Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Remembering Science Fiction: Q1 of the 21st Century

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

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

Friday, June 25, 2021

Review of Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

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

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

Monday, June 21, 2021

Review of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl

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

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

Friday, June 18, 2021

Review of Anticipations ed. by Christopher Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review of The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review of The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

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

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

Cardboard Corner: Review of Stone Age Junior

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Review of Starshine by Theodore Sturgeon

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

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