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.