Friday, January 29, 2021

Review of Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey

It’s here, the penultimate tale in the Expanse novels, 2019’s Tiamat’s Wrath. Picking up where the wild swing of Persepolis Rising left off, the novel doubles down on the crew of the Rocinante in old age and their fight against the authoritarian Laconian government which would have the human universe conform to its rule.

Tiamat’s Wrath opens with the crew of the Rocinante still scattered. Jim remains captive on Laconia, but is in daily contact with Dr. Cortazar, passing on what he knows about the protomolecule while sowing seeds of knowledge of his own. Naomi, in an attempt to deal with Jim’s absence, has taken a passive role in the resistance, while Bobbie plays the active role plotting sabotage, and more. Not seen since Cibola Burn, Elvi Okoye returns, this time as chief science officer aboard a Laconian military ship investigating the warp gates. And newly introduced to the series is Winston Duarte’s fourteen-year old daughter, Teresa. Highly intelligent, both in IQ and EQ, she is being groomed by her autocrat father to someday be leader. Little does he know, however, the effect his tight grip on her upbringing will have.

Console Corner: Review of Figment

If a video game can be likened to a kitchen, then there are a finite number of ingredients which can be combined, in various proportions, to make a near infinite variety of foods. After all, flour and egg alone can produce a number of unique dishes. At the risk of being wholly cliché, the same is true with video games. Graphics, sound, gameplay, etc. are ingredients each designer decides how to combine, and in what proportions. Bedtime Digital Game’s Figment (2017) would therefore be crème brulee with raspberry sauce—quick, sweet, and tasty.

Figment’s prologue features a family riding in a car, when suddenly there is an accident. The events not directly seen, players are given a first-person view to only the auditory aspects of the conversation leading up to the crash from the perspective of the child riding in the backseat. After, the game proper kicks off. Dropped into a strange cartoon land, players quickly realize they are inside the mind of the child as they fight for consciousness. Taking on the role of Dusty and his faithful sidekick Piper, the player then puzzles, and occasionally fights, their way through the cobwebs of the unconscious, trying to wake up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review of Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

Hang on to your boots: Persepolis Rising (2017), seventh book in the Expanse series, takes readers a place they never would have expected upon the conclusion of Babylon’s Ashes: thirty years in the future. The time gap allowing events put in motion in previous novels the chance to blossom, indeed the solar system is turned upside down—but I’m not sure ‘blossom’ is the right metaphor.

Amos has gray at the edges. Alex is balding and looking in the rearview at a second failed marriage. And Holden and Naomi are retiring, handing the reins of the equaling aging Rocinante over to Bobbi. What is going on here? With humanity flung to the far reaches of space through the warp gates, colonies have begun to thrive, and establish governments of their own. The Earth has begun to re-establish normalcy after being decimated by meteors. Drummer is the leader of the Transport Union, an organization that has gone down the road of many large-scale organizations with time: bureaucracy. And there is still another group which has evolved: Admiral Winston Duarte’s band of breakaway Martians, and the protomolecule they stole. Evolved, in this case, is figurative and literal.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review of Re-Coil by J.T. Nicholas

Short Review: Altered Carbon with zombies… for better or worse.

Longer Review: It’s the future, and humanity has achieved near immortality through the transfer of sentience and memory to new bodies—coils. Death is just a blip on the mental radar. Carter Langston is a space salvager, working on the crew of a small ship when they discover what seems to be an abandoned ship in the inner solar system. The operation goes smoothly, until it doesn’t, and Langston finds himself waking in the body of a new coil. His last backup having happened before the crew left station, Langston is unaware of what happened, only that there is a gap. When an assassin comes knocking, however, the gap urgently seems worth investigating.

Well-paced, nicely structured, and featuring straight-forward diction, J.T. Nicholas' Re-Coil (2020) is genre, consumable science fiction that deploys its devices well. Readers looking for escape will find it in Langston’s space opera adventure. If a sophisticated look at the meaning of existence in a world where corporality has become a commodity is your aim, you will need to look elsewhere. Zombies requiring blasting are here.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

The past centuries of book publishing in the Western world has seen a slow but steady expansion. The point we’re at now is barely recognizable from the era it began. Where novels were once extremely limited by literacy, class, and publishing possibilities, they are today a ubiquitous item available to anybody (libraries, people!) in quantities it is literally impossible for any one person to even make a significant dent in reading the entirety of. With globalization, this has likewise meant a massive cross-pollination. It is only possible in the past few decades that books like Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014) can be made available to the wider, global audience. Having read the book, I’d like to think the globe is better off for it.

Frankenstein in Baghdad focuses on the lives of a handful of people living in the titular city in the early 2000s after Western forces have taken control of Iraq. Things kick off with a bomb blast, a blast which sends these people’s lives spinning in different directions. The handful come and go, meaning the majority of the book focuses on Hadi. A junk dealer before the blast, he becomes a body-part collector after, eventually assembling his collection into something more. A strong secondary character is a journalist who finds himself not only with the task of reporting on a series of inexplicable murders, but also in a surprisingly newfound position of power at his publication—his boss’s actions just as much an inexplicable mystery. With American soldiers on the streets, locals living in uncertainty, and society, economics, politics, and power in a massive state of flux, what role does a man pieced together from body parts have to play?

Cardboard Corner: Review of Colt Express

For those so inclined, there are board games which feature endless pages of rules. Tediously complex, such games capture the interest of deep, multi-layered thinkers, people who like to sit quietly around the table, strategizing, min-maxing, and sweating out the best move. Then there is Colt Express.

BAM! CRASH! POW! In the best, cartoonish sense, Colt Express sees players taking on the role of bandits robbing a train, fighting each other and the marshal to see who gets the most loot. An action-programming game, players take turns playing cards from their hands until a number of turns have been taken (varies, depending on the round card), and once completed, the cards are revealed one by one and the actions on them taken. Go up to the roof of the carriage, punch a bandit, move ahead, grab some loot, shoot a bandit, swing and miss, run into the marshal and get knocked to the roof—on the surface it seems beautiful chaos. Bam! Crash! Pow! Thus, for as much as you can see what action cards other players are playing and react accordingly, there is still that wonderful, fun-inducing element of chaos when you forget or make a wrong move that throws a wrench in the works in the most delightfully fun of ways. Another way of saying this is, if you are a person who sours seeing your best laid plans destroyed, don’t buy Colt Express. Your dreams will certainly be destroyed once, if not more often, a game. If, however, you see the comedy and fun in knocking you and a couple friends or family around a train as you desperately try to grab bags of money and jewels, then this is a game for you.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Review of Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling

Tired of getting online advertisements tailored to your previous searches? Tired of having your hobbies quantified by algorithms like they know you best? Tired of the media and politics curated by user groups prior to publication? Tired of Terminator sequels? Check out Marc-Uwe Kling’s 2020 Qualityland, this is the pink dolphin dildo jazz to blow your 2020 blues away.

The love child of Nineteen Eighty-four and Slaughterouse-Five after they made love in a global, corporate 2020 bed, Qualityland is the story of Peter Jobless, and the trouble he gets into trying to return an item that his super-Amazon equivalent has deemed he needed based on his user profile. Society delineated along Facebook, social profile lines, the Queen’s aristocracy this is not, rather the newer, deceptively scarier version in which even dating has been commoditized. Peter's journey taking him from the backrooms of his scrap robot workshop to the screens of daytime television talk shows, it's proves a tough thing to return an item.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

A phrase I picked up, unfortunately later in my reviewing “career”, is: “When everything is possible, nothing is interesting.” A debilitating aspect of many fantasy novels, there is real value in working with a select few items to build a story's panoply, allowing character, style, and theme to fill the vast spaces between. In The Vanished Birds (2020), debut novel by Simon Jimenez, ever thing is possible—not quite, but almost, which is a shame considering character, style, and theme are strong.

The Vanished Birds is a space opera-esque story, focusing on a handful of people trying to sort out their personal lives in a colonial—not colonized—universe (gotta get creds with the post-mods, natch). The majority focuses on Nia Imani, a space ship captain who makes a most interesting discovery, not in the freight she and crew deliver, but in the form of a teen. The relationships and quests for identity of Imani, her crew, the teen, as well as the people Imani left behind at her home world drive these stories across the universe.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mice & Mystics Expansion: Downwood Tales

Note: You need the base game Mice & Mystics to play its expansion Downwood Tales.

Mice & Mystics is a game beloved by thousands and thousands of families. Reprinted numerous times in its lifetime, the game goes in and out of stock as more people discover it. But for as charismatic as the heroes are, for as satisfying as the overarching story is, and for as wonderful as the production is, it is not a perfect gaming experience. Playing M&M for an extended period makes it apparent that the minion encounters are repetitive; they detract from rather than contribute to the unique experience each chapter brings. The second expansion to Mice & Mystics, called Downwood Tales, fixes this aspect, then heaps on a whole lot more.

In a word, Downwood Tales doubles the number of enemies, heroes, skill cards, ability cards, terrain tiles, and stories available in the base game, then adds more. Another way of looking at this is: Downwood Tales has more in the box—and the base game already had a lot. Let’s look a little closer—just a little closer—what that is.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Review of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

Despite growing up in one of the most populated cities on Earth, Jonathan Lethem has largely been a literary fringe walker. From his criticism of mainstream science fiction to the stories which, regardless of quality, back up that criticism and are at least original, the writer has consciously kept himself a degree apart. It's the presence of this degree in Lethem's 2020 offering, The Arrest, which will have readers once again putting the book down with disappointment, or turning the pages with interest.

Roger Zelazny meets Rudy Rucker, The Arrest is their suitably odd offspring. Set largely in pastoral, post-apocalyptic Maine, all technology has ceased functioning after the unexplained, titular event. The event forcing people back to the land, readers are introduced to the main character Journeyman as he sets off on a walk to talk with a distant neighbor—their version of a phone call or SMS. Journeyman's agrarian community brought to the forefront in the pages that follow, Lethem also takes readers back to the man's pre-Arrest days in LA, writing film scripts with his loquacious partner, Peter Todbaum. Todbaum soon enough makes an appearance in Maine, driving, of all things, a burrowing, nuclear-powered, coffee-brewing, super machine he calls the Blue Streak. Journeyman's organic community shaken by Todbaum's “nuclear” arrival, things (proverbially) are never the same.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Best of 2020's Books

I would definitely stop short of calling 2020 a landslide or watershed year. Those types of changes are perhaps possible to identify only in the context of history. But I would definitely say it was a good year from a speculative fiction perspective, at least of the fourteen books I read published in the year. Most interesting perhaps, is that it was a good year despite the utter dilution and saturation of the market. (Question to self: does this only mean I’m getting better at filtering the fluff?)

Where in years past I’ve struggled to find a book that could qualify for “best of”, in 2020 I read several contenders throughout the year. Cutting a fiery line through much of the contemporary feminist fog (i.e. lack of global, cohesive vision) is Lauren Beukes’ Afterland. The setting a post-apocalyptic, all-female society, the book tells of a woman and her “daughter” looking to escape personal troubles in a world reeling from the loss of men. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a subtly phenomenal novel. Ostensibly the personal stories of a couple with subconscious, existential issues, slowly the landscape around them shifts and trembles in delicate ways, buoying them to new places. Harrison’s prose is sublime. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Best Reads of 2020

Looking back at 2020, it was one of the most “beach read” years--ever. With COVID breaching our understanding of normal and making life more serious, the desire to escape pushed me to read more relaxing, easily digestible books than usual. I took a giant bite of the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, knocked out a massive chunk of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series (but still not enough to catch up in the 20+ book series), took on two pieces of Christopher Ruocchio’s huge space opera series The Sun Eater, read all five books of Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & the Coin series, read a Jack Vance trilogy, and re-read all four book of his Tales of the Dying Earth compendium. Hell, I even read a Star Wars trilogy of books. And there were several one-offs of core-leaning, genre material. Overall it was a plot-centric, relaxing reading year. But only mostly. There were still a number of exceptional books, regardless of year published, that I had a chance to read which were not only entertaining but possessed more. (The breakdown of books published in 2020 is here.) Possessing not only escapism but substance, in no particular order here are my favorite reads this year: