Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, Nos. 3 & 4 (October/November 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor)

Stories included:
Halloween Town by Lucius Shepard
The Far Shore by Elizabeth Hand
Bandits of the Trace by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar by Robert Silverberg
I Waltzed with a Zombie by Ron Goulart
Another Life by Charles Oberndorf
Logicist by Carl Emshwiller
Blocked by Geoff Ryman
Mermaid by Robert Reed
Never Blood Enough by Joe Haldeman
The President's Book Tour by M. Rickert
Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot - LXXI by Ron Partridge
Shadows on the Wall of the Cave by Kate Wilhelm

Full review: So here it is, the Sixtieth Anniversary issue of the oldest running magazine in the genre. Plus, it has a fairly star studded contributor list with Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, Lucuis Shepard, Robert Reed and a pile of other high profile writers represented. Each writer also introduces their own story with a brief story about their first encounter with Fantasy & Science Fiction, most of while make for entertaining little anecdotes. Unfortunately, even with this high-profile lineup of writing talent, the magazine is oddly average, with only a few stories deserving more than a "pretty good" rating.

My favorite story in the issue is Kate Wilhelm's Shadows on the Wall of the Cave, about the strange and sudden disappearance of a small boy and the effect this has on his two playmates. The story is appropriate scary, capturing just what people find spooky about dark caves, and the resolution is at the same time sad, hopeful, and realistic (or as realistic as one can get in a story that involves people vanishing into the shadows of a cavern). Bandits of the Trace by Albert E. Cowdrey, is also quite good. Told from a shifting viewpoint , the story is about a small town college professor and his attempts to unravel the mystery of the location of a treasure trove left by a notorious band of frontier bandits. The story is a little bit mystery, involving a complicated code left by the bandits, and a little bit fantasy, as the fate of Justice Urquhart, the worst of the bandits, is revealed. Overall, it is one of the best stories in the volume.

The longest story in the volume is Lucius Shepard's Halloween Town, which is sort of a grab-bag of odd ideas strung together: An empathic protagonist, a mysterious town in a canyon sheltered in perpetual twilight by a canopy of trees run by a strange ex-rock star in a fairly tyrannical manner, a strange cat-loving alien life form and, of course, a beautiful and dangerous love interest. The story meanders, and doesn't really go much of anywhere. I sort of got the impression that Shepard was clearing his desk of a bunch of ideas at once without a whole lot of point. I was not particularly excited by Elizabeth Hand's contribution The Far Shore. The story is a sort of fairy tale involving a ballet dance instructor fired from his job who takes up residence for the winter at the summer camp facility owned by a friend of his. He finds a strange young man naked in the snow, gets involved in a sexual fling with him (working in the tired cliche of a gay male ballet dancer) and ends up traveling to a fairy world across the lake with the young man. The story is pretty, but predictable, and there's not much to it.

Robert Silverberg contributes the Majipoor story The Way They Wove Spells in Sippulgar. Like most Majipoor stories it is quirky and weird, involving a strange mix of science fiction and possible fantasy. Unfortunately, the story involving a merchant's quest to discover the fate of his brother-in-law kind of meanders and doesn't actually come to much of a conclusion. The protagonist ends up refusing to press the issue in order to prevent the possibility of overturning his personal beliefs, in this case, the belief that the supernatural is not real. While the lack of resolution to the mystery in the story is frustrating, the personal internal tension experienced by the protagonist (reversed from the normal version of a person refusing to run the risk that their belief in the supernatural could be disproved) makes the story worthwhile, but not much more.

Another Life by Charles Oberndorf is set in a world in which brain-taping - reminiscent of that used in Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline - is used to revive dead soldiers for an extended war, with the protagonist remembering his long-ago first revival and attempts to understand the mystery surrounding the time period he lost (i.e., the time between his last brain-tape and his death). The story is fairly sordid, as he takes up with a hermaphrodite prostitute to make ends meet when he discovers that his enlistment has been mysteriously erased. One side note: There is a trend among current science fiction to make sure to include a lot of gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters and make this a feature of the story, apparently in an attempt to make the story seem cutting edge. It doesn't. First off, Samuel R. Delany got to this territory a couple decades ago, so it is not new. Second, it makes the story smack of desperation as the writer seems to be trying to prove how open-minded and edgy he is. Where it makes sense, like in Ben Francisco's Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts (Realms of Fantasy, October 2009) it adds to the story. Otherwise, it just seems tacked on for titillation like a naked breast shot in a cheap B movie.

Ron Goulart's I Waltzed with a Zombie is a fun, kind of silly story about resurrecting movie stars as zombies. It is fun to read, but not particularly noteworthy. Never Blood Enough by Joe Haldeman is another readable but ultimately forgettable story about life on an alien planet. Ron Partridge's Ferdinand Feghoot installment is, as usual, merely a set up for a pun-filled punch line. As usual, if you hate puns, you will hate this story, since there is nothing else to it. I generally find these to be a waste of a page, but they keep running them, so someone must find them amusing.

Both Blocked by Geoff Ryman and Mermaid by Robert Reed are stories about men making choices against their better judgment for emotional reasons. In Blocked humanity is, abandoning the surface of the Earth in fear of an alien invasion, and the protagonist is driven by his wife to accept this underground exile, even though he has doubts about whether the threat is real, or whether survival is worth giving up the sky. Mermaid is a fantasy about the power of the mythical creature to ensnare men with magic, even though the end result of that enchantment may not be to the mermaid's benefit. The central character is obsessed, and though he knows that his obsession is bad for both his love and himself, he struggles to break free. Carol Emswhiller's Logicist has a kind of darkly humorous element to it as well, following about a teacher of logic as he logically makes a series of fairly stupid choices ending with him turning his back on a potentially loving relationship. It is a sort of inverse of Blocked in that regard.

The President’s Book Tour by M. Rickert is a post-apocalyptic tale about the resulting mutant children and the parents who love them anyway. It is not so much humorous as absurdist, as the bizarrely mutated children grow up, begin to randomly have sex and then the President shows up to try to sell his latest book. He breaks up the one mutant couple that has been formed to make the female child his bride but then she tries to kill him and he abandons the town. The plot of the story isn't the point, rather one is supposed to focus on the bizarre post-apocalyptic life of the town’s residents, and the extraordinarily bizarre nature of the President's sojourn in the town. The ending somehow, despite the absurd dark humor of the story, ends up being touching and sad.

For a special anniversary issue, there are a surprising number of quite ordinary and unmemorable stories, and as far as I can tell, no truly superlative ones. The bulk of the stories fall into the average to good range though, and only a few fall short of this mark (Feghoot, I'm looking at you among others). While not as exciting an issue as I would have thought given the lineup of writing talent assembled, the overall quality is still an above average issue. Despite being something of a disappointment considering that this was supposed to be a special Sixtieth Anniversary extravaganza, I give it a recommendation with the caveat not to expect much more than an ordinary run-of-the-mill issue would deliver.

Subsequent issue reviewed: December 2009

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 117, No. 5 (December 2009) by Gordon van Gelder (editor)

Stories included:
Dragon's Teeth by Alex Irvine
Hell of a Fix by Matthew Hughes
Inside Time by Tim Sullivan
I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes
Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan
Farewell Atlantis by Terry Bisson
Illusions of Tranquility by Brendan DuBois
The Blight Family Singers by Kit Reed
The Economy of Vacuum by Sarah Thomas
Iris by Nancy Springer
The Man Who Did Something About It by Harvey Jacobs

Full review: The December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a collection of mostly ordinary stories that tantalizingly seem to hint that they could have been better, with a few highlights that seem to mostly take the form of writers attempting to imitate more prominent and better writers. Overall, this issue probably would have been considered quite good twenty years ago, but now a lot of the ideas just seem a bit worn and tired.

Dragon's Teeth by Alex Irvine is a somewhat interesting fantasy about a soldier sent to kill a dragon marred by its aimless nature and the fact that all of the seemingly interesting things about the story take place entirely off-stage. The story starts and ends in media res and the background of the main character (in which he was transformed into a dog for his own protection by his brother) seems to be more interesting than the story itself. The story seems somewhat influenced by Gene Wolfe's style, but just misses the mark. Dragon's Teeth was frustrating, because it seems like it could have been a more interesting story if it had included more of the stuff that poked in around the edges. Another story that shared this somewhat aimless and pointless nature was Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan. The story tells the tale of a woman uncovering her father's legacy, which turns out to be potentially interesting, but the finish is so vague that the story turns out to be fairly bland. I know lots of writers want to make their stories deep and philosophical by building ambiguity into their writing, but there has to be some sort of point. Just starting and then stopping in a slice of life without there being some reason why this part of the person's life might be important or interesting turns out to be pretty dull.

Another story in which the author seemed to be attempting to emulate another author's style is I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said by Richard Bowes, which seems to aspire to be a Philip K. Dick story. The protagonist is an elderly surgical patient plagued by what appear to be supernatural visitors who have an agenda that is both confusing and somewhat frightening. The story is told in a disjointed style, which seems to me to be effective at catching the disorientation and confusion of a patient alternatively in shock from serious illness and then subjected to anesthesia and a variety of hallucinogenic medications during their treatment. Through the story (in the best Philip K. Dick tradition) the reader isn't sure whether the information being passed on by the narrator is real or a delusion caused by his illness and the drugs that have been administered to him.

Inside Time by Tim Sullivan is a sort of twisted morality play in which time travelers (both intentional and accidental) get caught in an inter-temporal way station for unknown and unexplained reasons. The characters deal with moral choices which they must later face up to. The story is quite confining, taking place in a constrained space in the middle of a vast expanse, which gives the story both a claustrophobic and agoraphobic feel at the same time. It is interesting, but the morality of the story seems fairly basic, and the arbiters of that morality are so vague that the story is somewhat undermined.

Interestingly, this issue contains two stories about lunar colonization. In the first, Illusions of Tranquility by Brendan DuBois, a second generation lunar dweller undertakes an assignment to bring needed money into the impoverished colony. The story paint a fairly grim picture of lunar colonization, with a sort of Potemkin village feel to the story. It seems to me that there is something of Heinleinian or Campbellian influence in the story, as brave humans battle the harsh environment using all the means at their disposal. Illusions of Tranquility ends on a hopeful note, which makes it markedly different from the other lunar colonization story The Economy of Vacuum by Sarah Thomas, which details the sad story of the first lunar colonist who ends up abandoned by humanity as it descends into chaos, and then later betrayed by her would-be rescuers based upon the repugnant application of religious dogma.

The best story in the issue was probably Hell of a Fix, in which an inadvertent demon summoning results in an infernal crisis that affects everyone, and ends up revealing an unexpected aspect of God. The story is lighthearted and funny, and has the added bonus of having a comic book fan as the protagonist. Farewell Atlantis by Terry Bisson is also a fun story, with an interesting twist on the shaggy god subgenre (which was refreshing given the vast disappointment that the ending of the new Battlestar Galactica series, which was a bad version of the shaggy god story). The Man Who Did Something About It by Harvey Jacobs humorously puts an auto mechanic in the position to potentially save the Earth from destruction, although I found the ending confusing and not particularly satisfying. Less well executed, but amusing in a different way is The Blight Family Singers, which is a sort of science-fictional cross between the story of the von Trapps (famous from The Sound of Music) and the religious fundamentalism of various polygamous sects of Mormonism that have splintered away from the mainstream church.

It seems that just about every issue of a genre magazine these days has at least one story that seems entirely out of place. Iris by Nancy Springer fills that role in this issue. Though Iris is a somewhat interesting story about being old and alone, there is no real fantasy or science fiction aspect to it. I was left wondering why this story was included. While the story was told well, I kept waiting for something interesting to actually happen and get the ball rolling on a plot. Overall, this issue as a whole seems to be a lot like Iris as it is fairly uninspiring with mostly pedestrian stories punctuated by a few tepid highlights.

Previous issue reviewed: October/November 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: January/February 2010

2010 Locus Award Nominees
2010 Nebula Award Nominees
2010 World Fantasy Award Nominees

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Musical Monday - Game of Thrones Theme by Melo-M

There is no doubt but that the Game of Thrones opening credits theme song is one of the greatest television theme songs ever created. The only real question is whether it is possible to make a version of this theme song even better than the original. The answer is yes: Have the cellist trio Melo-M do a rendition of the song and bask in the cello goodness of everyone's favorite Westerosian music.

Previous Musical Monday: Ennui (On we Go) by The Doubleclicks

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition October 17th - October 23rd: The Atomic Number of Tungsten Is 74

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: You're going to a Halloween party and you're going to take a book along just in case you get bored. What book would you bring?

I would probably bring whatever book I was reading at the time. Right now that would mean bringing Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword, Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire, or L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 30. I;m not that big of a fan of most parties, so maybe I'd bring all three.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Follow Friday - 180 Is the Highest Score in One Turn in Darts

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Reading YA Rocks.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Share the song you can’t stop listening to.

I love Linda Ronstadt. Almost nothing puts me in a better mood than listening to My personal signal that my weekend has begun is when I start blasting her music, and I almost always start with either It's So Easy or Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me. Although both are great songs made even greater when sung by Linda, It's So Easy showcases her voice and sassy attitude better. It's also a generally happier song than Poor, Poor Pitiful Me, and is thus a superior way to kick off a good weekend.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor)

Stories included:
Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park
The Long Retreat by Robert Reed
Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf
Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock
City of the Dog by John Langan
Bait by Robin Aurelian
Songwood by Marc Laidlaw
The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes
The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm

Full review: The January/February 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is filled with mostly good stories with one glaring exception. Unfortunately, that glaring exception is the featured novella in the issue. Despite the generally good quality of the remaining stories, Paul Park's tedious Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance is so awful that it drags down the whole issue, and has made me push A Princess of Roumania way down my "to read" list.

As the longest story in the issue, written by one of the more famous authors represented, one would expect that Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park would be a decent story. Instead, it is a self-indulgent waste of paper and ink. In the story the protagonist Paul Park (yes, the protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author as an old man) spends his time trying to unravel mysterious family mysteries that come down to him from both sides of his family. This is, of course, set in the future, where urban decay has emptied cities, a militarized United States has apparently become something of a dysfunctional police state, and rates of autism among children have climbed to twenty percent. The story meanders through the fictional Park's memories as he jumps from thread to thread (and some of the threads are even known to be fictional by the fictional Park) until Park apparently decided that he'd written enough to get paid a check large enough to cover this month's rent. And then the aimless, pointless, and useless excuse of a story ends. This story by itself drags down the entire issue like a lead weight.

The Long Retreat by Robert Reed is a somewhat funny tale about the imperial court of a losing nation that is wandering from place to place, always one step ahead of the invading armies. The paradox is that as long as they avoid being captured, their nation is supposedly big enough that the invaders can never conquer everything. This is a sort of "Czar fighting Napoleon" story writ even larger, and set in a fantasy world. The end of the story contains a moderately predictable twist, but it is still a decent read.

Writers of the Future by Charles Oberndorf is the most interesting story in the issue. Set in a future in which massive AI's have taken control over most of Earth, the remaining humans while away their lives in more or less idle pursuits indulging in literature that looks backward to the past and rehashes old glories. The story is told through the lens of a writer's workshop, and introduces a new writer who wants to look forward rather than backward. While one might think that a story that extols the value of science fiction as a genre would be somewhat indulgent of a topic for a science fiction writer to address, the story still works well and was but fun and thought provoking.

With its mixture of condemnation of corporate greed and class warfare, Nanosferatu by Dean Whitlock seems to be a product of the current "string up the wealthy" sentiment that is popular in American politics right now. Despite this, the story is not too bad, although the big twist at the end is pretty much telegraphed by the title of the story.

Bait by Robin Aurelian is a story about a family hunting trip in a world where fairy tale creatures are the quarry for such expeditions. The central character is the oddball in his family, as he is lousy at hunting and attracts bites and stings like he were made of candy. He gets infected and the tables are somewhat turned, at which point the story ends. I think there was some sort of oblique political statement about the evils of hunting in the story, but it wasn't very clear if it was there. Still, the story is silly and funny, and seems very much like an adult version of one of Bruce Coville's juvenile works. The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales by Steven Popkes is a funny take on several fairy tales - a sort of "behind the curtain" version of The Emperor's New Clothes, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rumplestiltskin, and Cinderella in which the "true" story of the classic tales is revealed with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.

Songwood by Marc Laidlaw is a fantasy that sees the return of the gargoyle Spar (previously seen in Laidlaw's story Quickstone in the March 2009 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) stowing away on a ship and falling in love with the figurehead. What results is a kind of star-crossed love story that has a kind of touching ending. On the other hand, City of the Dog by John Langan is a dark and twisted love story involving betrayal, loss, and obsession. The story is somewhat disjointed, and much of the fantasy element is thrown at the reader in a giant info-dump, which is kind of an artless way to go about doing things, and there is no real reason given for the betrayal that takes place. To a certain extent the lack of explanation makes the story seem even darker and fouler, so maybe the mysterious motivations of the ultimate villain are better left unrevealed.

Finally, The Late Night Train by Kate Wilhelm is a kind of story that seems to me to be becoming more and more prevalent. That is, the suicide (or murder) by fantasy story. I'm not sure if this is the result of the aging baby boomers staring their own mortality in the face and trying to come up with a poetic alternative, or merely that I am noticing these stories more. In any event, I'm not a huge fan of the seemingly growing subgenre. In this case, the story is one of abuse and the toleration of that abuse which is a creepy backdrop for any story. The fantasy element is very slight, almost nonexistent, but apparently real. In the end, any story that can make me angry at every character in the narrative has probably done its job well.

While every other story in this issue is at least good, Park's story is just a waste of space. Even the regular movie and book review columns are good, but none of it is enough to raise the issue as a whole above average. I give a cautious recommendation for this issue with the huge caveat that one would simply be better off skipping the roughly seventy pages that Park's story occupies.

Previous issue reviewed: December 2009
Subsequent issue reviewed: March/April 2010

2011 Locus Award Nominees
2011 Nebula Award Nominees

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Musical Monday - Ennui (On We Go) by The Doubleclicks

The redhead and I went to CapClave this past weekend. For those who don't know, CapClave is an annual literary oriented science fiction convention held near Washington D.C. So we spent the last few days listening to authors on panels, talking with authors, finding new books to read, getting our books signed, and generally enjoying the heavy dose of nerdity provided by the convention. We got to meet authors such as Holly Black, Alex Shvartsman, Sarah Avery, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Day Al-Mohammed, and Lawrence Watt-Evans, as well as several others. We went to a book launch party for Dark Quest books and another party promoting the Washington Science Fiction Assosication's bid to host the 2017 World Science Fiction Convention. We even played a few games - trying out Puerto Rico and Cities and Knights of Catan. And we also managed to throw in a reasonable amount of volunteering to help the convention function - moving boxes for the dealers, working at the registration desk, and generally doing whatever we could to help out.

But now all that is over, and we are both experiencing the inevitable con-drop: That listless feeling that comes after a convention is over when you're dead tired but wish the fun was still happening. And few songs capture the feeling of ennui that one feels after a convention is finished quite like The Doubleclicks song Ennui (On We Go). They aren't actually talking about the feelings of post-convention let-down, but even so, they capture the emotion perfectly.

Previous Musical Monday: Best Game Ever by Mikey Mason
Subsequent Musical Monday: Game of Thrones Theme by Melo-M

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition October 10th - October 16th: In the 1940 NFL Championship Game the Bears Beat the Redskins 73-0

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What is the scariest book title you have either read or heard about?

When I was thirteen, and staying with friends in South Africa because I needed surgery on my hand, I found a copy of Alan Dean Foster's novelization of the movie Alien. I had not seen the Alien movie. I actually had no idea that there was an Alien movie, since I was living in Zaire at the time and popular media took a long time to get there. It was the scariest book I have ever read. Maybe it was because I was reading the book when I was thirteen. Maybe it was because I was in an unfamiliar house, thousands of miles away from most of my family. Maybe it was just that Foster wrote a damn scary book. I don't know. I just remember that it was terrifying. It was, in fact, so scary as a book, that when I finally saw the Alien movie some years later I was disappointed in how comparative tame the film was.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: The Atomic Number of Tungsten Is 74

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Follow Friday - 179 Is Not a Palindromic Number in Any Base

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Living on Borrowed Days.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Book Merchandise – show off some of your stuff – posters, t-shirts. Whatever you got!

The redhead and I are attending CapClave right now. While we don't have any merchandise to show off, we have acquired a number of books and two comic book issues. The most interesting book in the bunch handed out to CapClave attendees appears to be Interstellar Travel and Multigenerational Ships, a collection of essays about the practical realities of interstellar space travel edited by Yoki Kondo, Frederick C. Bruhweiler, John Moore, and Charles Sheffield. Also included in our CapClave packets were the novels Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear. We also got two comic book issues: Guardians of the Galaxy, and Futures End, issue zero of The New 52.

I also acquired both Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie and Lock In by John Scalzi. I did have to buy these two books myself from one of the book dealers at the convention, but when it comes to books by Hugo-winning authors, I am more than happy to do that. CapClave doesn't end until Sunday, so I'm sure we'll be getting more cool stuff before it ends, but since I don't have it yet, I can't show it off yet.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Biased Opinion - The Screaming Temper Tantrum of "GamerGate"

If you have missed the raging storm of undirected and pointless fury that has been dubbed "GamerGate" by its supporters, then you should probably count yourself as lucky. To bring those unfamiliar with the faux controversy up to speed here is a brief synopsis: On August 16th, Eron Gjoni, the jilted ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn, wrote and posted a sleazy, tell-all screed of somewhat dubious validity about why he had broken up with Zoe, and her alleged cheating during their relationship. One might think that this poorly conceived rant airing his dirty laundry would have resulted in a few people pointing out what bad judgment Gjoni had displayed by posting it, but instead some people seized upon the fact that one of the men Quinn had a relationship with was Nathan Grayson, a writer for the gaming website Kotaku. This was quickly decided to be evidence of "corruption" in gaming journalism, complete with claims that Quinn had only had a sexual relationship with Grayson in exchange for a favorable review of her free game Depression Quest. Never mind that Grayson never reviewed Depression Quest, and only made a single mention of Quinn as part of a larger article that touched upon multiple topics. Minor league celebrity and major league conspiracy theorist Adam Baldwin got involved in the issue on twitter and dubbed the events "GamerGate". And then the portion of the internet dominated by individuals with the maturity of small children exploded.

Under the banner of "GamerGate", the disgruntled, infantile portion of the population who identify themselves as "gamers" launched a campaign of harassment against Zoe Quinn. And by "harassment", I mean rape threats, death threats, and other threats of violence, including the revelations of personal details about Quinn that would permit people to locate her and directly harm her if they so chose. When the fact that their attacks were blatantly misogynistic in nature, the "GamerGate" proponents loudly declared that their campaign was actually about "ethics in game journalism", but didn't really do much that was different than before, except now they included individuals like Anita Sarkeesian, Jenn Frank, and Leigh Alexander on their hit list. The stream of misogynistic harassment and vitriol continues more or less unabated, but as of yet, the "GamerGate" proponents have yet to identify a single legitimate instance of actual corruption in gaming journalism. Before I go any further, let me repeat that: "GamerGate" proponents have yet to identify a single legitimate instance of actual corruption in gaming journalism. GamerGate proponents have spun wild conspiracy theories, including wild theories that game journalists are censoring them whenever a website like Reddit or 4Chan gets tired of the GamerGate parade of disinformation and hatred and shuts down conversations on the topic, but they have not identified any actual ethical lapses by any actual game journalists. Milo Yiannopolous, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like (and who is just about the last person a rational individual would turn to to learn about journalistic ethics), uncovered an online group where gaming journalists talked to one another, and hyped this non-ethical breach as a massive scandal. And by "uncovered" I mean Yiannopolous talked about something that the game journalists involved had publicly talked about for months. "GamerGate" proponents are still flailing about ineffectively, searching for actual substance to justify their unfocused rage, and still failing to find any.

But that doesn't stop the "GamerGate" proponents from venting their rage - almost always venting it in the direction of women, many of whom aren't even journalists. One might wonder, for example, if "GamerGate" is about corruption in gaming journalism, why so much ire had been directed towards Quinn, who is not a journalist. Or why so much vitriol is directed at Sarkeesian, who is not a journalist either. The answer seems pretty clear: To the extent there is any coherence to be found amongst the mostly incoherent rage of "GamerGate", corruption in games journalism isn't the target, women are. But the larger point is that "GamerGate" is really, at its heart, a screaming temper tantrum thrown by children that people like Frank, Alexander, and Sarkeesian tried to treat as adults. And for their pains, they got in return, wails of rage and anger.

Shortly after "GamerGate" got started, several articles were posted concerning "gaming" culture in general. ArsTechnica published an article titled The Death of "Gamers" and the Women Who Killed Them, BuzzFeed posted an article titled Gaming Is Leaving "Gamers" Behind, and Gamasutra put out a piece titled Gamers Don't Have to Be Your Audience. Gamers Are Over. Kotaku phrased their article differently, stating We Might Be Seeing the Death of an Identity. Even Forbes got into the act, publishing The Gamer Is Dead: Long Live the Gamer. These articles all shared a common thread - that the gaming industry was moving beyond niche status as the basis for a geeky ghettoized hobby to become a mainstream past time, with all of the attendant benefits and drawbacks that this entailed. These articles generally made the point that when "video game player" had become a description that could fairly be applied to such a large segment of the populace, talking about a "gamer" subculture populated by "gamers" was not a particularly valid approach any more. These articles were, at the very least, the potential start of a conversation about where games fit into the culture at large using fairly commonly used rhetorical devices such as "The Gamer Is Dead". In short, these authors that wrote and organizations that posted these articles, assumed that their target audience of readers was mature enough to read these pieces and respond in an adult manner.

Instead, the portion of the audience that identified with "GamerGate" reacted by throwing what can only be described as an epic screaming fit. Many of the "GamerGate" proponents seem to have never read the articles in question, and in some cases seem to have not even actually seen the titles, referring to them as all being "Gamers Are Dead" articles. These articles have been asserted by "GamerGaters" to be a huge affront to gamers. "They are insulting us by saying we are dead!" many "GamerGater" have fumed. Many "GamerGate" proponents seem to prefer to ignore the sordid, misogynistic basis for their movement and identify these articles as the catalyst for it (a claim that is specious, as one will discover when reading the articles, as all of them are explicitly reactions to "GamerGate", which means they cannot be the cause of "GamerGate"). But when anyone who isn't in the tiny, but very vocal minority that identifies with "GamerGate" sits down to read these articles, the very childishness of the "GamerGate" response becomes readily apparent. "Gamers" were given the opportunity to show that they didn't fit the stereotype of the socially maladjusted child-men that popular culture had long held them to be, and in the most spectacular way, the "GamerGate" proponents failed this test. After years of self-identified "gamers" insisting that games and game-players should be treated as adults and not basement dwelling troglodyte babies, the gaming press presented a series of articles dealing with the gaming community in an adult manner, and the response of "GamerGate" was to scream and shake with anger.

Sadly, this is the common thread that runs through "GamerGate", and even predates "GamerGate" among certain segments of those who self-identify as "hardcore" gamers. For years many fans of video games have insisted that their preferred media could and should be treated as an art form. So when Anita Sarkeesian took them up on this claim and engaged in critical analysis of video games from a feminist perspective, which is something one does with a serious art form, one would think that gamers would have been pleased to have the object of their affection finally being taken seriously. One would be wrong. Gamers have expressed outrage that their precious games are being evaluated in this manner. They have expressed this displeasure with a vitriolic campaign of constant harassment leveled at Anita, including among their spurious charges that she has lied about the games she has evaluated, that she hates games and never plays them herself, and that she has invented stories of harassment in order to claim victim status. These claims, as one might expect, are dubious at best, and most of them are either rooted in the objector's ignorance of the topics Anita is discussing or are simply blatantly falsehoods invented to personally smear Anita. The reaction displayed by "gamers" in all of these cases, amounts to nothing more than an infantile temper tantrum.

Similarly, when a game developer like Zoe Quinn tackles a serious subject like depression and creates a game like Depression Quest that explores the topic in a serious and sober manner, one would think that gamers would appreciate that their medium had an entry that dealt with an adult topic from an adult perspective. One would once again be wrong. Even before Eron's diatribe against her, Zoe was reviled for having the temerity to make a game that some gamers didn't like. Making a game that doesn't involve running about and shooting or stabbing people in the face, it seems, is an affront against "true gaming" and, predictably, the seething rage-filled wing of "gamers" reacted with torrents of abuse and harassment. And during "GamerGate" many of the complaints about "games journalists" seem to have reflected a similar sentiment. Demands have been issued that call upon game reviewers to limit themselves to "objective" issues, like frame rates, control responsiveness, and how detailed the game graphics are, demanding that issues related to the story, including sexist, racist, or otherwise unsavory elements found in games, be left unremarked upon. But if one wants the medium to be taken seriously, then these are the very issues upon which game reviewers should be focused. Almost no one who reviews a film spends much, if any, of their time talking about the quality of the lenses used to film the piece, and instead they discuss elements like the plot, character development, and whether the film had questionable content including displays of sexism or racism. A reviewer tackling The Legend of Bagger Vance might fairly consider the racial implications of Will Smith's character as a representative of the long-standing, and problematic trope of the "magical negro". And if they do so, no one in the ranks of the cinema going audience is going to scream that this reviewer should go back to evaluating just the film speed used to capture the scenes in the movie. By demanding "objective" reviews, the proponents of "GamerGate" reveal that they are still sitting at the kiddie table and are not mature enough to be taken seriously.

The upshot of "GamerGate" is this: Time and again its members have been given the opportunity to deal with the world in an adult manner. Time and again, they have conclusively failed to do so. The reason that "GamerGate" remains a movement that almost no one regards as a serious expression of anything other than inchoate rage with heaping helpings of misogyny is that, thus far, its members have not done anything but behave like spoiled children. The "movement" such as it is, may have gotten Intel to pull advertisements from a single website, but that isn't an indication of anything other than the fact that screaming rage sometimes gets someone to try to appease the mob. What is striking is how empty the rage is. Even when one gives those who support "GamerGate" the opportunity to explain what they think is wrong with games journalism, they rattle off a collection of points that are either entirely specious or demonstrably untrue. They complain that a cabal of "games journalists" are keeping "their side of the story" from being told with biased articles (conveniently ignoring that outlets such as Forbes and The New Yorker have published articles on the subject and also found the "GamerGate" side lacking in enough merit to include). In many cases, the arguments of "GamerGate" proponents boil down to "only write about games in the way we want you to", which would be a standard that itself would violate anything resembling ethical journalism. Perusing the conspiracy theory laden websites that argue for the "GamerGate" position, it becomes clear that the reason that media outlets have not included their "side" in their articles is that the "GamerGate" side is devoid of any merit. In the end, "gamers" have been given the opportunity to show that they, and their chosen art form, have grown up, and in turn "gamers", at least those who have rallied under the banner of "GamerGate", have demonstrated that this has yet to happen.

Biased Opinions     Home

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review - The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

Short review: An unlikely discovery provides limitless energy with a hidden cost. Aliens in a strange universe are confronted by an ethical dilemma. And then everything is fixed effortlessly.

What if energy
Came from a strange universe
With odd aliens?

Full review: The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov's relatively few stand alone novels, and the one for which he received the most awards. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite reach the level of excellence that I would hope a novel that won the Nebula and Hugo awards should have attained, although it is still quite good.

The plot of the novel stems from, essentially, a physics trick: Under what circumstances could the impossible isotope Plutonium-186 exist, and what would it mean if we could locate a parallel universe in which those conditions existed. The novel also explores what a wholly and completely alien society without any contact with humanity (and only limited contact of any kind with our universe) might be like.

The first part of the novel is basically a story that asks the question: What if we discovered a dangerous perpetual motion machine that requires an impossible element, and explores the political ramifications that might follow. This section is interesting, but not particularly exceptional, mostly focusing on the fact that once people have something that is immediately beneficial, the long term negative consequences, no matter how destructive, will usually be ignored.

The second part of the novel is by far the best section of the story, as Asimov tackles a universe with entirely different physics from ours, as well as creating a wholly alien culture of creatures living in that universe. As a science fiction author who rarely included aliens in his works, and was clearly uncomfortable dealing with sex, Asimov seems to have saved up a decade's worth of both for this book, creating some very unique aliens, an entirely alien culture, and throwing in a fair amount of alien sex. This is the most interesting and well-written section of the book, as it focuses on how the aliens deal with a huge ethical problem, including an explanation as to why they can not simply turn their back on a process that provides immediate benefits but potential long term negative (and unethical) consequences.

The final section of the book is the weakest - so weak in fact that that it serves to restrospectively drag down the first two. In this portion of the story, the problems raised by the first two sections are wrapped up neatly in an entirely facile manner that avoids inconveniencing anyone. As a matter of fact, the final solution makes everyone better off than before, and with little more than a hand-wave eliminates all the problems previously established by the story. This ending is really too simplistic for the rest of the book, and essentially gives all the short-sighted characters in the first two sections an easy solution to what should have been an almost intractable problem..

Still, The Gods Themselves is considered to be a classic of science fiction, and the middle section of the book alone makes it worth reading. Sadly, the opening and closing parts of the story are not nearly as strong as the middle, transforming what could have been a superlative book into merely a decent one. This novel isn't as good as Asimov's best work, and of his books, this is not the one I would have picked to win a stack of awards, but it is still a good book.

1972 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
1974 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

1972 Locus Award Winner for Best Novel: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
1974 Locus Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

1972 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg
1974 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novel

1973 Hugo Award Nominees
1973 Locus Award Nominees
1973 Nebula Award Nominees

Isaac Asimov     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, October 6, 2014

Musical Monday - Best Game Ever by Mikey Mason

So, I didn't post any reviews last week. And, more or less, role-playing games are the reason why. After something of a hiatus, my gaming group got back into our role-playing campaign, and because I am the Game Master, that meant that I had to scramble to prepare materials for the session. This meant that last week, instead of writing reviews to post, I was coming up with encounters for the players in my campaign to confront and, if they got lucky, defeat. And I am happy to report, that is mostly what happened. As an added bonus, we introduced someone who had never gamed before to role-playing, and as far as I can tell, she had a great time. In even better news, I sort of over prepared for the game session, so I won't have to do a pile of work before our next session.

And if you ever want to know why role-playing games are fantastic, well, listen to the song. The moments Mason describes in the song - defeating a dragon in three rounds, having a player get his character killed by mouthing off to a deity, splitting the loot and getting experience points after the adventure - these are the things that stick in your memory after the game is done, and this is why we play role-playing games. Sitting around a table with new players who don't know what dice to roll, and have only a vague idea of what is going on, but are still having a blast, this is why we play role-playing games.

Previous Musical Monday: Crusader: No Remorse Rebel Base 1
Subsequent Musical Monday: Ennui (On We Go) by The Doubleclicks

Mikey Mason     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Blogger Hop Halloween Edition October 3rd - October 9th: Osiris Was Enclosed in a Coffin by 72 Evil Disciples of Set

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Where is the creepiest place you have read a book?

I haven't been in very many places that I'd really consider creepy. Maybe I have a higher tolerance for "creepy" locations than most people and don't find places creepy as often as other people do. Maybe I just haven't been in too many creepy places. I don't know which. But, for the most part, I don't remember being in very many creepy places, and I don't recall reading in them.

The closest thing I can think of would be reading at an empty bus stop at night waiting for my ride to pick me up. I take a commuter bus every day to and from work. My wife and I share a single car, so on many nights she picks me up from the bus stop. Every now and then, events prevent her from picking me up right away, and so I usually pass the time waiting for her by reading whatever book I happen to have on me at the time. In the summer, when the days are long, the commuter parking lot is merely a big empty space. But in the autumn, the darkness comes earlier, and casts long shadows over an empty, lonely lot, which could be considered creepy. But to tell the truth, when I'm reading, I'm usually so engaged in the book that I really don't notice my surroundings much, if at all, so it doesn't really feel creepy to me.

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Follow Friday - Arp 178 Is a Triplet of Galaxies: NGC 56, NGC 5614, and NGC 5615

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Liberamans and Becky's Barmy Book Blog.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Book looks – Your favorite fashions from the books you’ve read.

I'm going to pick the hologram generators used by the Scorpion's gang in Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren. Delany has a couple books in which clothing plays a part in the story, from Triton, where the protagonist's choice of clothing is misinterpreted as a slight against those around him (and is presented as part of his general social cluelessness), or the odd light generating clothing worn by the "antagonists" to prevent conversation in the climatic scene in Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand. Like pretty much all of the other elements in Delany's books, clothing is deliberately chosen as a means of advancing the story.

In Dhalgren, the Kid goes to Bellona, a city in the center of the United States that is strangely cut off from the rest of the world. There he eventually becomes the leader of the Scorpions, a street gang in which all of the members wear holographic projectors that make them look like various predatory animals - with each member's projector showing a different image. The Kid's projector is malfunctioning, and shows an indistinct, abstract image, which could be seen as a sign of the Kid's mysteriously undefined character. Whether or not this is the case, the projectors are both interesting and very cool, so they are my literary fashion pick.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Musical Monday - Crusader: No Remorse Rebel Base 1

This Musical Monday was inspired by the 2011 computer game Skyrim. More specifically, it is inspired by a comment I saw concerning the game in which the commenter observed that no matter what the player does in the game, they essentially cannot change how the story ends other than by choosing whether or not to advance the main set of plot quests. Basically, the player can either play through the main set of plot quests to their preordained ending, or they can choose not to. There are no meaningful choices to be made in this regard.

Naturally, to discuss this element of Skyrim, I am highlighting music from Crusader: No Remorse, a 1995 computer game. But lest one think that I'm not going far enough back in computer game history, I'm also going to reference The Summoning, a game that was released in 1992. And because Skyrim is made by Bethesda, I'm also going to throw in some obligatory Fallout 3 references. What is the common thread between all of these games? Quite simply, the decisions made by the player while playing these games don't matter at all. The end result when you "finish" all of them is fixed from the outset. And quite frankly, after twenty-two years, this kind of limited and restrictive story-telling is getting a little bit ridiculous.

The Summoning was released in 1992. It was a role-playing style game in which your character, the chosen hero, was sent into a massive maze to try to work your way into the fortress of the evil Shadow Weaver and defeat the villainous dark overlord. You could develop your character to a certain extent, mostly by deciding which weapons to get good at using and which kind of magic to be good at casting, but for the most part you ended up pretty much good at everything. But what you couldn't do is alter how the story turned out. You were, for the most part, limited to fighting your way through the particular part of the maze you were in so that you could get to the next part of the maze. The story, such as it was, simply progressed depending upon how deep into the maze you had gotten, and there was simply no way for you to change the outcome.

Three years later, Crusader: No Remorse was released. In the interim, the graphics of computer games had improved considerably. The game even included some (very badly acted) live-action cut scenes, mostly involving characters giving you missions, making chitchat between missions, or blaming you for things going wrong. But once again, you couldn't change how the story turned out. You could only successfully complete a mission and have the story advance along its predetermined path, or you could die. You couldn't save Private Andrews, or prevent Sergeant Brooks from getting captured. You couldn't stop Major Vargas' betrayal, or really do anything other than follow the provided missions and work your way to the end of the packaged story.

If we jump forward to 2008, when Fallout 3 was released, we see a much more open world, providing the player with a large sandbox in which to play. The player can  take their character and wander about the Capital Wasteland righting wrongs, fixing problems, engaging in nefarious deals, and generally getting into trouble. But, once again, the "main" series of quests that make up the "story" of the game are essentially immune to player action. You cannot prevent your father from dying. You cannot avoid getting captured by the Enclave. And in the end, you cannot avoid retaking control of the water purifier and activating it. Nothing your character does in the rest of the game changes these facts. There is a "karma" system designed to evaluate how good or evil your character behaves in the game, but how saintly or villainous you have been has no bearing on the outcome of the main quest. Your karma doesn't even change whether or not the vaunted Brotherhood of Steel will agree to work with you in the game's final conflict - they will, with no questions asked.

So we get to Skyrim, and the story is essentially the same: No matter what you do during the game, the main story-line is immune to your decisions. Your only choice is whether to keep following the main quest line, or to simply abandon it and leave it unfinished. Your choices as a player simply don't matter one way or the other. The story will resolve in one way, and in only one way. This isn't a unique feature of these particular games either. The list of computer games that have fixed stories is as long as my arm. And to me, that is something of a problem. Computer game stories are still at the same stage of development they were in more than twenty years ago. One can forgive older games like The Summoning and the two Crusader titles for having stories that limited the impact the player could have. Computer games were still very much a developing medium, and just having a coherent and interesting story of any kind was something of an innovation. But computer game developers have been turning out the same type of story for more than two decades now. It seems to me like there should be room for games in which the choices a player makes has an actual, substantial impact on how the game resolves. In fact, I think this should be the standard at this point. But it isn't. The standard for computer games is a lazy, linear, essentially non-interactive story. Choose Your Own Adventure books were doing a better job at providing interactivity in the 1980s than computer games are doing now. And that is a shame.

Previous Musical Monday: Festival Supreme Theme Song by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Best Game Ever by Mikey Mason

Game, Movie, and Television Music     Musical Monday     Home