Monday, April 23, 2018

Review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Documenting some of them himself (in a journal later published as an exegesis), the issues Philip K. Dick was dealing with in his personal life are known.  Hallucinations to transcendental visions, suicidal thoughts to drug use, marital troubles to metaphysical doubts, these elements were reflected in Dick’s fiction in direct and indirect form.  But they were always integrated in abstract, fictional fashion that made the story to hand, unique. That is, until 1981’s V.A.L.I.S.

The closest Dick got to autobiography in his fiction, VALIS is the personal and spiritual journey of Horselover Fat (‘Philip Dick’ if Greek is used to translate the first name and German the last), told through the eyes of his friend, the writer Philip Dick.  Lost in life at the start of the novel, Fat is dealing with a broken marriage, a suicidal friend, and lack of spiritual conviction regarding the reality of reality.  Events triggered when the friend eventually kills herself, Fat falls into a downward spiral.  Believing he is mad, Fat shares some of his ideas with his friends Philip and Ken, and starts keeping a journal of his thoughts on metaphysics and religion, particularly his belief that he was contacted by an alien god-mind in the form of a strange pink light.  In and out of mental institutions, Fat remains lost in life, that is until he learns he may not be the only one who has seen a pink light.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review of Age of Assassins by R. J. Barker

We are now somewhere in the middle of the fantasy shrapnel cloud that exploded some time around the release of the Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings films.  As pieces whiz by with greater frequency, the titles have become meaningless blurs—The Dragon’s Sword, A Warrior’s Oath, and Shield & Throne are titles I just invented but could easily be on the market somewhere.  Fantasy’s covers have stretched further and further apart—like a waistline after pasta and beer—as writers worldbuild ad nauseum.  Its clichés and stereotypes have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to the point subversion is almost meaningless.  Its low roads have been ridden hard, and its high roads occasionally explored.  It has been integrated with every other genre out there—romance, noir, mystery, horror, etc.—in attempts to be fresh and innovative.  And with self-publishing an option, it seems everybody and their brother is writing an epic fantasy trilogy.   How then to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the useless?  Trial and error, unfortunately.  With R.J. Barker’s Age of Assassins (2017), first in The Wounded Land trilogy, I can report the former more than the latter.

Given almost all fantasy book blurbs these days blend together into an empty nothingness, I’m tempted not to offer a plot summary of Age of Assassins.  So, short and simple: Girton is apprentice to the master assassin Merela in Castle Meriyanoc, and together they work to find the person who is trying to assassinate Aidor, heir to the throne.  Requiring Girton to go undercover among the kingdom’s knights-in-training, he learns the Castle is home to a lot more enmity than he ever imagined, and it will require all of his wits to stay alive, let alone catch the culprit.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review of The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

I very rarely re-read novels.  There are maybe a dozen I have read more than once, meaning the reviews on this blog are the product of first-time reads, or a hearkening back from memory to pull what remains.  But with Stephen King’s 1987 Eyes of the Dragon it’s too far back.  Read in high school, not to mention with the mindset of a teenager, I’d like to think my critical reading skills have since evolved since, and as a result may result in a different view of the novel now.  Inspired by having just finished King’s writing guide/memoir On Writing, I decided to add another book to the dozen or so.

I remember Eyes of the Dragon in a positive light—not as the greatest novel ever written, but as something interesting, dark, unexpected, and cut from a different cloth than the other King novels I’d read at the time.  What then does my forty-year old brain, now riddled with hundreds and hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels, think?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I own two books titled Space Opera.  The first is Brian Aldiss’ 1974 anthology of bite-sized space drama from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The second is Jack Vance’s literal take: a 1965 novel about a musical troupe touring the Milky Way and the inter-cultural troubles they have on the way.  I now have a third to add to the group, Catherynne Valente’s 2018 Space Opera.  But how the hell to boil it down to such a simple summary?  “Wile E. Coyote” in space?  No… Universe's Got Talent?  No…  Glitterglam saves humanity?  No…

A combination of Aldiss’ figurative and Vance’s literal, Valente’s Space Opera is the story of the glitterpunk glamrock wonderboy Decibel Jones and his call to redeem humanity through song and save it from complete annihilation.  Decibel competing in the Megagalactic Grand Prix talent show alongside many other alien species, whoever comes in last will have their species wiped from their planet, the local biosphere left to rebuild itself.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas by Michael Bishop

I’ve read enough Philip K. Dick to recognize the elements common to most of his fiction. Quirky ideas imposed on quotidian settings, metaphysical twists on reality (drugs, technology, dogma, etc.), awkward prose, telekinesis/mind powers, and subtle and subversive political commentary can be found in most of his stories.  And while alternate history was not something he often explored, it is the biggest aspect of his best novel The Man in the High Castle.  Upon learning of Dick’s unexpected passing in 1982, Michael Bishop (of all the unexpected writers) decided to write a novel in honor of the man.  Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas is an immaculate tribute that any reader who appreciates Dick will likewise appreicate.

Reworking the constitution to allow for infinite presidencies, at the outset of Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas Tricky Dick is now nicknamed King Richard, and is in his fourth term of office.  As one might expect, he rules an America bogged down in his brand of conservatism.  Heavy travel restrictions have been placed on crossing state borders and people’s behavior, particularly first and second generation immigrants which are subject to regular nationalization.  Another restriction is cultural censors, including literature.  His early genre work still allowed on the market, the writer Philip K. Dick’s later, more subversive works, however, are banned.  But pet shop employee Cal Pickford doesn’t care.  Possessing a number of illicit copies of Dick’s novels, it comes as a slap in the face one day at work to come across the obituary of his favorite writer.  It’s an even greater slap in the face, however, to learn the disembodied spirit of Dick, a confused entity asking to be called Kai, has shown up at his wife’s psychology clinic shortly thereafter, requesting therapy.   King Richard may not be ready for Kai.

Console Corner: Review of Valiant Hearts

Where WWII and the related topics of fascism, genocide, and atomic warfare get far more media these days, WWI may have been, in fact, the grittier, dirtier war.  With the Age of Industry burgeoning, the relatively high-tech weapons deployed in WWII, particularly air weapons, were still a dream in WWI as trench warfare, running lines of soldiers into lines of soldiers, and brute force armaments were the norm.  Battles with thousands upon thousands of casualties were not uncommon, most the victim of bullets or bayonets from ground-level firefights.  The majority of WWI occurring on European soil (a continent whose cultures are so close in comparison to the global scene yet possessing centuries of history both peaceful and aggressive), the thin red line never meant so much.  Using these circumstances as a platform, Ubisoft developed Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014.  Possessing a unique, hand-drawn art style, it is a puzzle/action game highlighting the human side of war.

A streamlined run through a couple of major WWI events, in Valiant Hearts players will take on the role of one of four (and a half) characters.  Depending on the scene or setting, there is the Frenchman Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddie, a Belgian nurse Anna (and an unnamed dog Emile finds that players can control to some degree—the half).  Karl called into war by the German side which subsequently pulls him away from Emile and his daughter, the two men spend a good portion of the game trying to reunite the family.  Freddie a gung-ho sapper-type soldier, he befriends Emile in the early going, and together the two escape and must find their way through many difficult situations.  And lastly Anna, a young woman whose scientist father has been kidnapped by the Germans and put to work building advanced weapons, seeks to help the injured she encounters, as well as rescue her father.  The four’s stories, sometimes individual and sometimes intertwined, form threads in the overall mini-tapestry that is Valiant Hearts.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

State of Publishing: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fiction in 2018

In spare moments the past year or two I have been thinking about many aspects of the current state of science fiction, fantasy, and fiction at large.  A few things have been mulled numerous times.  First is the sheer volume of books being published today.  From the big, traditional publishers to individual self-publishing, indie publishers to vanity publishers, mid-tier publishers to the innumerable magazines, fiction is flooding the market from seemingly every conceivable source.  Regular readers, or at least myself, feel truly overwhelmed, even fatigued trying to stay abreast of all the books and stories.  (Perhaps for others it even leads to the anxiety of they are always missing out on something.) Where half a century ago there were maybe one or two hundred ‘books of genre interest’ being published each year, we now have more than a thousand.  It’s literally impossible to know about, let alone read everything being published.  In terms of quantity, we are in the second Golden Age of genre fiction--the epulp era.

In terms of quality, however, I’m not sure we have a Golden Age.  With greater quantity you naturally have a greater chance of getting high quality fiction, and indeed there are many good books coming available.  But the majority of what I see and read is middling to poor.  Most of these books don’t commit any overt sins of writing.  The prose is clean enough.  Plots are reasonably well thought out.  Overall cohesion is acceptable.  Premises have a unique idea or two.  The author appears to have some knowledge of what they are attempting.  And yet, most does not seem to make a lasting impression, almost as if the writers want to be writers more than they are writers.  ‘Soulless’ to ‘derivative’ is the spectrum I would say the majority of genre books on the market today fall on.  Fifty years ago editors were more judicious in their choices for publication given their limitations, but current publishing possibilities open the gates wide.  Yes, the riff-raff is getting through--at least in far greater numbers.

Non-fiction: Review of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I remember in high school that English teachers recommended we get Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  Not really interested in writing at the time, I got a copy but never read it (typical high school student).  Years later while attempting to put together some fiction myself, I found it on a bookshelf and started flipping through it.  I was soon engrossed in how helpful and precise the recommendations were.  Not a formula for success rather a framework to tighten up existing skills and produce better prose, it was somewhat humorous even more years later to read Stephen King in his 1999 On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reference Strunk & White’s little book.  (See kids, those teachers were right.) 

In what is a wonderfully candid yet brief look back at youth and the events that led King to be a writer, On Writing is indispensable for the Stephen King fan, as well as the would-be writer of popular fiction.  While not going into the detail many fans are hoping for, King nevertheless touches upon the circumstances, both personal and social, that led to the writing of some of his novels, as well as the thought processes and approaches taken to deliver the story desired.  Wary enough, King openly admits there is no formula to success but that following a few simple guidelines like: writing in active voice, being true to characters, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, trimming first drafts by 10%, and a few other smple steps can go a long way toward being a better writer, and possibly being published—nothing groundbreaking, just an affirmation hard work and precise attention to detail are necessary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review of The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker

Regardless top three, top four, whatever, time travel is inarguably one of the most popular plot devices in science fiction.  I sometimes feel as though I’ve encountered every possible iteration.  From David Gerrold’s metaphorical use in The Man Who Folded Himself to Lauren Beuke’s application in serial killer horror The Shining Girls, Isaac Asimov’s time police in The End of Eternity to H.G. Wells’ exploration of the future The Time Machine, Octavia Butler’s contrast of race perception in Kindred to Michael Bishop’s study of prehistoric man in No Enemy But Time—hell, the VandMeer’s even have a three-part anthology series devoted entirely to time travel short fiction.  Wilson Tucker’s 1970 The Year of the Quiet Sun falls somewhere in the middle of it all.

Brian Chaney is a biblical scholar pondering a new project after having just published a controversial book on the Dead Sea scrolls.  Relaxing on the Florida beach, he is approached by a government agent and given the proposition of working on a secret project.  Provided only enough details to entice, Chaney eventually accedes and makes his way to a secret military base where he learns that he, along with two other men, will be time traveling.  Though initially told he might have the opportunity to explore in person some of the work he covered in his Dead Sea scrolls research, an emergency request arrives from the President of the United States that supercedes all other work.  Into the future the three men go.

Console Corner: Review of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Fantasy being what it is, there are innumerable games, books, and movies set in a Medieval world featuring wizards and knights, castles and maidens, most of which inevitably see a clash of kingdoms that decides the fate of the world.  It’s cliché.  And yet it continues to be done time and again, some with more deviations from the formula, some with less.  Andrzej Sapkowski, when setting out to write his own fantasy book series The Witcher, knew the familiar elements he wanted to include.  Thankfully, he also knew what he wanted to be fresh and new.  In developing Sapkowski’s vision for gaming consoles, CD Projekt Red made the most of his deviation.  Capitalizing on the singularity of the Witcher’s character as a morally gray monster hunter haunted by demons as much personal as physical, all the while ensuring the traditional fantasy elements were as solid as could be, in 2015 they released the third chapter in Geralt’s story, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and in doing so created a masterpiece of action/rpg gaming.

The number of things to compliment about Witcher 3 feels endless; CD Project Red appear to have looked into seemingly every game element possible on modern consoles.  The world, as gorgeous as it is at sunset, is just as phenomenal at the detail level.  Erosion, rock formations, tree type and plant formation—all of these are as realistic as any video game has ever produced, just as much as the fantasy elements, like griffins and trolls, cyclops and sirens, look as realistic as possible.  The villages and farmland, cobblestone streets and markets all feel proper—dirty and lived in, from washing basins to hanging laundry, rickety fences to irregular rows.  Geralt requiring certain flora and fauna for the potions he needs to fight monsters, available in the world are a multitude of plants and animals.  In the early going I stopped counting how many different types of herbs it was possible to collect, just as I stopped counting how many unique little ways tiny elements of fantasy had been braided in—portals, living trees, haunted towers, and others.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier

The painter slaving away, surrounded by half-finished canvases and empty paint cans.  The writer sitting hunched under lamplight after midnight, pen grinding away at a notebook.  The guitar player, head bent, playing variations on a simply melody, endlessly stopping and restarting to find the right note.  These are classic images of the artist at work.  But what of the 21st century and the boom of video games as the most profitable form of art on the market?  What is its iconic image of the artist at work?  Jason Schreier’s 2017 Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories behind How Video Games Are Made takes a look at what that might be.

Case-based journalism, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels takes a look at the making of ten well-known video games over the past decade.  Personally interviewing and engaging with the game’s directors, creators, artists, CEOs, animators, technical leads, play testers, programmers, story writers, producers, etc. the book provides a comprehensive view of the obstacles, luck, quality choices, challenges, and limitations each game faced on its way to glory, infamy, and in one game’s case, nowhere.  Not a technical book (i.e. how to make a video game step-by-step), Schreier looks at the interlock of budget problems, time restraints, ambition, failed and kept promises, market concerns, publisher interference, lack of coherent teams, the value of strong vision, and a number of other topics, and how these combined to give us the games we are familiar with, for better or worse.  The people interviewed are amazingly candid, and the stories they tell and information they pass on makes for an honest look—not exposé—of the real concerns of video game developers in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Review of 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Shedding the mantle of his father’s reputation, Joe Hill slowly built his name (har har) under that pseudonym.  The quality of the stories so good, however, I wonder whether it was even necessary.  Writing, it seems, is in his DNA.  Bringing together the best fifteen stories from the earliest part of Hill’s career (plus a hideen, bonus story), 20th Century Ghosts (2005) is a varied collection, with highs and lows, that gives every indication of the writer “Hill” has become thirteen years later and influence of the legacy he grew up with.

The collection opening on its strongest entry, “Best New Horror” is meta-horror if such a thing exists.  The story functions at three levels: pure fiction, fiction within fiction, and fiction in the context of reality (i.e. comes thisclose to the fourth wall).  About a horror editor who encounters an odd submission for an anthology he is putting together, the story goes on to briefly traverse the theoretical underpinnings of horror as a genre and horror fandom, before ending on strong note that both satisfies the story as a whole while recognizing where horror resides in the current cultural context. All in all a very difficult trck to pull off, but done so with flying colors.  Starting off a YA version of Kafka’s Metamorpheses, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” tells of a teenager who eats a radioactive bug and becomes a giant, mutant grasshopper himself.  Hill’s purpose in the story unclear, it’s possible he was attempting to address the school shooting issue in the US, but may be more of a portrayal of America’s dwindling domestic scene—or both or none at all. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Review of Song of Time by Ian Macleod

One aspect of the contemporary glut of fiction is book titles have evolved into a mindless flow.  Looking through lists of upcoming publications, award winners, recommended books, etc. and the titles all start to blend together.  In epic fantasy, for example, one can take a couple token words, add a pronoun and article or two, and you’ve got the next published series.  The Axe of the North, Dragon’s Fire, The Oath in Stone, etc. could easily exist, somewhere, such is the surfeit of fiction (and maybe they do, I haven’t checked).  Overall this is very unhealthy for readers, and the industry in general.  Quantity heavily outweighing quality, good perhaps even great books with titles that would have been standout fifty years ago are now being overlooked in the milieu.  I can’t help but feel Ian Macleod’s 2008 Song of Time is one such novel.

The name of a symphony inherent to the story (like “Cloud Atlas” in David Mitchell’s novel of the same name), Song of Time is the story of Roushana Maitland.  Half Hindi and half Irish, she grows up in a near-future Britain only slightly more evolved from our own.  Heavily affected by the death of her musically gifted brother, Roushana takes up the violin with fervor.  Other tragedies striking, both personal and global, she uses them to fuel her drive, or at least distract, going on to become a world class musician.  And that world is changing around her.  Europe goes through major political transformations, nature rears its ugly head in continental fashion, and technology only opens further possibilities.  Now in old age living alone by the Cornish sea, Roushana has made the decision to continue living even after her mortal body has passed.  But when a young man washes ashore, things change.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Review of The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees

We generally maintain the view we are in control of our lives despite the situations which pop up to remind us we are part of a larger web of cause and effect.  From random chance to forgotten inevitability, accidents happen and everything has its own ticking clock whether we hear it or not.  And yet we push on, making the day to day decisions that would direct our lives.  It’s a difficult question to answer: when are we pilots across the sea of life, and when are we just tossed by its waves?  Caught in the wash of this question is Gareth E. Rees’ highly personal and dark The Stone Tide: Adventures at the End of the World (2018, Influx Press). 

The Stone Tide is (uncoincidentally) the story of a writer named Gareth.  Leaving London and moving to the sea-side town of Hastings with his wife and children, they buy a fixer-upper and begin investing time and money renovating the house.  Gareth still dealing with the loss of a close friend, he ponders his unexpected death while wandering the streets, hills, and parks of Hastings with his dog, Hendrix.  Memories of childhood, ideas for stories, and historical knowledge of his new city likewise criss-crossing his mind, finding out he has problems with his prostate only further occupy Gareth’s mind, leaving him to wonder whether the life he’s lead is not as he thought it was.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams

Ahh middle ground, that oft traversed yet little expounded area of contemporary literature criticism yet, funnily enough, where the majority of fiction lies.  Much easier to give a thumbs up or thumbs down than precisely describe or recognize what makes a book average material, I hope my review of Walter Jon Williams’ 1990 space opera The Praxis, first in the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, holds to a different standard.

The few known alien species of the universe, humanity among them, have been united under an overlord race calling themselves the Shaa. Living for thousands of years and possessing unheard of technology, the Shaa enforce a draconian rule of law known as the Praxis that keeps all species living in relative harmony.  But something has come over the Shaa.  For several years they have been slowly killing themselves in announced, ritual ceremonies.  Now, only one remains, the Shaa of Shaas, and it too has scheduled its own death, which in turn will leave all races without a leader.  The Praxis is the first chapter telling of the resulting power vacuum.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

John Crowley has long been one of the most contentious names in fantasy literature.  While lauded by critics and erudite readers, his popularity remains minimal in the mainstream.  And the reasons are clear.  Steering wide of melodrama, stereotype, contrived plots, and other familiar elements of popular fiction, Crowley has always utilized distant prose to grapple with abstract albeit human ideas.  Little, Big, Aegypt, and other such novels utilized elements of genre (faires, alternate history, etc.) in setting and plot, but focused their content on the value of stories, memory, and other such broad themes.  In 2017, however, Crowley set out to write a more accessible novel, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr being the result.  Thankfully, Crowley did not stray far from his roots.

Ka is foremost a frame story—or at least a story that begins in media res.  An unnamed elderly man finds Dar Oakley the crow in his backyard one day.  In poor health, the bird starts to relate his life story to the old man.  And it’s an amazing story.  Dar Oakley, or as he was originally known, Dar Oak of Lee, was born into a murder in the woods of primeval Wales.  Befriending a young native girl named Fox Cap, he watches as the girl grows up to become something of a shaman among her people.  Deciding to embark on a trip to the underworld to bring back a cauldron that will cure the mortality—wars, illness, old age—plaguing her people, Fox Cap asks Dar Oakley if he wants to go with her, and he agrees.  But things underground don’t go as planned.  Emerging back into the world, Dar Oakley finds himself caught in a loop of life and death that persists through the centuries, and, interestingly enough, at a prime viewing spot to see evolution of mankind through the branches below him.

Console Corner: Review of Wipeout: Omega Collection

To my knowledge, there is no consensus Playstation mascot, no iconic game that can easily be used to immediately remind people of the console in the same fashion as Mario does the Nintendo or Sonic, the Genesis.  There are games which have appeared on all four generations of the Playstation, for example Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Mortal Kombat, but none have become inextricably linked with the console.  (May be a good thing with Mortal Kombat…)  The closest thing the Playstation has to such an iconic image is the Wipeout series.  From the original Wipeout on PS1 to the latest Wipeout 2048 on the PS Vita, the game has appeared in one form or another throughout the years.  In 2017, the anti-gravity, futuristic racing game makes its debut (and likely last appearance) on the PS4 with Wipeout: Omega Collection.

Not a new game, rather a remaster/port of two previous titles Wipeout 2048 and Wipeout HD (including the Fury expansion), the Omega collection makes the latest gameplay available on the latest console.   Done the cheap way (which makes sense considering the game’s developer is out of business), the two games have been brought individually to the PS4, no synthesis of the titles.  This is a bit of a missed opportunity, but certainly not a show stopper.  At the opening menu, the player must choose which version of Wipeout to play: HD, 2048, or Fury, and from there play within that version’s modes, ship types, tracks, music, etc.  You cannot fly a 2048 ship on an HD Fury track, for example.  There are campaigns, but again, not across the titles.  This means three games in one, or a wasted opportunity to integrate the titles, depending on your view. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully by Jane McGonigal

Compared to literature, film, television, and the other forms of media we regularly consume, video games are the new kids on the block.  But they have taken the block by storm.  Their popularity only increasing as each generation’s thumbs develop left and right brain coordination, they are also the most lucrative form of media in terms of profits.  Despite the rise in popularity, misconceptions about video games persist.  They cause violence.  They isolate.  They addict.  And so on.  What real-world research has to say about video gaming is something entirely different, however.  Naturally, as with too much of anything, there can be problems, but as a whole the number of positives outweighs the negatives.  The world, in fact, is round.  In SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully (2016), Jane McGonigal takes advantage of the misconceptions by creating her own program: how “gaming” can improve our lives—without the need for a television or controller.

Aimed at people who are dealing with things from PTSD to procrastination, anxiety to loss, stress to motivational issues, depression to irrational fears, and a host of other problems, SuperBetter describes McGonigal’s program for tackling such issues in a manner heavily influenced by the science of games and cognitive behavior therapy.  The program possible to be approached individually, with friends, or with professional help, McGonigal takes the conclusions, empirical and cognitive, from game research and implements them in a new form. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Being the wise old man that I am, one of life’s lessons I keep close to hand is: avoid the things that you like the idea of more than you like the actual thing. Humans being humans, for whatever reason there are things we invest a great deal of hope, desire, even material wealth to acquire, only to quickly discard them, or be disappointed due to some misperceived incompatibility with our personalities, interests, or preferences.  Our eyes can be bigger than our plates in more ways than just food.  Books have great potential in this area.  Reviews make them seem interesting, commenters praise their glories, and awards apply a bright, neon-yellow highlight, meaning this wise old man does not always learn from his mistakes.  Such is the case with Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (2012), first in her Eternal Sky trilogy.

Looking back to my notes for Bear’s Undertow, I should not have invested in Range of Ghosts.  Flat, flat, flat prose that sucks the life out of what could have been an interesting story, Range of Ghosts indicates nothing has really changed in Bear’s style in the intervening years.  Under the microscope, there is nothing overtly wrong with the flow of words.  Syntax is correct, the words are descriptive, and the text moves the story forward.  And yet I perpetually struggle, paragraph after paragraph, line after line, to maintain focus—even in the so-called dramatic bits.  (The exact same thing I experience reading Daniel Abraham.)  I must continually rein my wandering mind in.  Needless to say, it’s an indication something is wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Slam by Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner’s first couple of novels, Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart, were, not too make things too general, character-oriented stories that highlighted individuals’ personal dramas—serious fiction, some might call it.   Looking to borrow a page from friend James Blaylock’s The Last Coin and take a break from gravitas, in 1990 Shiner released the caper-esque thriller, Slam.

We meet Dave being released from a Texas prison after serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion. Picked up by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, he is deposited at a beach house where a friend has found work for him housesitting for a recently deceased elderly woman.  Her will stating that the house be cared for precisely as she left it—twenty-three cats included—in order for the parameters of the will to be upheld, Dave’s post-prison life would seem to be cushy.  But such is not the case.  Neighbors and friends of all eccentric varieties stopping by in his first few days of freedom (a deaf and blind couple, a UFO cult leader, a pot-smoking granny, an orthodox parole officer, a group of skateboarders, a prison escapee), meeting the conditions of his parole and the old lady’s will gets difficult, very quickly.  If Dave doesn’t get control of the situation, his newfound freedom may be short-lived. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review of Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

There is certainly a portion of readers who read and enjoy short fiction, but equally certain is that novels get most of the love.  Those readers’ loss.  Writing a form of art that exists in different shapes and sizes, short fiction presents its own challenges and limitations, meaning that a truly good writer is master of all, and when the reader finds one who is particularly good at short and novel-length, all the better.  Jonathan Lethem is one such writer, and his latest collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories (2015) is an example why.

‘Dynamic’ one word to describe the collection, Lucky Alan is one unpredictable story after another.  Differing in style, prose, perspective, realism, setting, aim, etc., each story stands alone, which, in my opinion, is a great selling point to any collection or anthology.  Diversity keeping content fresh regardless of quality, the mystery of what comes next is often enough able to keep pages turning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula Le Guin

I first encountered the work of Ursula Le Guin seeking a topic for my Master’s Degree.  Eventually going on to write the thesis on the Earthsea cycle, in the process I became familiar with a wider swathe of her fiction, from the early Planet of Exile, through The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, to the later The Telling, as well as her non-fiction—Dancing at the Edge of the World and The Language of the Night among them.  Still a number of her novels and collections I’ve yet to read, upon hearing of her passing in January this year, I decided to pull A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, a short story collection from 1994, off the shelf and read as tribute.

Collecting eight stories and one essay, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is short fiction representing what I would call the middle, or transition period of Le Guin’s oeuvre.  Le Guin looking to revise her earlier approaches to theme, Tehanu, the Earthsea novel intended to entirely revision the original Earthsea trilogy, was published just a couple years prior as a strong starting point.  Busy developing greater emphasis on feminism, racism, and other social justice topics, in Fisherman one can find the fruits of this new perspective in short fiction form.  Whether or not there is synthesis between theme and the remaining of building blocks of fiction, however, depends on the story.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Among Thieves

Uncharted: Drake Fortune, the first game in the Nathan Drake series, was an average shoot ‘em up with mild bits of puzzle that was enjoyable in the moment but didn’t achieve a storyline or complex enough gameplay worth additional playthroughs.  A repetitive cycle of shooting up a hundred baddies than finding your way out of the area so you can shoot up more baddies, any sequel held a lot of potential for adding variety and depth to gameplay.   With Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, ask and ye shall receive (just not a bucketload).

A notably better game than Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves goes further down the Hollywood road.  It remains a repetitive cycle of platforming and gunfighting, but Among Thieves presents these elements with better visuals, more complex puzzles, and better cut scenes to create an experience closer to the Tom Cruise/Bruce Wills/Sly Stallone/   (fill-in-your-favorite-action-hero-here)    movie developers were aiming at.  There are still numerous, sometimes overlong scenes with shoot ‘em ups and platforming, but overall the level of idiosyncrasy increased significantly.  It’s still a juvenile game with gaping plot holes and ludonarrative dissonance, but it’s now slightly easier to ignore this factor.   

Monday, March 5, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

In my post-reading on Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude I came across a comment (somewhere that’s difficult to find again after an hour of web surfing) that anyone interested in further reading should check out Lethem’s 2005 collection of essays and assorted non-fiction The Disappointment Artist.  Taking the comment at face value, I invested.

Falling somewhere in the fuzzy arena of memoir, cultural reflection, and book and film commentary, The Disappointment Artist is, if anything, fully Jonathan Lethem.  Indeed linking directly and indirectly to The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem looks back at his youth in Brooklyn, the biographies of various artists, his evolving relationships with his family and friends, schoolmates and other people in his neighborhood, often through the lens of his artistic interests, and the music and movies that have informed his views, his craft and the person he was, is, and may become, making for an interesting collection for those with similar interests or curiosity about the man behind the fiction.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Most everybody knows the meme: ‘the great American novel’.  Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, DeLillo’s Underworld, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—these and others have been referred to as such.  And there is commonality among most: social and personal transitions within the past two centuries of history that in some way embody the American ‘rise from nothing’, all utilizing dense, typically quality prose.  The trajectory of this transition has shifted from ascending to descending the further into post-modernism we go, but in general remains in place.  Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is one such contender—granted an outside shot, but a contender nonetheless—for the epithet.

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, and their teenage and early adulthood years in Brooklyn and beyond throughout the 70s and into the 90s.  Dylan the introverted white son of an equally introverted artist, and Mingus the troubled son of a formerly successful soul singer now turned drug addict, neither boy has a strong mother figure in their lives either, meaning the streets are their greatest educators.  From the games children play to the wider contextualization of their racial and social positions, the two boys arc in and out of each other’s lives, through graffiti and music, pranks and pizza, as New York City and the US beyond, evolve around them.

Console Corner: Review of Bioshock

While the world of live-action film and computer generated graphics are essentially hand in hand these days, it remains the remit of video games to be 100% computer generated.  One of the things this means is that developers have near perfect control of every aspect of aesthetics.  Motifs to tiny details, all that matters is how well programmers and artists are able to capture the vision being sought (and, of course, the technical limitations of the console).  Developers can ask: what would the tap in a lunar colony toilet cubicle be like?  Or, how would a fantasy version of 19th century Japan look?  Or, as is the case with 2K Boston, what if we implemented an Ayn Rand socio-economic social vision in an underwater city?  2007’s Bioshock would be the result. (To be clear, I played the 2016 remastered version, but as much as I have read there is no difference to the original save graphical and speed improvements.)

Jack is flying innocently over the Atlantic Ocean one night when his plane suddenly goes down.  Left floating among burning wreckage, a nearby island lighthouse seems his only refuge.  Swimming to its steps, Jack enters the lighthouse to find a submersible vehicle which whisks him downward into the dark depths of the ocean.  The lights of a city appearing on the bottom, he is deposited in a leaky, neon tunnel with only a voice on a radio to guide him.  The man behind the voice is Atlas and he tells Jack the name of the city is Rapture, a former utopia now in dystopian disarray.  Soon after, Jack encounters people genetically upgraded to the point of agro-insanity and is forced to trust Atlas to guide him—the number of crazed people springing from doorways and hallways only seeming to increase.  From location to location Atlas guides Jack, trouble is, where is he being lead?  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

There is a strong sub-faction of science fiction and fantasy readers these days who, without looking too deeply, take a book or story and champion it on premise alone.  If it is said to highlight women’s issues or racism, it is automatically praised as ‘great’ regardless of the actual quality of the novel—the trigger enough to recommend.  Genre novels set in Africa can also be on this list.  Somehow mention the struggle of Somalese or Nigerians in a story and it’s almost sure to garner the support of this sub-faction, regardless the quality of the backing narrative.  As a whole, this does science fiction and fantasy no favors.  Good, unique novels which do not go out of their way to billboard ‘Africa’ yet intelligently examine issues inherent to the continent get lost in the shuffle, while more generic novels which put a few cheap, neon lights around the setting or culture tend to get more press.  Tade Thompson’s 2015 Making Wolf utilizes contemporary Africa as its setting, the question is, is the surrounding narrative substantial?

Making Wolf opens with Weston Kogi thinking he’s making a brief return trip to his home country of Alcacia, Africa for a beloved aunt’s funeral.  The post-ceremony commemoration getting out of hand, Kogi quickly finds that his plans for return are not to be.  Press-ganged into detective work that his job as mall security in London would not seem to qualify him for, the local rebel group LFA tasks him with identifying the killer of a recently assassinated politician—as long as the killer is not a member of LFA.  And it’s not long into the ensuing investigation that the opposing rebel faction, the CPA, tasks Kogi with the same: identify the killer as long as it isn’t one of us.  As men from the government emerge from the shadows as well, Kogi’s chances of identifying the assassin and making it back to London in one piece grow grimmer by the day.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Books I'm looking forward to in 2018...

It's a little bit late, but I've finally pulled together a good list of books I'm looking forward to in 2018.  There will always be books that pop up as the year goes on, thus what's below probably represents about half of the total at the end of the year.  Hopefully I can get to a good portion of them.  And for the record, I tend to ignore publishing dates on the UK market vs. the US as they are often very similar. If I'm wrong about one or two, so be it.  And of course, if you, loyal Speculiction reader, have recommendations, let me know as my research was not the most tedious.

In no particular order, they are:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Journey

Buddhism and video games, a workable combination?  I think most would scratch their heads being told such a thing.  But yet thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012) not only makes the combination work, but makes it work in such a fashion as to create one of gaming’s most powerfully unique experiences.  Despite the relative centuries (in video game terms) that have passed since its release, Journey is a game that transcends time, much like the ideology of Buddhism.

When I say Buddhism, it must be taken more in the abstract than literal.  Nowhere in Journey are there laughing Buddhas, wooden fish, monks, or any other item or icon commonly associated with the religion.  There are temples and ruins, scrolls and robes, but none of it can be directly tied to any Earthly incarnation of the religion.  Buddhism the philosophy is, in fact, the stronger inspiration.  From the tranquility of traversing gorgeous desert to Himalayan-esque mountains, the struggles instilled through gameplay to the open/closed mechanisms driving the game, the player finishes the game as contemplative as satisfied.  The title appropriate, navigating the 3D platform puzzles, free-falling through the air, sliding along the desert sands of a crumbling kingdom, working your way through a giant machine, facing stiff mountain winds as you climb, and then understanding the cyclical logic behind it all puts the player in a reflective mood that transcends the game, which, is something very, very few games can claim.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of Spacetime Donuts by Rudy Rucker

“Consciousness is paradox,” Moto-O was saying now at Waxy’s bar.  “But we exist in paradox.  I raise my finger and all the world is there.”
“I don’t see how you plan to program this into Phizwhiz, Moto-O,” Vernor responded, sipping a beer.

I do not normally open my reviews with a quote, but in the case of Rudy Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts (1981) I make an exception: if you do not find piss-taking on zen philosophy contrasted by a supercomputer named Phizwhiz funny, then the novel is likely not for you.

Wacky on the surface yet guided by an undeniable intelligence, Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts is hard sf in the same sense that Stanislaw Lem is the hardest sf writer thereis. Neither getting caught up in endless minutiae of worldbuilding, both cut straight to the heart of the issues at stake in abstract, theoretical fashion—“the place where science shades into fiction.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review of Lion of Macedon & Dark Prince by David Gemmell

My relationship with the work of David Gemmell is clear and straight forward.  A consistent writer in terms of story, content, and style, I do not need to research a Gemmell novel before reading it.  I know it will be heroic story set in a relatively generic fantasy setting with focus on action and decision in times of war and strife.  I also know the work will not tax my intellect; more beach or late night reading requiring little active participation.  Thus it was that his Greek duology—Lion of Macedon (1990) and Dark Prince (1991) threw me for a loop—a small loop, but a loop.

The small loop is setting; instead of a D&D-type fantasy land, we get an ancient Greece strongly analogous to real world history.  Opening in Sparta around 380 B.C., Lion of Macedon takes the life of the half Spartan, half Macedonian general Parmenion and spins it into a fantastical biography, concluding in the second volume, Dark Prince, that intertwines the life of Alexander the Great’s with Parmenion’s.  The story’s key points remain true to history (at least as far as I can tell), but into the insterstices are inserted elements of fantasy that utilize Greek myth.  Lion of Macedon largely the real world setup and Dark Prince the fantastical offshoot that synthesizes the two upon its conclusion, the duology is an imaginative revisioning of Permenion’s life. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review of Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy with Noam Chomsky

There is no question that Noam Chomsky, even into his ninth decade, remains one of the most important, knowledgeable voices in the areas of world history, culture, and domestic and international politics.  With hundreds of publications under his belt, the latest is a relatively unique affair: Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, published in 2017.  Rather than standard essay structure, the book instead features a series of interviews done by David Barsamian from the past few years, highlighting Chomsky is just as articulate and intelligent in person as he is with time to put words to paper.

An excellent overview of Chomsky’s views on most contemporary global and domestic issues, the twelve interviews in Global Discontents touch upon: the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East, efforts within US intelligence agencies, growing income disparity and the rising unhappiness of Americans in the face of it, thoughts on the first year of Trump’s presidency, as well as some personal reflections on Chomsky’s childhood, upbringing, and various places he visited—Laos, Cololmbia, Israel, etc.—in bygone years.  For readers who have never heard Chomsky speak or seen interviews with the man, the book really highlights the breadth of knowledge and understanding.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Photos from Sri Lanka - Part II

And here is Part 2 of our photos from Sri Lanka.  (Part 1 is here.)

Where the first 10 days of our trip were spent inland, exploring the cultural sites, hills, tea factories, national parks, etc., our last 10 days were spent in two locations on the coast: Tangalle and Hikkaduwa.  Here are some palms from Tangalle.

Photos from Sri Lanka - Part I

The following is Part 1 of photos from our recent trip to Sri Lanka.  I traveled with my wife and two small kids, as well as my brother-in-law and one of his sons, meaning a lot of the trip was focused on balancing the kids' needs and fun.  But there were still moments one of our hands were free to snap a photo or two.  Here are some:

After numerous comments that it was not worth the time, we skipped the capitol Colombo and went straight to the interior.  Our first stop was Polonnaruwa, which is basically Angkor Wat's smaller cousin.  Less grandeur, there were still spots of beauty, like this one.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review of Graft by Matt Hill

Cyberpunk is now roughly forty years old.  With relevant works from writers like James Tiptree Jr. and John Brunner appearing in the 60s and 70s, it coalesced into a recognizable trend in the early 80s—the four decades since having seen a full exploration of the idea of ‘cyberpunk’ through hundreds of stories and books.  Thus, in 2016, how does a writer do something original with the form?  With its imagery and characters, settings and ideas well established, there is probably only one way: deliver unique prose combined with a competent package.  Matt Hill, in his 2016 Graft, does precisely this. 

Set in a near-future England after economic collapse, Graft slips quickly and easily through four viewpoints: Roy (an agitated killer), Sol (a wiz mechanic), Mel (Sol’s former girlfriend who now runs a brothel), and Y (an indeterminate being seemingly living in an alternate world).  Roy in the wrong place and the wrong time, Sol agreeing to build one of the strangest vehicles he’s ever been requested of, Mel hiring a strange, almost inhuman bodyguard for brothel, and Y just trying to find herself, in a matter of days the four’s lives intertwine as a new threat settles onto the decayed landscape of Manchester.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Book introductions.  I’m sometimes fooled, but I keep going back to the well.  Whether written by the author, editor, or colleague, they typically give the reader something to look forward to, a perspective on what’s to come.  It can also be false hype/hope.  With Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) it is Gaiman himself who led me to believe his novel would be something of an examination of the underlying cultural gears driving my home country—not a scientific dissection, but at least a bit of insight into the tuning.  What I got instead was gamesmanship among a who’s who of stereotypes from the world’s pantheon of deities, played out against ‘modern gods’ like technology, media, globalization, etc. in a style heavily reminiscent of late Roger Zelazny.  Very light fare, indeed.

Feeling lucky, Shadow Moon is released from prison a few days earlier than scheduled.  But it’s only because his wife Laura has died—in a car accident giving a blow job to his best friend, Robbie.  Friendless and despondent on the streets after the funeral, Shadow is contacted by a grizzled old man named Wednesday who hires him as a bodyguard.  Introducing Shadow to his elderly friends—a cranky Slav, a drunken Irishman, a stylish black man, etc.—there seems little in the way of protection Wednesday actually needs.  Even stranger still, when the going gets tougher, Wednesday actually sends Shadow away to live by himself in a small Wisconsin town.  It seems Shadow is the one needing protection, and as he is hunted, his situation becomes more and more complicated.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Aaaaaaaand we're back...

After almost three weeks in Sri Lanka, I'm back.  The vacation was great.  The kids loved it, as did we, and I hope to post some photos in the coming weeks.  Enjoying everything there was to enjoy, as well as balancing the lives of two small children between fun and order occupied most of my time, and therefore I was only able to read one and a half books.  Matt Hill's Graft was the perfect vacation read.  It's familiar cyberpunk written in clever, off-kilter prose that can be picked up and put down easily.  Review to come.  A day or two before the vacation ended I started Rudy Rucker's Spacetime Donuts, and am still reading.   Undoubtedly I will finish it soon as it's a science fiction ice cream sundae with sprinkles on top.  (If it were a Ben & Jerry's flavor, it would be Shecklian Swirl.)  Ambitiously, I also had brought Iain Banks' A Song of Stone, but didn't get close to cracking the cover... 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Three-week hiatus...

For that thimbleful of readers who may care, there will be a brief hiatus while I go on vacation with my family to Sri Lanka.  I will be traveling with my three year-old son and one-and-a-half year-old daughter, so it should be a lot of fun with animal safaris, tuk-tuks, seafood, playing on the beach, and meeting a people we hope still retains some connection to its cultural roots.

Bored for reading material, have a look at the list of best speculative fiction published in 2017, as well as the list of best books I read in 2017 regardless of year published if you haven't already.  There are some really great books, particularly in the latter list.  Otherwise, be back soon, and hopefully I will find time to post some photos of the vacation.  -Jesse