Friday, October 22, 2021

Review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

John le Carre is today (almost) a household name. Even if the millions of books sold has not raised awareness, then it’s likely people are familiar with the several film and television adaptions of his books (The Constant Gardner being the most recognized?). Point blank: you cannot talk about spy novels without mentioning le Carre. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is the novel that put his name on the map.

Alec Leaman is a down-on-his-luck British intelligence agent working in Berlin post-WWII, the Cold War in full swing. All of his contacts and potential informants turning up dead, he and his boss eventually decide it’s a good time to return to England and start something new. Blurring the line between reality and playing a role, Leaman is “kicked out” of the agency and forced to enter normal society in an effort to lure certain foreign agents out of the woodwork. The ploy eventually works, but at what cost? And what effect does it have on Cold War politics?

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review of The Summer Thieves by Paul Di Filippo

That thimbleful of readers who regularly visit this blog (fist bump!) know that Speculiction is bosom buds with Jack Vance’s fiction. Having completed his oeuvre, there is good, local knowledge of what qualifies as a ‘Jack Vance story’. That thimbleful will also know of the praise often lofted the way of Paul Di Filippo. One of the great chameleons in fantastika (able to change colors but also imitate), hearing he was publishing a Vance-esque novel in 2021, I was all ears.

I was all ears because, Di Filippo’s tribute to Stanislaw Lem “The New Cyberiad” is brilliant. Capturing all the glory of Lem’s robot stories while spinning a worthy, parallel tale, I was hoping Di Filippo would be able to capture the essence of a Vance story in his own way. Let’s see if The Summer Thieves (2021) does as such.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Review of The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are two of the great high fantasy settings of all time. Known by most Western readers even outside the genre, the books play a large role in helping define what high fantasy is—a chicken and egg thing. Looking to combine the look and feel evoked by those worlds and stories is Guy Gavriel Kay in his debut novel, and first in the Fionavar trilogy, The Summer Tree (1986).

What Farah Medelsohn would classify as portal fantasy, The Summer Tree begins in our world but soon enough moves to a world in another dimension, Fionavar. The portal not a clothes closet a la Narnia, it is instead a magical transportation performed by high mage Loren Silvercloak. Known to people on Earth as Professor Lorenzo Marcus, it’s in a Canadian academic setting he convinces five people to travel with him back to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his king’s rule. The group transported to Fionavar with only a minor hiccough, they discover a kingdom in despair. The ruling king refusing to sacrifice himself at the summer tree, a new era of fertile lands and good weather lies in waiting. Seers, mages, dwarves, and elves coming out Fionavar’s woodwork as the group gets into the dire situation, bringing stability back to the land proves an adventuresome task, even as their own potentials are unleashed.

Review of More of the Best of Science Fiction & Fantasy (ed. by unknown)

After thousands of books and stories, and almost ten years reading exclusively fantastika, there are a few things I've become aware of. One is that The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is likely the best venue for quality short fiction. Hardcore readers will have their own favorites, and within specific niches there are likely better venues available. But when looked at across the scope of fantastika, the magazine is consistently able to commission the best short fiction. Naturally, this means they are able to pull together the best anthologies. An overflow of riches, in 1995 the magazine published More of the Best of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Things kick off with an oldie but a goodie. Precursor to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke channels a mysterious sense of wonder after a scientist discovers a strange artifact on the moon. Clarke really gets all he can from mood—not something you can often say about Clarke. While the story doesn't fit in very well to the rest of the collection in terms of era and style, it remains one of Clarke's absolute best shorts. A story with a dim view to human evolution, “Fat Farm” by Orson Scott Card tells of an obese businessman who checks himself into a futuristic fat clinic. They clone his sentience into a slimmer version, send it back into the real world, then give his fat self a choice: die or labor. The end of this story, while indeed dim, has more than a whim of truth to it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

Full disclosure: I am one of many politically moderate people who +/-10 years ago became aware of burgeoning social movements, and with more trust than thought, supported them. Fairness, equal rights, justice, all are good things to get behind, right? Looking at early reviews on this blog, undoubtedly you will find a wildly sympathetic ear to many concerns—feminism, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination. The female characters in this book are treated like trash... But as time went on, and many of these movements came to the forefront of the media, I began to question my blind support. Despite knowing there were real issues and livelihoods at stake, and despite knowing justice was not being served in every case, I also knew not everything I was witnessing was cohesive. I needed to look in more detail.

It became clear there were no common agendas. Unlike the social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, today there are no “movements” per se, just individuals or smaller groups pushing varying degrees of viewpoints, conservative to extreme, all from differing places and platforms. It’s a shotgun blast of feelings and facts. And so I started to put more thought into it, and look into what experts, and people who had more time than me to invest, had to say. What, after all, can we look to as a baseline in the modern world when reality and opinion are so spread?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Review of Billy Summers by Stephen King

Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King. After dozens and dozens and dozens of novels, as well as more dozens of short stories, how to contextualize his latest novel, 2021’s Billy Summers, in an intriguing intro? If you’re a Stephen King fan, it’s likely you’re not even reading this; you’ve already read the book. If you’re not a Stephen King fan, how to convince you Billy Summers is worth it—something that pokes out from King’s massive oeuvre and your impressions of it? Guess I have to dive in…

Billy Summers is the story of Dalton Smith, David Lockridge, dumb Billy Summers, and smart Billy Summers—all the same person. Smart Summers is an orphan turned marine sniper. After the Iraq War, he turned his killing talents to the mafia, particularly a Vegas kingpin named Nicky Majerian. To this underworld, smart Summers has played himself off as dumb Summers—a man of limited intelligence capable of cold assassination. At the outset of the novel, Majerian offers him one last job: 2 million to snipe a rat informant in custody. David Lockridge is the persona Majerian and dumb Summers create while preparing the hit. Ostensibly a writer, Lockridge befriends the office workers in the building where they are setting up shot a la Lee Harvey Oswald. Smart Summers constantly wary of how ‘one last job’ can go wrong, he sets up yet another persona, one that Majerian knows nothing about, called Dalton Smith. These multiple guises setting Summers’ head spinning in the days leading up to the hit, his mental stability is no guarantee even if the hit goes off as planned.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael Benton

Dinosaurs are one of the most fascinating aspects of life on Earth. Massive animals that dominated our planet for millions upon millions of years, humanity is but a drop in the bucket, comparatively. It’s thus inevitable that lessons learned from their existence might help humanity understand our own. But the related science seems to be constantly in flux. Looking at portrayals of dinosaurs forty years ago compared to today is different in significant points. Satisfying the inner child while bringing together the largest pieces of confirmed/discovered science as of 2019 is Dinosaurs Rediscovered: How a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History.

Science being one of the most ubiquitous aspects of life in the 21st century, there are likely others, like me, who cannot keep up with all these latest findings and speculations on interesting subjects, like dinosaurs. Where research is ongoing and new things are being regularly confirmed or learned, Dinosaurs Rediscovered summarizes what is known to date, in turn creating the latest knowledge as to what, why, where, and how dinosaurs lived. It’s amazing the knowledge modern technology can unlock from old bones and rocks.

Cardboard Corner: Arkham Horror: The Card Game: Ranked Content Overview

The following is a ranked overview of the official long-play campaigns and the stand-alone scenarios released to date for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. I hope it may offer people getting into the game a rough idea of the quality of content released to date, as well as veterans something to chew over. It's also a live page. I will be keeping it up-to-date with the completion of each new campaign and stand-alone. Warning: opinions ahead, but no spoilers. Feel free to chime in if you agree, disagree, or both.

Without further ado, here is a breakdown of the campaigns:

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review of Eye of Cat by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny is a hit or miss writer. When he's on, he's on—a multi-layered, colorful pleasure to read. When he's off, it's an awkward, disappointing experience that seems like it could have been more. There were also ups and downs in his career—success early on, followed by periods of struggle to achieve the same success. Some books achieved kudos from critics, and others sold serious copy. But through it all, there were three common motifs to Zelazny's fiction: myth, psychology, and the gruff, cigarette smoking, tough-skinned man. In 1982's Eye of the Cat, Zelazny takes this formula through far future Navajo.

The gruff, cigarette smoking, tough-skinned man this time around is Billy Singer. Humans have gone to the stars, but Billy, a Navajo Indian, is one of few people to have been raised apart from technology and society. As a result, he has a special set of skills as tracker and hunter, skills which allowed him to capture one of the most dangerous aliens humanity has come in contact with, the shapeshifting, evil Cat. But when an extra-terrestrial terrorist threatens to assassinate a leading political figure, Billy is called into action again.  Trouble is, he may need Cat's help to take down the assassin.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Review of Big Dark Hole: Stories by Jeffrey Ford

If by chance this is your first visit to this blog, be aware Jeffrey Ford is on the short list of writers whose work I will buy and read sight unseen. His last collection A Natural History of Hell, combined with his more commercial releases the past couple of years, however, have not tickled my fancy as delicately and nicely as so many other Ford efforts. In no way did this prevent me from picking the latest Ford collection, 2021's Big Dark Hole: Stories. Why did I ever doubt him? Let's get into the goodness.

Big Dark Hole kicks off with “The Thousand Eyes”. About a remote New Jersey bar, it draws a young painter for a famed Wednesday evening show. Crossing the line from ghost story into artistic reflection, the show turns out to be life changing for the painter. “Hibbler’s Minions” is a good ol' fashioned, traveling circus story. The narrator a man with two faces: one in front and one behind, the circus' freak show is healthy even as the show falters. That is, until the day the circus gets a present: a dust demon. And that’s how the flea circus is born. Classic horror.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Guardians of the Abyss"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

To date, the Arkham Horror: The Card Game standalone expansions (“Curse of the Rougarou” and “Carnevale of Horrors”) have provided interesting side trips from the main campaigns. The former a werewolf story through the swamps of the American south and the latter a Venetian parade gone amuck, the third, “Guardians of the Abyss”, sees investigators traveling to the deserts of Egypt, and the mysteries of the Sphinx (and beyond) which remain to be uncovered.

At the outset of “Guardians of the Abyss”, investigators find themselves called to Cairo at the behest of a friend named Jessie. Her husband, along with an ever-growing number of city dwellers, have fallen into perpetual slumber. None have awoken, and she needs your help to get to the bottom of the mystery. While the dark streets of Cairo lead to a number of clues, getting into the wilds of the desert reveals the real threat—and it’s one that will require all of your talent—ahem, deck building skills—to eliminate.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Carnevale of Horrors"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

In a (successful) attempt to keep content in the Arkham Horror: the Card Game universe fresh, Fantasy Flight have steadily released an ever-widening variety of products. On top of the deluxe campaigns and mythos packs, we have seen investigator packs, April Fool’s jokes come to life, as well as a series of stand-alone scenarios that can be played independently or as side-trips within the larger campaigns. A horrific trip to Venice, “Carnevale of Horrors” is second of these stand-alones to be released, and one of the most thematic.

Mimicking a Venetian parade, the layout of “Carnevale of Horrors” sees players moving in a clockwise circle, location to location, unmasking parade-goers in an attempt to find cultists who need questioning. Something dark and sinister hanging over the festive events, your only friend seems to be a friendly nun offering sanctuary for innocent bystanders. Evil ultimately unmasked, the colorful streamers and mysterious masks prove to be the least of your concerns.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Murder at the Excelsior Hotel"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

The term “investigator” is so redolent to Arkham Horror: The Card Game that it has evolved to simply “‘gator” in online discussion. (Who’s your favorite ‘gator?!?!) But in terms of P.I.-type private investigation, there hasn’t been a major focus on delivering such a specific noir-esque experience. Certainly strong elements of the detective motif exist throughout the scenarios and campaigns released thus far, particularly the Path to Carcosa campaign, but a true murder mystery with a dark and stormy night, bloody murder weapon, corrupt police, damsels in distress, and the like has not been done. “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel”, a standalone scenario, fits that niche, however.

Action beginning in situ, investigators in “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel” start the scenario in the awkward position of holding what seems to be a murder weapon in a blood-spattered hotel room. Putting the knife away and moving out into the corridor, the guests and hotel staff give you strange looks, and it isn’t long before the police arrive. In the course of your investigation, it becomes apparent that something strange is afoot, and you’ll have to use all of your gumshoe cleverness to get to the bottom of the crime scene, even if it means implicating yourself. The story which involves from here is Agatha Christie… and more.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Review of The Green Millennium by Fritz Leiber

Golden Age, sure; laser pistols, damsels in distress, slavering aliens, and of course, unitards. New Wave, yeah; experimental diction, political agendas, and challenging any and every norm. Metamodern, we can already see it; old tropes trotted out in a new light, uncontroversial prose, and emphasis on diversity, natch. But cyberpunk? Is it something more than an aesthetic. Bruce Sterling would, or at least did, have an answer to that question, and when looking at a specific scope of fiction, he'd be right. But is it really something more than dystopian corporations, augmented biology, and a society thrown into a deeper degree of flux by technology? I don't know. Regardless, I don't think we can think of Fritz Leiber's 1953 The Green Millennium as anything but—and waaaaay ahead of its time for it.

Phil Gish wakes up one day to find a strange, green cat playing in his home. Not everything right with the cat—it's fur not seeming quite fur and its structure not quite bone, he nevertheless finds a certain finds himself attracted to the cat. And when it walks out of his house, he follows it. The start of a wild adventure, it ain't no white rabbit, and Gish is no Alice. But what a wonderland it is.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Review of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

A book that sticks in mind from high school is John Steinbeck's The Red Pony. A coming-of-age story, it tells of a farm boy who gets his first horse, at long last. Things not turning out as intended, however, he is eventually forced to confront hard realities of life. The Red Pony is a brief novel. Having now read Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing (1994), I can't help but feel McCarthy took Steinbeck's baton and ran with it, fleshing out the story with complementary themes to full length.

The Crossing is the story of Billy Param. A sixteen year old young man growing up in the wilds of New Mexico, his story begins with he and his younger brother encountering a wandering Indian. The Indian demanding food, the two brothers feel they have no choice and take an offering from their parent's meager stores and give it to the man.  It is an omen of things to come.  Disaster striking the family, Billy is forced to cross the Mexican border to reclaim what he believes is his own.  Fate dealing him another blow, Param grows up fast in the liminal zone between America and Mexico. 

Cardboard Corner: Review of Scotland Yard

Going back to the post that kicked off Cardboard Corner on this blog, there is a shout out to a few games from my childhood that hold relevance to this day. There is Sorry!, Balderdash, and Fireball Island. And there is Scotland Yard. A hidden movement/deduction game originally published in 1983, it holds up well to the mass of games being released in the 21st century.

In Scotland Yard, one player takes on the role of Mr. X, and the other 1-5 players the roles of Scotland Yard detectives trying to capture Mr. X. The board a map of London featuring taxi, bus, and underground routes, players use the relevant tokens to maneuver around the board. Mr. X is trying to survive uncaptured for the number of rounds, all the while the detectives are trying to capture Mr. X before the rounds are up. Mr. X’s movements kept on a hidden notepad, every five rounds he must reveal himself to keep the chase hot. Depending on Mr. X’s evasive skills, a little luck, and the deductive abilities of the detectives, the chase can be over quickly or stretch all the way up to a tense couple of final rounds—Mr. X’s escape a matter of one or two spaces.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Review of Hex by Allen Steele

After reading more than a thousand sf books and writing reviews, it's impossible not to become a little calloused. Certain patterns, types, and trends reveal themselves, inevitably making the encounter of said patterns, types, and trends less original, less striking. Read ten murder mysteries in space and they can start to lose their flair. Looking to expand his Coyote universe, Allen Steele has written an alien encounter story that, well, hmm, umm, doesn't distinguish itself by much—in context. Let's take a look at Hex (2011).

Hex is the story of members of Coyote's space force, including mother Andromeda Carson and son Sean, who have been given a mission to go to a danui world and there explore the place humans have theoretically been given in the Talus universe. Gearing up as any space crew does, they head off, and to their surprise discover not a planet but an unfathomably massive Dyson sphere. Sorting out where humanity fits in the sphere, however, is subject to some mother-son conflict, as well as some of the alien-human variety.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Little Bird, Big Hunger

I noticed the other day on Board Game Geek that it’s possible to track the number of times you’ve played a particular game. Thinking about our family’s collection, I came to the realization that Little Bird, Big Hunger would take the top spot. The reason? The (figurative) niche it occupies on the shelf, i.e. the age of my children.

Little Bird, Big Hunger is a Haba children’s game for little people as young as 2 years old. Collecting food for your little hatching by rolling dice, kids feed their bird throughout a four-stage growth cycle—cracking its egg to flying. That’s it. But for as simple as it is, my children—my oldest at age 6—still enjoy playing. Somewhat cooperative, somewhat competitive, and overall relaxing, players work together feeding their birds. Roll the die. Check if your bird needs the food source showing on the die. If yes, take the appropriate token. Fill all the food requirements, and you're ready for the next stage in the cycle. The win condition is the first bird to fly—to reach the fourth stage, but, as the designers suggest, the better goal is to see all the birds through their full cycle of development. Putting this philosophy into play, my children have never been disappointed or sad their bird was not first to fly.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Review of Victim Prime by Robert Sheckley

Humans hunting humans, in direct and indirect form, is a staple of Hollywood. Where in real life most humans hunt animals, few and far between are the movies based on hunting, however, compared to movies wherein humans are the intended prey. Seems that psychologically we've got some collective issues... Poking at this in wry, satirical fashion is the second Hunter-Victim book by Robert Sheckley, Victim Prime (1987).

Culture and civilization have deteriorated to the point humanity is bored. And to cure its boredom, it has resorted to making humans the object of bloodsport. Manhhunts now legal. Called The Hunt, the story takes place on the Bahaman island of Esmeralda, a wild west place where violence on the streets is a national, televised event. Participate in person or watch on tv, it's up to you.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Review of The Mind Spider and Other Stories by Fritz Leiber

More than once on this blog I have compared writers' efforts to artists. Working from a central concept, sketches and ideas are played out in various forms, testing the proverbial waters, as it were, of the concept. Many older readers of science fiction are familiar with Fritz Leiber's The Big Time. It's central concept is the Change War, an eternal war between the Snakes and Spiders that takes place in and out of time and space. Rays shooting off in multiple directions from this concept are the stories in the collection The Mind Spider and Other Stories (1961).

The collection kicks off with “Haunted Future”, which is in fact a series of vignettes that act as commentary on the degree and speed of change that technology’s evolution has brought to humanity, particularly its utopian drive. While this would perhaps be a more powerful story when unpacked to novella length, what exists effectively pushes and recognizes the human side of said change. Nicely understated. A story more obviously set in the world of The Big Time, “Damnation Morning” begins with a man awakening from a hangover to discover a woman, seeming from another time and place beckoning. He goes with her, and their learns about the Change War dimension. Curious how it relates to his real world, she shows him, and a deeper reality comes available, literally and figuratively. Given Leiber’s personal issues, one can’t help but feel strong autobiographical elements.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion campaign "Path to Carcosa"

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Path to Carcosa, 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.

While the three-part campaign contained in the Arkham Horror base game gave players a taste of the horrors of the mythos, it was “The Dunwich Legacy” campaign which showed how a complete, eight-part chain of scenarios could manifest a full experience of the game. A sweet match of mechanisms to story, it was perhaps only the cheesiness of the story itself which left a little wanting. The second campaign, “The Path to Carcosa”, significantly tightens its hold on story, all the while maintaining the quality of complementary mechanisms and expanding the game further. It's the best yet.

Though also opening on the streets of Arkham, “The Path to Carcosa” departs from “The Dunwich Legacy” in its introduction. No casino or university, players instead have been invited to the opening night of The King in Yellow at the Ward Theater. The curtain rises, and the play begins. Everything seeming normal. But after the first act, uncanny events unfold, leaving the player unconscious. Waking in a quasi-dream, and with mysterious shadows moving on the periphery, it becomes the investigator’s responsibility to work out what’s going on, and why there is so much death around.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review of A Specter Is Haunting Texas by Fritz Leiber

It’s quite easy to feel that today’s political climate is a circus. Reality tv stars in the white house and a cacophony of opinions flooding media, there are moments we feel like observers to a road show. If only it weren’t reality. But fear not; it’s not the first time. Looking back to the 60s, there likewise were extreme views across the spectrum and something of a road show happening at the top. Hippies, Watergate, Vietnam, the onset of disco… it was also strange times. Capturing some of this oddity in a science fiction satire is Fritz Leiber’s novel A Specter Is Haunting Texas (1968).

A Specter Is Haunting Texas is the bizarro story of Scully La Cruz, and his return to Earth to collect on his family’s mining holdings in Yellowknife. A lot having changed in their absence, Yellowknife is no longer Canada. Texas has asserted itself and taken over the majority of the western world, creating a pot-puffing, traditionalist, capitalist empire in the process. Mexicans provide cyborgized labor and leaders push women to the rear, sipping whiskey and puffing joints all their nepotistic way. Scully wears a large metal exoskeleton such that his frail body can survive Earth’s gravity. When landing in Texas, he is taken as a god by the locals, but a longhair, a hippy-esque space colonist by Texans. A tug of war over his political interests ensuing, it’s no guarantee Scully will ever find his way to Yellowknife and reclaim his holdings.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Non-Fiction: Review of People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts by Robert Bolton

I have mentioned a few times that I am a blogger by night. By day, I ensure middle-management retains its reputation in society as a sapper of the soul. As such, communication and people are the biggest part of my day. There is no shortage of situations and circumstances that require listening, social navigation, understanding, and negotiation. It’s thus that Robert Bolton’s book People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts (1979) caught my eye. There is always room for improvement—much more than I thought, in fact.

People Skills comes exactly as advertised. One-third psychology (emotions, self-actualization, needs, personal barriers, etc.) and two-thirds communication (listening, reflecting, direct and indirect speech, body language, tone, etc.), Bolton unpacks the approaches to human interaction that lead to varying results in practical detail. He starts by defining the blockers most of us use in our regular style of speaking and writing, then goes on to explain, using logical reasoning, emotions, and basic psychology why those forms of communication are more likely to generate negative outcomes. Yeah, I say that to my wife. Sometimes I do that. Definitely I’m guilty of using that tactic… And comparing to the results I get… For the person honest and aware of their thoughts, emotions, habits, and behaviors, this book can be a real eye opener.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Seasons

I don't know what the source game is, but there is certainly a sub-set of board games today in which players duel, spending resources to play special (often magical) powers in an attempt to drain their opponent’s life meter or achieve the most points. (Poker? No…) Magic the Gathering may in fact have been the first such game, but is at least the game that popularized the concept, and as a result there have been numerous games developed in the mold since. And there have also been games that play with the mold. Seasons does so by adding big, chunky, satisfying custom dice and limiting the card pool.

In Seasons, two to four players take on the role of magicians competing to earn the most prestige. They do this by kicking, fighting, clawing, and clambering—with cards and dice—to the top of a points ladder. At the outset, a card draft is held to determine who gets which cards, after which players divide their cards into three piles/years. The first player kicks things off by rolling the first season’s dice (winter), and selecting the die they want . Not your grandpa’s dice, Seasons’ dice are six-sided but otherwise have nothing else in common—more in a moment. Each player thereafter selects one of the remaining available die. Play then returns to the first player to use their die as they see fit—play cards into their tableaux, draw cards, etc. This repeats itself through winter, spring, summer, and autumn for three years. Different seasons having different dice and different matrices for transmuting resources into prestige, the years constantly evolve. Fast-paced with tight decisions and a splash of luck, the seasons turn until the end of the third year, at which time prestige is added up, and the player with the most, wins.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Weighing a Critique: The Book of the New Sun

It has been a pleasure to discover the blog Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it. Exposing the growing number of gray hairs in my beard, I can say it reminds me of my blog a decade ago—back before two children, middle management, a house, garden, and all the other exigencies of life chipped away at my time and energy, leaving me without the sass and verve needed to really dissect a book from a critically informed viewpoint. Bormgans has that energy and layers of cultural and literary knowledge beyond just 'I liked it.' to give books their due.

Reading through his (I assume a gentleman, maybe I'm wrong) blog a few weeks ago, I encountered a re-read critique of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Wolfe's four-part novel is one I too hold in high regard, and having just finished a summer holiday, a time after which I typically re-read a book, I thought why not? It's been a decade since I last read New Sun. Let's give it another go and see how it compares to Bormgans' take. Maybe I can find a spot of energy for that...

So, what follows is a minor critique of a critique. As you will discover, a lot of the 'critique' is in fact a bolstering, an adding to, a crossbeam in support of Bormgans' view. I think he departs from several commonly held views of the book in quality, logical, defendable fashion. Nevertheless, there are a couple points I would alter, or add to—I hope with the respect and constructiveness that the original critique warrants. Here we go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Review of Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Like the sun above, today’s market for fiction, regardless of the “scientific” variety or not, is shining across all cultures and ways of life. Representation, in all its etymological permutations, is not a problem. Readers of science fiction can essentially close their eyes and point, and there will be a book or story waiting when they open their eyes. Should the finger land on Nnedi Okorafor’s 2021 novella Remote Control, one finds a science fantasy of African female bildungsroman proportions.

Remote Control is the story of Sankofar, a young woman in some future African timeline. Little to her knowledge, her life gets flipped upside down as a child when she comes into possession of an alien artifact she calls the seed. Granting powers the Ghanian girl would rather not have, she comes to have the nickname ‘Death’, as just a touch of her glance can wipe out entire villages. A tragic situation forcing Sankofar into exile, it becomes her own responsibility to re-find her “magic” in life.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Karak


Shorter Review:
My First Dungeon Crawler (without the horror and gore)

Longer Review: There have been numerous dungeon crawlers published in the board game world throughout the past few decades. From classic fantasy rpg-style games to science fiction alien encounters, exploring the scary unknown with a powered-up hero has been a small but solid niche of gaming. Albi's Karak boils this niche down to its basic elements, and makes something fun for families and children.

Like its adult predecessors, Karak is an action-rpg that sees players choosing one of the six unique heroes to explore the modular corridors of a dungeon, find and destroy monsters, level up, and try to collect the most treasure. On their turn, players have four actions. They can pick a new tile from the pile and lay it so the corridors connect. This often results in drawing from the bag of tokens, tokens which can be various things, from skeleton warriors to monsters, mummies to treasure. Different types of enemies carrying different weapons, spells, and even treasure, defeating them allows the hero to flip over the token and add whatever item the enemy carried to their player board. This can be more powerful weapons which help the heroes’ dice rolls or one-off spells that can be used at specific moments. Some of the skeleton warriors carry keys, keys which are used to unlock the treasure chests players are trying to collect. A powerful dragon lurking in the draw bag, when it is finally defeated, players count their treasures, and the one with the most, wins.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Review of Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber

That thimbleful of readers of Speculiction know that horror and dark fantasy rarely find a comfortable home here. I’ve railed about the cheapness of a lot of horror before, and I won’t repeat it here. But I keep an eye open whether I am truly missing out on that facet of fiction. That eye mostly on authors, I tend to trust those who have proved they can be relied upon to handle various mediums with a modicum of intelligence—Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, just to name a few. Fritz Leiber is another, and having been awhile since I had me some Leiber, I dove into Gather, Darkness! (1943).

Gather, Darkness! is the story of revolution in the city of Megatheopolis. Mankind having survived a nuclear holocaust, what remains has reverted to traditional religious and political power structures, using remnants of powerful technology to keep power. In this world lives Armon Jarles, a man who does not know which side or faction to join—and gets tossed around a fair bit by all. With visions of a revolution in mind, he sets about trying to rally the peasantry. While his success is debatable, one thing for sure is that Holy War is on the horizon.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Review of Hello, America by J.G. Ballard

From a certain angle, J.G. Ballard can be said to formulaic. He loved to take a handful of characters, throw them into an unfamiliar situation, and see the psychological reactions. The Crystal World, The Drowned World, The Drought, and others all see this scenario play out, only the settings changed. Hello, America (1981) does the same, but adds a thick layer of commentary on American culture.

Offering the reader a 2114, post-apocalyptic USA as its setting, Hello, America features a group of Europeans returning to what was once America to explore its remains. Consumerism and poor environmental practices leading to the desertification of the country, dunes now cover North America. Empty, the population emigrated back to its ethnicities’ native lands in Europe. The mission of the exploration group is to determine if anything of value has arisen since the ecological disaster. They land in Boston and set about reconnoitering the east coast before heading out on a long, overland journey to the west coast. Surprises popping up, the group fights to survive while the remains of America show how they have evolved—or not.

Console Corner: Review of Mass Effect (Remastered)

Caveat: I returned to video games circa 2016 after decades away. I missed everything of the Playstation 2 and 3 generations. This includes all of the Mass Effect games. Hearing a lot of positive words, however, I waited to see if Bioware would remaster the games for the PS4 generation. Lo and behold, in 2021 all three were released in a Legendary edition, which I promptly purchased. Thus, be warned my review below is through the lens of a gamer accustomed to PS4 standards. I do my best to be objective, but certainly bias will slip through.

Mass Effect, the original, the source, the first stopping point in a trilogy of games that would go on to become mass... ive successes. (Sorry.) Not only highly praised, it is also one of the most enduringly praised set of games; it's 2021 and the trilogy still makes a huge amount of top 10 lists. The situation is, however, that most of the praise is directed at Mass Effect 2, the sequel to Mass Effect (2007). There may be some complaints about the ending of Mass Effect 3, but it too lingers. The original, not so much. Let's see why.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Review of Sci-Fi Private Eye ed. by Martin Greenberg

It's ironic that today that the devices and effects of what is commonly associated with 'science fiction' are bleeding out and being latched onto by many other genres of fiction. It's ironic because, in the early 20th century science fiction was borrowing from these same genres to create its own content. This includes detective fiction, as exemplified by Martin Greenberg's retro anthology Sci-Fi Private Eye (1997).

Kicking things off is one of the best story in the short collection, Robert Silverberg's “Getting Across”. About a detective trying to track down his girlfriend, a woman who also happens to have stolen the computer program which keeps his society's infrastructure running, getting her back is urgent. While food production, heat, water, and all other basic elements of life collapse, he is forced to go into a neighboring country, one more luddite than his own, to find her. While detective noir is the primary mode, Silverberg mixes in a fair amount of indirect commentary on dependency on technology and its potential for control and authority.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Review of The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky

For the past decade, I have been reading dozens upon dozens upon dozens of books per year, mostly speculative fiction, and always for better and worse. Literally it has been more than a thousand books, and likely a couple thousand short stories from the past century of the more 'imaginative' side of fiction. Yet I can still be surprised. Enter Daniel Polansky's 2020 novella The Seventh Perfection.

I typically jump to a plot overview for the second paragraph of a review, but I think in the case of The Seventh Perfection, it's best to start with what makesit unique. The novella is written in the second person... wait for it... without using the word 'you'. For anyone who has played video games, the second person is ubiquitous. “You try to open the box, but no matter how hard you try...” or “You run to see what is wrong, stopping to look at your...” are typical examples. To get around using 'you' and 'your' yet remain in the second person, Polansky chooses to essentially eliminate setting and action and focus on monologue. Yes, monologue.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Review of Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Javier Bardeem won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Anton Chigurh in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. I found this ironic in some ways. Anton Chigurh was not human. He was evil incarnate, a symbol of unavoidable malevolence, a razor blade reaper with no recognizable conscience. He was larger than the life. It's in McCarthy's 1973 Child of God that we find the human roots of Chigurh.

His name is Lester Ballard. A social outcast since childhood, Lester grows up in rural Tennessee, in and among small towns and forests where his growing degeneracy has few barriers or checks. His violence toward certain people escalating as the story moves on, Ballard finds himself penned in with seemingly no way to escape.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Dystopian fiction—a dime a dozen these days, right? Rising global temperatures, extreme right-wing governments, zombies, nuclear war, authoritarianism, and on and on go the list of speculative settings highlighting humanity's potential for disaster. But a dystopian setting that is not actually a dystopian setting—a dystopian setting that represents a deeper, non-human controlled aspect of existence? Let's get into Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police (1994).

The Memory Police tells the story of a year in the life of an unnamed woman. Living in a society ruled by the titular Memory Police, she must regularly burn items that have been decreed as forbidden—calendars, fruit, books, etc. are all made to disappear. The result is these items slowly fade from people's memories. But there are certain people whose memories do not die. Conveniently most are involved in art ((literary readers' radars perk up!). Such people are naturally anathema to the Memory Police, and are hunted by them. Thus it is that the main character comes to hide one such person in a secret room in her house. But can she hide him forever while she herself remains compliant with the seemingly unending list of forbidden things? Can she retain her sense of identity in a world in such enforced flux?

Console Corner: Review of The Unfinished Swan

I am always on the lookout for video games that are developmental (or at least not mindless) for my children. (If adults can also play, all the better.) A brain should be required. So far, games like Far: Lone Sails, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Figment, Journey, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), Overcooked, and Unravel have hit that sweet spot. With The Unfinished Swan (2012), I've found another.

Unlike any other game I've ever played, The Unfinished Swan is essentially 'graffiti the puzzle' game. Based on a fairy tale, players begin in a white, colorless world in the first-person perspective. There is no up down, left, or right. But there is a dot on screen, and when pushing the 'shoot' button, a blob of black paint is launched into the world, splashing against the closest surface. By spamming the 'shoot' button, players slowly paint their world, and in the process discover where walls, floors, doors, and windows are. Getting to the next point in the game/story, players perform this type of exploration.

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.