2014-12-27

First Thoughts: Might & Magic X Legacy

So, taking advantage of the Steam Holiday Sale (obligatory comment on how this time wasn't as good as that time goes here), I decided to open up a portal to the 90s:



Aww, yeah, baby.  Might & Magic.  I was first introduced to this series back in the early 90s, with Might & Magic 4: Clouds of Xeen.  To say it blew my young mind is an understatement.  It was like nothing I'd experienced before.  While I would say Bard's Tale 3 was, objectively, a better game, Might & Magic was far prettier and more immersive, even though 4 came out a scant four years after. It was just bigger, more immersive, and generally more impressive.  It also introduced me to one of gaming's greatest "joys": waiting for a repeatedly delayed sequel.  That being said, Might & Magic 5: Darkside of Xeen more than lived up to the hype, even without getting into the whole "World of Xeen" post-game quest.  This was quality stuff.

Despite how much I liked it, I kind of dropped out of computer gaming for awhile afterwards, and never had much to do with the follow-ups (6-9), nor the Heroes of Might & Magic series, nor the Warriors, Legends, and Ring-Tailed Lemurs of Might & Magic.  Looking back at them, I might enjoy 6-9 (well, probably not 9), but I was never terribly interested in the other series.  To me, Might & Magic will always be a first-person, grid-based hydra.

So, along comes X.

2014-12-20

No Classic

So, my brother loaned me this book and I read it.  Yeah, an actual dead-tree book.  It's been awhile.  I hadn't realized how spoiled I'd gotten with my Nook's built-in light.  There was a bit of contorting to get sufficient light at work sometimes.  Also, it's much harder to eat while reading a book than using a reader.  Yes, yes, none of this is earth shattering news, but it's been so long since I read a paperback, I'd kind of forgotten.  Also, I needed a bit of filler as this won't be a particularly long review.

Anyway, No Hero tells the story of Oxford police officer Arthur Wallace who stumbles into the underground realm of MI-37, and their quest to prevent Evil Horrors From Beyond Space And Time from Destroying All Reality As We Know It.  He meets a colorful collection of eccentric coworkers, a love interest (two, I suppose), some double crosses, some Chessmaster Gambits and various and sundry things that you'd expect in this kind of book.  It all wraps up with a Big Damn Climax, and a happily ever after that leads to the sequel hook for the next book (because all books must now be trilogies, if not longer).

2014-12-10

Lame Ducks and Constitutional Follies

UPDATE: They've decided that Quinn will appoint a replacement for the remainder of Topinka's current term while Rauner will appoint a replacement for the term she recently won.  Quinn wants the legislature to have a special election for the seat in 2016, but he can't force it and it probably won't happen.

Today, Judy Baar Topinka died.  She had a long career and was quite popular across the state.  She was also the sort to tell it like it is and not mince words.  She will certainly be missed.  She will also likely have lots of ink used to compare her to Jane Byrne who also recently died.  Of course, since I'm me, I'm not going to focus on any of that.  I'm going to focus on my (admittedly unqualified) opinions about the issues the timing of her death have left behind.

We're currently in the lame duck session.  For those not familiar, it's the vast limbo between election day (November 4th) and inauguration day (January 20th).  The late inauguration is a holdover from Ye Olden Dayes when it took time to gather information and to figure out what was going on and to travel across the state and/or country.  When you had to go by horse, this made sense.  However, we're now in a world where, nine times out of ten, we know the winner of any given election within hours of the polls closing.  Some folks will even make (shockingly accurate) predictions within minutes.  There's a whole cottage industry built around seeing who can predict the fastest (personally, I go with the Ace of Spades HQ Decision Desk which has been eerily good).

Regardless, this politically ancient process leaves us with almost three months where people who know they are out of a job still have power.  If you've been voted out, you no longer need to worry about the ramifications of your actions.  It's not like you can be voted out; that already happened!  Imagine being at work and being told, "Hey, in three months you're going to be fired.  Keep doing your job until then."  What kind of work would you do?  How motivated would you be?  How many boxes of pens would you steal?  Now imagine that you were partially responsible for a multi-billion dollar budget.  It's insanity.

2014-12-07

Just Another Gig

I've mentioned before my love of "blue collar dudes in space".  Temporary Duty falls into a fraternal-twin genre, "military grunts in space".  As you can tell by the cover, this is not a glamorous duty.  And I love it.

A little backstory is required here, I think.  I found out about this book because I follow the blog of the person who did the cover image.  Ric Locke self published the novel and was working on a sequel while he was in the process of dying of lung cancer.  Part of the money from the novel went towards getting him oxygen tanks and such.  I gladly bought a copy and then sat on the book for awhile (as I'm wont to do, apparently).  By the time I got around to reading the book, I found out that Locke had already died.  It was a weird experience, and I mentioned it on Facebook at the time.  Anyway, all that aside, the book is well worth tracking down on the eReader of your choice.

2014-12-02

Would You Like a Haunting With That?

Not to be confused with the movies House on Haunted Hill (1959) or House on Haunted Hill (1999).  However, if you want to watch a film version, there is The Haunting (1963) and The Haunting (1999).  Now we just need someone to make a movie called House Haunting Hill and we'll never know what the hell is going on.

My first exposure to this story was, sadly, the 1999 version of the Haunting.  It has about as much in common with the original story as the House on Haunted Hill does; which is to say that both involve a) people and b) a haunted house.  So, my short review of 1999's the Haunting is: don't bother.  That being said, the 1959 House on Haunted Hill is a perfectly serviceable haunted house picture; I'd recommend it.

But enough yammering about confusingly named properties that are all to similar to each other in title if not in content.  We're here to talk about Shirley Jackson's book!  Briefly?  It's fantastic.

2014-11-16

Back to the Night Land

Right, so, finally got around to this one.

This is actually a collection of four separate but interconnected stories written because Mr. Wright loved The Night Land.  The author's introduction is, in fact, a loving tribute to the original work, and shows that Hodgson's original had a tremendous impact on a young John C. Wright.  I, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so smitten.  That being said, I think Wright's foray into this world is considerably more accessible.  If nothing else, 21st century aping of 19th century aping of 18th century writing is enough removed that it's actually more readable.

Also, as an aside before I get into the book itself, I just have to say that I really love the cover Castalia House commissioned for this book.  From the look of the Last Redoubt, to the ghostly glow of the Earth Current at the base, to the ghostly Watchers in the background.  Cover artist Jartstar did an amazing job.  I've actually found myself just sort of staring at it.  Ahem, anyway.

2014-11-02

Better Late Than Never: Saint's Row IV


Grand Theft What?

Saint's Row 4 is, quite possibly, the most fun I've ever had playing a video game.  Yes, yes, in a world of hyperbole, that's not much of a statement, but this game is to video games what Guardians of the Galaxy was to superhero movies.  It's just ridiculously fun.  Unlike Rockstar, they haven't forgotten why people play video games.

So... how to describe...

Well, after the 3rd Street Saints regained their clout and popularity after Saint's Row the Third, the Boss (you) becomes president of the United States.  No, it doesn't make any damn sense, but this series isn't exactly grounded in reality.  That's just driven home as your press conference is interrupted by an alien invasion.

Yeah, you read that right.  Aliens invade the planet.

This is all just an excuse to put you into a simulation of the world, which allows you to essentially be Neo in the Matrix.  And it's as awesome as it sounds.  The first power you earn is the ability to run super-fast, which pretty much means you'll almost never use cars after that.  And when you get the ability to run up walls, well, that's when the fun really starts.  It's hard to describe just how great it is to be running down the street and then run up the face of a 100 story skyscraper.  And, since it's a simulation, you can jump off the roof and survive the landing.

Words cannot describe how fun this is.  And, sure, there's a "plot" and "goals" and all that other stuff, but the amount of enjoyment to be had just running around town cannot be stressed enough.  This game gives you super powers and lets you run wild.

In some ways, the Saint's Row series was sort of Grand Theft Auto's poor cousin.  It didn't get the press that GTA did and was sort of an also-ran.  But instead of trying for more and more realism like GTA did, Saint's Row decided to focus on fun.  I couldn't get into GTA: San Andreas or 4, and I never even bothered with GTA 5.  But the Saint's Row games are worth the investment and have great replayability.  GTA hasn't had a sense of humor about itself since Vice City, and half of that was just it wallowing in 80s excess.

And, as an aside, SR4 being in a simulation nice sidesteps the moral ambiguity games like this tend to have.  Who cares if you steal a car?  It's not real.  Who cares if you gun someone down?  They don't exist.  It's a computer game inside a computer game.  It's... Saintsception!

The game has plenty of callbacks to the first three games of the series (of which, I've only played three), so there's more to "get" if you've played the whole series, but even without that information, the game is still completely accessible, and ridiculously fun.  And, really, fun is the reason we play video games.  Or it used to be.

And, hell, Keith David voices the vice-president.  Keith David, playing Keith David.  How awesome is that?

2014-10-14

First Thoughts: Borderlands the Pre-Sequel


Sadly, I've only managed about an hour or so of play time with Borderlands the Pre-Sequel.  I normally wouldn't bother writing something up so early (Wasteland 2 was an exception because I'd been playing it for months in the Beta), but how often do I get to write about something current?  I mean, the game launched today!  I gotta catching this train while I can!

Anyway, Borderlands the Pre-Sequel (BtPS) is pretty much right what it says on the cover.  The entire game is a flashback being told after the events of Borderlands 2.  It tells of the rise of Handsome Jack, and why the various people were working for him, and all that fun stuff.  But, since it's being told in flashback, there's plenty of interjection by the Vault Hunters of Borderlands 1 (who seem to be running the show; not sure what happened to the crew from 2).  In other words, it's as zany, silly, and unserious as you'd expect from this series.

BtPS takes place on Pandora's moon which, being a crummy moon, doesn't really have any atmosphere, which gives rise to an oxygen meter mechanic.  There was quite a bit of grumbling in early press about this, and I was a little concerned at first myself, but what I've played, it doesn't seem too bad.  There are little "springs" of oxygen that you can stand on to recharge your meter (which fills quickly), there are oxygen exchangers that create an oxygenated area a half dozen or so yards radius, and almost every foe drops oxygen canisters, which are like health packs for your oxygen meter and they fill it by 25%.

That 25% is important.  See, your oxygen meter is determined by a piece of equipment call the Oz Kit.  The kits are kind of a combination of shield and class mod.  They give a varying level of oxygen meter (thus the importance of a percentile refresh), but they also give various bonuses, such as improved damage while airborne or increased stomp damage.

Oh yeah, stomp damage.  Or, more specifically, "butt stomp".  The other big mechanical change BtPS brings us is low gravity, which... is really really neat.  You jump about twice as high, you fall slower, you can burn oxygen in your Oz kit to do a double jump, and you can rocket down to the ground with a small area attack: the butt stomp.

While the butt stomp is kind of juvenile, the low gravity drastically changes combat strategy, and not just dealing with possibly having increased damage while airborne or other things.  The low gravity, and ability for high jumps essentially introduces a z-axis to the game.  It may be a limited z-axis, but it's still there, and the first time a psycho jumps up to power bomb your head is a pretty harsh reminder.  It takes some getting used to, but it's fun.

And, really, that's the whole point.  The Borderlands games are all about the wacky fun, and this latest installment has it in spades.  It's still a numbers game at heart (your progression is all about making little numbers into bigger numbers), but it's great fun.  It still has it's doofy sense of humor and the NPCs all have their personalities nicely intact (especially Handsome Jack).  I don't know if it's necessarily going to be worth the $60 AAA price tag its sporting, so it might be worth waiting for a sale.  But if you enjoyed either of the first two, you'll feel right at home here.

I'll see you on Elpis, Vault Hunter.

2014-09-22

Cue up the Billy Idol


It's here.  It's finally here!  After twenty years of general waiting, and two years of baited breath, Wasteland 2 has finally arrived.  And it.  Is.  Glorious. I'm going to try to keep my nostalgia goggles on the shelf, and try to keep my biases in check, even though it's more than a little difficult.

Way back in 1988, Interplay and Electronic Arts released Wasteland.  The game is centered around the Colorado River, straddling Arizona and Nevada.  It's seventy some years after a (then) unexplained nuclear war that devastated the world.

A team of Army Engineers, seeing the world coming to an end all around them, took over a nearby federal prison, kicking out all the prisoners.  Over time, they invited in nearby survivalist communities to join them, eventually forming the Desert Rangers.

The original game was very much a product of its time; not just in the top down perspective, but also the fact that you're all but literally thrown to the wolves.  You start out at the Ranger Center and there you go.  What?  You wanted direction?  A quest giver?  What do you think this is?  The 90s?  If you'd read the manual, though, you'd know "exactly" what to do:
Your party, the famed Desert Rangers, have been assigned to investigate a series of disturbances in the desert. After several strategy meetings, you’ve decided to search for clues in Highpool, the Agricultural Center, and the Rail Nomads’ Camp, all of which are located to the west of Ranger Center.
There you go. That's all you get to start with.  Go west young man indeed.  However, as you play through, the plot does a great job leading you from place to place, giving you teasing little pieces of information, slowly filling in the broader story.  Highpool and the Ag Center help you get a few levels under your belt.  The Rail Nomads lead you to Quartz.  Quartz leads to Needles.  Needles leads to Las Vegas.  Las Vegas gives you the real plot and carries you the rest of the way to the end of the game where you save the world.

It's brilliant.  Absolutely and completely brilliant.  Even with the technical limitations of being forced to dump the majority of the game text into a separate book, and the minimal graphics, it still comes together like a finally oiled machine.  In a way, it lets your imagination take over, filling in the blanks and making it greater than the sum of its parts.

I still play Wasteland twenty years on, and I still find new things from time to time.

2014-09-20

Say the Title Like the Commodores

Book four.  The book that caught me off guard.  I got all the way to the end of book three before finding out that, Nope!, it wasn't going to be a trilogy after all.  We're looking at five or six books here.

The Widow's House is the latest book in Daniel Abraham's Dagger & Coin series.  In many ways, this series is what I wish A Song of Fire and Ice was.  They're both sprawling epic fantasy, they're both in worlds that were in decline, they're both war-torn settings, they're both told through a series of point-of-view characters, they're both (mostly) low-fantasy -- as opposed to Tolkien-like or D&D-like high fantasy.  These similarities aren't too surprising, considering the connections between the two authors.  It's just that I like Abraham's world so much better, I like his writing style better, and I like that fact that he seems to have an end-game in mind; not just in mind, but in sight.

This world is very well designed and complicated.  Complicated enough that I needed to make a cheat sheet for myself, but unlike SoFaI, it's not from a jillion characters with eight different names, it's the fact that he's not quite as low-fantasy, so he has multiple races.  He has his orc-alikes, his wolf-people, his elves, his dwarves (sort of), so on and so forth.  However, since there's thirteen or fourteen different races, it can be a bit of a blur.  Thankfully, every book has an appendix at the end listing all the races and describing them; as an extra bonus, it's written by a highly biased in-world scholar, which makes it a little amusing.

2014-09-13

Better Late Than Never: 9

I finally got around to watching 9.  That's 9, not Nine.
This one...
...not this one.

Ahem.  Anyway.  A little plot outline is necessary here.  At least, it was for me, because, even though 9 is five years old, I went into it knowing almost nothing at all about it.  I knew it was animated and it involved this little hackysack dudes, but I didn't really know anything else.

Like that it's a post-apocalyptic movie.  Yeah.  Did not know that.  It's an interesting world they've created (er, destroyed?) here, too.  During the movie, we learn that it was a standard "machines gone mad" world.  The imagery of the pre-fall world makes it look like the nation in question was... well... the Soviets by any other name.  Sure, they're using different iconography, and nobody actually uses the words, but, well, "The Chancellor" has certain similarities.

Anyway, we have the classic "good science twisted" motif where The Scientist's creation, an intelligent, self-replicating robot, is used for militaristic means.  This leads to massive amounts of war and, eventually, the robots turning on man and wiping out all life.

All life.  The toxins used by the machines even wiped out bacterial life on the surface, leaving the world sterile.  Also, somehow, the machines were deactivated in all this.  It's never really explained what happened to them, but there's really no life of any kind left.  You have the stitchpunks (our hacky sack dolls) and a catlike robot monster thing.

Our story focuses on the titular 9, the last stitchpunk created by the Scientist before his death.  He's a bit of a naive prat, to be honest.  This movie is certainly a case where the supporting characters are more interesting than the main character.  Hell, even 8, the dumbass brute was more enjoyable than 9.  Maybe it's because 9 is voiced by Elijah Wood.  When Elijah's being earnest, you just want to pop him in the nose.

Aside from Elijah Wood, there are problems with this film.  While it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, the plot is weak and elements of it are far too metaphysical for my tastes.  When the story started, it was great.  I was totally sucked in.  A little past the half way point, the wheels started to fall off.  Which, honestly, isn't terribly surprising.  Reading up on the short film this was based on, the great parts were mostly retreads of the original short.  It's when the story expanded that the problems start to crop up.  Not just the stuff with the souls, but the fact that events in the movie require people to be damnable idiots.  Perhaps it's because of how the stitchpunks were created, but it's still pretty weak, and it's frustrating watching things being stretched out because someone did something stupid.  Especially when the movie's only about 80 minutes long to begin with.

Still, it's beautiful to look at.  The blasted world looks great.  I'm glad I saw it, flaws and all.

Fighting for Atlantis... I guess

Prepare for awesome!
Oh, what a lovely sight.  What a great title: Crimzon Clover World Ignition.  Yes please.

Anyway, yes, for the past few days, I've been destroying my thumbs playing Crimzon Clover (thanks, Neil!).  Crimzon Clover is a vertically scrolling classic-style bullet-hell shmup.  Allow me to translate that for the non-video game players.  "Vertically scrolling" is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  The game screen advances automatically from the top down, as opposed to horizontal like, say, Mario.  "Shmup" is just a portmanteau for "shoot 'em up", which means it's light on plot and focuses on shooting things.  As for "classic-style bullet-hell"... well... they say a picture is worth a thousand words:

RAWR!
That's me at the bottom there; my ship in the middle and extra shooty things on either side.  All that radioactive green is me shooting, the gold stars are points, the blue circles are bad-guy shots.  You... you can't really see any enemies in this screen shot because I'm kind of annihilating everything here, thanks to the game's Double Break mechanic.

See, in this game, when you blow up enough bad guys, you fill a gauge and unlock Break Mode.  Break mode doubles your scoring, and increases your damage (it does other stuff, but those are the important ones).  If you fill the gauge twice, you can Double Break.  Double Break increases the damage even more, doubles (again!) your scoring, and makes everything faster.  It also makes the game glorious.  I mean, unleashing a Double Break is crazy fun because you just blast things to pieces.  It kind of ruins other shmups.  Of course, it's not all wiping the walls with baddies:

The bosses are worse.
Yeah.  That's not a boss in the above picture, it's the first of three or four "medium enemies" in that level.  Granted, it's in the final level, but you can get a screen like this against non-boss enemies.  You really can't see it, but in the middle of that huge mess, over to the right, is the tank-thing that's spewing out 99% of that hot death there.  Let's just say it's a good thing there's unlimited continues...

Get used to seeing this.
So that's Crimzon Clover in all it's glory.  Sure, there's a plot, technically ("...you're launched from a sub because ATLANTIS"), but it's really all about the scrolling mayhem.  I could get into its arcade history and so forth and so on, but that's really beside the point, and anyone who cares can hit up Wikipedia (and they probably have it already).  However, thanks to its arcade roots, this feels like a throwback to the 80s heyday of the shmup.  It's not trying to be poetic or really do much of anything new (although the Break mechanic is really awesome), it just wants to be a great game you can just lean back and enjoy.  There's something great about utterly demolishing endless waves of weird ships, plants, and tanks.

You could do a lot worse for $10.

2014-09-10

Knowing Everything and Nothing

You may or may not have heard of Athanasius Kircher, but his impact has certainly been felt in the world.  He was a 17th century Jesuit priest, polymath, scholar, prodigious author, and general source of knowledge and wisdom across the world.

And he was, by most accounts, wrong about just about everything.

Of course, being wrong about just about everything in the mid 1600s wasn't terribly uncommon.  Everyone "knew" plenty of things, but those things turned out to be quite wrong.  But yet, despite it all, Kircher laid more foundations than he ever could have imagined, and many of those foundations were responsible for new discoveries, or expanded knowledge.  In a way, it's almost unbelievable how he could be so wrong, yet be responsible (even indirectly) for people discovering the truth.  To say nothing of the numerous things that he was so close on, but still short the mark.


2014-09-07

Better Late Than Never: Creature

Creature (2011) is not a good movie.  I don't know if it was even trying, but it's not good.  You should probably call it a bad movie.  But I think it deserves to be considered a Bad Movie.

You see, there's a difference between a bad movie and a Bad Movie.  Bad Movies are the stuff of legends and have entire websites dedicated to them.  Bad Movies are things like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Future War or The Giant Claw.  They're movies that wrap around bad and become entertaining again.

I'm not entirely convinced that Creature manages this feat, but it certainly comes close.  I could see having it be part of a group movie night and providing entertainment.  Just... probably not the entertainment the creators intended.

But, I have to say, don't trust all the reviews you've read.  Some of them seem to have decided that they weren't going to like it, and thus didn't really pay attention.  You can't really complain about plot holes or bad reveal orders if you weren't paying any damn attention and missed explanations or missed entire conversations.  It's honestly rather embarrassing, especially when it's from critics I respect who I would expect to hold a sliver of professionalism.  Honestly, if you can't be bothered to watch the damn movie, maybe you should lead it off your list and just skip it.  Just because the movie was a dismal and almost complete box office failure ($216 per screen average; currently the 3rd worst for wide release movies) doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a fair shake.  At least if you're going to bill yourself as a professional critic.

Right.  I'm off my soap box.  Time for the movie.

2014-09-02

A Brush With Perfection

Rarely, rarely does a person get to sample perfection.  Because I have a tendency to ramble, I want to make that perfectly clear right up front: We Have Always Lived In The Castle is possibly one of the most perfect pieces of fiction I have ever read.  It is pure brilliance, and the fact that many people have probably never heard of it is nothing short of criminal.  No, this isn't hyperbole.

Castle is written by the brilliant Shirley Jackson.  You know Shirley Jackson.  Everyone does.  Even if you don't recognize her name, you know her.  All it takes is two words: The Lottery.  Yes.  That Shirley Jackson.

As for Castle (billed as a novel, but really more like of novella), well... imagine a haunted house with no hauntings.  A ghost story with no ghost.  If I had to pin it down, I'd call it the epitome of the weird tale, even though there's nothing supernatural going on.  But despite having no hauntings or ghosts or cosmic horror, this story piles on the dread and foreboding in a way few things I've ever read have managed.  In many ways, it's like watching two trains steaming towards each other in slow motion.  You know what's going to happen, but you just can't tear your eyes away.  And as the trains get closer, time slows more and more to just build upon that dread.  This isn't a horror story; it's a tale of dread and unease, and it's all the more horrifying for it.  It's like Thomas Ligotti in the real world, and the real world is terrifying enough as is.

2014-08-31

What's a Cibola?

This book shouldn't exist.  There's no real reason for it, and I'm kind of annoyed by its very existence.  Cibola Burn is the fourth book of the Expanse Trilogy.  Yes, book four of three.

The Expanse Series was finished.  They'd completed the story and it was done.  And yet, here we are with another book in the series, and two further in the wings; thanks, Orbit.  And, of course, I bought it and read it because I'm an idiot who likes to encourage authors to stretch series beyond their completion.

Anyway, the nuts and bolts: the Expanse Series is the sci-fi series by James SA Corey.  Which is to say, the series written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.  It's set in a futuristic world where the earth has partially colonized Mars, the larger asteroids, and a few outer moons.  It's some pretty crunchy sci-fi, so there's no laser blasters or teleporters.  In fact, the books even deal with things like acceleration, water consumption, air consumption, and other mundane issues.

While the books shift focus (using Point of View characters), the main focus of the series is the four person crew of the Rocinante a "salvaged" Martian warship.  While we also focus on other characters, the central character in the books is James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante.

The other main plotline running through the books, the main motivator for the events of all the books, is something called the "protomolecule", which is a biological organism from an ancient, ancient race of beings that were long dead before life crawled out of the muck on Earth.  While this ancient, unnamed, race has been dead for billions of years, there are hints that they may actually be the source of all intelligent life in the universe.  Or at least the ultimate source of life that led to humans, and these books don't have other intelligent life.  And, of course, because you can't have an ancient progenitor without an even older enemy, there's some kind of... adversary out there that was responsible for the death of the progenitor species.  All of this is naturally shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, because you can't just spell it out for your readers; gotta keep the mystery.

2014-08-27

Yet More Zombies

I'll be honest here.  I really didn't intend to A) do more zombies or B) turn this into the Seanan McGuire Power Hour, but sometimes it just works out that way.  So, here we go.  More zombies and more McGuire.

The Newsflesh Trilogy is written by "Mira Grant" which is McGuire's pseudonym.  Dunno why she's using one here, but that's hardly important.  The trilogy is set in 2041 or so, following a massive zombie uprising in 2014.  So let's take a look at how these particular zombies work.

It's actually pretty clever.  The zombification was caused by two engineered viruses meeting, merging, and mutating.  The irony of it being that one was a cure for cancer (it worked) and the other was a cure for the common cold (it worked).  However, when the two combined, it caused any mammal over roughly 40 pounds to get up after it had died and start munching brains.  There's more specifics, but that's the gist of it.

Like with the Velveteen series, she takes her core concept and then expands out on how it effects the world at large.  Frankly, this world building is probably the most interesting thing about these books, largely because she's really taken the time to build a plausible world (once you accept the whole zombie thing).  For instance, in a world where everyone is immune to every form of cancer, smoking is extremely common.  Like, 1950s common.  Also, blood tests to check for "amplification" (meaning you're turning into a zombie due to exposure) are so common that most any outside door has a built in panel, some vehicles have testers on the handles, and people carry numerous disposable testing kits.  And biohazard bags for disposal.  In this world, it seems like the average person has upwards of a dozen blood tests a day, unless they never leave their home.

2014-08-24

The Door

There's this door.

Every time I walk to work, I take a shortcut through an alley, and I see this door.  At first, I didn't think much of it, you know?  Door in an alley; who cares?  But for some reason, it always kind of creeped me out.  Gave me the willies, or jibblies, or whatever you want to call them.

And I'm not sure why.

I think it's because of how the door looks.  From a distance, it almost looks like graffiti.  The dimensions are all wrong, like it was painted there by someone trying really hard to get it right, but getting it just wrong enough that it doesn't look real.  The uncanny valley of doors.  But when you get closer, it looks like any other door.  Well, any other door that's still living in the uncanny valley.

So it's either some extraordinary art, or really shoddy manufacturing to blame here.  I'm not sure which I'd prefer.  All I know is that every time I get near it, I start walking faster.  Like my legs don't want to have the rest of my body anywhere near that stupid thing for any longer than is strictly necessary.

It's a little unnerving.

I kinda want to check it out, though.  Is that stupid?  I wanna touch it.  See if it's paint or just some messed up back door to... um... whatever office or story or whatever is on that side of the alley.

Maybe I should just find a new route to work.

2014-08-18

Ex-Tree! Ex-Tree!

I don't know about you, but when I think of a reporter, I have a few archetypes that spring to mind.  The first is the fast-talking, hard-hitting, hard-drinking chap who talks out of the side of his mouth and has a placard that says PRESS in his hat band.  He's also usually going on about "what a scoop!" while running to a pay phone.

The next archetype to spring to mind is the reporter-turned-opinion man.  The two that instantly come to mind are rather local, but they're Mike Royko and Rick Kogan.  I never heard Ryoko's voice, but Kogan sounds like he spent 300 years having a dozen cartons of Chesterfields for breakfast.  They're cynical, but fair.  They've seen it all, done most of it, and bring a wealth of experience to their writing.

Following that, we have the maniacs.  The Hunter S. Thompsons of the world.  When it comes to Gonzo journalism, you're either setting yourself up to writing a million words, or nothing.  I'm opting for nothing.

The last group that I usually think of are the modern investigative journalists.  Sadly, in many ways, "modern" means "1980s" here, since shrinking news rooms and shrinking budgets have greatly reduced their ranks.  But here we have the 20/20 era John Stossel or David "Fight Back!" Horowitz or, going local again, Dane Placko.  Still, these are the guys who do volumes of research and make sure their ducks are all in a row when they go after the corporations and politicians.  The people who actually speak truth to power, as opposed to random Tumblr activists.

Sadly, all of these are a dying breed.  The first probably never existed outside of Hollywood, the second is rare just for the time required, the third tends to flare out almost instantly, and the last is being eaten by budget cuts.  So, what we have left is... well... this:

2014-08-13

One (Well, Two) More Superhero Book(s)

Yes, I seem to be on a bit of a superhero kick, and yes, these are actual titles: Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots and Velveteen vs. The Multiverse.  I suppose it's only fitting that a superhero book have a hyperventilating title.

These books, by Seanan McGuire, are another exploration of superheroes and superhero tropes in a modern, real (for varying definitions of real) world.  Like many books in this genre (D-List Supervillain to a lesser extent; Soon I Will Be Invincible to a much greater extent), it is a deconstruction of superheroes and a tongue-in-cheek look at what a world would actually be like if superhumans were common and people fell through rips in the space-time continuum on a regular enough basis for there to be scientists who spend their entire careers studying such things.

2014-08-10

Zombies. Why Did It Have to Be Zombies?

It's a book by John Ringo.  I could probably just end the review here.  But I won't.

Islands of Rage & Hope is the third book in the "Black Tide Rising" trilogy series.  Not to be confused with Dark Waters, which is what I originally wrote.  Anyway, on with the book.

It's... okay.  It seems to avoid a lot of the things that people like to poke Ringo for.  I mean, sure, it's still gun porn, but it's not too excessive in that regard.  Pretty much everyone is stridently right-wing, but since it's the zombie apocalypse, that isn't particularly in your face.  But just because it isn't full of "Oh John Ringo No" moments doesn't mean there aren't issues.

First issue is the setting.  I am sick an tired of zombies and have been for quite some time.  I've never found them to be particularly interesting, so the series is starting in a hole for me.  On the plus side, Ringo's probably just using them because a zombie apocalypse gives him a lot of enemies for his heroes to kill.  When you're looking at a 1-3% survival rate, you can mow down thousands of zombies without worrying you might run out.  This means he's not trying to shoe horn in tired social commentary via zombies (looking at you, Romero).

2014-08-09

Coming of Age

I am not a fan of coming of age stories in a general sense.  At this point in my life, I'm not going to find them inspiring; I'm more likely to find them depressing.  It's not that I'm ancient or ready for AARP, but I've pretty come of age.  Did that awhile ago.

Hell, I'm not entirely sure what the phrase means, and I certainly couldn't provide you with a checklist of the required elements of what makes a coming of age story.  I guess it's kind of like art (or porn): you know it when you see it.

Of course, when somebody front loads a review with this many qualifiers, you just know there's going to be a "but..." or a "however...".  And there is, so I'll spare you the anticipation and just get on with it.

Chicagoland is the debut novel by Aaron Rath.  Written like a memoir, it tells the tale of Scott Duluoz and his... well... his coming of age.  Unlike most coming of age stories, this one actually resonated with me.  I think part of the reason for this is because we're of an age.  When he's talking about his anticipation of riding the dotcom boom, I was sitting in a coffee house shaking my twenty-something head saying, "That's totally gonna bust."

The character of Scott is roughly five years older than me, so I can easily relate to much of what he went through, even if the specifics were different (I've never dropped acid while crashing at a frat house on a hippy college).  There were several times while I was reading this that I found myself nodding along with various antics or concerns, so on and so forth.

One of the most poignant moments in the book is when Scott is walking down a street at night and notices that he's in the 2000 block of the street he's on, which makes him think about the years corresponding to the addresses he walks by.
2000: present day, adrift at the edge of the Chicagoland sea. Overworked, underpaid, indebted, remote, and lonely for the dawn of a new millennium...
Adrift?  You bet your ass adrift.  In many ways, this book captures that sort of listless, lost, enervated, and aimless sort of ennui that settles in on your shoulders when you hit your early twenties and realize that most everything in your life up to this point has left you utterly unprepared for how the world really is.  Even setting aside modern additions like six figure student debt for a largely useless "Studies" degree, every poor bastard leaving college feels that.  You got to college and you thought, "Damn, high school was for chumps.  This is the real deal!" only to have Life laugh and kick you in the groin.

So perhaps I'm a little cynical.

Perhaps that's part of why I could relate to Scott so easily despite our experiences being wildly different in  the particulars.  The paint may be different, but we're driving the same car.  Then again, perhaps that's sort of the point of a book like this.  You grab hold of a connection with someone else, finding silent camaraderie in a shared, or at least similar, experience.

Frankly, isn't that what matters?


I hate to claim that a single coming of age story is applicable to all people as I really think they're a generational thing, and an earlier generation's coming of age won't properly resonate (much like how I consider PCU to be my generation's Animal House), I will say that this one will probably resonate with the thirty-something set.  It's a recommendation regardless, but especially so for my generational peers.

If you're interested, you can find it on Amazon.  Rath e-published this himself.  It's a measly fin to buy or you can read it on that Kindle unlimited thingie if you have that.

2014-08-05

Referendumb

By Scott Stantis
I think Scott has pretty much nailed it here.  The Illinois Machine has decided to take the supposedly sacrosanct ballot referendum and twisted it to further their own pathetic ends.  It's not just enough that Quinn, Madigan, and Cullerton have decided to just browbeat their serfs, and unfortunately, that includes me.  So, what do we have on the ballot this time around (thanks to Ballotpedia for the information here and throughout):

  • Right to Vote Amendment: "Provides that no person shall be denied the right to register to vote or to cast a ballot in an election"
  • Crime Victims' Bill of Rights:  "Modifies the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights by strengthening the rights of crime victims during criminal court proceedings"
  • Minimum Wage Increase Question: "Increases the state's hourly minimum wage to $10"
  • Birth Control in Prescription  Drug Coverage Question: "Requires prescription birth control to be covered in prescription drug coverage health insurance plans"
  • Millionaire Tax Increase for Education Question: "Increases the tax on income greater than one million dollars to provide additional revenue to schools"

Superheroing on a Budget

 It seems I'm on something of a Jim Bernheimer kick.  It's really not my fault; I blame those freaking unicorn stories.  I also blame his breezy writing style that lets me tear through his books so quickly.

Anyway, today we have Confessions of a D-List Supervillain and Origins of a D-List Supervillain.  Both tell the story of Calvin Stringel, the aforementioned d-list supervillain.  They're both told in first person, and Confessions is written much like a tell-all memoir, while Origins reads more like your standard first person narrative.

Confessions, written first, tells the story of how Cal, literally, saved the world, while Origins is a prequel, fleshing out Calvin's back-story and telling tales of when he was just a lowly rent-a-thug.  While Origins is chronologically earlier, it really should be read second, as many of the little jokes and... call aheads (what's a precognitive callback?) won't make any sense otherwise.

I quite like the world Bernheimer has created here.  There are superhero teams, classifications of superhero (and villain), and lots and lots of villains and heroes populating his world.  It's about as densely packed as the Marvel universe, even to the point of having a multi-branch hero organization much like the Avengers.

He's also taking the time (mostly in Origins) to get into the down and dirty, day-to-day minutiae of the villain lifestyle.  Concerns about your clients being willing to kill you on a whim, worrying about where you'll get enough money to fix damaged equipment, laundering said money, all sorts of stuff.  In other words, Origins humanizes the low-level supervillain, which makes them look good, while Confessions is more about humanizing superheroes, which is far less flattering.

Like the Spirals of Destiny series, this is a quick paced bit of summer reading.  Also like Spirals of Destiny, there's supposed to be another book coming (so says the Also By page in Origins).  Unlike Spirals, I'm not entirely sure where he's going to go from here.  He can't really do another prequel unless he plans to spend a couple hundred pages on Cal's college days, and the story was pretty much wrapped up at the end of Confessions.  But I suppose he could always do an alien invasion of the return of The Overlord.  Superhero worlds are good for never running out of fodder.

2014-08-04

So I Bought the Second One Too

Right then.

After finishing the first book in the series, I obviously picked up the second book.  Sorceress continues the story of unicorn-rider Kayleigh and her unicorn Majherri.

Unfortunately, it is literally impossible to discuss the plot and events of this book without completely spoiling the ending of the first book.  And considering the first book ends with a twist, I really don't want to do that.

So let's just call it the continuing adventures and leave it at that.  Like the previous book, it focuses on Kayleigh and Majherri.  Unlike the first book, it's more regimented (for numerous reasons, but I'd like to think that the author improving is one of them); for instance, the chapters alternate between the two characters.  Odd numbered chapters are Majherri, even ones are Kayleigh.

I'm pleased to mention that the copy editing on this book is vastly superior to the first book.  Italics are consistent, there's minimal their/there or your/you're errors and punctuation is correct (no more dropped quotation marks).  It's a welcome change as the copy editing in the first book was severe enough to actually hamper my enjoyment.

As for the book itself... well... it's light fantasy.  Very light.  It's not bad by any stretch (I quite enjoyed it), but it's not an epic for the ages.  In fact, it almost has the feel of a YA novel, especially considering the rather short length (~320 pages on my Nook, so... 150-175 paperback?).  It's also inexorably tied to other novels.  You can't read Sorceress without first reading Rider and the story is incomplete as is because he hasn't finished and released Champion

I fear this may be coming across as more harsh than intended.  This isn't high art.  This is a couple rungs above fanfiction, and if the author was a teenaged girl, I'd be sorely tempted to call Kayleigh a magic-girl Mary Sue.

But you know what?  I liked it.  Sure it was fluff, but it was fun fluff.  It's enjoyable and interesting and I want to see where the next book leads, especially considering the introduction of the Yar's animal spirits.  Hell, it's more fun than what the Temeraire series turned into (it was a bit of a chore by Empire of Ivory and was utterly unreadable by Tongues of Serpents).  If nothing else, at least Kayleigh doesn't languish in hundred page long bouts of self pity, and Mr. Bernheimer knows his pacing.

So, so what if it won't boost my book reading cred like the Night Land or the Wasp Factory.  I enjoyed it.  And I can think of far worse ways to spend three bucks.  In fact, I'm even going to outright pimp it.  You can buy Sorceress (and Rider) at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Smashwords.  And probably other places too.  Enjoy.  And then you too can say, "I read a book about a magical teenager and her battle unicorn."

2014-08-03

Figures

I wake up, and I see an email notification on my phone.  My blog has received its first comment!  Hooray!

Turns out it was a spambot.  Figures.

Also, I have three page views from a BlackBerry.  Didn't know those were still used by anyone except President Obama.

OMG PRESIDENT OBAMA READS MY BLOG!

2014-07-30

Love, Luck, and Lollipops

I first became aware of Jim Bernheimer while in a chat room.  We were talking about superheroes, and I mentioned Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible and I was talking about how it was an interesting take on superheroes, specifically the poor bastards who had to ride the wave of a shift from a Silver Age to a more Grimdark age.  While I was waxing poetic about it, someone suggested I look in Confessions of a D-List Supervillain.  With a title like that, how could I resist (incidentally, you should totally read that book, but I'm not talking about it today; however, it seems he wrote a prequel, hmm...).

Fast forward awhile, and I found myself looking for something light to read so, on a lark, I fed his name into a Barnes & Noble search and it spit out... Rider.

2014-07-28

Dark Waters; Pirates Not Included

Dark Waters Trilogy
So, Graham McNeill is best known for writing Warhammer novels, but here, he's dipped his toe into weird fiction.  To be honest, I have to say he's done a rather good job here.

I'm writing this having finished the third and final (at last, a trilogy that ends with three) book of the series, Dweller in the Deep.

These books are... difficult to describe.  They have a 1920s sensibility with a more modern writing style, so they aren't difficult to read, or pumped full of purple prose, but they still have their hearts firmly in the era, which is good.  However, there are still times where they remind you of just what era you're in:
The journey to Providence, a distance of around seventy miles or so, would normally have taken no more than a few hours, with a couple of stops to buy gas...
No more than a few hours with multiple stops for gas.  To go seventy miles.  Love it.

The stories are about what you would expect from this kind of thing: creepy happenings in Arkham lead to dark and dangerous discoveries.  It starts tame enough, just some ghouls loping around devouring coeds, so on and so forth.  As we get to the second and third book, we're introduced to more and more monsters, beasties, deities, and all around horrible things.

Interwoven in these stories are side jaunts to the Dreamlands (the description of the Vale of Pnath and the associated escape via the Vaults of Zin were wonderfully written), especially in Bones of Yopasi, as well as a very welcome amount of character development.  Which, honestly, is one thing missing from most of the original Mythos stories; character development is usually just sane → insane → dead.  Here, there's actual development of the characters, and they move in different directions from each other; almost like they're real people dealing with horrible things.

2014-07-08

Well Okay Then

I like to believe there's some dude in Turkey who really likes my tiny blog, as opposed to probably just some random web spider.

2014-07-03

Lunar Descent

Cover art by some poor namless artist who didn't get mentioned on the copyright page of my copy.  Sorry dude.
Lunar Descent, by Allen Steele, is the third book in the "Near Space" series; although "series" might be a little generous.  These books are not sequels to each other, nor do they follow the same characters (like, say Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series), even though they do take place in the same "world".  Which means that you could pick up this book without reading the previous two and be just fine; a couple side references might sail by, but you won't be missing out on any critical previous events or plot points.  Amusingly enough, the closest thing these books have to reoccurring characters are the rocket ships that ferry the characters from Earth to the Moon or to various space stations that are the prime locations for the action in these books.

My first exposure to Allen Steele came back in the early 90s when my uncle had a copy of the first Near Space book (back before they were being called that): Orbital Decay.  I had never read much science fiction back then, and wasn't really familiar with the concept of hard sci-fi vs. soft or operatic sci-fi.  Steele writes pretty crunchy sci-fi.  And while I've found I prefer softer sci-fi, I make an exception for Steele (or at least this series) because of what he chooses to focus on: blue collar wage slaves in space.  While Orbital Decay had a sweeping plot about the NSA (foreshadowing?), it was more about the day-to-day lives of the beamjacks working on building a giant satellite in space.  Essentially, it's Ironworkers Local #395... IN SPAAAAAAAACE!

Hey, after all those stores about lantern-jawed men with blaster rays in the spacity ships banging green-skinned virgins from Orion, it's a pretty jarring shift, but a very welcome one.  It may be hard sci-fi, but it's also comfortable and even a little familiar (the moondogs think their union is a useless leech; ASWI must be part of SEIU).  There's no ray guns or faster-than-light travel, or anything.  Hell, it's called Near Space for a reason: the furthest outpost is Mars, and that's only tangentially mentioned. It may take place 40 or 50 years in the future (from its publication in 1991), but it's still very, very grounded (HA!) in the real world.  And, again, it's Joe Lunchpail in space.  I just love that concept.  It's why I latched on to Orbital Decay so tightly.  In fact, I still have my copy of that book (my uncle didn't like it so he let me have it) sitting on the bookshelf in my spare bedroom/library.  I still pull it down and read it from time to time, and just might do so again before too long.

But enough about the series in general and my nostalgia goggles.  What about Lunar Descent itself?

2014-06-25

A Bit of Background Reading

Image from Wikipedia
The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

Originally published in 1912, The Night Land is, by any reasonable use of the phrase, a classic.  Like many classics, it both straddles and defies genre.  It is a mix of horror, fantasy, fairy tale, and, almost by definition of the setting, science fiction.  Of course, all these genres were still in flux in 1912, so it makes assigning this novel a little more difficult.

The novel makes odd use of a framing story, although the framing story is part of what lets this novel keep a foot planted in the world of the fairy tale.  Briefly, it opens with the unnamed narrator describing (in almost excruciating detail) how he met and fell in love with the love of his life.  Or, more correctly, The Love of His Life.  This goes far, far beyond love, beyond even soul mates.  This is an endless love; a love for the ages.  And, as we see, calling it a love of the ages is exactly right.  After the tragic death of his love (and we are still in the first chapter here), he has a vision.  A vision of the future.  The far future.

And when I say "the far future", I mean the far future.  A future the likes of which only The Time Machine or The Dying Earth can appreciate.  The book jumps from a vague 17th century setting to, quite literally, millions of years into the future, to a point after the death of the sun (when this was written, it was assumed that the sun would dwindle and snuff itself out, as opposed to swelling into a red giant and absorbing the earth).

Allow that to sink in for a moment.  Just imagine the world he has created for his narrator to live in.  A world of, more or less, perpetual darkness.  A world where the last millions of people live in a massive structure called the Last Redoubt.  It is in this world that the bulk (and the novel has considerable heft) of the story takes place, with the narrator attempting to reconnect with his love.

This novel is staggering.  For one, the Last Redoubt is possibly the first use of an arcology in literature, and is simply colossal, a true and fine example of super-architecture: 
...when the humans had built the great Pyramid, it had one thousand three hundred and twenty floors; and the thickness of each floor was according to the strength of its need. And the whole height of this pyramid exceeded seven miles, by near a mile, and above it was a tower from which the Watchmen looked...
Of course, much of the novel doesn't take place in the Redoubt; it takes place in the titular Night Land, which is, essentially, the rest of earth.  A dark, deadly place filled with monsters and living testaments to pure, true evil.  Beings simply waiting for their chance to destroy, slay, and consume the last humans, body and soul.

In addition to physical sizes (a nearly eight mile tall four sided pyramid, massive creatures and giants), the time scale is also tremendous.  Frequently, the narrator will pause to go off on a historical tangent, that will involve ancient (for him) events, but he will also mention how a certain situation or standard would continue for "mayhaps an hundred thousand years," just casually blurring through huge gulfs of time.  Of course, when you've given yourself twenty million years (give or take) to play with, what's a couple hundred thousand between friends?

However.  There's always a however.

This novel was written in 1912, emulating, sort of, earlier story-telling styles, which makes this something of a difficult read.  The language is very formal and very stilted at times.  The narrator (forever unnamed) will often go off on long digressions, often going on and on for pages about some esoteric thing or bit of history.  There's also an almost utter lack of dialog.  All of this can make for a bit of a slog to get through this story, wonderful as it is.  For example:
And by this means did I eat thrice in that time, and have six hours of sleep.  And this seemed very good to me, and I did strive always to manage thus in all my great journeying in the Night Land.  Yet, as may be supposed, there were times oft and many when I must watch without ceasing, and leave my slumber unto the future; for the Land was full of grim and dreadful Perils.
While is certainly isn't as circular and over-enamored with adjectives as, say, Paul Clifford, it can't be said that this story isn't taking its time.  Then again, this isn't exactly a brief review either, so perhaps I should be careful in my glass house.

But still... still... it is compelling.  This is the kind of story Lovecraft wished he could write (and he all but said so in Supernatural Horror in Literature).  Rather than Paul "Dark and Stormy Night" Clifford which wore out its welcome rather quickly (no matter how fun it was to post hundred-word sentences to Facebook), The Night Land enchants.  It sucks you in.  While this makes the digressions all the more infuriating as you want to get on with it, you can't stay irritated, because who knows when that five page tangent about what some people did a couple million years ago might become important.

Personally, I liken it to the novels of Lord Dunsany.  Like, say, The King of Elfland's Daughter, it takes its time, slowly building the world, slowly progressing the story.  In many ways, they are literary examples of "it's the journey, not the destination".  And while the journey may be bumpy and your tour guide might be overly flowery, it's a journey that's more than worth it.

Which is not to say it isn't without its faults.  At times, the narrator is an impossible idiot.  He sets off on his quest, only knowing that his destination lies to the north.  Or maybe the northwest.  But very likely in some northish direction.  Picture that for a moment.  Unless you're in the Arctic Circle, "north" isn't especially useful.  And yet, he expresses dismay that he hasn't found his destination after a couple weeks of walking.  But at least he gives updates about when he eats and drinks and when he feels he's deserved an extra ration, "as you shall understand."

At times, this feels very much like a classic -- in the bad way.  Like the kind of book you were forced to read in high school, and thus would resent for the rest of your life.  And it feels like that even now, even though I'm reading this because I want to.  And the thing is, even though there are times that I feel like yelling at the narrator ("Yes, yes, you ate and drank every 6 hours, you don't need to tell me this every day for a month!") or yell at the author ("Get on with it!"), I can't help but want to know what happens.  Perhaps it's a sort of Me vs. It contest of wills at this point, but I also think it's because the story, buried deep under a pile of expository gilding, is still worth it.  But still, even though I devour Lovecraft and Poe and Dunsany, I think I might have gotten more enjoyment from reading Stoddard's rewrite of the novel to make it less archaic (or Hodgson's own abridged version which cuts, literally, 90% of the story).  But then, there's something for reading the original, even if it feels like a contest of wills at times.

And, the kicker is, he knows how to write.  I skimmed a couple pages of one of his other books (The House on the Borderland), and it was fine.  Early 20th century styling, but fine.  Unfortunately, he's aping a bizarre Victorian style which leads to:
And in this place I will make explanation why that I speak somewhiles of fire-pits and otherwihiles of fire-holes; for the holes did be those fires that burned nigh to the brim of the holes; but the pits were those places where the fire was deeply in the earth.  And this thing I give for your enlightenment, even on a small matter; so that you shall have a clear knowledge to abide with me all the way; and you to agree of this for wisdom, and I to be pleased that you so agree.
That passage is eight hundred pages into this almost 1300 page novel.  800 pages in and he finally decides to explain the difference, more or less out of nowhere.  It's the phrases like this that make the entire book read like it's a rambling story being told by your drunken uncle Earl after Thanksgiving dinner.  Even still, I can't hate this book.  God help me, but I enjoyed it on the whole.

So why did I call this a bit of background reading?  Simple.  I read this 197k word tome as groundwork for the collection I had originally intended to read.  But after getting about five pages into that, I decided I needed to read the source.  So now that I've read the source, I can go on to John C. Wright's Awake in the Night Land.



And surely all this to be plain to you, and to be over-plain; for, in verity, I tell to you, and over-tell, until that I should be weary; and mayhap you to be the more so.
 Hit the nail on the head, buddy.

2014-06-21

Let's Be Frank

RAWR
Cover art by Alan Pollack
Monster Hunter Nemesis is the fifth book in the Monster Hunters... cycle?  It seems there's at least seven planned, so I guess this is a septology?  Anyway, it's the fifth book by Larry "International Lord of Hate" Correia and is published by Baen Books.  It doesn't come out until the first, but the digital versions dropped early, so here we are.

Briefly, the Monster Hunter series largely follows the adventures of one Larry Correia Owen Z. Pitt who ends up in a world where monsters are real and people make money by hunting them.  Three of the books are first person from Owen's point of view as he's introduced to this world and the ever crazier events.

Nemesis, like Alpha before it, break that pattern by being presented in third person, tethered narrative.  I believe the proper description would be "non-omniscient", but either way, the narrative is connected to a specific character.

In the case of this book, we're following the infamous Franks.  Like with Alpha, the narrative is split between the past and the present, in this case it's from an interview/debriefing with Franks, where we get a lot of backstory, including what he actually is.

I'm going to keep this review short because I honestly don't want to spoil anything.  Furthermore, this isn't exactly a deep story.  Don't get me wrong, this is fun as hell, but it's light reading.  Correia is fully in his element here.  He's come a long way since Monster Hunter International, and he continues to improve.  The Monster Hunter books are like good old fashioned action movies; the kind that give you all the thrills you could want without insulting your intelligence.  I think his Grimnoir Trilogy is far more solid, he's got a good thing going here.

The book doesn't really stand alone.  I mean, you could read it without the previous books, but a lot of things wouldn't make much sense, and really, you'd be missing out on a lot of fun, and spoiling things from the previous books. But the story does stand alone in that it tells a complete story as well as teasing the grander over-plot.

All in all, a very solid entry into this fast-paced and fun series.

2014-06-07

Go go, Godzilla!

Guess what I saw the other day.  Here's a hint:




A good time was had by all. 

I had heard mixed things about director Gareth Edwards's Monsters, but regardless of the quality of that movie, it's clear he understands the character, and the genre, unlike certain directors who shall remain unmentioned.  Ahem.

Regardless, this is a movie that not only understands the entire concept, but deeply loves it.  You can see the love of genre in general, and the big guy in particular.  Like Pacific Rim, this movie knows what it is and revels in it, not afraid to wallow in the glory of it all.

A few things have been tweaked here and there to, I guess, make the movie more contemporary, such as making the Kaiju creatures from an earlier age, as opposed to atomic mutations.  Indeed, the opening credits sequence (which is actually rather clever) shows that the Bikini Atoll tests didn't create Godzilla; they were an attempt to kill Godzilla.

Sadly, after those tantalizing glimpses, Master G all but vanishes from the picture until much, much, much later.  It's a deep loss.

And that's my main complaint with the picture.  While it's fun playing, "Oh Hey, That Guy!" during the beginning of the film, it can be horribly plodding.  Yes, yes, it sets up motivations, and it puts things in motion, and it establishes Important In-Movie Information for later, but it feels long.  I can't help but think the movie could have benefited from having a good 10 or 15 minutes cut, especially from the first hour.  The movie clocks in at just over two hefty hours, so the King of the Monsters isn't the only one looking a little bloated.

And yes, this Godzilla seems a little on the pudgy side.  But it's the weirdest thing.  There are scenes where I could swear they decided to have the CG try to emulate a dude in a rubber suit.  The skin seems to be wobbling above nothing, like it would in a rubber suit, as opposed to if the skin was wrapped around blubber or whatever Kaiju have.  I suppose an in-movie explanation would be that, since Godzilla lives on the bottom of the ocean, leaving that extreme pressure has caused him to expand, but that seems like I'm over thinking things.

Mild spoilers to follow, but this information is revealed towards the beginning, so it's not much of a spoiler.

Had this movie taken a more traditional naming scheme, it wouldn't have been called Godzilla; it would have been called Godzilla vs. MUTO.

Say what you will about the creature design for Godzilla, the design for MUTO is fantastic.  It's a weird bug/bat/monster thing.  It looks like it was somewhat inspired by Gyaos, truth be told.  Regardless, it's still an original beastie and is wonderfully crafted.  The thought given to its design and life cycle was actually pretty neat.  I like that they took the time to make these creatures seem like real things instead of just giant engines of destruction.  I mean, they are giant engines of destruction, but they have... biology.

And we see a lot of MUTO.  After the opening credits teases of Godzilla, MUTO is the only Kaiju we see for about half the picture, and there's a lot of running around trying to figure out what's going on and so forth and so on.  While it's nice to see Bryan Cranston (looking more Hal Wilkerson than Walter White) and Ken Watanabe, we don't care about the humans.  In fact, there was a point in the movie where Godzilla was starting to fight MUTO and they cut away to the human characters running around and I almost cried out, "Oh, come on!" in the theater.

Still, even with all those missteps, it's a ridiculously fun movie.  Even though it teases us with Godzilla for far to long, it's not afraid of the money shot: when we get that first shot of Godzilla roaring right at the camera, you just want to cheer.  It's utterly amazing.  Well worth the price of admission.

2014-06-01

Skin Game (Dresden Files 15)


Skin Game is the fifteen book of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  Before I go any further, I just want to congratulate Mr. Butcher on getting this far.  Fifteen books in a series is a lot of writing, and he continues to keep it interesting.

Of course, being fifteen books in means there has been a lot of stuff going on up until this point, and writing a truly spoiler-free review is more than a little complicated: "After being on [REDACTED] for a year, waiting to hear from [REDACTED] the new [REDACTED], Harry has spent his time in the [REDACTED] yelling "Parkour!" like a lunatic.  That finally ends when [REDACTED] arrives and tells him that his next job as [REDACTED] is to team up with Nicodemus on a job."  And that's just the first couple chapters.

But, setting aside specifics, we can talk about the book in a general sense: Jim Butcher decided to try his hand on a heist story.  Make no mistake, this is a heist story through and through.  I wonder if Butcher was reading Raymond Chandler or watching Mamet's Heist.  It's all there.  The pacing, the episodic story telling (I didn't even realize it at the time, but Nicodemus is all but putting up title cards with his folders), the questionable loyalties, the twists...

Butcher keeps the pace going, managing to avoid bogging things down, while also keeping from leaving you exhausted.  It's a delicate balancing act, especially when everything goes to Hell (heh).  He brings in some familiar faces and some new ones, and pulls a couple really unexpected ones out of his hat.

Essentially, at this point, reviews are mostly pointless.  We're fifteen books in.  You should know if you'll like the book or not.  Hell, you've probably read it already.  So without further ado...


Spoilers to follow

2014-05-26

On Masculinity

As is now expected, whenever something tragic happens, everyone takes out their favorite axe and starts grinding it.  It's as sad as it is predictable.  And, of course, it rarely intersects with the harsh reality of our world.

Today's object lesson is a recent shooting.  No, not the one Myrtle Beach, and no, not the one in Belgium.  I'm talking about  Elliot Rodger's recent rampage where he stabbed three people to death, shot three others to death, and injured several others with wild shooting and reckless driving.

In some circles, a lot has been made of his apparent activity in the Men's Rights Movement.  Men's Rights is a tricky thing.  Like most everything else, it can't be distilled down into a caricature, despite how much people want to.  Yes, a lot of it is socially awkward losers, but there are also some aspects of it that are worth considering (such as suicide rates for men or visitation rights).  The problem is that, like most fringe groups, the lunatics are often running the asylum.

Rodger was also a member of something called PUAhate, which I only partially understand.  PUA stands for Pick Up Artist.  Think of it as "The Rules" but for men.  As near as I've been able to figure, PUAhate seems to be a collection of failed pick up artists who are now bitter.  Of course, if they'd just treat women like people, this problem would probably go away.

Anyway, all of this has led certain dark corners of the internet to hold this up as a prime example of The Problem With Masculinity.  Some are even saying that his associations are proof that masculinity is a destructive force that must be destroyed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

What seems to be misunderstood here is that MRA and PUA and The Game and all that nonsense is not masculinity.  The 1950's caricature of smacking your wife around if she gets lippy isn't masculinity.  Frat Boy "culture" isn't masculinity.  These knuckledraggers, and the tumblr activists that scream about them, have no idea of what masculinity is.

Masculinity is three things: Self Reliance, Strength, Self Sacrifice

Think about "manly" things.  No, not getting drunk and banging a sorority girl, but truly manly items and occupations.

Motorcycles: it's a symbol of Self Reliance
Cowboys: Self Reliance and Strength
Firefighters: Strength and Self Sacrifice
Astronauts: Self Reliance and Strength
Soldiers: Strength, but they get medals for Self Sacrifice
Ninjas/Pirates: Self Reliance and Strength
Fixing Your Own Damn Car: Self Reliance and Strength

In this model, Strength has dual meanings.  It's primarily physical strength, but it's also mental fortitude, intestinal fortitude, and stoicism.  That's why Never Crying is considered manly.

I would also argue that while Self Reliance and Strength are certainly very important aspects of masculinity, it's Self Sacrifice that is possibly the biggest part.  The peak of masculinity, the goal to which manly men strive is to be A Hero.  And nine times out of ten, being A Hero requires sacrifice: the firefighter who charges into a burning building, the soldier diving onto a grenade to save his comrades, etc.

The Von Hoffmann Brothers published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek book back in 1997 called The Big Damn Book Of Sheer Manliness.  While this is hardly a serious book, it's still mostly accurate in many ways (perhaps in spite of itself).  But, in between the ruminations on girly playing cards, beef jerky, and WD-40 (although WD-40 falls under Self Reliance) there's quite a bit of good stuff in there.  In fact, the giant list of Manly Movies is chock full of films that represent the three tenants I've listed, and many of them feature all three points.

Being a man, being masculine isn't about destruction.  It isn't about putting women in their place.  It isn't about notches on your bed post.  It's about self reliance, personal strength, and sacrifice.  When there's a problem, you take it upon your own broad shoulders and solve it, no matter how much you'd rather do something else, or you'd rather let someone else do it.

And, incidentally, that is why men prefer to be the primary breadwinner.  It's ingrained.  It has nothing to do with keeping their wife sequestered in the home.  It's about being the one who earns the money (Self Reliance), having the endurance to work however many hours it takes (Strength), and being willing to be a stranger in your own home if it means your family is provided for (Self Sacrifice).  It's not that we want to be martyrs or that we're hoping for a pity party.  It's how we're wired.

So no, brave hashtag warriors, the world doesn't need less masculinity.  It needs more.  What it needs less of is spoiled wonks who don't know the difference between being a man and being a sad poseur.

Wasteland 2

So, they finally released the opening movie for Wasteland 2.  It's composed of stock footage and some stuff they filmed at the Wasteland Weekend: