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.