Friday, May 25, 2018

Review of Time Was by Ian McDonald



Contrary to popular opinion, I have enjoyed but not been a flag-waving fanatic of Ian McDonald’s recent novels.  The Dervish House, the Luna books thus far, and the Everness trilogy all received accolades and praise unlike any work from McDonald’s first three decades as a writer.  But there is the extremely strong impression it’s only because these books are the most mainstream of McDonald’s oeuvre—like he gave up trying to be original and just produced an abstraction of what the market wanted.  Gone is the gonzo imagination of Out on Blue Six.  Absent is the Walt Whitman approach to Hearts, Hands and Voices.  Nowhere is the magic realism and charm of Desolation Road.  Instead, the reader is given relatively familiar characters, setups, and straight-forward prose combined in very competent fashion—not a criticism, just an observation. Thus when learning McDonald had been commissioned to write a novella for Tor.com, my heart sank further: more standard, market stuff.  Having now read Time Was, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  It’s far too early to say McDonald is back, but damn did he surprise with what may be the most affecting, sweeping story of his career.

I suppose Time Was is technically a frame story, though it should be known that the boundaries between the frame and its content are often blurred, and the frame itself occupies the majority of space.  The novella opens in the very-near-future with rare book seller Emmet Leigh searching the contents of a London dumpster for potential literary gold.  Coming across a semi-anonymous book of poetry, he takes a chance and picks it up.  Opening the leather-bound volume, a love letter falls out.  Written by one Tom Chappell to a Ben Seligman, the pair opine separation even as the exigencies of WWII press close.  Intrigued, Leigh begins digging deeper into the history of the two men, and discovers more than he could ever have imagined.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Console Corner: Review of The Last of Us



I have been putting off writing this review for some time, primarily because I don’t feel that any words I put down can do the experience that is The Last of Us, justice.  In short, it’s the only game in my life I finished with jaw literally dropped—not because of an epic final showdown, but precisely for how emotionally powerful the simple yet well-escalated the story drives into the climactic scene, then lays the player’s emotions bare.  I made a moral decision that in most other circumstances would have gone the other way.  I cared about the characters and thus went against my standard philosophies, which is not something I can say about any other game.  And I feel strange saying that (it’s just a game after all), which is why I believe there really is something about The Last of Us that makes it as powerful as some of my best reading experiences.  Zombie cliche, this is not...

One of the few survivors of an epidemic that has wiped out most of humanity, at the start of The Last of Us the player controls Joel, a gun smuggler living in a quarantine zone in Boston.  Caught sideways in a deal with another gunrunner and an underground rebel group called the Fireflies, Joel and his business partner Tess have no choice but to smuggle a young girl named Ellie to a point outside the quarantine zone.  Fate intervening in a dramatic way, Joel and Ellie find themselves on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of infected people and government forces, while getting themselves to safety. That is, until Ellie reveals her secret.   From a road trip to Pittsburgh to the mountains of Colorado and beyond, the pair’s relationship and will to survive are put to the test at every step as they try to make good on Ellie’s secret.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review of Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick



Michael Swanwick is one of the most inventive, non-conforming writers on the market.  Though starting his career with a fairly straight-forward novel (In the Drift), he has slowly and steadily turned his imagination and spirit loose, culminating most recently in the idea-explosion that is the Darger and Surplus novels.  It is thus in short fiction that one finds Swanwick at his most focused and careful.  And the relative limitations are beneficial.  I’m on the fence, but I would listen to arguments that short stories are, in fact, Swanwick’s greatest asset.  Tales of the Old Earth, Swanwick’s 2000 collection, is nineteen potential reasons.

Opening the collection is “The Very Pulse of the Machine”.  An abstract riff (natch) on a Wordsworth poem, the story tells of the astronaut Martha and what happens after her vehicle has an accident on the surface of Jupiter’s moon, Io.  Her teammate dying in the crash, Martha elects to attempt to drag the body across the moon to their base.  Voices that are either the AI in the dead body’s vacsuit or in Martha’s head accompanying Martha every step of the way, things start to look dire no matter how much meth she huffs, the ground around her even seeming to come alive.  In perhaps the best written yet most Weird story in the collection, “Mother Grasshopper” tells of the strange happenings to a young man part of a colony on a space grasshopper (yes, space grasshopper).  Confronted by a magician/god one day, he is compelled to follow the man across the land, spreading pestilence and disease.  A fortuitous meeting one day changes his direction, but perhaps not his will.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft



Fully in its third wave (hopefully nearing its end), its fair to say steampunk has begun to exhaust itself.  We need a break for it to revitalize. Its components and devices have been deployed to the point of achieving stereotype status, and it has been combined in the majority of ways possible with other genres.  Gone are the days when steampunk was unaware it was steampunk, and originality along with it.  But every once in a while a book will poke its nose from the crowd and say: ‘Hey, novelty is still possible.  Steampunk is still viable.  Welcome to Josiah Bancroft’s wonderful debut Senlin Ascends (2013).

Set in the Silk Age, Senlin Ascends tells of the adventures of Thomas Senlin, a school headmaster from the countryside.  Falling in love and marrying the energetic, intelligent but younger Marya, the newlywed couple decide to take their honeymoon in a place Senlin has long studied and taught his students about but never visited: the tower of Babel.  Not the tower of biblical fame, the Silk Age’s tower is of a different age, but remains a massive structure rising into the clouds like layers on a cake.  The first days of the honeymoon not going as planned, Senlin is separated from Marya almost directly after arrival, forcing him to set out in search of her.  Following clues and bits of information provided by people who saw her, Senlins slowly ascends the ringdoms of the tower looking for his lost wife.  Its convolutions threatening to derail his quest at every step, Senlin must dig deep within himself to find the fortitude necessary to meet its challenges.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review of South of the Pumphouse by Les Claypool



Primus was one of the first bands I picked up as a young teenager looking to find music beyond the radio.  And I’ve stuck with them since.  To say the band are ‘unique’ is only to scratch the surface.  A cross of Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, The Meters, and something only Primus brings to the table, bizarro funkonautics hits a little closer to home—but still does not quantify.  While Larry Lelonde and Tim Alexander (and the various other talents which have been with the group over time) are singular in their own right, few would argue Les Claypool is not the driving force behind the band.  Leading the trio, working on solo projects, and collaborating with a number of other musicians, the man has a creativity at work which seems unstoppable.  In 2006 Claypool looked to extend his ripe imagination into the land of fiction, South of the Pumphouse the result.

One of the ongoing motifs in Primus’ music is fishing.  From “John the Fisherman” to “Fish On”, “The Ol’ Diamond Back Sturgeon” to “The Last Salmon Man”, Les and crew have regularly sung about their hobby.  Naturally, South of the Pumphouse is a tale about a couple guys plying the waters of San Francisco’s San Pablo Bay for the grand daddy of all sturgeons.  Two brothers, Earl from back woods California and Ed the younger brother who moved from the countryside to be in the big city, decide to go on a day-long fishing trip in the wake of their father’s death.  The reunion going well as the brothers drive to the Bay, buy bait, and prepare to launch the boat, things change when Earl’s friend Donny shows up to join them.  Donny a fun-loving, redneck extraordinaire, the fishing trip initially goes smoothly with joking and laughter, each party indulging in their drug of choice.  But as the day stretches long and the personalities begin to clash in the tight confines of the boat, things take a turn.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Review of Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick



Looking at Michael Swanwick’s oeuvre, one sees an interesting arc.  Opening in territory of a relatively realist nature (In the Drift), wandering for a time through science fantasy (almost magic realist) land (Stations of the Tide, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, and The Dragons of Babel), before arriving in decidedly, fantastically non-realist territory (anything related to Darger and Surplus), the rocket of Swanwick’s imagination counting down, taking off and exploding is visible.  Vacuum Flowers, Swanwick’s second novel published in 1987, should be considered ignition.

Vacuum Flowers opens on a tense chapter drawn straight from Cyberpunk 101.  Rebel Mercedes Mudlark (yes, her real name) awakens in an unfamiliar body, tied down in a hospital bed.  Escaping with some neural-transmitter slight of hand, she meets a mysterious man disguised in wetware, who takes her to the home of a mysterious woman who informs Rebel she is sharing the strange body with its original owner, Eucrasia Walsh, and that the corporation funding the hospital Deutsche Nakasone wants both of them back, and badly.  Rebel going on the run, she tries to sort out her and Eucrasia’s situation while evading capture.  Is there anywhere in the solar system she can get help, however?

Console Corner: Review of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag



Though not the most common, pirates are certainly one of the more easily recognized motifs applied in books, films, and games.  From cartoony fun to treasure-seeking adventure, the success of these offerings depends on a lot of elements—approach, style, storyline, etc. among them.  There is a world of difference between Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  Ubisoft’s 2013 entry into the world of video game pirating, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, is one of the best incarnations of the motif I’ve ever experienced, but is not without missed opportunities.

If the video gamer wants to go out pirating, there is nothing like Black Flag.  An open world (perhaps better phrased “open sea and archipelago”) game, it delivers pirating in spades.  You want a large number of places to travel and explore and sea to navigate, the game feels positively huge.  (It feels like the biggest game I’ve ever played, even though it may not be in reality.) You want ships blasting cannons at one another on the high seas, cutlass fights on deck, and swinging through the rigging on ropes, Black Flag delivers this, as well.  You want colonial Caribbean, from coconut palms to stone churches, shanty shacks to flintlock rifles, Black Flag offers oodles.  You want treasure hunts, plundering, and raiding for gold, Black Flag has numerous side missions and quests that have the player doing a lot of fun, interesting stuff that either contributes directly to the rpg elements (e.g. crafting for both the main character and his ship) or simply getting rich.  In short, in Black Flag Ubisoft have captured the overwhelming majority of the aspects that make pirating, pirating.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review of Dissidence by Ken Macleod



Ken Macleod is not a writer who burst onto the scene.  But his Fall Revolution tetraology eventually opened readers’ eyes to a new voice capable of evolving, or at least capably extending the field.  The tetraology a combination of politics and near-to-far future science fiction, its has a highly atypical structure that showed an eye for clever, cutting dialogue and plotting.  Macleod followed this up, however, with the Engines of Light trilogy, which in all fairness was largely a familiar sf experience.  Seven stand alone novels followed thereafter, some of which played within genre conventions, and some which were more challenging in intent.  Learning the World, Descent, The Night Sessions, and Newton’s Wake were shaded more toward core genre experiences, while The Execution Channel, The Restoration Game, and Intrusion showed a greater willingness to address socio-political ideas.  This all leads to the question, what would Macleod do in his next project, 2016’s Dissidence?

Volume one in the Corporation Wars trilogy, Dissidence is a difficult novel to review as most if not all of its major ideas and premise are left open ended.  The plot reaches a natural pause in a larger arc, but overall the book serves as an introduction to: setting, thematic agenda, and characters, and to set these balls rolling.  Carlos is a virtual operator revived a thousand years after his death to do what he does best: kill.  His consciousness revived ino a virtual environment, he is asked by the Locke Corporation to lead a small team of operatives commanding mech exoskeletons through space to take back a small moon.  The moon occupied by a group of robots who recently found group sentience, they seek to defend their new found autonomy with barriers both legal and physical.  The mission seems clear cut, but as the political alignment of Carlos’ team, the robots, and the wider galaxy begin to fray, things go haywire.

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 clich├ęs 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.