Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Review of The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

First contact is an established sub-genre of science fiction. Humans arriving on an extra-terrestrial planet, chance meeting in space, or aliens arriving on Earth, innumerable such stories have been written in the century+ of sf. But what if the ”aliens” were with us all along? Such is the first question Ray Nayler's The Mountain in the Sea (2022) asks. The second it asks is: how would a fully corporate, technology-saturated world deal with that?

Set in a near-future of slightly altered national boundaries and nation states/business enterprises,The Mountain in the Sea is a braid of three character strands. First is Ha, a Vietnamese scientist who has been sent by her corp DIANIMA to a remote, heavily guarded Vietnamese island to do research. Specializing in marine biology, she finds herself in the company of the world's only sentient android investigating a strange underwater phenomenon involving octopode. Second is Rustem, a master hacker living under the radar in the Istanbul region. One of the world's best, he agrees to a hack job from an ultra rich but mysterious buyer, and ends up getting in over his head—almost. And lastly is Eiko, a slave worker aboard an AI captained fishing vessel called the Sea Wolf. Guarded by well-armed humans as the ship plies the South China seas, Eiko keeps his head down, waiting for his opportunity to escape.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Flick 'em Up

There are several motifs that cross medium regularly and often. Space adventure, knights & dragons, vampires—these and many other ideas appear in films, books, video games, music, and yes, board games. From bluffing game to economy management, so too has the wild west made its appearances. But nothing would seem to unleash the potential for cowboys and bandits like a flicking/dexterity game. Flick ‘Em Up (2015) is out to prove the theory right.

Flick ‘em Up is a game for 2-10 players (10 players not recommended, 2-6 is ok). Shootouts at the OK corral in finger-flicking form, each team has five plastic cowboys (or bandits, depending on your side), and need to meet the objective of the chosen scenario. This might be stealing X gold from the bank, or killing the sheriff/bandit chief, or protecting a certain building, or something else. The game comes with ten scenarios. It also comes with everything you need—cactuses, bales of straw, general stores, fences, banks, etc. to make your own little town to have a shootout in, or, from another perspective, assemble the chosen scenario.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Review of The John Varley Reader by John Varley

It's time for a behind-the-scenes look at Speculiction, to pull aside the glamor of everyday (ahem) posting and see the nitty gritty of how such a well oiled, mainstream blog runs.  Indeed, I keep a txt file titled: “To complete sf journey”. In the file is a list of authors and their books I would like to read before saying that I am no longer interested in reading anything else by them. Some authors are not included on the list given their entire oeuvre is of interest, e.g. Brian Aldiss, or, they've already been removed as I've had my fill, e.g. Alastair Reynolds. I don't purposely go through the list like a machine, but when the mood strikes me I take a look and choose a book. The mood apparently right, I saw there was only one entry remaining under John Varley: his de facto best-of short fiction entitled The John Varley Reader (2004). Here we go, one step closer to completion.  Whatever that means.

Before getting to the fiction, one important note about the Reader's non-fiction: Varley wrote individual introductions for each selection. For fans of the author, people who have likely already read the stories collected, Varley goes beyond a sentence or two to give the collection value. Some featuring several paragraphs and some several pages, Varley rhapsodizes on inspiration, providing context socially, ideologically, and historically for each story.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Non-fiction: Review of Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has repeated often enough that his film-making days are essentially behind him, and that he wants to start devoting time to other projects. Good on his word, he has produced a novelization of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and in 2022 his first piece of non-fiction, Cinema Speculation. Filled with epic dialogue, blood splatter, and norm-challenging scenes—at least proverbially? Let's see.

Cinema Speculation is three things: a bit of indirect biography, a bit of film history (primarily Hollywood 1950-80), but mostly analysis/critique of the films Tarantino considers critical from the 70s—Bullitt, The Getaway, Dirty Harry, Deliverance, Rocky, and Taxi Driver among them. It's a pet project as only somebody like Tarantino could get away with.

And it's well written. The voice/tone viewers are familiar with in Tarantino's films comes across in the book—not precisely in suave one-liners or weighted dialogue, rather in the mindset which believes such dialogue is critical to a film's success. Tarantino's spirit is fully alive on the page even if it's being applied in a different fashion.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Sinister Motives, deluxe expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game

I was not a comic book reader as a child, and as an adult I still am not. Nevertheless, I know who Spider Man is. He is a popular enough cultural icon to have seeped his way into even my memory. And lo and behold, the Marvel Champions core box does contain Spider Man, so popular is he. And in the core box he does what Spider Man does—slings webs, ties up villains, and delivers swinging attacks. Wait, what's that you say? There's more spider men and spider women out there? My simple brain is getting confused. Let's take a look at Sinister Motives (2021), fourth campaign expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game.

Sinister Motives is a Spider-centric campaign. But Spider Man, at least the Peter Parker version, plays a mild mannered role. Instead of Peter, MJ, and Aunt Mary, we get Miles Morales, Billy Braddock, Gwen Stacy and other characters who came later in the Spiderverse. Strangely enough, however, they are still fighting Sandman, Mysterio, Vulture, Octopus, and other villains who... came earlier in the Spiderverse—right around the time of Peter Parker, interestingly. Something's crooked here—something sinister? Let's push on to see more of the contents.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Review of redRobe by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy is what put his name on the genre map—at least temporarily; the winds of change have evolved genre to the point long-term recognition is possible now only in niches. But before Raf and his near-future, alternate-history Turkish empire became a thing, Grimwood was exploring settings more recognizably cyberpunk. Through the first four novels of his oeuvre one finds the aesthetic front and center. It's only in the fourth, the subject of the review here, that hints of what's to come in Arabesk are made clear. Let's take a look at redRobe (2000).

Looking like a character straight from Japanese manga, Axl is spiky-haired young man living in a Mexico City of the near future who gives zero fucks for himself let alone other people. Physically augmented with various kit and a killer for hire, redRobe opens with Axl going out on a hit. His pistol possessing helpful AI, together the two take down the target. But things get twisted in the aftermath with Axl being taken into custody, his gun on the loose. Requesting a papal audience as his only hope of reprieve, Axl gets it—at least so he thinks. Soon after the rebellious young man is sent to a man-made planetoid to investigate where the Vatican's coffers disappeared to.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Zombie Kidz: Evolution

A legacy board game for kids? How does that work? Stickers. Ahh, I see…

But I simplify too much. Zombie Kidz: Evolution is more than just stickers. It’s Bicycle Boy and Lightsaber Girl and their friends protecting their school from their zombified teachers. Now that sounds like kids fun.

Zombie Kidz is a 2-4 cooperative game in which players attempt to lock the four gates before all the zombies infiltrate the school. On their turn, players roll a special zombie dice to see where the first zombie in the queue will spawn. After, they are able to move one space with their character and kill one zombie. If two players find themselves at one of the four gates, they high-five, put a lock on it, and go back to killing zombies. If all four gates have been locked, the players win. If a player needs to put a zombie on the board but there are none left in the queue, the players lose. That simple—at least at first.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Review of The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories ed. by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang

I have soft spots in my heart and mind for Chinese poetry, literature, and philosophy. While I do not review them here, a pair of shelves in my home library are devoted to Daoist writings, Li Bai, Du Fu, Lin Yutang, and other irreplaceable pieces of Middle Kingdom culture. It's thus difficult for me to turn away from recent years' anthologies of Chinese science fiction and fantasy translated into English. Such is the reasoning for picking up The Way Spring Arrives ed. by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang (2022).

The Way Spring Arrives was purchased virtually sight unseen. It wasn't until encountering the first essay about a third of the way through that I learned the anthology was an all-female production. (Yeah, I know, I didn't look at the cover.) In other words, it wasn't obvious the content was trying to be “woke”. This is a a good thing. Some of the essays included in the collection, they are another thing, but the stories themselves do not wear an obvious agenda on their sleeves.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dixit

Coconut. You either love it or hate it. A specific flavor, I’ve yet to meet a person on the fence about it. And indeed, there are just some things in life which have no middle ground. I can’t help but feel Dixit (2008) is one such board game. Grooves with your mentality, and it’s coconut cake with coffee. Confused as to what all the fuss is about, best move on to another game. So what could make it a coconut groove for you?

I’ve thought about the question, and I think the answer is a like of poetry—or at least an appreciation of the layered possibilities of imagery and metaphor. In Dixit, 3-6 players look at pictures—sorry, wonderfully delightful and imaginative images—to try to match them with clues given. At the beginning of the game, players are dealt a hand of six cards. The first player secretly chooses one from their hand and announces a clue. It can be a word, a sound, a song, a color—anything that can somehow be matched to the image on their card. The other players then secretly select the card from their hand which reminds them most of the clue given. The cards selected are all put face down in a pile, shuffled, and laid out randomly, face up in front of the players. The players then guess the card they think is the first player’s card. If everybody guesses the first player’s card, the players get points and the first player gets no points. If nobody guesses the first player’s cards, the players get points and the first player gets no points. If there is a mix of guesses, points are awarded to everyone, with bonuses. First player then rotates to the next player, and the process is repeated until someone reaches 30 points and becomes the winner.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review of What We Can Know about Thunderman by Alan Moore

Note: this novel is not sold individually at the time of this review. It is included in the short story collection Illuminations: Stories by Alan Moore.

For the unaware, Alan Moore is one of the most celebrated comic book/graphic novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. Coming to the foreground in the 80s and 90s, a time far removed from the heyday of Superman and the dime store superheroes of the boomer generation, Moore has made a name for himself with darker, more mature material for people interested in the medium beyond muscular men wearing leotards. Decades of time in the industry giving him a unique perspective, in the novel What We Can Know about Thunderman (2022) readers get that perspective, or rather perspectives, on the people who make the comic book superhero world spin.

What We Can Know about Thunderman is the sliced and diced, semi-fictional history of a comic book series called “Thunderman”. By necessity “semi-fictional”, Moore utilizes fictional IPs, including the titular Thunderman, but parallels the real world evolution of the comic book industry with the sharpest, most snarky of wit.

Console Corner: Review of Days Gone

In case you were living under a rock, zombies are a major thing in the past decade of entertainment. A common device in books, tv series, films, and yes video games, the undead are everywhere. Their sources are myriad—viruses and plagues, asteroid strikes and fungi, but ultimately the dead walk, slavering after red human blood through ravaged and despoiled landscapes. In the video game world, The Last of Us has, in most ways, set the bar for what a zombie game is/can be. What then could the industry hope to add to the genre? Let's see what Days Gone (2019) by Bend Studios is all about.

Days Gone is a single-player action rpg set in the near future after a pandemic has destroyed the majority of humanity and loosed a flood of “freaks” onto the world—zombies yearning for meat, any meat. It is the story of a former motorcycle gang member, Deacon St. John who, at the outset of the pandemic, makes the fateful decision to put his wife on a helicopter to safety so he can tend to his best friend, Boozer, who has been stabbed in the chaos. While successfully keeping Boozer alive, he never sees his wife again. Roaming the rainy Oregon wilderness together, Boozer and St. John have managed to stay alive for two years when the game begins. The pair now are now Drifters, bikers who make a living hunting freaks for bounties. Things take a sideways turn one day when Boozer is attacked by a cult, severely injuring his arm. Needing to do what he never wanted to do again, St. John must settle down in order keep his friend alive, and that means taking on the most dangerous jobs.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Review of Emergence by C.J. Cherryh

The driving forces behind the past fifteen—fifteen!!—Foreigner books have finally been put to rest. The Shadow Guild has been defeated and an accord has been reached with the Kyo protecting all sides for the future. Where could Cherryh possibly take the Foreigner series next with Emergence (2018)? To be blunt, Emergence does not directly answer that question, but does at least hint...

Emergence spends half of its calories putting footnotes on the Shadow Guild's attempt at a coup. (After fifteen books, I hope this is the final time we have to read about the Shadow Guild.) The novel starts with Cajeri, Uncle Tatesegi's house in the countryside, and yet another attack in the night on the house by shadowy people. There is a slightly different feel to this scenario given what has transpired. But yes, you've been here before—two times, if my count is correct. And though it's brief, yes, Bren's battle bus likewise makes another appearance.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Burgle Bros

As with so many of my favorite books and games, I’ve put off writing this review for some time. Irrationally worried about putting into words the reasons why a game is good, I don’t want to “destroy” it. In an attempt to put irrationality aside, here is my review of Burgle Bros (2015).

I suppose the label is “thematic”, but whatever you want to call board games which pave the way for players to imagine themselves in the scenario, that’s what Burgle Bros is. More than just an experience, however, the game also nails the sweet spot of fun. I distinguish because, Russian Railroads might be a great stock simulator (for the right audience), but damn is it complex. Not too heavy, not too light, not 1:1 to reality but certainly capturing the sentiment, Burgle Bros is a great way for 2-4 players to cooperatively throw off the day to day burden of being a virtuous and nice person and do what they’ve always wanted to do: be a high class thief and rob high-rises.