Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Review of The Incarnation of Making by Tom McCarthy

Like some people watch football or baseball, I regularly watch an esport called Starcraft 2. Called a ‘real-time strategy’ game, players make reactive and proactive decisions on the fly while building the right army to attack and defeat their opponent. Gameplay is typically divided into two parts: micro and macro. Micro is the player’s ability to control their army in real time—engaging, retreating, selecting individual units and groups of units to attack and defend, and so on. Macro is the broader picture, the strategic decisions above the real-time decisions that players make toward victory—which units to construct and in what quantity, how to prioritize economy vs military, how to disguise certain activities to fool the other player, etc. In Tom McCarthy’s 2021 The Incarnation of Making the overarching concept is a micro vs. macro affair.

After such intros, I normally jump to a quick plot summary. But there is no story per se in The Incarnation of Making. For lack of a better metaphor, it can feel like channel surfing on valium, with the occasional channel playing the same movie.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Review of Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

I have read a huge swathe of Elizabeth Hand's ouevre. She keeps producing tasty meals, and I keep devouring them. But for whatever reason, her first collection, Last Summer at Mars Hill (1997), eluded me for years. That has been remedied. And it makes me wonder whether she was born a chef.

The collection kicks off with the title story—a novella actually, “Last Summer at Mars Hill”. A poignant, soft-spoken story, it tells of a pair of teens, Moony and Jason, and their last summer vacation before university. Terminal illness, mysticism, painters, hippies, and the Maine coast all featured, the story ultimately pulls gently but firmly on the heartstrings without resorting to cheap drama. (Longer review here.) A tale of faery (maybe even phaery), “The Erl-King” is a jungle of a story with exotic animals, the ethereal, and an occasional Texas accent. And it only gets wilder. Ambitious, I daresay it's not as mature as later Hand novellas but at least keep the dynamic meter spinning. A hard-edged, angry thriller, “Justice” tells of a journalist investigating mutilated hogs in a farmer's field in Oklahoma. Uncovering more than she ever expected, she finds a whodunnit, but it's certainly not the serial killer she expected. It’s strange that I wish this story did not have fantastical elements...

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Non-Fiction: Review of Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer by Rob Manning & William Simon

When I'm not in the phone booth, putting on my super hero blogger costume, I work in the business world. My Peter Parker persona is involved with IT operations and budgets, resource management and projects. Ahh, projects. Those finite loops of effort that, in theory, bring about a new means to... something. In the case of the Mars rover Curiosity it was the means to directly drill, extract, and analyze Martian rock over multiple points on the planetary surface. All it took was a ten year, multi-billion dollar effort to put the most sophisticated technology humans have on the red planet. Hats off, now that's a project—and something fascinating to digest the details of in Rob Manning and William Simon's book Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer (2017).

To review the content of Mars Rover Curiosity in detail feels like a spoiler. Its truly best read on the page. What I can say is that Manning and Simon do a good job covering the project, from pre- to post- from multiple perspectives. There is, of course, the technical perspective, which will have nerds doing what nerds do reading of the highly unique gadgets and gears implemented in the rover. If there were somehow a measure of content, tech might have a slight majority.

Starcraft 2: Greatest Match of All Time

Since 2018, most fans of SC2 have been waiting and waiting for the Maru–Serral showdown. And while the two have faced each other a few times, none never seemed to be 'the match'. There was a best of 1 at GSL vs. World. There were a few group stage meetings, and a couple Ro8s. Maru's wrists weren't in good condition, the meta-wasn't right, there wasn't a lot at stake, Serral wasn't his normal self... a lot of reasons why the match fans wanted never took place. But finally, as of yesterday, we've got it. The Maru-Serral showdown fans have been waiting for, and it produced the greatest sc2 match EVER. Yes, capital letters-worthy. Let's set the stage.

The Players

2021 has been a good year for Serral. While he doesn't have the hardware that he racked up in 2018, he has arguably been playing at a higher level. SC2 is now better balanced, and many players have finally caught up, pushing him to somehow be even better. The past few tournaments have seen extremely dominant runs by Serral—literally over the world's best players. He has finished top-two in all four premiere tournaments he played in, winning two of them. Maru's 2021 has also not been the same year as his 2018. It's difficult to top winning four GSLs in a row. But it's clear this year his career is once again on the upswing. He has been top-four in six premiere tournaments, with runner up twice, and winning one. His major-class tournament victory, given the best in the world were his competition, should also be considered: ASUS ROG. Overall, he has regularly shown this year the form people would call Just play like Maru. And finally, as of the writing of this article, Serral and Maru are ranked number one and two in the world, respectively, on Aligulac.

When the dust is settled on Starcraft 2, and fans are arguing who was the greatest of all time, undoubtedly Maru and Serral's names will be discussed to the very last moments. What better way to fuel that conversation than put them into an important match with both playing their absolute best?

The Arena

The arena was the King of Battles tournament. Unfortunately online, the maps had to bounce back and forth between the Americas West and North servers in order to keep ping fair. It was early-early in the morning for Maru and evening for Serral. Both players had come out top in their groups; Maru did not drop a map, while Serral dropped two. In the bracket, however, things reversed. Maru dropped a couple of maps, and struggled to put away a fighting Dark in the semis, but did. Serral, on the other hand, breezed through the bracket. After playing two Bo5s each that day, that left the duo fighting for the final spot in the tournament: the winner.

Prior to the King of Battles, Serral and Maru had played each other a total of eight times (according to aligulac). One Bo1 and the remainder a mix of Bo3s and Bo5s, Serral held the edge in terms of victories (6-2), but the score is a more even in terms of maps (12-8). They had not, however, played a Bo7. The King of Battles grand final was a Bo7. The only way to raise those stakes is make it a Blizzcon final. If a grand finals Bo7 is not the place to have the Maru-Serral showdown, then I don't know what is.

The Match

I will not go over the match in detail, nor will I tell you who won. What I will tell you is that the match had almost, if not, everything. Short, long, micro, macro, early game, mid game, late game—I would guess viewers were able to see, at some point in time, every unit, upgrade, and spell that SC2 offers terran and zerg. You want massive, late-game clashes with huge, complex armies? Serral and Maru put on a clinic. You want nail-biters for which supply is no indicator of eventual victor? You should wear gloves. You want matches which are so high level that the macro management of economy (as opposed to purely army production and control) proves to be the decider in key maps? Get out your calculator, nerd. You want games which shift momentum multiple times? Make sure your head is screwed on tight (good advice, regardless). Add to this all the weight of expectation fans have, and you've got the perfect marriage of hype and reality. The two performed to the top of their ability, and we the viewers reaped every reward. Two days later and I'm still raving.

I have watched thousands of SC2 matches. Several times per year I walk away thinking: OMG, that was an awesome match worthy of the annals of the game. Never have I thought: it can't get better than that. But with this match it happened: That is the pinnacle of SC2. It can't get better.

Go ahead. Do it. Type “greatest sc2 match ever” into YouTube's search box and see what you get. Watch the top hits, come back, tell me what you think. Then watch this match.

Without further ado, here is the link. Good luck to all of us that such a match can somehow be topped.


Monday, November 22, 2021

Review of First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

I'm always a bit skeptical when hearing of a writer attempting to work within the realms of both fiction and non-fiction together. Have they reached the end of their creative rope and are now desperate for material? Has fame gone to their head and ego now part of their fiction? Such are the worries I have. Ultimately, writers are creative people, and in the case of Haruki Murakami's semi-autobiographical collection of short stories, First Person Singular (2021), my concerns were mislaid.

That being said, the title is appropriate. All of the stories are first person, and though never explicitly stated, Murakami is the viewpoint of each. Comparing them to Murakami's profile, and a number of similarities pop out: classical music, reading/writing, jazz, place of birth, etc. I will not spoil everything, but suffice at saying the stories are definitively not all autobiographical, however. A few things occur in the stories, letting the reader know that things have been dressed up a little. But where, the reader never knows. Thus, all that follows is ostensibly Murakami, but certainly more.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne Valente

You know it. You've seen it. You've stared at it. People online, on fire about perceived and real problems in the world. You can question their logic but you cannot question their passion. There is something burning inside them, a sense of right that bursts out in emotion. One such outburst is Catherynne Valente's 2021 The Past Is Red (a novel-length treatment of her short “The Future Is Blue”).

As with such emotional displays (and in keeping with the color scheme), The Past Is Red is a fiery blast. In telling the story of Tetley and her life in garbage-world (aka future Earth filled with trash), the reader gets feminism, environmentalism, bildungsroman, psychology, surrealism, and mythpunk (a Valente specialty), all in a setting that is more satire than realist. A chipper, upbeat young lady despite the tragedies around her (trash, distant parents, unloving and disjointed society...), Tetley makes the most of things to find her own crooked way in life.

Console Corner: Review of Black the Fall

There is a lot to like about Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, Far: Lone Sails, and other such bite-sized puzzle games. They exercise the brain without overloading it, offering tantalizing glimpses to imaginative places and worlds along the way. Recently Black: The Fall, another such puzzle game, fell on my radar. This time around, however, it's difficult to say what there is to like.

Black: The Fall is precisely in the vein of the games mentioned above. A 2.5D side-scroller, players are tasked with guiding a character, in this case a robot-esque man, through a series of traps and environmental puzzles. Jumping, dashing, activating buttons, and an arm-mounted laser are the tools at your disposal. Die, and you respawn where you left off, the puzzle still in front of you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Review of The River by Peter Heller

As with many, if not most novels in the 21st century, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars was a mix of genres. Post-apocalypse and outdoor survival, Heller nevertheless told a traditional tale of heroism and romance that hearkened back to the golden era of fiction. Continuing in this vein with a more relatable apocalypse is The River (2019).

Best friends Jack and Wynn have set out into the deep wilderness of Canada for a two-week canoe trip. Dropped off in the middle of nowhere, they are surprised to to run into a couple of other parties on the river. They meet a pair of drunk rednecks, who are quickly left behind. But they never have a chance to meet the second pair; only the sound of the couple's argument can be heard carrying through the trees. But nothing prepares them for a forest fire appearing on the horizon. Jack and Wynn outdoor veterans, however, they proceed carefully. But no matter how cautious they are, some things simply cannot be prepared for.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Review of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The glass half full or half empty is a common enough cliché. Appreciate what you have or critical of what's absent, it's a litmus statement about a person's view to the world. And, if Matt Haig's 2020 novel The Midnight Library has any say, it's indicative of something much more.

Nora Seed is a woman living in London. Her life largely directionless, she was briefly in a band, chose to study philosophy at uni, and now in her late 20s works in a record shop earning minimum wage. Likewise single, her only companionship are a couple long-distance social media friends and a cat, Voltaire. But even those circumstances are subject to change, and when they do, Seed elects to end it all. Situation is, however, that she never gets a chance to finish the job. Ending up at the midnight library, she has the opportunity to see life in a way we can only imagine.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review of Tales of the Sun Eater Vol. 1 by Christopher Ruocchio

I read the majority of Christopher Ruocchio's debut novel Empire of Silence with an eyebrow raised in skepticism. It felt retro. It felt tried-and-true. It felt like it was kicking a dead horse rather than a live one. But by the time I'd finished the +/-700 pages, I was surprised to find I'd somehow been won over. Beach read nothing more, I nevertheless was interested in checking out the second Sun Eater volume when it was published. The sum was more than the parts. So what does that world's first collection (i.e. breaking the world into smaller pieces), Tales of the Sun Eater (2021), have to offer?

Familiar territory, Hadrian Marlowe kicks off the collection in “Demons of Arae”. Commanding an army, he is tasked with suppressing a pirate insurrection on an alien planet. The real enemy, however, has yet to show its “demon” head. First-person Hadrian, the story is very comfortable, if not a little over the top. It does, however, complement certain scenes in Demon in White.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Culture Corner: Idiocy on the Loose: Kyle Rittenhouse and American Culture

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial is ongoing. We don't yet know the verdict. If I were in Vegas, however, I would lay odds he will be acquitted. As paradoxical as it is, there seems enough evidence to warrant “self-defense”. Such is the state of America.

Right off the bat: get out of here with politics. We're talking about the individual's decision. Who in their right mind thinks: There are riots occurring in the next state. So, I'll strap on my assault rifle, grab a first aid kit, and jump into the fray. Nothing bad will happen, right? Sorry.  Guns and riots don't mix. It's not altruism, it's stupidity. And its stupidity costing two lives that Rittenhouse will likely be acquitted of.

Review of The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has never allowed his creative output to be confined by anything. From horror to science fiction, fantasy to historical fiction, thriller to action, and other areas, you never know what he will produce next. One interesting vein he’s fond of exploring, however, is real author’s lives via fiction. The Fifth Heart looked at William James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Fires of Eden featured Mark Twain. Drood was a take on the demons potentially haunting Charles Dickens. And with The Crook Factory (1999), we have a view to Ernest Hemingway and his double life beyond writing, helping the US government during WWII.

The Crook Factory is a story told by retired FBI agent Joe Lucas. Half Irish and half Mexican, he has used his heritage for a couple successful missions in Latin America. Getting the call from J. Edgar Hoover at the outset of the novel, he receives his newest mission—something so outrageous he almost can’t believe it. His job is to represent the FBI alongside Ernest Hemingway as they do their counter-espionage part to gather information and hinder the Nazis in the Caribbean. What follows is double-agents, colonial cities, palms and parties, and the blue seas between Cuba and Florida.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Review of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

When you’ve had the best chocolate ice cream you think you've ever had, it puts a new spin on any chocolate ice cream you have later. It can be good, tasty, even highly satisfactory. But there can also be a nagging thought: I’ve had better. Unfortunately for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), I’ve been spoiled.

In structure, A Visit from the Goon Squad is like a food web that’s been chopped up and put out of evolutionary sequence. Rather than the line of dominoes most novels are, Goon Squad moves from this animal to that, bouncing over to this phylum and rank a decade ago, then to this species in the future. Each chapter focuses on a new specific person or situation. There are stories of women, men, rich, poor, black, white, young, old, and everything between—a real spectrum of humanity linked in direct fashion (family or friends) or indirect fashion (same time and space or industry).

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review of The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

I’m about to show off how a real book blogger does it.

The author’s name escapes me as I sit here, but there is one, a famous one from the early 20th century, you know that guy whose name I can’t remember, who said something to the effect “Fiction which does not concern itself with life and death is pointless”. I paraphrase, mightily, but you get the idea. Stories themed beyond mortality do not address the burning question of life, and are therefore of lesser quality. If there is any late 20th century writer who has taken this to heart, it’s Don DeLillo. (Cormac McCarthy also, but this is a DeLillo review, natch.) In his 2001 novel/novella The Body Artist, he brings the idea front and center through the eyes of a performing artist.

The Body Artist is the story of a few months in the life of Lauren Hartke. Married to the famous film director Rey Robles, the story opens with the couple in a quiet but sublimely tense scene over breakfast. More happening than the simple details of toast and coffee, in the next scene, Robles is found dead of suicide in his ex-wife’s apartment. Hartke withdrawing from the world afterwards, she finds solace in an isolated life, that is, until a man reveals himself in the attic one day. Forced to care for the man, Hartke’s life changes directions yet again.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Pandemic

With the COVID situation burning a hole in our understanding of work, society, the world, even existence, what better thing to do than try and relieve some stress by cracking open what many board gamers revere as the granddaddy of all cooperative board games, Pandemic? Is it just what the doctor ordered (har har), or a relic of the past which has since been surpassed by the numerous other coop games on the market today?

In Pandemic, one to five players are charged with finding the cure to a global, viral outbreak. The board a map of the world with major cities interconnected by travel routes, players start by taking on one of five unique roles to fight the virus, then set forth on their globetrotting mission. Set collection combined with action points, players must collectively use their wits to move efficiently around the board knocking back outbreaks, setting up research stations, and collecting the cards necessary to find a cure. There are, after all, three losing conditions compared to only one winning condition.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Review of Island Reich by Jack Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, aka Jon Grimwood, aka Jack Grimwood, may be the best chameleon in fiction (that you’ve perhaps never seen but perhaps should check out). Publishing multiple novels in and among cyberpunk and fantasy, his full name is his fantastika skin. “Jon” is his skin for realist/historical fiction (at least to date), and “Jack” is the skin he has used for his past two LeCarre-esque novels of Cold War espionage. Through these different names Grimwood has proven himself capable of imagining his way through multiple genres in his own, quality way. The name Jack giving things away here, in 2021 he comes at readers with another subtle spy thriller, Island Reich.

While Island Reich moves like a school of minnows, the central story—the biggest minnow—is Bill O’Hagan. Convicted as a thief just as WWII knocks on Britain’s door, he’s given a choice: hang by the neck or put his skills as a safecracker to use for British intelligence. And so it is that as Hitler invades the Channel Islands, Bill is given the fastest agent training possible and airdropped onto the main island Andernay, there to pose as a British aristocrat while finding and cracking an important safe. To tell the rest is to spoil the story, suffice to say that with elements of the British monarchy, American intelligence, and a tight, tense, a detailed historical setting all coming into play, it’s a thrill. (That O’Hagan is not James Bond likewise lends the story a little realism.)