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.