the roots and branches of sf extend in all directions and intertwine with everything they encounter (and vice versa), as publishing becomes cheaper and easier, as publishers increasingly push more and more responsibilities onto the authors themselves, as social media has become self-proliferating, as ebooks have expanded the market, and as self-publishing has established itself, the market has become saturated. There are niches within niches within niches, and all are flooded. There are literally thousands of books and stories published per year—and that's just sf. To assume a single person can read even the majority and form an informed, overarching opinion is ludicrous. In short, the selection from which to choose pieces for our early 21st century sf museum is exponentially larger than it was a century ago. We are in a golden age—if quantity is the measure. But that is another story...

Friday, June 25, 2021

Review of Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

The past couple of American presidential elections have emphasized the difference between the people’s will (i.e. majority vote) and the electoral college system. Hilary Clinton winning the 2016 election from the perspective of the populace’s will, she nevertheless lost due to the electoral college system, which leads to the question: does democracy truly exist in the USA? Using 20th century Chinese history as his source material, Terry Pratchett takes a more fundamental look at the idea of the “people’s will” in Interesting Times (1994).

Little to society’s knowledge, the reins of power in the Agatean Empire are about to be taken. The ancient emperor near death, certain slimy elements of the aristocracy’s underbelly are plotting a coup. Meanwhile, a people’s uprising, led by the Red Army, is building momentum in the lowest levels of society, looking to overthrow millennia of monarchy and install a government for the people. Enter Rincewind. Sent by the gods, he is given the task of helping decide the fate of the Agatean Empire. Rincewind runs into Cohen the Barbarian, who along with his band of octogenarian warriors, are looking to have one last ride into glory while preventing tragedy, promoting positive social change—wait, what? Even Rincewind does not know, but it seems destiny will have him be at least at the nexus of change.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Review of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl’s Gateway is one of the all-time great science fiction novels. While the lottery luck of exploring alien artifacts forms the book’s central device, it’s in fact the main character’s personal struggles which form the central conflict. The novel contained and complete, in 1980 Pohl nevertheless decided to return to the setting with Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. What, if anything, does it add to Gateway?

The majority of BtBEH bounces back and forth between two scenes. First is good ol’ Robinette Broadhead. A wealthy magnate due to his ‘adventures’ in Gateway, he decides to sponsor an expedition to a large Heechee food ship dubbed Heechee Heaven. Second is the family who decided to make the expedition to Heechee Heaven. They hope to bring massive supplies back to an impoverished Earth—and be rewarded massively for it. Arriving at the ship, they make a discovery that puts ahem, a hitch in their plans to say the least. But Robin has some ideas what can be done…

Friday, June 18, 2021

Review of Anticipations ed. by Christopher Priest

Garth Brooks may have sung it’s good to have friends in low places, but if you are a writer of more literary-minded science fiction, then it’s also good to have friends in similar places—especially when looking to edit an anthology of short fiction. I’m not sure whether Christopher Priest, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch, Bob Shaw, Ian Watson, Robert Sheckley, and Harry Harrison ever sat down in a lounge for a glass or two of brandy, but certainly their anthology Anticipations (1978) reflects the manner in which that group is set apart from a lot of mainstream sf.

Kicking things off with what is not only the best story in the collection, but perhaps one of sf’s all-time great shorts altogether, “The Very Slow Time Machine” by Ian Watson tells of humanity’s encounter with a certain, very specific, very unique time traveler. Appearing one day in a capsule, the time traveler initially seems a mad man. But slowly, he comes to his senses, and begins telling a slingshot tale of time travel—backwards then forwards, until both present days arrive. Highly re-readable, the story, while initially seeming scientific, reveals its true, humanist colors in peacock (i.e. intellectually satisfying) fashion.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "The Circle Undone"

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Circle Undone, as well as the six Mythos packs which complete the campaign. It will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole and the new investigator cards. All other card, scenario, and story details will be untouched.

The first three full campaigns of Arkham Horror: The Card Game have been rich, varied experiences. Each feature unique threads of game/story that take players in unexpected yet familiar, visceral yet fantastical, tactical yet strategic directions. I’ve come to believe this card game may be the only way to experience Lovecraft without laughing out loud. Thus, where The Dunwich Legacy is a classic Lovecraft story complemented wonderfully by gameplay mechanics, “The Path to Carcosa” is as much a psychological as physical journey, while “The Forgotten Age” pushes the difficulty to eleven through an Indiana-Jones, jungle exploring adventure. This the fourth campaign, “The Circle Undone”, looks to really focus on narrative, and expand and explore the ways witchery (a previously untouched theme) and many of its familiar elements, manifests itself in Arkham Horror. On the side, there is food to feed discussion on the personal and political if they want. This campaign is still Arkham Horror to the core, just with additional layers of story and some cerebral substance extending beyond the game for those who desire.

In as few words as possible, “The Circle Undone” is Salem Witchery4. Events begin in the dark, windy woods of Arkham, but steadily spin into a void of horrors more haunted than the night. Players begin the campaign, not with an investigator as has been the case with every scenario thus far, but with a temporary character who they must keep alive as long as possible with only a tiny handful of cards and resources. The campaign proper kicking off afterwards, players use their investigators to get to the bottom of the mystery revealed in the mini-scenario, and why ancient, spectral beings are appearing and re-appearing at a local millionaire’s mansion. It seems a war has been going on behind the scenes with only few people’s knowledge…

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Diction, oh glorious diction. I bow before your powers. How you make the mind salivate over poetic precision. To remind me how diverse and dynamic yet focused and specific the English language is. To have me rapt, word by word, line by line, the story clicking sub-consciously into place. How is it possible to write so well?!?! Oh, on my knees before thee... I guess if proof was ever needed what makes a bibliophile a bibliophile, such would be the hyperbole flooding my mind while reading Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993).

I will come back to the diction later, but for now it’s worth pointing out that The Shipping News tells an excellent, multi-layered story as well. The Shipping News tells the tale of Quoyle. Something of a doormat in life, he has a bad run of things. He chooses poorly in marriage. He’s constantly losing jobs. His relationship with his two young daughters is not what it should be. And many other things combine to make him a downtrodden Joe. But a tragedy shakes things up, and Quoyle decides to move to his family’s ancestral home in Newfoundland. Wild stories of the sea, quirky townsfolk, a car crash everyday—some might say that it’s at this point the real story begins.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review of The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Ahh, the tome, the door stopper, the brick of a novel you know will take weeks to read. To invest, or not to invest, thus asketh the modern reader. I confess that as my tree grows rings, I have less and less patience for lengthy novels. Imagination, sure. Worldbuilding, meh. Major chunks of exposition, depends. Characterization, hopefully. But with such novels, the real question is: are they able to keep the reader engaged over such a number of pages to see them through to the conclusion? Chris Wooding’s 800+ page The Ember Blade (2018) is a yes—but barely.

Putting the epic in epic fantasy, The Ember Blade is, naturally, the story of kingdoms at war, the thin red lines between them, and the people who cross over them with sword and spear. Teens living in Ossian lands, Cade and Aren are friends. One the son of a local lord, the other the son of a carpenter, both nevertheless must bend the knee to their land’s conquerors, the Krodans. Ossians fiery in spirit, the boys inwardly rebel against the more orderly, somber Krodan establishment. Aren’s life turned upside down after one fateful evening, the two teens find themselves in a place they never imagined, not to mention the place furthest from that which will allow them to put Ossians back in power once again.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stone Age Junior

I am often on the lookout for good board games for my children. I look for games which uniquely combine fun and developing my kids’ burgeoning skills and talents. If the game’s mechanisms allow for dear ol’ dad to compete on a relatively even playing field, then all the better.  Stone Age Junior checks all those boxes, and more.  (Note: the English printing is called My First Stone Age.  It's only that numerous foreign language printings, one of which we own, are called Stone Age Junior that I write the review as such.)

Stone Age Junior asks players to build three huts. The first to do so, wins. Simple, yes? Players build huts by collecting the correct materials—arrowheads, water, fruit, fish, tusks, etc. Each hut requiring a different combination, three are available at any time for players to build. Materials are collected by players moving their meeple around the board to the various spots where the items are stored. Movement is done based on players flipping over tokens which indicate several things, including exact locations for materials, wild cards, a shop to exchange goods, and dice pips to move the meeple forward around the track that number of spaces. A combination of tactics and recall, the player with the most efficient path to materials and good memory, wins.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of Empire of Ants by Susanne Foitzik and Olaf Fritsche

They're everywhere. They tickle your arm laying in the grass. One or two always find their way into your garage in the summer. Overnight they seem to build little hills in your lawn. If you're unlucky, you'll find a line leading to and from your kitchen. City parks, forests, highways shoulders, pavement cracks, maybe on the moon—ants are everywhere. Taking us into the layers of complexity that ordinary people are oblivious to are Susanne Foitzik and Olaf Fritsche with 2021's Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny Conquerors.

And what fascinating worlds they are. More than just a faceless horde of mini food gatherers that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves, it turns out ant societies are as varied as the human, but with an infinitesimally greater respect for the colony than the individual. Knowing your place and self-sacrifice regular parts of colony life, indeed the maxim is true: it's a good thing ants are so small, otherwise they would rule the world, as Foitzik and Fritsche indirectly make clear.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Review of Starshine by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. His name is not as well known today, as with a few other writers of his generation, which is a shame considering the quality of his work. But not all is quality. Every writer has stars which do not shine as brightly, and in 1966's unaptly named Starshine we have a collection of Sturgeon's short fiction which probably would have been better left as magazine fodder.

Things kick off with "Derm Fool", a story about a man and woman who slough their skin like snakes, regularly, and the situations this brings about. While possible to appreciate the dark humor, as well as potentially see some commentary on relationships between the lines, overall this is a cotton candy offering: tastes sweet, but quickly dissolves. In the second story, one finds a more standard spot of light horror. “The Haunt” tells of a man trying to impress a girl by taking her on a date to a friend's haunted house. Trouble is, who is more scared? And who is controlling the house? This story is vanilla flavored vanilla.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Review of Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Everybody who reads fiction as a lifestyle comes to it for their own reasons. Plural, each reader has different appetites requiring feeding. Thus, offering the menu of Nicole Kornher-Stace's 2021 novel Firebreak is easy: are you looking for your favorite Japanese anime mmo with a layer of dystopia? Try it. The only thing missing are the pictures.

Mallory is a streamer—a mediocre streamer. Languishing amid the masses, she and her partner Jess go online to blast their way through an mmo video game called BestLife that combines elements of Pokemon, Mechwarrior, and Fortnite. They scrape by on scant donations—donations of money you assume, but no: water. In the world of Firebreak, corporations have taken full control of the US, and now fight over the pieces. The opposite of 'corporate social responsibility', they ration water while forcing the wars' survivors to live like sardines and get rich off selling their game's merchandise. When Mall and Jess get an offer from a rich sponsor that's too good to be true, they decide to respond. And into the maelstrom of corporate corruption they they inadvertently thrown themselves...

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stuffed Fables expansion "Oh, Brother!"

Stuffed Fables is one of my children's favorite games. Occasionally when dear ol' dad sleeps late, there have been Saturday mornings he awakes to find his son at the kitchen table in the middle of his own, custom scenario—figures, tokens, and cards scattered, figures standing and down, minions sometimes becoming friends. When I told him the news an expansion had been released, he literally squealed with joy. Let's jump into “Oh, Brother!” (2021) and see if it was worth the glee.

The little girl of Stuffed Fables is several years older and now has a younger brother. Where she was the backdrop of Stuffed Fables, he is the backdrop of “Oh, Brother!”. The two have separate bedrooms, but their stuffies still get together to drink brandy and smoke cig—ahem, sorry, laugh and play at night. The boy's two favorite stuffies are Pokey, a unicorn, and Manny, a Conan-esque action figure. It's during one of their midnight rendezvous that the stuffies notice something strange: little, mechanical bed bugs emerge from beneath the boys' bed and start stealing all of his plastic toys. The plastic being taken somewhere into the Fall, it's up to the stuffies to get to the bottom of the mystery and stop the theft.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Review of The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The (imaginary) line between so-called genre fiction and literary fiction is a contentious subject for some. Literary fiction rarely makes a comment save indirectly, while a certain portion of genre enthusiasts dust off their pitchforks over perceived lack of accolades and recognition. The former tips its cap when humanist concerns make themselves known, while the latter storms “Why not us?!?!” Working with a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Henry James, Dan Simmons aims to get to the bottom of the matter—via story—with 2015's The Fifth Heart.

The grief of his sister's death not fading away, add to that the lack of book sales, Henry James decides to end it all walking the Seine one evening. But before making the jump, he is interrupted by a man. The man is Sherlock Holmes, and he has something to offer James: a role by his side in the investigation of the supposed suicide of Clover Adams. James relents, and joins the famous detective for trip to Washington D.C. and into late 19th century American history. When Moriarty rears his ugly head - as well as Holmes' past, things get serious, fast, and its up to James and Holmes to get to the bottom of the case.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stuffed Fables

Game designers are artists. And if any proof were needed, one point would be the iterations one sees a designer’s games going through. Like a painter honing in on the best technique for capturing sunlight, we can sometimes see designers honing in on better games. Titles change, new art is commissioned, and major mechanisms can be updated. But the observant gamer still witnesses evolution in a designer’s style. One such person is certainly Jerry Hawthorne. Designer of the popular Mice & Mystics, followed by its major expansions “Heart of Glorm” and “Downwood Tales”, the player gets to see Hawthorne exploring the space of narrative-and-dice-driven action rpg games for families. With Stuffed Fables (2017), the next iteration is even better.

The castle and fields of Mice & Mystics replaced by a little girl's dreams, and the mice replaced by stuffed animals, there is a whole new world to explore, minions to defeat, and story to experience in Stuffed Fables. Board tiles also replaced, it is one of PlaidHat Games' adventure book games. Action and story occurring in a large book instead of on modular tiles, each page represents another chapter in Lumpy, Piggle, Theodora, Stitch, and Flops’ tale. An evil attacking the little girl as she sleeps, players cooperatively try to prevent the girl from waking up by sending her stuffy heroes out into the wilds of dreamland to find and defeat the source.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Review of The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

As an enthusiastic reader—ahem, bibliophile, one of the things that keeps bringing me back to story after story on the page is the ability of certain writers or books to put me into the shoes of people or situations entirely different than my own. Books like Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time are great examples. It's not a rule that great book = reader in shoes of main character; books can focus on other elements and be successful in their own right. In Elizabeth Moon's 2002 Speed of Dark, however, it is the reader wholly in the shoes, bow knots neatly tied.

Speed of Dark is a year in the life of Lou Arrendale. A semi-uplifted autistic, Lou does not display some of the more extreme characteristics of the disorder thanks to treatments as a child, but nevertheless lives and breathes the life of an autistic. High functioning, he holds down a job as a bioinformatician at a major corporation, and has a social life both inside the firm with fellow autistics, as well as outside with the members of an informal fencing group. Lou's new boss having some edgy ideas regarding the possibilities for an untested drug for autism, Lou eventually comes to face strong pressure but also strong possibility for his future.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Review of Ares Express by Ian McDonald

If Ian McDonald were an actor he would be Johnny Depp. Capable of entirely transforming himself into character—costume, voice, makeup, dialogue, etc., he switches things entirely book to book. Gangster, pirate, businessman, Edward Scissorhands—Depp becomes the persona seamlessly. Ian McDonald seems to have the same talent writing science fiction. Whether it be Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, George R.R. Martin, and several others, McDonald has been able to shape shift, successfully, through a variety of styles and forms, maintaining his own style in the process. In 2001's Ares Express we see him return to the form he adopted for his debut novel Desolation Road—voodoo sf on steroids.

A sequel of sorts, Ares Express is more a return to the setting of Desolation Road than its story. A dangerous game, McDonald changes up the magic-realist method by turning the volume on imagination up to 11, then channels it through a Mark Twain-esque adventure.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Review of Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Languishing in short story purgatory for a decade or so at the start of his career, Jeff VanderMeer's name was not a well known item beyond niche readers of speculative fiction. But as the 21st century approached, VanderMeer started picking up steam, chaining his shorter efforts into complex settings, and still later, into discrete novels. Ambergris is one of this century's great, albeit small bodies of work. It was the Southern Reach trilogy and its psychological horror in the vein of the Strugatsky borthers' Roadside Picnic, however, which propelled VanderMeer into the spotlight—Hollywood even getting in on the action. Seizing the opportunity, VanderMeer followed up this mainstream success by both going back to his roots in Weird, as well as doing something a bit more experimental, a touch more artistic. The novels Borne and Dead Astronauts came of this, and while not the same successes as Annihilation et al, they certainly felt right: a writer is an artist, and therefore retains the right to do what they please with their oeuvre. This meandering path of books leaves readers wondering: what could be next? The answer is 2021's Hummingbird Salamander.

Jane is a mountain of a woman carrying with her a mountain of troubles. She struggles to come to grips with her childhood, and struggles being a wife and mother. Putting her focus into her work, in the opening pages Jane investigates a storage locker in which she finds a stuffed hummingbird. Opening a rabbit hole of murder and corporate conspiracies, Jane's troubles only worsen. Encountering extreme environmentalists and drunken taxidermists, and followed by a man she doesn't know is friend or foe, surviving the ordeal will take every ounce of strength Jane has. <cue trailer credits>

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review of Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling

Every novelist has a debut, and some only a debut. With Bruce Sterling's 1977 Involution Ocean, one wonders how he ever got a second chance (but we're glad he did).

Straight up, Involution Ocean is not a terrible novel. With brute force, it tells of the coming-to-terms-with-self of a Flare addict named John Newhouse. His local market running dry of the drug, he and a companion agree to go to the planet Mallaqua, and there join a whaling ship to hunt the great beasts whose fluids the drug is derived from. The ship a motley crue of sailors and seamen, Newhouse finds a quiet place near the kitchen to cook his wares, and there meets an alien lady, Delusa. Romance in the works, Newhouse thereafter finds his time sailing the dust sea pulled in many directions. But when the captain's real identity surfaces (no pun intended) things go crazy, and Newhouse is forced to confront his addiction.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

I hope I'll never be forced to sit down and write a desert island list of books. There are simply too many choices. But a novel I would definitely consider is Kazuo Ishiguro's transcendentally magnificent The Remains of the Day. Putting the reader into the psychological shoes of a person/character and tying a perfect bow knot, before they know it the reader is also questioning their perception of reality; the self-imposed barriers we place on ourselves are no longer sub-conscious. It is the definition of sublime. And Ishiguro's catalog has only intrigued me since. Seeing that another novel was released in early 2021, I bought it sight unseen. How does it stack up?

A fable of sorts, Klara and the Sun is the story of the Artificial Friend, Klara. At the beginning of the novel, she stands every day in her shop's window, absorbing sunlight to power her batteries, and waiting to be bought. Observing street life through the window, she comes to a limited understanding of how human relationships work. Eventually purchased by a wealthy family, Klara goes to a home where she befriends a young teen girl in very poor health named Josie. An uplifted girl, Josie shows sparkles of intelligence but her physical condition is weak at best, a situation which Klara helps her through. Getting caught up in the relationships of Josie's home, Klara must use all of her learning and understanding to help Josie through her difficult time, if she can.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Review of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the devices in China Mieville's Iron Council is the “neverending train”. Rails placed just in front of the train as it moves across the landscape, the concept feels both dangerous (what if they workmen place a rail wrong?) and yet free (the train is not subject to an existing rail system; it can go anywhere). I feel the same about Robert Louis Stevenson's prose—his 1886 novel Kidnapped an excellent example.

Consistently and forever able to pull the right word out of the bag, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Kidnapped makes for an exciting adventure. His mother dead long ago and his father recently deceased, we meet 17-year old David Balfour as he is heading to his uncle's house to learn of his inheritance—his father having kept the knowledge secret from him. The journey discomforting, meeting people on the road he comes to expect something bizarre when meeting his uncle. And indeed he encounters a strange man in a decrepit house. But the uncle has even more devious plans than David might think. Visiting a sailing ship the next day on business, David soon finds himself in unexpected quarters and with an unexpected new direction in life.

Cardboard Corner: Review of X-Wing Miniatures Game (2nd ed.)

What to say? Want to be Darth Vader piloting a TIE Advanced to take down the Rebellion? Fancy taking a turn in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon where Chewbacca and Han Solo sit? Want to live on the edge in a space battle with Boba Fett and his Slave I? Believe that Wedge Antilles was indeed the best X-Wing pilot in the Rebellion’s history? Bringing to life the dogfights of these and many, many other ships, the X-Wing Miniatures Game (2nd edition) is Star Wars space fighting in a box. (Pew pew noises for laser fire not included, but will likely be readily and happily supplied by players.)

X-Wing forgoes a board; only a table is needed. Players choose a faction (initially Rebellion or Empire, but with the purchase of other ships sold separately, more factions come available). Then they choose the pilots and ships from that faction they want to use. The ships customizable, players then select the upgrades they’d like to add, for example extra shields, crew members, auto-blasters, proton torpedoes, and the list goes on. Ships are positioned on the table, along with a few obstacles, and the dogfighting begins. Gameplay thereafter consists of two phases: move and shoot, and is repeated until all ships of one faction have been destroyed. That is the very quick and very dirty of X-Wing Miniatures Game. Pew pew!

Monday, April 26, 2021

Review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Just stop reading now and go buy this book. You would have to be the most distant of social outliers to dislike this novel. Sure, as with any novel, there may be a specific thing here, or a detail there you dislike. But otherwise, the voice, the sentiment, the story, the sheer humanity of Mark Haddon’s bittersweet little novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) are something any conscientious person living in the 21st century will get sucked into, their heart lifted high and brought low every step of the way.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of a volatile couple of months in the life of young Christopher Boone. A teen with autism, Boone is an extremely logical thinker for whom mathematics and physics come easy, but most everything else in life—relationships, society, contact with people, etc.—not so much. The emotions within himself cold and distant, Boone approaches life systematically with the facts of what he is presented, but can quickly be triggered to physical violence if any part of his carefully constructed world is disrupted by others. Discovering his neighbor’s dog stabbed to death with a garden rake in the opening chapter, Boone sets about solving the mystery of the killing with a logical, Sherlock Holmes-esque approach—his favorite detective, natch. What he discovers in the course of his detecting turns his world upside down.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review of Convergence by C.J. Cherryh

The surprise of Visitor floored me. Like Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green) or Planet of the Apes, it was us all along! A second, minor surprise is that the kyo left Atevi space, leaving Bren and company with… what? A couple of things: what to do with the secret the kyo left with Bren, and also, what to do with overpopulation on the space station? Add in an atevi family feud, and you’ve got the recipe for Convergence (2017).

The title Convergence, indeed the events of the novel are a conflation of a few thnigs. As is the Foreigner series’ identity, this conflation is not without the need for diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise, however. Enter our hero Bren Cameron. The secret of the human war with the kyo burning a hole in his thoughts, Bren and his entourage head to Mospheira to deliver humanity’s copy of the treaty and to resolve the overpopulation situation on the station. Some members of the Mospheiran government displeased at having been left out of kyo negotiations, Bren must deal with aggressive questioning and general enmity to find a solution. Meanwhile, Cajeri is sent on a publicity mission to uncle Tatesegi’s home. Little does he know that the skeletons of his mother’s family’s past are about to come out of the closet.

Cardboard Corner: Review of the Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "The Forgotten Age"

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Forgotten Age, as well as the six Mythos packs which complete the campaign. It will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole. All other card, scenario, and story details will be untouched.

You’ve done it. You’ve made it this far. Umordhoth did not kill you (at least the last, successful attempt did not compared to the thirty-seven unsuccessful prior…). You survived the brood of Yog-Sothoth through time and space. You held on to your sanity tracking/being tracked by the Yellow King. Now you’re ready for a new challenge in the Arkham Horrror the Card Game universe. Well, if there were any disagreement about the definition of “challenge” beforehand, the game’s third campaign, “The Forgotten Age,” looks to ensure everyone now has a higher standard.

Fully embracing the fantastical fun of an Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider-esque expedition through the jungles of Central America, “The Forgotten Age” sees players answering the call of an eccentric historian who believes that an untouched Aztec city-state still exists in the wilds of Mexico. With grant money from Miskatonic University, he organizes an expedition, on which you and potentially one to three other people can go to see if indeed there are still mysterious wonders in the world to be discovered. Arkham Horror being Arkham Horror, the answer is of course ‘yes’, the only question being: How deadly is it? (Answer: the deadliest yet.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Non-Fiction Review: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

As a teenager, I recall ruminating on how absurd sleep is. After sixteen hours of consciousness—eating, socializing, relaxing, etc., we lay prone in a soft place and semi-voluntarily lose consciousness for an eight hour period of which we have no memory, not to mention no seemingly obvious need of. Like an automaton we turn off, exit the world, and get turned back on in the morning—surprised to find the world is the same as we left it. That lack of direct accounting accounts for one-third of our lives—one-third. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (2017) is an absolutely fascinating look at that absurdity, and the need for it.

Grounded in decades of global, clinical research (not only Walker’s), Why We Sleep answers the titular question by breaking sleep down into its relative components. From addressing the question directly: why does the animal organism require sleep, to the consequences of sleeping well, and conversely the consequences of not sleeping well. It pulls the cover off (slight pun intended) one of the most basic and fundamental yet most taken-for-granted aspects of life. What are our brains doing while we sleep? What are our bodies doing while we sleep? What are dreams? What old wives’ tales are true, and which not? How does modern Western culture affect the quality of our sleep? This and more.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review of We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

There is no doubt the past two or three decades have highlighted the seemingly ever increasing disparity between classic religions and an expanding sense of global liberalization. While a major component of ongoing culture wars, nothing is as simple as left vs right, however. Religion as wide open to interpretation as liberalism, there are certainly degrees of separation. For dramatic fiction, however, none may be more powerful than extreme versions of religion. Enter Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep (2021).

Alternate Cold War history, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is set in a version of the 1980s where the nukes went off, killing millions and scattering civilization. A group of Catholic zealots able to steal the last nuclear submarine, the Leviathan, they enforce a draconian version of Catholicism upon their haggard, all-male crew, holding the world hostage with the last remaining nuclear warhead as they wait for the Second Coming. Remy is a teen chorister onboard the Leviathan, and in an early chapter of the novella is secretly given responsibility of the key which unlocks the warhead. With surface groups trying to locate and stop the Leviathan, things start to get dicey for Remy and the crew when a hostage—a hostage unlike Remy has ever seen—is taken aboard. It spells the beginning of the end.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Review of Visitor by C.J. Cherryh

The tides of the Foreigner universe shifted at the end of Peacemaker. The conflict within the atevi resolved, sure enough, right on time arrived another source to fill the void of drama (that every series needs to maintain momentum). The count actually shifting to two in Tracker, Bren faced both the kyo bearing down on the scene and a cabal brewing on the space station. One resolved and the other un-, it’s up to Visitor (2016), seventeenth—seventeenth!!—book in the series, to tell us how or if it remains un-.

The title seeming to make things clear <wink-wink>, in Visitor the reader finds the atevi and humanity adding to the list of sentient species encountered in atevi space by one. Difficult to write a plot intro without spoiling how un-simple that encounter is, what I can say is that the first chunk of Visitor is spent cleaning up the mess of Tracker. A new, more competent human station chief is installed. The children are taken care of after the kidnapping attempt. And big questions are started to be asked of Braddock, and his actions during the Phoenix mission. These things handled in Bren’s periphery, the paidi is clear to prepare for the arrival of the kyo—if it is even them.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Review of The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Hugo, oh Hugo, you underachieving, unambitious award... Such is the sentiment I arrive at comparing the content regularly making Hugo news today to a high quality book of yesteryear that was once upon a time nominated for the award. To think the likes of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, Algis Budry’s Who?, or Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X could have been in the spotlight of genre makes the works by John Scalzi, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, etc. quiver in weakness. No offence to those writers; they are all successful in their own right, but it’s clear quality sales are not a guarantee of quality substance. If only works celebrated today by the award had the class and sophistication of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959)…

Remote-controlled humans, Mars attacking Earth, UFOs, robots—such are the fever dreams fueling a lot of Golden and Silver Age science fiction (and if I had to be fair, books even today). But in The Sirens of Titan, these devices are deployed in the service of satire, humanism, philosophy and dark humor. A doomsday tale that peels away its layers of doom until only the concept of the individual’s free will exists, in Vonnegut’s novel the reader is forced to confront realities of existence, even if they are not technically part of our reality.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Monza

Vroom-vroom!—in color! I wish I had had Monza when I was three-years old…

Aimed at small children, Monza (2000) is a racing game for two to six people. The game sees players taking turns rolling six dice, and using the colors that are rolled to advance their race car along the multi-color track. First car to complete a lap, wins!

Candyland but with one, important added layer of sophistication, Monza asks small children to think a little. They take turns, identify colors, compare colors, and chain the movement of their cute little race car by color—the last being the thinky bit. Initially the game will be more reactive for small children. What color do I need to advance my car? Red. Do I have red? Yes. Use the red die and move my car. What’s next? Blue or white. Do I have blue or white? No. Ok, now my sister’s turn. But as time goes on and children become more comfortable with the concept, they can start to plan their moves. Ok, I need a red or green next, and after that it will be either purple, red, or blue. And then it’s white or green. I have only four of those colors, so how can I chain them together to get my car the furthest along the track? I can…

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Review of Robot Artists & Black Swans by Bruce Sterling

If science fiction were a tree, Bruce Sterling would be a renegade branch growing outward in spiraling and incongruent direction - of the tree but divorced from it. And it's something that has only become pronounced as time goes on. It's a reason aficionados and connoisseurs love him, and likely much of the mainstream is unaware of him (the view obscured by too many leaves, natch). The latest blossom sprouting from his deviant branch is Robot Artists & Black Swans: The Italian Fantascienza Stories of Bruno Argento from Tachyon (2021).

Despite the label 'Italian', Robots & Swans is not a frame collection. More like a concept album, Sterling plants his tongue firmly in cheek and marches forth into the world—his world—of science fiction through the lens—his lens—of Italy. Wriggling his moustaches, the collection kicks off with “Kill the Moon”, a story taking the shape of a newspaper article whinging on the presence of Italy on the moon—at last . The final great country to do so, but damn didn’t the ship look good.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dead Men Tell No Tales' expansion "Kraken"

This review assumes you are familiar with the Dead Men Tell No Tales base game.

Pirates of the Caribbean in board game form, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a rounded, fun, cooperative game that requires nothing additional to thoroughly enjoy. The art, the gameplay, the variety and variability, the teamwork—it is one of my family’s favorite cooperative games. And with the modular tiles that change each game, replay value is higher than a lot of games whose setup is static. All that being said, it’s possible to spice an already spicy meal. With the Kraken expansion, Dead Men Tells No Tales has dug out the pepper grinder. Question is: is it full of habanero? Let’s see.

In highly thematic fashion, Kraken adds a big, fat chunk of fun gameplay and additional level of complexity to Dead Men Tell No Tales. If looting, fires, and undead skeleton warriors were not enough, then Kraken throws in the need to destroy a massive sea creature to beat the game. Attacking you as you move through the burning rooms and loot treasures, players have an additional, tentacled variable they must factor into tactics. Impossible to ignore, if the creature gets too big, he swallows the ship, and everything and everybody on it.

Console Corner: Review of Metro 2033: Redux

If you’re on my blog, then there is a chance you are aware the primary content is book reviews. Omnivorous, I try to read things that appeal from all areas, regardless of gender, height, hair color, favorite ice cream flavor, or religion. For whatever reason, Dimitri Glukhovsky’s Metro series has escaped my notice. (Perhaps because it’s more popular in European media than American or UK?) That is, until the video game Metro 2033. Solidly blending narrative and gameplay (with a few hiccups), I’m now looking for the books.

In Metro 2033, it’s a few decades into the future and mankind has finally pushed the button, setting off a nuclear war that makes living above ground impossible for what’s left of humanity. Mutant creatures now roam the Earth, attacking people, all the while another, more ethereal threat emerges from another reality, attacking peoples’ minds. Living in a grungy metro tunnels of Moscow is Artyom. A young soldier, he aspires to be like the Hunter—one of his fellow tunnel dwellers who is a master survivor and killer of the mutants. When Hunter disappears one day, Artyom decides to try to find him.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Review of Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

A few years ago media hype grabbed me and I purchased Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. Dense diction and subtle theme, Lee seemed to want to write New Wave-esque space opera. Though perhaps a little too ambitious, I nevertheless tucked Lee away in memory as a writer with potential, and in the time since have encountered a couple of their short stories which delivered on the hope. Thus, when seeing a new novel come available in 2020, Phoenix Extravagant, I bought it sight almost unseen. Hmm…

But before the questions, Phoenix Extravagant is the story of the artist Jebi, and their quest for personal value living among a culture oppressive to their own. A Hwaguk surrounded by Razanei, Jebi learns the Razanei language and takes on the nationality in an attempt to become a renowned painter. Things not going as planned, however, Jebi ends up at a threatening, exploitative job—but with access to one of the most amazing pieces of tech the world has ever seen. Powered by art, Jebi is put to work by the oppressive Razanei, but not forever…

Friday, March 26, 2021

Review of Tracker by C.J. Cherryh

Can we finally put the plots within plots within plots within plots regarding the assassin’s guild behind us? Can we finally stop the seemingly unending attempts at kidnapping Cajeri? Can we finally give Boji a moment of peace in his cage? Can we give the battle bus a deserving break in the garage for repairs? The sixteenth book in the Foreigner series, Tracker (2015), says Yes! Yes! Yes! to these questions. (The battle bus does make an appearance for an airport trip, however.)

Indeed, Peacemaker seems to have finally brought to an end nine books’ worth of internal atevi machinations. In Tracker, the focus shifts back to atevi-human relations. On planet and off, issues on the human side of things that have been brewing in the background since Explorer (sixth book) decide to boil over in Tracker (good timing, no?). Is it all germane? Yes—almost all…

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

This will not be a long review. I did not finish The Wolf of Oren Yaro by K.S. Villoso (2017). Too unfocused, too rebellious for rebelliousness' sake, and ultimately too unaware of itself…

This view is personal; I‘m sure there are many Villoso fans out there. Nevertheless, reading the novel I found: A) inconsistent, barely controlled writing, B) character action and emotion with little if any background or motivation framing them, C) scenes set in the most generic fashion with little to make them unique, D) spurious details which do not seem to add anything to atmosphere... Meh.

The Wolf of Oren Yaro feels like a hungry Chihuahua helpless to supply its own food. Tightly wound, turning on a dime as the moment demands, and with little thought to the details beyond its nose, it paces the yard but is never sated. Villoso seemed to be leading her main character toward self-awareness—a theme with potential. But the portion of the journey I read did little to distinguish itself as a singular piece of writing to attract the imagination or mind—to pull me along a “well written story”. Instead, it paced here, it paced there. It yipped and snapped at the moon, then jumped left. Then it... Eventually I stopped reading. Maybe you will, too. Maybe you won’t.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Review The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Gimmick” (noun): a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade. Such is the thought sparking in my mind reading the back cover of Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Could be an interesting gimmick unpacked to character and plot effect, could be a gimmick that is beaten like a dead horse with little else to support it … Which side bore out?

Groundhog’s Day but for a lifetime, Harry August bears the burden of reliving his life from the beginning every time he dies. Also burdened with a perfect memory, each time he is reborn he carries with him the memories of his previous lives. While initially finding his own way through multiple lives, often tragically, August eventually meets up with others similarly burdened. And while there is a chrono community intended to help and foster such people, there are certainly others interested in using their condition for more nefarious ends. And above it all, a threat looms that the youngsters are reporting back as: The End of the World <sound the doom>.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Outfoxed

Imagine sitting down to do a list of 25 of the following questions: X + 4 = 6. What is X? 3 – Y = 1. What is Y? It’s boring—educational for those whose math skills are still acquiring such logic, but eventually still boring. It’s so much better to use realia. We know there were six apples, and Sally ate three. How many did Johnny eat? But what’s even better? Answer: Sherlock the Fox chasing down a pie thief before he escapes. Helping small minds develop deduction skills in simple, accessible, and delightful fashion is the game Outfoxed.

In Outfoxed, one to four players take on the role of detectives, working together to discover which fox stole the pie. Choosing to either reveal suspects or search for clues at the beginning of their turn, players will roll dice to see if they are successful, and if so, have a chance to peel back a layer of the mystery. Fail with the dice, and the thief moves one step closer to escaping with the sweet treat. Once players believe they have enough clues and suspects to deduce who the thief is, they can risk it all by guessing. Guess right, and you win. Guess wrong, and the real culprit escapes to steal another pie.