Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review of Queen of the Clouds by Neil Williamson

There are two types of readers: the oblivious and the critical. An oblivious reader takes a story at face value, consuming it with a smile for what it is between the covers, nothing beyond. A critical reader is frowningly analytical throughout the experience, creating theories, drawing conclusions, holding things to (often subjective <wink>) standards, making meta-comparisons, etc. Ignorance being bliss, it’s the oblivious who are gifted real reading enjoyment, while the critical languish in building mental histograms trying to identify and taxonomize and categorize and label and ultimately parse a piece of text. Once you are a critical reader it's difficult to go back, and thus my thoughts felt like a feather buffeted on the wind reading Neil Williamson’s Queen of the Clouds (2022). But I turned the last page smiling.

Queen of the Clouds is the unintended adventures of Billy Braid. A humble, naive apprentice living deep in the mountains, he shows promise helping his master make sylvans (tree-like mannequins who do manual labor). His daily routine is turned upside down when his master receives a special request for one of the arboreal robots from the faraway city of Karpentine. Braid tasked with transporting it to Karpentine once complete, he finds the journey arduous, but nothing compared to actually delivering the sylvan to its intended destination inside the city. Duped by rogues and villians, Braid’s mission quickly unravels, leaving him deep in the mud of Karpentine internal politics. Around him are guilds, visible and invisible, vying for power and control in the city, and Braid constantly finds himself a country boy in the city trying to keep up. It’s only through bumbling luck he finally gets to the bottom of why the sylvan he was to deliver was so important, and just who exactly the Queen is.

Past to Present: Ranking the Stars Wars Films

One of the pleasures of parenthood, my wife and I have been watching the Star Wars movies with our children for their first time over the past few months. (We watched in release order, not internal chronology for those who care.) This means the nine saga movies, as well as the two side projects, Rogue One and Solo. It had literally been decades since I watched several of them, but it was even more refreshing to watch them through my children’s eyes. My adult eyes may do a bit more rolling at certain scenes or moments, but the kids loved it—lightsaber sounds mandatory. Blog fodder if ever there were, re-watching the movies pushed me to put together a top-11 Star Wars movie list. I will start from the bottom (and it’s a deep bottom) and work my way toward the top. Here we go…

11. The Force Awakens – I still remember arriving in the cinema to watch The Force Awakens. After a decade without a fresh Star Wars film, here it was, the continuation of the saga! What could possibly happen after the Empire’s defeat? How will Disney pick up where Lucas left off? Will they (as I secretly hoped) adapt Timothy Zahn’s novels for the screen? What surprises await? It turns out, zero. Disney simply repeated key Star Wars ingredients for a new audience with token DEI elements. Rey = Luke. Poe = Han Solo. Jakku = Tatooine. Snoke = Emperor. Kylo = Vader. Maz = Yoda. BB8 = R2D2, Starkiller Base = Death Star (third and counting—but bigger). Hux = Tarkin. Takodana cantina = Mos Eisley cantina. The First Order = the Empire. The New Republic = The Rebellion. Trench run = trench run. Hiding secret plans in BB8 = hiding secret plans in R2D2. Christ, Rey even found a lightsaber in a dark cave. It’s a nostalgia simulator. Sure, Disney added some elements a modern audience might expect—female lead, more minority characters, etc. But, but, but… I thought the Empire was defeated? I thought Luke was going to rebuild the Jedi Academy? How has Han Solo returned to being a broke smuggler? I thought all the Sith were dead? The film is just soulless rehash looking to go retro in order to please a certain segment of Star Wars fans. It’s too safe. Rather than doing something innovative and exciting, they tried to guarantee box office returns, and in turn damaged the franchise’s legacy. Save for visual effects and the core kernel of Star Wars this would be unwatchable. The fact Harrison Ford asked his character to be killed off is a sure sign…

Monday, May 16, 2022

Non-Fiction: Review of No-Drama Discipline by Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson

My wife and I have two children (seven and five years old as of the time of writing this review). As with all parents, we struggle with bathtime, bedtime, playtime, homework, and the developmental challenges those situations often entail for small children. For the past couple months we’ve really been struggling with our youngest. At any moment, any time, and sometimes multiple times per day she has intense, emotional breakdowns. Tears, anger, shouting, name calling, hitting, breaking things, throwing things, doors slamming—the whole bit. Not liking how I was personally handling these situations, feeling that I had some negative influence in how they were turning out, I decided to do some research. Why were my methods not producing the desired effect? I found No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (2014) by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Thank goodness for this lighthouse in the storm.

The answer to my question: love. I laugh. Of course I love our children, but it’s a matter of perspective and timing. I will not steal Siegel and Bryson’s thunder, nor do their book the dishonor of boiling it down to bullet points. But I can say the philosophy of No-Drama Discipline derives from empathic love, and how we communicate that through understanding and learning in our children’s most difficult moments. Key example: an emotional breakdown is not a moment to lay down the law, rather a moment to model and teach.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review of Memory's Legion by James S.A. Corey

Just as methodically and competently as Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham published the Expanse novels, they likewise put out a similar rhythm of short fiction. Adding layers of lore that fans of the setting and characters can appreciate, the stories perform a number of functions, including shining further light on characters, giving more background for particular settings, and telling stories that characters in the novels occasionally menionted but were never put on the page. These eight stories have been brought together in one place as a coda to the Expanse series, Memory's Legion (2022).

Amos Burton has always been reticent about his past, and in “The Churn” the reader learns why (not to mention the reason behind the tattoo over his heart). A stab at noir given the manner in which Abraham and Corey crank up Amos’ signature reticence, Burton's tale is of turbulent times in Baltimore’s (future) history, and the role the young man played in organized crime and the people closest to him. An event referenced numerous times in the novels, “The Butcher of Anderson Station” finally tells what happened to Fred Johnson during his time in the UN Navy to cause him to be such a polarizing figure—OPA leader despised by the UN. As good a story as one might expect Franck and Abraham to write given the fictional hype, the reader can finally decide for themselves whether Johnson is villain or victim.

Console Corner: Review of Horizon: Forbidden West

Five years ago I did something I never do: I walked into a game shop and bought a AAA video game on its premiere day. In today’s world, this is a huge risk. Most big, AAA titles are not released in polished form. It’s much better for the player to wait six months for the bugs to be worked out and a smooth experience (as intended) to be had. And yet to my surprise, when I got home and popped the game in the console, everything worked. Like Nintendo games of old, I had purchased a fully-fledged, ready-to-go product. And what a product it was.

Of the hundreds if not thousands of games published, Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the top 10 of the PS4 generation, and one of the greatest action rpgs of all time. Guerrilla Games looked at the field, borrowed the best bits and pieces here and there, then mixed it all into a story and world of its own. Horizon: Zero Dawn was influenced by some of the best games of the time (The Last of Us, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Uncharted 4, and others), and by creating its own characters and purpose, produced a game that is still talked about today—to the point a sequel, Horizon: Forbidden West was made in 2022. I also bought it on opening day.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review of The Tower of Swallows by Andrzej Sapkowski

Note: This review of The Tower of Swallows (1997), fourth volume in the Witcher series, is going to assume the reader has read the prior three books.

If you’ve read Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga this far, it’s likely anything I write will change your mind whether to push forward with the fourth, penultimate volume, Tower of Swallows. Then again, Baptism of Fire was such a weak book that you may think twice.

Fear not—or at least only a little, Tower of Swallows is likely the best book of the saga thus far. If the reader has felt a little sea sick trying to follow Sapkowski’s timeline and plotline, this book starts to braid all the pieces together in tighter fashion. It gives readers recognizable plot handles to hold in relationship to one another.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Review of Superluminal by Vonda N. McIntyre

Like many sf writers of the 20th century, Vonda McIntyre opted to take a successful novella and extend it. “Aztecs” was published in 1977, and six years later, readers were able to experience the novel treatment, Superluminal (1983). As with all such revisits, the questions are: how does McIntyre extend the narrative, and does it enhance the experience?

The opening of Superluminal is the novella “Aztecs”—which answers the first question; the novel picks up where the novella left off to tell what happens next. A woman, Laenae, comes to consciousness having recently completed surgery which replaced her heart with a mechanical pump. Necessary for long distance space flight, Laenae has sacrificed her body’s core to be one of the rare few who can call themselves “Pilot”. But that is only the first step. Fully understanding the impact of her decision requires a deeper look at relationships and people who have taken similar decisions as herself.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Review of Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski

Note: This review of Baptism of Fire (1996), third volume in the Witcher series, assumes the reader has read the prior two books.

If there is anything Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series does well, it’s maintain internal consistency. The writing can at times go off on unnecessary tangents, issues with narrative flow pop up, and there isn’t a strong, overarching sense of social setting/place for the reader to relate to, but Sapkowski is at least consistent with these inconsistencies. What then does Baptism of Fire, the bridge book of the series, do to carry forward the Witcher torch?

If anything, Baptism of Fire is the most linear of the Witcher novels—an almost literal bridge from the second to fourth novel. Where the two prior Witcher novels shift in time and place, from this group of characters to that, from this castle to that forest, Baptism of Fire follows Geralt almost entirely throughout. And it’s toward the building of a merry band of men. Like an 80s novel, Geralt and company go from place to place, slowly accumulating a motley crew of elves, dwarves, vampires, and others. There are occasional scenes thrown in here and there to catch up on what is happening in other places in the land (Ciri, the emperor, the magicians, etc.), but by and large the novel is an extended cut-scene of Geralt as team leader.

Console Corner: Review of Railway Empire

I owned a Lionel train set as a child. I set it up and took it down many times, and even built some of my own terrain—bridges, tunnels, crossings, etc. I used to love going to hobby stores and seeing all the possibilities. I owned several magazines and would daydream looking at the immaculate sets people built in their basements. And to this day I think there is still some fascination watching the giant metal machines on rails. Naturally, what better place is there to realize a train dream than video games? Let’s take a look at Railway Empire on PS4.

Railway Empires is, among other things, exactly that: a sandbox to build a railway network to your heart’s content. Bridges, tunnels, freight delivery, express passenger trains, building a business and becoming a millionaire in the process—it’s all there. Much more rural in nature than urban, the game’s environments are broad scale rather than local. Players will be connecting cities rather than stations within cities, and managing many of the big business pieces which complement that—stocks, industry, train maintenance, employees, etc.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Review of Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

I sometimes find myself asking the question: has it all been done? Are there are any truly original stories still being written in the 21st century? Have we seen it all and what’s left is just iterations? Deep in my heart I believe the answers to be ‘yes’. But in order to continue to enjoy the experience of reading, I’ve converted the questions to: how does the author iterate? With R.S. Ford’s novel Engines of Empire the answer to the question is not the same at its outset as it is upon completion.

Engines of Empire is a fast-paced, multi-p.o.v. novel that looks to Game of Thrones for structure and Golden Age sf for content. The story is largely focused on one family (like the Starks) and the dispersion of its members across a kingdom in conflict as tragedy inevitably pulls them apart. But where George R.R. Martin gives the reader reasonably well fleshed out characters, Ford opts for the Edgar Rice Burroughs type of 1D, occasionally 2D, characterization. Plot of prime importance, putting the characters through the paces of capture, kidnapping, conflict, court drama—all the things that generate narrative tension, is priority. For people who like such dynamic, entertainment driven books, the pages will turn fast.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Review of Machines & Men by Keith Roberts

Few contemporary science fiction readers know the name Keith Roberts. Which is a shame. When the history of the genre is written, his name is worthy of the pantheon. Evolving from H.G. Wells rather than Burroughs or Verne, Roberts always begins with the human element before extrapolating in subtly imaginative fashion a tweak to society, technology, environment, and other areas critical to the human experience. While not exemplary of precisely why Roberts is worthy of the pantheon, Machines & Men (1973), Roberts' debut collection, nevertheless shows where it all began.

Consisting mostly of novelette-length stories, Machines & Men is divided into two halves. You guessed it. Kicking off “Machines” and the collection is “Manipulation”. I have a dislike of tele-anything—telepathy, telekinesis, etc. (except teleology). “Maniulation” has them all. Thankfully, Roberts grounds this story of one man and one particular crush he has in psychological reality. More anti-hero than superhero, Roberts questions the use to which a person would put such abilities—when you know that you know that you know, but can do something about it, which is interesting.

Cardboard Corner: Review of World Without End

It’s interesting how habits in life ebb, flow, and evolve. I played board games as a child, not heavily, but we had a small collection. The hobby abandoned throughout my teens and twenties, it wasn’t until my thirties that (apparently) life slowed down enough to put me back at the table looking for social, fun tactile, and tactical experiences. A local music and book shop had a small collection of board games for sale, and one day we bought Worlds Without End (2009). Entirely the opposite of my current, research-based purchases, it was a lark, a whim. My brain seemingly starved of such experiences, we enjoyed the game for just being a game—no context, no media influence, no hype, just a game on the table. What do I think today?

World Without End is based on the (brick of a) novel by Ken Follet of the same name. A 2-4 player competitive game, it focuses on the years of Europe’s black plague. Heavy on resource and hand management with some worker placement, players try to build the city, but still able to do the following: pay taxes, eat, be filial to the church, and heal illness. Like the stereotype of Medieval existence, it’s a tight, starved experience (that is decided by victory points, natch).

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Review of The Evidence by Christopher Priest

As he's gotten older, Christopher Priest has become increasingly a curmudgeon. Aside from the fiction he publishes, Priest's contact with the public is to either promote said fiction, or to whinge about something related to culture or science fiction. It's not becoming, but damn is the man a great writer. To date, the reader rarely found Priest's discontent overtly present in his fiction. With 2016's novel The Evidence, however, the cracks begin to show. But damn is he a good writer...

In its soul, The Evidence is a crime thriller which uses the devices of the genre to actively construct an engaging conspiracy, all the while actively deconstructing the genre with narrative choices intended to call the whole thing into question. While never breaching meta-fictionality, it's nevertheless clear that Priest finds the whole exercise both cathartic (I'll show these mainstream punks that crime fiction is a child's game) yet engaging (I'll show these mainstream punks how to write a truly clever and surprising spot of crime fiction).

Cardboard Corner: Review of Agricola: Family Edition

I am not a fan of Agricola. I don’t hate it, but there are other engine-building-type games I’d rather play. Seemingly an unending parade of barriers, I feel as though the designer tried to fit reality into a game instead of fitting a game into reality. Rather than having the freedom to build the fastest engine from the start, players spend their time butting their heads against the limitations of their current situation until the next round opens up a little more possibility, then a little more—like ships in the Panama Canal moving from lock to lock with the open sea in view. That being said, Agricola is a phenomenally popular game, and given that the theme is very wholesome, I decided to invest in the Family Version for, ahem, the family.

Agricola: Family Edition is a streamlined version of Agricola. Evident in the fact the box is half the size, the number of options is reduced—not to a minimum, but roughly half of the original. Rules are similarly streamlined, but not to the same effect as options in-game. The beating heart of the Family Version remains worker placement: using meeples to take actions within the limitations of the round in an attempt to grow your farm and family. Players spend their time: building a homestead, having children, raising crops, feeding and harvesting animals, all in an attempt to earn the most victory points. Efficiency and optimization of the player’s farm engine is still key to winning, only that the number of paths to that condition are limited compared to the original.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Non-Fiction: Review of The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen

Like many people, I watched the Russian army line up around Ukrainian borders in 2021 and into 2022. They are not going to attack, I said. Putin is posturing. There is no way he will take on the West. He doesn't have the economy to drive this. He has shown himself to be more of a businessman, right? And isn't Russia part of the West? And hasn't the West, as of the beginning of the 21st century, figured out that massive wars are not good for economy? I was wrong, badly wrong. And every bomb or missile that lands in Ukraine, killing people, reminds me. Where did I go wrong? Seeing an honest, realistic interview with Masha Gessen, I looked a little deeper into her background, and found what I may have been looking for: a Putin biography, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012).

The publication date of The Man Without A Face is important. 2012 is after Russia's war in Georgia, i.e. the brutal crushing of Georgian people by Russian military means. It was written after the start of the Syrian Civil War, an event that Russia played an active and vehement role in (razing civilian areas, chemical weapons, and the list goes on). And 2012 is, of course, before Russia's current involvement in Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Console Corner: Review of Lost Words: Beyond the Page

I'm the parent of seven and five-year olds—at least as of the writing of this post. And we sometimes game together. We've played and recommend Never Alone, Far: Lone Sails, Figment, and The Unfinished Swan. (These are games that I recommend for small children, games that require them to use their brains in interesting ways). When I saw Sketchbook's Lost Words: Beyond the Page, I could feel it was a game to add to that list. We've since played it, and yes, the instinct was real.

First and foremost, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a game designed for children somewhere in the 5-9 age range—the age when they are learning to read. It is not a game for adults. I repeat, it is not a game for adults. (I repeat because I have seen at least two reviews which criticize the game for being simple.) When boiled to a skeleton, Lost Words is a single-player puzzle platformer which most often uses words to solve puzzles.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review of When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

One of the most recommendable aspects of China Mieville's brilliant The City & the City is the manner in which he evokes a neo-Soviet setting. The secret-secret police, the gray skies, the government institutions shrouded in uncertainty, the Spartan, concrete lives of people on the street—he captures it well. While taking the scene in a different thematic direction, Neil Sharpson's When the Sparrow Falls (2021) also captures a neo-Soviet feel extremely well.

In the novel When the Sparrow Falls , the Singularity has occurred and humanity's last mortal bastion is a communist nation called the Caspian Republic. Defying the rest of the world, the CR eschews consciousness technology and the people who have uploaded themselves into the virtual world, thus foregoing the physical world. In the CR government apparatus sits Nikolai Scout, a low-ranking state security official who obeys the letter of the law but does not engage the spirit. His personal problems are simply too heavy. Relationships and poverty foremost in his mind, he grinds through his job, no more. But when a famous Caspian poet dies, Scout finds he has a new assignment, that of tour guide to the man's widow. The spin, however, is that the widow is from the non-physical human world beyond.

Console Corner: Review of Innocence: A Plague Tale

Look at the games Naughty Dog has released the past decade and their formula for success is clear: single-player, linear, action/story-based experiences with streamlined rpg elements. Make sure the story is good, channel it via a quality number of set pieces, give players simple but tasty options for interacting with the world, and voila, a success waiting to happen. Recognizing the formula for the potential it has, Asobo Studio created Innocence: A Plague Tale (2019).

But where Naughty Dog have gone down the road of post-apocalypse zombies and Indiana Jones-style action movies, Asobo goes Medieval. Set in Middle Ages France, players take on the role of Amicia, a teenage girl, and her younger brother Hugo as they try to survive the plague, the Inquisition, and something... else that is crashing across the land, wrecking havoc on towns and people. Villagers lock their doors to one another from the plague while the Inquisition's soldiers kill people randomly trying to find Hugo. The siblings journey takes them far from their home and into the company of people they never thought they would meet, all while the world seems to crash down around them.

Monday, March 14, 2022

2021 – Starcraft 2 Year in Review

IEM Katowice has finished, which means another look back at Starcraft II in the prior 12 months. How was the competition? How has the game evolved? What changes have happened on the player scene? Which players shone the brightest? Which matches rocked our world? Let's take a look.

Despite the overall lack of offline tournaments in 2021, the scene remained relatively healthy, and viewers were treated, like every year it seems, to tip-top quality matches. Looking at SCII's business macro, things looked normal, which can generally be seen as good. It's still the most sophisticated, exciting 1v1 esport to watch.

What we didn't see in 2021 does not bode well for the Starcraft II scene. But it must be noted. First is something brewing before 2021: the lack of fresh blood. 2020 did not see an influx of young talent, and neither did 2021. And if anything, only more of the old guard retired or faded from the scene. Sure, a few familiar names returned from the military, and a couple of names which lingered in mediocrity in Europe poked their noses a little higher. But (and it's a big 'but') there are simply extremely few new names coming in and showing strong promise. Where the player scene was in constant evolution the first ten years, the past couple of years, and especially the past year saw evident stagnation.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Bubble Bursts: The Golden Age of Culture in Response to Ukraine

Note: the following article regards Western culture and media in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  But in no way should it be taken as a means of focusing attention beyond the mortal situation on the ground.  What’s happening in Ukraine today is real, and should remain the focus.  Take the following, as with everything on this blog, as spurious to real-world concerns.


For the past several years, the question has often crossed my mind: when will the bubble of culture the West is currently experiencing, burst?  When will the tidal wave of films, books, restaurants and fusion foods, tv series, foreign products, video games, travel and vacation, comics, board games begin to fade?  I now have my answer: when Russia attacks the West.

For those not paying attention, the past 15-20 years will be looked back upon as a Golden Age of Western culture, and to some degree global culture.  With the world at relative peace, the ways in which Westerners spent their excess time and money exploded with options.  Where it was possible 40-50 years ago to read almost all science fiction books released in one year, in 2022 it’s no longer possible, not even close.  A person would need to devote their existence to its consumption, and still not get to the dozens and dozens of other books released.  And that is only science fiction.  All other genres have also exploded, as well as the myriad means of combining and synergizing them.  And this trend only scales larger when looking at all the other ways in which people experience culture and entertainment—tv series, video games, board games, etc.  The quantity of choice overwhelming, and the quality of choice filling the spectrum, it’s indeed a Golden Age. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Review of Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken Macleod

My Ken Macleod needle pings only two points on the spectrum of literature: vanilla or interestingly innovative. And it is truly a coin flip which you'll get whenever a new book is released. The Fall Revolution tetralogy, Intrusion, and Execution Channel are examples of sharply-edged books which make a person excited to discover something new, whereas books like Cosmonaut Keep, Dissidence, and Learning the World have been flat, too easily forgettable experiences. Another way of putting this is: Macleod will always be on my radar as a potentially good read, but it's far from certain how the potential manifests itself. What then does 2021's Beyond the Hallowed Sky, first in a trilogy, do with the needle?

Beyond the Hallowed Sky is set in a future not too distant from our own. Solar system exploration has been pushed forward, and humanity has set up a station in an asteroid above Venus. The impetus for the novel is a strange letter Lakshmi Novak receives one day, inviting her to participate in perhaps the most interesting human project of all time: Faster Than Light travel. What makes the letter truly interesting is that it appears to be from her future self. With a small number of other characters folded into the mix, the narrative takes off, leading the reader across the Earth, through the atmosphere, and to the solar system.

Console Corner: Review of It Takes Two

I still recall being twelve years old, my best friend sitting beside me, and Contra in the Nintendo as we made run after run trying to beat the game together. Two controllers, a two-player game, and two times the fun. These days, however, that local cooperative video game experience of blasting baddies or solving puzzles is a minority. Perhaps indirect commentary on the state of society, I don’t’ know, but I do know that when I see titles like Hazelight’s It Takes Two (2021) pop up on my radar, I snap them up immediately.

Everything in the title, It Takes Two is an offline (or online) cooperative game for two players. A nice balance of puzzle platformer and action, players take on the role of a husband and wife who must work together to get back into their real bodies. Something like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the parents find themselves in a variety of surreal places, needing to use their brains and twitchy fingers to jump, grab, and swing their way to victory. Unlike Contra, however, which was possible to be played single and two-player, It Takes Two can only be played two-player.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Review of Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan

Almost overwhelmingly, novellas offer middle-of-the-road genre consumables for the mass market. But there are exceptions—some sweet, tasty little nuggets to encounter in their catalog. Caitlin Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland (2017), despite its far-reaching milieu of magic-realism, Lovecraftian horror, satanic cults, and outright fantastika is one such nugget. It remains genre, but is genre taken about as far as it can be taken in terms of sophistication and depth.

Like a film chopped up and edited on the cutting room floor, so too does Agents of Dreamland present its story. Told through the eyes of three characters in a variety of places and times, the steady unravel of scenes slowly reveals a man, called the Signalman, trying to put 2 and X together in the hope of understanding strange events occurring in the American southwest. A second, mysterious agent named Immacolota Sexton also enters the scene, providing useful information, but appears to know more than she should about one particular gruesome killing they discover in Arizona. It’s the third character, a cult member named Chloe, whose viewpoint enters the novella to offer cohesion—of a sorts. From cosmic communications to tarot cards, fungus ants to black-and-white film from the early 20th century, the novella covers a lot of ground getting to the bottom of the mystery the Signalman and Immacolota are trying to solve.

Cardboard Corner: Review of 7 Ronin

Based on what I see on Youtube, I am far-far from a board game nerd. Closer to casual gamer, our house does not have massive shelves packed to the gills with hundreds of games. Zero offence to others, but our extra-curricular activities are more varied—to each their own. It will thus be a long time before I ever feel comfortable comprising a list of “Underrated Boardgames”. Such a list implying I’ve played the majority of games and am thus able to distinguish under-the-radar from on-the-radar, it’s going to be an epoch before I consider myself such an expert. But there is one thing I do know: if/when that list is made, 7 Ronin (2013) will likely be on it <wink>.

A 2-player only, area control game, 7 Ronin focuses on a small Japanese village in Kurosawa style. Banditry afoot, the village sees a large group of ninja descending upon it and a small group of ronin rising up to defend it. An asymmetrical game, one side controls the seven ronin, while the other controls the band of ninja. Each turn, players deploy forces behind a screen on their own board, then simultaneously reveal. The deployment choices are then resolved on the main village board. Each of the ronin having a special power, and each of the village areas granting the ninja special abilities, players use their knowledge of the game state to bluff, outwit, and outguess their opponent. Such as it goes for eight rounds. At the end, if all seven ronin are killed, or if certain area-control conditions are met, the ninja win. If all ninja are defeated, or at least one ronin survives to the end of the eighth round, the ronin win.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Review of On the Beach by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach is one of those novels which is not often mentioned these days, but when it is mentioned, it is with solid regard—a book that potentially transcends its time. Other such novels are John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s Death of Grass, Michael Coney’s Hello Summer, Goodbye, and Olaf Stapledon’s The Starmaker. That short list covering the spectrum of speculative fiction, greatest to cheesiest, “solid regard” of books like On the Beach needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s see how much of the grainy white stuff is needed for Shute’s book.

Like George Stewart’s Earth Abides, On the Beach is pastoral post-apocalypse. Set in the aftermath of WWIII, the majority of the world has been wiped out by nuclear war. The story takes place in southern Australia, a place not yet touched by nuclear fallout, and is centered around the lives of four people. The first is the American, Captain Dwight Towers. Piloting the submarine USS Scorpion when the bombs started falling, he now works de facto for the Australian government as there is no US to go home to. Peter Holmes is an Australian officer who has been assigned as liaison aboard the Scorpion, together with another Austrialian, the science officer John Osbourne. And lastly is Moira Davidson, friend of Holmes and young woman at ends what to do with her life. These four people try to rationalize their existence and live normal lives despite the damage they know has been done to the world. Each proves to have their own manner of dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional adversity, but is it enough?

Console Corner: Review of Frostpunk

If there is anything about video games I like (besides the ability to relax and escape from reality for an hour or two), it is experiencing something fresh and new. Since getting an 8-bit Nintendo decades ago, I have sought out variety, from thinky puzzlers to hack-n-slash, rpgs to first-person shooters, and everything else on the video game spectrum, even sports. Until recently, however, there was one type of game I had never tried: strategy/civilization building games. The internets concluded Frostpunk (2018) is one of the best of this type, so I decided to have a go.

Frostpunk is a single-player civ building game where players are tasked with keeping a group of people alive by building the necessary infrastructure. Title appropriate, the setting is a freezing, post-apocalyptic winter, and the technology which evolves over the course of the game is steampunk-ish in nature—a mix of old tech (shovels, wheelbarrows, and wooden buildings) mixed with imaginative tech (automatons, drills, blimps, and the like). Gameplay is organized along a set of ever-expanding goals while the days tick by. “Winning” the game amounts to achieving said goals while keeping your population alive in freezing conditions—at least mostly.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Article: It's Probably Not What You Think: Literary vs Genre Fiction

Note: This post has sat in a folder for almost a year. There is a strong hesitancy to post because instinct tells me I'm overlooking something—that there is a major hole I haven't yet realized. Every couple of months I return to it, tweak a sentence here, simplify a phrase there—but no ideological or structural changes. So, to you my thimbleful of readers, I entrust the finding of holes.

Being predominantly a reader of speculative fiction, and therefore being predominantly a consumer of speculative fiction media, I have for years read the opinions and views of other such readers as to what “literary fiction” is. Why isn't genre award winning book X acknowledged by the mainstream? Those guys don't know what real science fiction is. Once again, they use our tropes to tell a crap story... And so on. There is clearly an us vs. them mentality in play, and it's f#$%^& tiresome. So, this is it—the be-all, end-all. The final word on literary fiction vs. genre fiction. At last you can write to your grandma and tell her the paradigm exists.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Review of The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel

In 2021 there were at least two detective noir novels with science fiction elements released (and likely a dozen more given the state of the industry, but one person can only read so much, alas). The first I read was Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney. A book which wore its influences clearly on its sleeve, McKinney put himself in the awkward situation of being compared directly to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, a comparison that wasn’t always favorable. The second I read was Lincoln Michel’s The Body Scout (2021). What road from the nexus of noir did Michel choose?

Set in near-future corporate America, The Body Scout is the story of the washed up baseball player, Kobo Zunz. A former Cyber League player before it failed as a business, he turned his talents—and cybernetic body parts—to scouting for prospects in the traditional, non-cyber league. Zunz’s brother J.J. is a star playing for one of the richest teams, the Monsunato Mets. Day to day Kobo gets by, smoking large amounts of cigarettes and living vicariously through the success of his brother, a success that has new heights of potential as the Mets reach the playoffs. But when J.J.’s body literally melts before the eyes of the world on television one game, Kobo is forced to get to the bottom of the mystery. His search for answers takes him from the highest offices of ultra-rich CEOs to the low slums of Luddites eschewing body augmentation. With super-pharma and bio upgrades in the game, Kobo gets much more than he was looking for, his own life ending up on the line.

Console Corner: Review of Unravel Two

Short review: Unravel + second player—what’s not to love??

Longer review: Of course, Unravel Two cannot be reduced to so few words. While gameplay remains a family-friendly platform puzzler featuring cute yarnies, there are a handful of changes which evolve the concept—some in positive fashion, some in neutral, but all in a fashion which seeks to add more people to the fun.

Where there was one colorful yarny in the first Unravel, there are two in Unravel Two. Nicely complementing the themes of family and community, Unravel Two must be played two-player, couch co-op. For families, friends, and children, this game fills a niche that has taken a backseat to single-player or MMO games the past couple of decades. Couch co-op is still viable, and Unravel Two shows how via puzzles that require real cooperation.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Review of Normal People by Sally Rooney

What is it about books that win or are nominated for prestigious awards that gets our critic radars spinning twice as fast. If I see a stamp of approval on a novel's cover, my brain seems to double-down on the critique. Seeing Sally Rooney's 2018 novel Normal People had the words “Man Booker” on it, as well as its potentially pretentious title, the radar started whirring.

Normal People is the very personal stories of Connell and Marianne. Pride and Prejudice flipped on its head (aka Lady and the Tramp), Connell is from the blue-collar family, while Marianne the white. Meeting in secondary school in a relatively small Irish county, the two sublimely hit it off. Despite differences in their families, their relationship quickly becomes sexual without either really knowing how or why. In the years that follow, through university and beyond, the pair have an on-again, off-again relationship, a magnet seeming to always draw them back together despite their social or relationship statuses. Something has to eventually give, or does it?

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Review of Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling

It’s taken me a long-long time to realize it, but it’s true. Bruce Sterling is less a writer of stories and more a presenter of extended vignettes of speculative settings. He creates the imaginative space, its ideas and concepts, then mixes in the people who bring it to life. His novels feel more like dynamic tours rather than classic into-body-climax-conclusion arcs. Presenting another such vignette by mixing cyberpunk with global climate change is Heavy Weather (1994).

Heavy Weather is set in the year 2031, a time after which major changes in weather patterns have swept the globe. Devastating agriculture and human health, a new take at life has emerged, one more minimalist yet tech-based. Convalescing in a Mexican clinic is Alex, a young man whose lungs are full of the detritus from the climate fall out. Having received treatment, Alex’s sister Jane decides to kidnap him from the clinic, and bring her onboard her Troupe of storm chasers. Reluctantly becoming a member, he stands in amazement as the Troupe uses the most sophisticated technology humanity has to offer to collect data from the massive tornadoes sweeping East Texas and Oklahoma. It isn’t long before the fever grabs him and he too looks to find the ‘big one’.

Console Corner: Review of Mass Effect 2

One of the greatest games of all time! One of the greatest games of all time! This is the feedback and commentary I often read about Mass Effect 2 when consuming video game media. Owning only a PS4, I kept hoping Bioware would release a remade/remastered version compatible with my console. In 2021 they did—for the whole Mass Effect trilogy, and I went out and bought it. Mass Effect the original game did not really tickle my fancy. Shaky ground, it was an unpolished affair that I struggled to complete. But I knew that. The same people who praised Mass Effect 2 were cognizant of the fact the first game was rough around the edges. Which put all the more expectation behind their opinion of the sequel…

The story of Mass Effect 2 follows loosely on the heels of the first Mass Effect. Shepard, still commanding the Normandy, is with his crew as they patrol for fringe geth when they are suddenly attacked by an unknown assailant. Shepard getting his crew off before the Normandy explodes, he goes down with the ship. But the game is not over before it begins. Shepard wakes up an unknown time later in a new body, and it’s at this point the real story begins: getting to the bottom of who attacked the Normandy and trying to understand what the threat is to Citadel Council and the rest of the civilized universe.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Review of The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

There was perhaps no book I was looking forward to reading more in 2021 than the final volume in Josiah Bancroft’s Babel series, The Fall of Babel. Certainly there is some sentimentality, some honeymoon vibes in the air, but four years on and this, as of the completion of the third book The Hod King, is my fantasy series of the 21st century. While we live in an entirely different cultural state than when books like Lord of the Rings or Song of Ice and Fire dominated (the market seems too diverse and saturated to lean toward one series, for example), the first three books in the tetralogy left me with such belief. Does the fourth and final volume hammer home the thought?

As with the preceding volumes, The Fall of Babel picks up where the previous book left off. Bancroft having split the narrative in The Hod King, readers bounce between a handful of viewpoints—Adam, Voleta, Marya, Senlin, Byron, and so on, which also means bouncing to different places in the tower as the mysteries of the Bricklayer, the Sphinx, and Luke Marat grow deeper. These threads of story slowly but surely braid together as the book builds toward its epic climax, as well as resolution of Senlin’s quest to reunite with Marya.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review of Termination Shock By Neal Stephenson

I have been on Neal Stephenson cool down. After the phenomenal Cryptonomicon and Anathema, followed by the lengthy but meaty Baroque Cycle I was riding high. Then things changed. Reamde was a decent story hidden in a navel (resulting in gazing, natch), and Seveneves, while having some positives, didn’t quite have the soul of those earlier novels. I was put off the Neal Stephenson radar and ignored the novels he released after. For reasons unknown, I decided to check the radar in 2021, and picked up his near-future cli-fi novel, Termination Shock, to see how he’s pinging. Seems loudly and clearly…

Like Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and several other Stephenson novels, Termination Shock is experienced through the viewpoint of several main characters (and features martial arts). The first is queen of the Netherlands, a down-to-earth woman who prefers to be called Saskia. Arriving unannounced in Houston to tour a Texas billionaire’s geo-engineering facility, she discovers it would have been better to phone ahead. Local wildlife disrupting her airplane’s landing, Saskia finds herself in debt to a local invasive species bounty hunter named Rufus. Rufus’s demons in the closet incidentally expunged by the queen’s arrival, he goes on to find gameful employment in his area of expertise. Press secretary to the queen is Wilhelm. His heritage rooted in Indo-China, it goes on to play a role in how things pan out after the meeting with the billionaire. And last, and most mysterious, is Lax. A Sikh born in Canada, he goes to India to find his roots, and in the process becomes involved in the Himalayan border dispute with China. That proves to be the least of his worries as the geo-engineering project goes on to have global, political repercussions.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Review of Fall of Thanes by Brian Ruckley

There may be nothing more divisive in fiction than a fantasy series’ final volume. The reader, having invested hours and hours and hours of their time and imagination into the story, starts to have relationships with the world and its people, and naturally starts to have hopes and expectations. More importantly (if the series is any good), there is some overarching sense of tension that has been building throughout the series, and only the final volume remains to resolve it—to provide the massive catharsis readers have been led to believe will occur. For better or worse, the author’s ability to deliver on this expectation in the final volume often determines the overall series’ success. Running the risk and pulling through with flying colors is Brian Ruckley’s Fall of Thanes (2009), final volume in the Godless World trilogy.

With the failure of the Blood Haig’s assault on the Black Road as well as Aeglys’ ability to recruit despite his psychosis, the end of Bloodheir did not bode well for the people of the Godless World. Fall of Thanes sees this downward spiral reach depths of madness the reader could not have predicted. All across the land, a shadow clouds people’s minds, and subsequently their judgment. The allegiance between the Inkallim and Black Road falters. Court politics in Vaymouth draw knives internally. And Orisian, with K’rina the empty na’kyrin in tow, continues to try to find his purpose in a land smoldering with war and destruction.

Console Corner: Review of Knights & Bikes

There are many ways a video game can be successful. Good story, good mechanisms, good art, good puzzles—just one of these facets done well can rocket a game to fame. In the case of Foam Sword’s Knights & Bikes (2019), it’s the combination of brilliant art and charming story.

Knights & Bikes is a classic adventure. Things start one rainy afternoon on the island of Penfurzy when a girl named Nessa lands with the ferry, looking for a place to sleep. Demelza and her goose happen to be at the pier, and after a little altercation, Demelza welcomes Nessa into her little mobile home where the two bond over video games and nighttime stories. The next day, Demelza introduces Nessa to the amusement park her father owns, as well as the legend of lost treasure the island is famous for. But in the process of giving Nessa a tour, something happens. A bulldozer digging a hole goes crazy, unleashing all kinds of ghosts and spirits. The girls having to fight for their lives, they realize that the only way to stop all the mad things from happening is to work together to find the treasure and put the evil spirits away.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Review of Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney

The hazy, distant, unreliable parts of my memory tell me that as a teen in the 90s I watched an animated series for adults that was part of CBS’s evening schedule. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Rick & Morty, etc., etc., are now part of mainstream culture, but back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, it was almost an unheard of thing: an adult cartoon in a time slot usually reserved for family sitcoms like Major Dad or other such rubb—ahem, shows. The series sticks in my brain because it was underwater, and the cast of characters, anthropomorphized fish, yes. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now check my dear ol’ memory, and indeed there was a show, Fish Police (only three episodes before getting the axe.) Underwater detective work the name of the game, Fish Police came to mind while reading Chris McKinney’s novel Midnight, Water City (2021).

Midnight, Water City starts, as many classic mysteries do, with the discovery of a murdered body, that of super scientist Akira Kimura. The main character, an unnamed detective, is first on the scene, and having known her at various times in the past, makes it his personal mission to find the killer. A famous recluse, Akira discovered the asteroid heading toward Earth and put in place the technology which prevented it from shattering our globe. Humanity nevertheless was forced to move—not underground but below the sea. The detective must traverse Water City searching for clues, interviewing suspects, all to get to the bottom of the mystery.