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.