Sunday, May 29, 2022

Review of The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier

I’ve heard it said that science fiction is a “literature of ideas”. I never liked this. All literature is ideas. Thus, I would paraphrase to say science fiction is a literature wherein ideas that do not (yet) exist in reality often take priority over the realism of character, emotion, dialogue, etc. After all, alien species, extraterrestrial planets, radical technology, and alternate forms of society often receive more attention from science fiction writers than the characters around them. Science fiction by default, Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly (2022) nevertheless subverts this mode by putting its weight behind typically less-prioritized elements—ideas, as they were.

To say precisely how The Anomaly is science fiction is to spoil the novel. Therefore, it is a good time to pause and say if this is one of the first reviews you have read of The Anomaly, be cautious reading additional reviews if you are concerned about plot spoilers. The novel hinges around an “idea” that is revealed at about the halfway mark. I have read reviews which discuss it in nonchalant fashion, but be aware it is the hook on which the plot is hung.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Review of The This by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is that maddening sportsman who has trophies on the shelf to show he is a winner but doesn’t always show up to play. With an irregular training scheme and dynamic mentality, he instead depends on innate talent to win matches. Naturally, this results in inconsistency; he’s not always a threat for the podium. For the reader, this means they never know what they are going to get with Roberts—certainly one type of appeal. With 2022’s The This we get the chance to A) test the accuracy of Google’s search algorithm, and B) answer the question: has Roberts once again channeled his innate talent to make a run for the winner’s circle, or is it just another quiet bowing out in the group stage?

Working with Robert’s love of θ, we get The This. After a surreal, cosmic cycle to open the novel, the book settles into the life of Rich Rigby. A typical 30-something male in the mid-21st century, Rich spends his days waiting for freelance writing gigs, playing video games, indulging in internet porn, and of course, thumb-fucking his mobile phone into loneliness. Almost all of his waking life spent online, he becomes interested in a breakthrough technology that saves users time by installing tech in the brain. Text messages, online searches, etc. no longer require tiresome finger movements. Such activities can all be done mentally, thus freeing users’ hands to perform other useful activities. The name of the tech is The This. While Rich is initially skeptical, the corporate forces that be eventually win him over, broadening his horizons in ways every major, human technical breakthrough has: for better and worse. But such blasé commentary is not Roberts’ point. Read on to find out.

Cardboard Corner: Race to the Treasure

Race to the Treasure (2012) caught my eye as an Amazon recommendation while browsing small children’s games. Reading further, the voices in support of the game came from too many different corners to be just “coincidence”. So, I splashed the cash. And since playing innumerable times with my children (aged 3 and still holding some interest at age 6 though fading), it seems the voices were right.

Race to the Treasure is a simple, cooperative logic game for small children. Players work together to build a path from the starting square, across a grid, to a treasure square. Collect all three keys and get to the treasure first, the group wins. Take too much time, and the ogre will get the treasure before you. Simple as that!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Review of Dead Space by Kali Wallace

Over the years I have paid less and less attention to science fiction and fantasy awards. It’s become normal to celebrate vanilla, or laud politics over quality or innovation. But occasionally I will peek, and one award I have lingering attention for is the Philip K. Dick Award. While producing its share of stinkers, it has traditionally looked beyond the mainstream, making it a potential gold mine. Rudy Rucker’s Software, Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing are examples of PKD award winners. Winning 2021’s Award is Dead Space by Kali Wallace. Why not have a look?

Dead Space is a locked room mystery set in a cyberpunk solar system. ‘Locked asteroid’ the better descriptor, the majority of Hester Marley’s investigation takes place deep in space inside a 15km-long rock being mined for valuable minerals. Marley an AI expert, her initial intentions of helping set up a colony on Titan were set aside when terrorists attacked and killed the majority of the expedition. Left with multiple bodily prosthetics and deep in debt, Marley has become an indentured servant of Parthenope Enterprises, one of the largest solar system corporations. Thus, when a dead body turns up at their mining operations inside said asteroid, it’s Marley they send to investigate. Little to her knowledge she is stepping beyond the corporate and into the violently political.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Non-Fiction: Review of iGen by Jean M. Twenge

There is more than a grain of skepticism in my view to generational analyses. Boomers do this while Gen X that. Gen X focuses on __X__ versus Millennials who want __Y__. And so on. My skepticism results from an understanding that we are all fundamentally human. Despite the advances in technology, living standards, medicine, etc., the blueprint for homo sapiens has not changed. We are all psychological, epistemological, physical, and emotional beings, not to mention every generation complains about the prior generation being too lazy, liberal, etc. And yet there are also grains of truth to generational analyses. There is no question that the youth of the West today are less hardened to the world. There are too many separate but common occurrences across culture that are markedly different to those just a few decades ago. Looking to highlight the latest generation of youth and the role screens/internet play in their lives and society is Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us (2017).

iGen focuses on people born between 1995 and 2012 in the West, i.e. the first generation for whom life without smartphones is unknown. It offers comparisons to some of the prior, commonly referred to generations—the aforementioned boomers, gen-x, etc., while breaking down religious views, willingness to confront opposing views, emotional security, resilience, perceived age (vs actual), expectations, social time, sexual trends, and a variety of other areas.

Cardboard Corner: Quirky Circuits

I would not describe my family as a “board game family”, but certainly we have a small collection which gets played a couple of times per week. Cooperative, competitive, and otherwise, we look for fun experiences that we all enjoy, and, if dear ol’ dad has a say, experiences which might secretly develop my little ones’ minds. In rather typical online fashion, I saw a recommendation for Quirky Circuits (2019) that seemed interesting. I had a look at a couple reviews. It seemed to be something which fit my family—and their development potential, and so we picked it up. Let’s have a look.

Quirky Circuits is a cute little cooperative game that sees players working (silently) together to program robots to perform a wide variety of tasks. Gizmo is a cat vacuum looking to hoover up dust bunnies. Rover is a robo-dog looking to dig up old bones. Lefty is a sushi-line chef. And Twirly is a backyard bee, helping you with your gardening. Each robot having its own special deck of cards and own scenarios, on their turn players are dealt five random cards. Working within the limitations of the scenario, players silently play cards from their hand face down, trying to guide the robot through a grid to accomplish the scenario’s objective. The trick is, the amount of information available to the other players is limited, meaning some mind reading is needed. Let the robot’s battery run out, you lose. Good at estimating what cards were played and what cards need to be played, you have a chance at winning—and you don’t need to be silent about that.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review of Queen of 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 Clouds (2022). But I turned the last page smiling.

Queen of 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 additional light on some main characters, giving more background for particular settings, and telling stories that characters in the novels occasionally mentioned but never appeared 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.