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

Best reads of 2017...

While I posted fewer books this year than recent years, there was still a good selection of quality books that stuck out, regardless of year published.  (See here for the best books published only in 2017.)  Regardless fiction or non-fiction, novel or anthology, the following are personal favorites read in 2017:

Remainder by Tom McCarthy – While some go so far as to describe McCarthy’s debut as ‘avant garde’, I can say in the least it’s a unique piece of fiction that has no peer I’m aware of.  About a man who becomes strangely obsessed with re-creating images and scenes from his memories, coming into a huge sum of money allows him to realize his desires in the most unexpected ways.  From staging an entire apartment building, complete with actors as residents, to a murder scene on the street, McCarthy uncovers something bizarrely, simply, truly human in essence, yet very literary form.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman – One of those novels so colorfully delivered as to wedge itself permanently in the brain, this tale of a feisty, foul-mouthed, 5-foot Jewish boxer caught up in Nazi affairs beyond his ken is nothing but matchless.  Beauman having a way with words, the dynamic prose etches the story in the reader’s mind as much as its color sweeps the reader up into its inimitable plot.

The Summer Isles by Ian Macleod – Ian Macleod is a master-class writer, and The Summer Isles may be his best.  Where George Orwell’s brand of totalitarian oppression strikes a chord in readers for the fear it instills, Macleod delves into the more subtle, realistic side of political tyranny through the story of a disgraced professor in an alternate history England.  Brilliant story—and one that holds numerous parallels to current political practice compared to Nineteen Eighty-four.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Starcraft 2 in 2018

The 2018 season of Starcraft 2 is upon us.  Qualifiers for WESG, WCS, and IEM Pyeongyang are ongoing, January tournament start dates are just around the corner, and the first season of GSL has just begun.  Thus, it’s a good time to look ahead, see what the landscape looks like, ask some question about how the year will play out, and perhaps, just perhaps make a prediction or two.

The biggest change influencing the coming year will be the major patch that occurred at the end of 2017.  Where LotV evolved Starcraft 2 into an entirely new scene, the latest balance update, less so.  It changes (not evolves) the game, and would seem to bring back into the picture certain aspects of HotS.  Without pylon charging and the Mothership Core, Protoss is back to base defense, and potentially less aggressive on the map early-game.  Zerg underwent relatively minimal changes (buffs if anything), but for certain Infestors will be used in greater force, something we saw a lot more of in HotS.  Terran has changes to the Liberator, Raven, Cyclone, etc.—what on the surface seem nerfs, but time will tell.  This is all not to mention that mineral patches and gas geysers now provide more resources, meaning the amount of turtling should increase ever so slightly.   Overall the game remains quite similar, but there are changes.   Thus, the question is, which players do these changes best suit?  And, who is most likely to adapt well and be successful in 2018? 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review of Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan

Andy Duncan’s first book, Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, was a superb collection of short fiction.  Dripping with voice and style, each piece was carefully crafted, occupying a wholly unique perspective, from the ghosts that haunted General Patton to a small southern town’s witnessing of a criminal execution.  Picking up where he left off, Duncan’s second collection The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories (2012) is everything the first collection was, and comes just as recommended.

As mentioned in “Fortitude”, Duncan explored possible motivations for Gen. George Patton’s strength of character.  A sort of secret history, or “missing biography” type of story, in “The Pottawatomie Giant” he returns to the form to tell the unknown side of an early 20th century boxer’s tale, Jess Willard.  A massive man known for his ability to take a punch, beating the then consensus champion Jack Johnson and becoming world champion himself, Willard was skyrocketed into fame, but was never really comfortable with it, as witnessed by his altercation with Harry Houdini.  Duncan looking at Willard in old age, it’s an interesting story that twists on itself under Duncan’s quality pen.  Another semi-biographical tale, this time of a historical figure few will be aware of, “Zora and the Zombie” looks at real-life anthropologist and writer Zora Neale-Hurston and a trip she takes to Haiti to study the local culture.  Voodoo all around, Duncan uses the story to understated effect to balance feminist concerns across traditional and contemporary culture. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Nier: Automata

If you are anything like me, seeing Japanese anime featuring spiky-haired young men wielding swords twice as big as they are can cause a sputter of laughter.  Phallic symbolism aside (“I see your schwartz is as big as mine…”), it’s an absurdity that would only seem to detract from the integrity of the product. Looking at the cover of Platinum Games’ 2017 Nier: Automata you find not only massive anime swords, but that spiky-haired women in high heels are wielding them!!  Nier: Automata is a case, however, where judging the book by the cover would make you miss what may be the best video game created to date…  

Nier: Automata is set thousands of years in the future.  The only remnants of humanity live on the moon and are guarded by an army of androids orbiting Earth in a bunker station.  The Earth a ruined, desolate place, it’s occupied by aggressive machines looking to destroy humanity.  The player starts the game as 2B, an android soldier in the fight against the machines who is part of a small force tasked with destroying a machine uprising in the middle of a wasted city.  And fight 2B and her partner 9S do, swords flashing and slashing across the dust and concrete. But the more 2B fights, the deeper she delves into machine life on Earth, and the more conflicted her worldview becomes.  Some of the machines wanting world peace and others separating themselves into religions and kingdoms, good guy vs. bad guy loses clarity, even as the lines between machine, android, and human get fuzzier and fuzzier.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Best Books of 2017

Of the thousands of books published in speculative fiction in 2017, I read twenty-two, which is a slight drop compared to previous years.  Many of the books I wanted to read I was unable to get my hands on for whatever reason.  But there were still a number of good novels—Eleanor Lerman’s Stargazer’s Embassy, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, John Kessell’s The Moon and the Other, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and R. Scott Bakker’s The Unholy Consult among them.  As the year drew to a close without a clear front-runner, I was considering giving a joint award to Kessel and Yuknavitch’s books given the engaging, intelligent, and complementary pair they form.  But then in December I read a couple of books that had spotlights from the heavens shining down upon them...

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Like the two world wars and the effect they had on everyday people trying to live everyday lives in the 20th century, one of the greater crises happening in the 21st is the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the effect there on normal people trying to live normal lives.  Western media often focusing only on the drama, violence, and terrorism, the lives of ordinary people who want no part of the conflict get overlooked.  That is, until they start appearing on Western shores in search of help.  Nailing this quotidian view in a fully human story is Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Exit West.

The cultural climate being what is in the West today, it’s important to step in now and forestall any potential eye-rolling: ‘Here we go, another victim narrative…  In the strictest sense of the expression, yes, Exit West is a victim narrative, but it’s a victim narrative in the same vein as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—the American classic.  Prose and setting differ, but both Steinbeck and Hamid attempt to portray ordinary humans caught up in circumstances beyond their control who then try to retain a sense of normalcy and survive.  In Grapes, drought pushes the Joad family to leave Oklahoma for California, and in Exit West it’s war that pushes Saeed and Nadia to leave the Middle East for Europe.  But neither group of characters is utterly imprisoned by their circumstances.  Each uses what instinct and knowledge they have to attempt to carry on—to extend the normalcy as best they can in a new setting.  Thus Exit West, like Grapes of Wrath, is not a bleeding heart liberal narrative akin to a Fox News human interest story.  Hamid restraining himself, it is a story about real people (in the illustrative sense), nothing exaggerated or overstated.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of Strange Weather by Joe Hill

As that thimbleful of regular readers will know, I am largely dismissive of horror.  There are books that buck the trend, for certain, but generally I find it’s a restricted scene.  As such, there are many writers who go in one eye and out the other when looking at lists of upcoming publications, best ofs, or recommended reading lists.  Despite never having read anything by him, Joe Hill was one such writer.  But then I read “The Devil on the Staircase” in the anthology Stories: All New Tales.  Experimental in form and mythopoeic in substance, it’s a superbly written human story that made me ask myself whether I’m missing out on something by not reading Hill.  When his 2017 collection Strange Weather popped up on an upcoming publication list, I took the chance.  More than just the best collection of the year, I’m thinking of putting it as my best book published in 2017… 

A small collection in terms of quantity (only four stories), Strange Weather remains substantial given all are novellas (the collection totals 400+ pages).  In each, Hill wonderfully combines engaging storylines, tightly defined characters, relevant commentary on contemporary social and political issues, and meaningful outcomes—pretty much everything that tickles my reading fancy.  I would have to go back through my library, but suffice to say it’s been a while since I read a collection that was of such consistent yet dynamic quality.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

In today’s cultural climate, Colson Whitehead’s 2016 The Underground Railroad is a difficult book to trust reviews of.  Many on the left are likely to blindly champion the book simply because it addresses race, while many on the right are likely to be equally blind, but out of a desire to distance themselves from race discussion.  Equally distrustful of both sides, I hope this review falls in the middle.

Cora is a young woman raised as a slave in Georgia in the mid-1800s at the start of The Underground Railroad.  Owned by a misanthrope who beats, rapes, kills, sells at will, and in general mistreats his slaves as he pleases, Cora’s upbringing is about as bad as we can imagine slavery to be.  And she becomes a little crazy for it.  Approaching womanhood finds Cora living alone, her fellow slaves wanting no part of her personal life.  But an opportunity to escape arises, and Cora jumps at it.  Catching a ride on the underground railroad out of the plantation, she discovers worlds she never knew existed—for slightly better and worst.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Pinball Arcade

Perhaps the last generation to have the opportunity, pinball was part of my growing up.  The latest fighting and racing games dominated the arcades in my area, but always in the corner were two or three dinging and flashing pinball machines.  I pumped many a quarter into The Addams Family, Terminator 2, and Lethal Weapon.  With Pinball Arcade on the Playstation 4 not only am I able to play those very tables and dozens of others, but can do so in as authentic a fashion as the virtual pinball allows.  FarSight Studios, developers of the game, clearly aimed to make the experience as 1:1 as possible, from scoring to sound, individual table characteristics to the different types of flippers and plungers, even the usage of forefingers (as opposed to thumbs) for gameplay.  

Pinball Arcade is available as a free download from the Playstation store.  However, there are only a couple of machines which can be played for free.  Available individually or in a bundle, the other machines can be played up to a point limit but must be purchased to have the full, unlimited experience.  (It is possible to join tournament mode and play tables that normally must be paid for, but this is limited to schedules and tables selected for the tournaments.)  For what it’s worth, the main table provided free with the game, Tales of the Arabian Knights, is phenomenal, offering hours and hours of twitching fingers—which, after all, is the addiction of pinball.