Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Review of A Touch of Strange by Theodore Sturgeon

In the fight to remain ashore as the waves of history wash things away, Theodore Sturgeon is clinging to the sands by a finger or two. Approaching fantastika more from a literary perspective than genre, such is fate for the concern of human nature. In an attempt to let Sturgeon keep his grip a bit longer, let's look at one the writer's best works, A Touch of Strange (1958).

For a writer who wrote predominantly short fiction, A Touch of Strange is a key point in Sturgeon's ouevre. Though containing only seven stories, it showcases the author in or at peak form. “Mr Costello, Hero” opens things on a quiet note, however. It is the story of a spaceship’s purser and his relationship with a fellow crewmen, the titular Mr. Costello. Arriving at their destination planet, the purser runs into a strange cult who believe everything—everything—must be communal. Such an economic philosophy not to the purser’s taste, he nevertheless finds himself the subject of Mr. Costello’s silver tongue. Not the greatest story contrasting freedom of choice with social obligation, but a solid stab.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Review of Kingdoms of Death by Christopher Ruocchio

This being the review for the fourth book in a space opera series, I think I can skip the preamble and get right to the heart of matters: does this book carry forward the momentum of previous books by keeping things consistent yet fresh? Yes. If that's all you wanted to know, you can safely go to your friendly local bookstore and buy a copy. For those who want more, here it is.

Kingdoms of Death (2022) picks up the main storyline a century after Demon in White. Marlowe has been sent to the front to fight the increasingly larger and more dangerous hordes of Cielcin. The swarm grows as their mission to eliminate humanity from the universe comes closer to fruition. Marlowe and his desperate band find themselves in a firefight, but live to tell the tale. Manpower running low, Marlowe is asked by the Emperor himself in the aftermath of the battle to go an isolated human group, the Lotherians, and request help in battling the Cielcin. Marlowe accepts, and little does he know how drastically the mission will alter his life's course.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Manila

If I tell you the theme of the game is Filipino fruit boats being poled to port, you’d probably hesitate then ask “What else you got?” But that would be to dismiss Manila too quickly. If you and your family are interested in race betting games similar to Camel Up! with an added layer of depth, this is certainly worth a look.

In Manila, 3-5 players (the more the merrier) play the role of bettors, hazarding their money on Filipino fruit boats, and whether they will make it to port safely or capsize. Dice determining the ebb and flow of success, there is a distinct craps feel—placing meeples, collecting on winning bets, and looking at what your bank still holds in terms of possibility. The process repeated multiple times, lady luck wanders around the table, bestowing or withholding to the players’ delight and dismay. With a simple stock market mechanism built into the foundation of the game, it’s the player who balances their risk and losses most effectively that wins.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review of Black Friday 2050 by Joshua Krook

While George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Margaret Atwood's dystopian visions possess oodles of (dark) soul and story, I'd argue the primary reason they linger in cultural memory are the places of true human fear they sting in our psyches. (Well, maybe not Putin's, or Trump's, or Kim Jong Un's, or...) And in the past two decades we have seen an explosion of dystopian fiction, each likewise trying to touch such places in our minds. Coming at readers with the latest hell-on-Earth is Joshua Krook with Black Friday 2050 (2022).

The year is—you guessed it—2050 and everyday man Jack Preston is going about his life. Married to a promising young woman and an up-and-comer at his corporate job, things seem to be going well in his tech-saturated life. But things get turned upside down when an accident relieves Jack of dopamine dumps. Forced into treatment by his corporation, Jack finds himself in a new mindspace, one that calls into question everything he knows about his everyday life, and the pleasures therein.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review of Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald

I am one of many readers with praise for the entertainment qualities of Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark trilogy. While the third volume went to the well one time too many, the series nevertheless pokes its head above the crowded fantasy market for its solid lines and vibrant colors. There is little fantasy can do these days to be original, so McDonald put his effort into the basics of good writing: well-paced plotting, splashes of magic and action, and characters that were rendered with enough dimension for the reader to be interested. What then, could McDonald do for the follow up? Let's see what Daughter of Redwinter (2022) is all about.

Superficially there isn't much which distinguishes either McDonald's Raven's Mark trilogy or this, the opening volume in the Redwinter trilogy. Secondary worlds, wizardly magic, swords and sandals, kings and knights, battles, yadda, yadda, yadda. Daughter tells of a young woman, Raine, discovering magical powers in a Medieval setting. Yeah, you've heard of it before. But again, McDonald breathed a reasonable degree of life into the Raven's Mark to give it something the average series of such caliber does not. I'm less certain how much breath Daughter of Redwinter has.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Marvel Champions: The Card Game

In case you haven't noticed, this blog has a penchant for Fantasy Flight Games. I am one of thousands of thousands of people drawn to their customizable card games, including the cooperative games Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror. Seeing that the geniuses at FFG had created another cooperative card game, it was almost impossible not to at least try. Let's see if Marvel Champions: The Card Game (2019) carries the magic forward.

Focusing on the goodies and baddies of the Marvel universe, each game of Marvel Champions features 1-4 players selecting a hero and working together to defeat a super villain. The heroes win by knocking the villain's hit points to zero, and the villain wins by either advancing their main scheme to completion or reducing all the heroes' hit points to zero. That is the super high-level view. One level deeper, players use ally, support, and upgrade cards to build decks in support of their heroes.  These cards provide various bonuses, weapons, abilities, actions, effects, etc. in addition to their hero's basic skills.  The villain likewise has their own deck of cards (which also can be customized by the players, depending how difficult they want the game to be). This includes upgrades for the villain, one-time effects, and additional schemes that force players to focus on more than just damaging the villain in order to win.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Review of The New Cyberiad by Paul Di Filippo

If I were to assign the task of writing a story in tribute to Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad to any contemporary sf writer, there is a very short list erudite yet gonzo enough to pull it off. I think Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, and possibly Bruce Sterling could. (Catherynne Valente has already, and it’s worth it.) But the first name on my list would be Paul Di Filippo. In accordance, his novelette “The New Cyberiad” is everything that Lem’s stories of the two constructors Trurl and Klapaucius are, right down to the prose, all the while making space for itself.  (Just, ignore the title. :)

Ennui has rendered the two constructor bots, Trurl and Klapacius, like unto sunbathers on the beach of space. At the outset of the story, they moan about having nothing to do, and thus decide to inject a little dynamism into their lives by resurrecting humanity—an interesting project, indeed. From its wild lexicon to esoteric ideas, the ensuing story is as much in the spirit of Lem as is possible: laugh-out-loud funny yet effortlessly profound.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Review of Appleseed by Matt Bell

The political climate being what it is in 2022, there is extreme debate over the environment. Have humans caused global warming, is it part of nature's cycle, or somewhere between? Should humans set certain expectations on capitalism for the sake of the environment long term? Should governments which seem to take less interest in the environment bear larger responsibility for global warming? And I'm sure philosophers are asking the question: is it possible for humanity to collectively organize an environmentally sustainable future? Tackling all of the above (and more) in science fiction form is Matt Bell's Appleseed: A Novel (2021).

Cli-fi for the 21st century, Appleseed plays off the American legend of Johnny Appleseed from near-future to far-future perspectives. It answers the philosophers' question by saying: no, humans cannot stop the inevitable, Aztec-esque growth into non-sustainability, and will collapse for it. Told in three strands of story, the first is a few years down the road wherein global warming has driven major political and physiological change. The global structure virtually collapsing, power remains with the corporations—entities which can offer the basics of life through economic power. Bands of non-corporate humans roam the wilds, scavenging and surviving off the corporate grid. One such man is John. A former biologist turned survivor, his tale underpins how the world becomes as it is in the second strand. A sentient faun—yes, sentient faun—roams icelands in a gadget-loaded crawler looking for signs of life. Self-promulgating, death means nothing to the faun. He needs only to survive long enough to get back to his crawler to grow a new body, memories and mind intact. The third strand is a far-future Johnny Appleseed. Another sentient, faun-like creature, he and a brother roam Ohio planting apple trees, having mythical, fantastical experiences along the way.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Review of The Book of Dreams by Jack Vance

We've done it, reached the fifth and final book in the Demon Prince series, The Book of Dreams (1981). The series has taken us from secretive evil to killing machines, subtle authoritarianism to petty egoism. Where then does The Book of Dreams take us? To deep-seated childhood issues...

The fifth and final demon prince for Kirth Gerson to take down is Howard Alan Treesong. When an anonymous person submits a photo to Gerson's magazine claiming to feature Treesong, Gerson uses his position to start a contest to name all the people in the photo. Throughout the days that follow, most of the people are identified. But a couple remain enigmatic—people known by multiple names. One entry takes Gerson to a distant planet, and deep into the past of Howard Alan Treesong. Question is, is it deep enough to stay alive and get revenge?

Cardboard Corner: Review of Undaunted Normandy

Are you tired of endless pages of rules? Have you had enough digging through bowls of tiny chits to find the exact acronym you need? Weary of back-and-forth over the table discussing the finer points of a gray rule? Are your thumbs sore from flipping pages, trying to locate that specific reference which confirms your side of the argument but you just can’t seem to find it? Have big, heavy war games finally overstayed their welcome in your basement? Look no further than Undaunted: Normandy (2019) – War Game-lite.

Yes, my friend, Undaunted: Normandy is a light/mid-weight war game. A 2-player-only competitive experience, it takes 30-40 minutes. Depending on the scenario, the players will scout, shoot, machine gun, mortar, and command their way to their side’s asymmetrical objective. One player taking on the role of the Americans and the other the Germans, choose the scenario, set up the modular board and soldiers, and start shooting—ahem, playing. Deckbuilding the primary mechanism, at the beginning of the round players will draw four cards and bid for initiative. The player who wins will then be able to play any or all of the remaining cards in their hand—scouts, riflemen, officers, machine gunners, etc. If they are unlucky, or if their opponent has been stuffing their deck, there is also the possibility of having Fog of War cards in hand—cards intended to clog up the player’s card engine. Naturally, first player to achieve their objective, wins.