Science Fiction

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Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin

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Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Review by Prof. Jenn

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Yesterday’s Kin is a novelette which takes us on a breakneck pace through the philosophical, scientific, and psychological implications of a near-future contact with alien life. They come in peace, they come with some scientific advancements but not totally all-powerful, and we experience them through the POV of a prominent scientist and her flighty, dreamy, ne’er-do-well son. What the aliens’ actual purpose is for parking in New York Harbor and what happens to the people of Earth (and what will happen) is a fascinating, intelligent and intuitive discussion of the old “are we alone” question of so much sci fi.

The book is written in third-person limited POV, and is limited to two perspectives only: Marianne”s (the scientist) and Noah’s (her son), which makes what we know and when we know it tightly dictated and suspenseful. By the time we get to the big twist/revelation at the end, whether or not the reader has guessed it already is irrelevant–it’s a tense moment nonetheless.

Bottom Line: Yesterday’s Kin is highly recommended. I read it through in one sitting. I think it’d make a great movie…

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Book Review: Ecko Rising

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Book Review: Ecko Rising by Danie Ware

Review by Prof. Jenn

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What the heck did I just read?!

No, seriously, what? We started out in a lovely cyber-dystopia, like a well-drawn update of the worlds of Neuromancer or Snow Crash. But we’re not in that world for long enough to break it in before we’re transported to a lovely Fantasy realm which manages to be Tokien-esque without being derivative.

Now, as interesting as this may sound, it really is just too jarring on multiple levels:

1) We’re not in Ecko’s POV hardly at all when in the dystopia–we see him from another character’s perspective. Which means that when Ecko is transported to the new realm, we don’t know enough about him to care about his culture shock, nor do we ever see our erstwhile POV character (the one we actually connected to) again. Until one brief scene at the very end. The big revolutionary break-in that goes awry for Ecko we don’t completely understand–what is this powerhouse that we’re supposed to hate? What exactly is Ecko trying to do?

2) We don’t get a chance to understand the futuristic world enough before we’re kicked out of it. We also don’t get enough of the Fantasy world to let us know what the threat to it means/is–we don’t get told what’s going on, who’s who, etc. Except that there’s a traveling tavern for some reason that even those that live there don’t know. Believe me, I’m not asking for info dumps, not at all, but what I do need is something a little more than just the Viking Swimming Lesson.*

3) Though it is slightly amusing to hear Ecko pop-culture referencing (he wryly mentions that his adventure even starts in a tavern, like all D&D quests do), we again don’t have enough familiar to us to let this be part of the action. Of course, part of that is no doubt that Ecko himself is plunged into this world with no warning, and even thinks the world is his own construct that he, Matrix-like, is caught in as he’s trapped somewhere in his “real” world. But again, the “real” world wasn’t familiar enough to us first before we were yanked out of it.

Having said all this, there’s a lot fascinating and/or good about Ecko Rising. The Banned characters are pretty great–sort of a McKinley-esque horse-people that are part Rohirrim and all bad-ass. The fighters and philosophers are all diverse as far as gender, which is refreshing and fun. The relationships that we do get to know at all are realistic and compelling. And Maugrim is pretty gosh darned scary. The vivisection and the madness is squicky-keen, and once we actually get to know Ecko a little more, he’s a compelling character too.

And the story ends on a cliffhanger, which tells me we’ll (hopefully) be getting more of all this explained to us in the next book. It’s just kind of a long book to have so many loose ends still blowing in the wind.

Bottom Line: Ecko Rising is recommended, with reservations.

*One hard push into the deep end.

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The Art of Bioshock Infinite Review

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Bioshock Infinite was released last week, bringing a new, exciting chapter of the hugely popular game series for fans to obsessively play for days at a time. I, myself, am a fan of the franchise and when I heard about a book release accompanying the game which would outline the artistic development involved, I was thrilled to have the chance to review it. The Bioshock games are known for their complex story lines and tormented characters, but I think the real core of these games is in the mind blowing art work. I still remember my first time watching the opening sequence for Bioshock. I felt real terror and fear living the experience of sinking on a huge ship, watching people and flames plummet in to the ocean around me as my character sank deeper and deeper. Then, the elation of discovering Rapture, the city under the sea, glowing and majestic, yet abandoned and incredibly eerie at the same time. Bioshock has never settled for less than ‘holy shit amazing’ in the visual department and by the looks of The Art of Bioshock Infinite, this latest installment is no different. songbird2

The introduction to the book is by creative director Ken Levine and he explains that the process of developing a video game on the level of Bioshock Infinite is far more complicated and time consuming than some may assume. ” the process of making anything—and certainly an Irrational game—is grueling and exhilarating, exciting and depressing, thrilling and scary as hell. For every idea that makes it into the game, a dozen are put against the wall and shot.” This book puts this process on display for you, showing the character and world development, sketch by sketch. Hundreds of pieces of art and ideas were thrown out in the editing machine, but no less impressive. It becomes obvious right away that the artists who created this new Bioshock universe toiled endlessly to achieve the perfect effects on every single detail of every puzzle piece that eventually became Bioshock Infinite.

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I found the notes explaining the process behind the art development as intriguing as the pictures themselves. To get a glimpse in to the great care and immense thought behind every detail in this game feels like peeking in to someone’s window and watching them create. Someone with more artistic chutzpah in their little finger than I could achieve in a lifetime. Watching the floating city of Columbia come to life in these paintings and sketches is so much fun, but for me the best part was being witness to the birth and growth of the enigmatic characters of Bioshock Infinite. Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and Songbird are focused on heavily, their personality and story details being just as imperative as their styles and physical make up. Readers are invited to observe the ideas behind Sky-Hooks, airships and the menacing, powerful Heavy Hitters.

The Art of Bioshock Infinite is a beautiful, enlightening lesson in video game development. It’s not quick, easy, simple or lacking in sacrifice. At least not a game on this level of quality and brilliance. I haven’t actually played Bioshock Infinite yet, but reading this book makes me feel like I already have an intimate knowledge of the people and creatures (or machines) that make up the city of Columbia. Whether you’re a fan of the Bioshock franchise or just a lover of artwork, this book is definitely satisfying and worth having on your shelf. It’s been a real treat for me and has only increased my desire to experience Bioshock Infinite for myself.

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Book Review: The Wind Whales of Ishmael

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Review: The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip Jose Farmer

Review by: Prof. Jenn

 

Philip Jose Farmer is well-known for writing science fiction that in essence is a gate to mainstream classics. His Wold Newton series in particular does this artful remix thing that you readers have heard me wax rhapsodic about so often. The Wind Whales of Ishmael isn’t technically one of the Wold Newtons, but it very well could be, in that it takes a famous character from classic literature and plops him in a science fiction scenario.

Titan books has re-released several Farmer classics, with intros and outros by experts and colleagues of the legendary writer, which gives anyone not familiar with Farmer’s work a good background and inspiration to try further readings, and those fans a richness to their continued collection.

The Wind Whales of Ishmael is fantastically entertaining, taking place just after the events of Moby Dick, where Ishmael is floating alone in the ocean on Queequeg’s coffin (remember?). Then, just as the Rachel rescues him, he finds himself and the ship plunging through a rip in the fabric of time, landing as the sole survivor on a future Earth where sharks and whales have evolved to live in the air, and the seas have all pretty much dried up. Oh, and there’s plants that provide water, but that drink your blood. And there’s air ships that are whalers. And a pretty princess.

It’s written in a quick, clipped, concise style, with Ishmael as a character just as enigmatic and intellectual as he was in Melville. The action starts right away and doesn’t quit, ever, ending with one of the best dungeon crawl scenes in genre fiction. The descriptions of the future world and its machinations are exhaustive and vivid, but at no time do they slow down the action.

Bottom line: I highly recommend The Wind Whales of Ishmael. It’s a classic, and a great read.   ~Prof. Jenn

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Comic Review: Dr. Who vol. 1: the Hypothetical Gentleman

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Comic Review: Dr. Who vol. 1: the Hypothetical Gentleman by Diggle, Buckingham, Seifert, Bond, and many more

Review by: Prof. Jenn

doctor-who-idw-2012-001-cover-topperThe Hypothetical Gentleman consists of two story arcs: the title one, and one called The Doctor and the Nurse. Both are quite different both in writing feel and artistic style, and both are quite enjoyable.

The Hypothetical Gentleman takes place in a few different time periods in London. It concerns seances, artifacts of time, and what is real and what is shenaniganry, and of course there’s a dangerous device having to do with the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey and the Doctor must save the day. Or space-time. You get the picture. There’s some wonderful Amy-Rory dialogue, and a delightful bit where the Doctor is exploring a museum, coming across some objects that any Whovian readers will recognize with a chortle (Just checking to see the mummy is deactivated. Yes). The art is elegant and full of emotion–it reminds me a little bit of the style of CrossGen’s old series Ruse, in that we get lots of character and movement, with rich color and a sort of Impressionist realism about it.

The Doctor and the Nurse is a much more whimsical storyline, and the art is more colorful and cartoony as is appropriate. It follows Rory and the Doctor attempting to have a Boys’ Night Out, ending up with a trapped Amy and many many time periods and a flood of beer. And the Silence. But they’re not the scary Silence in this one, they’re just slightly menacing–even though we get a sense of tension and high-speed action, this isn’t one of those terrifying or super-deeply-poignant stories, but rather a fast-paced Whovian romp. The comedic relief of the Doctor’s dynamic with Rory when trapped alone with him is a lot of fun, and Amy is a resourceful hero in her timeline too.

Bottom Line: Volume One is a lot of fun–the stories are beautifully drawn, and they read like good episodes of the show. Highly recommended.

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Where's My Shoggoth Cover

Review: Where’s My Shoggoth?

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Writing by: Ian Thomas

Art by: Adam Bolton

This is the story of a little boy who has lost his pet and sets out on a journey to find it. He’s searching for his Shoggoth; what exactly that is remains a mystery until the end. This is a children’s book but with a definite horror theme, filled with gloriously detailed monsters and ghouls. As the boy travels through all sorts of spooky terrains and encounters all sorts of creatures he’s disappointed when each one is not exactly his Shoggoth.

The art of Where’s My Shoggoth is just plain gorgeous. Super detail, gothic coloring, so much careful attention to the particular textures and weight in each individual environment. Although the creatures are satisfyingly scary for an adult to enjoy, the boy’s easy bravery and casual attitude towards them keeps the story from ever being too terrifying for a child. The kid never shows a bit of fear when faced with a new beast, which keeps the story light-hearted. It’s a very crafty, well done approach to children’s material with in the horror genre.

Where’s My Shoggoth is a brilliant mix of Dr. Seuss style rhyme and rhythm, classic ‘searching for my mommy/pet/friend’ story line and H.P. Lovecraft demons. There are some extra great goodies included here too, like a Chutes & Ladders type board game. In all aspects, this is a fantastic book for the kids who enjoy a little scare and of course just in time for Halloween!

Where’s My Shoggoth is available now from Archaia.

 

Book Review: Digital Rapture

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There are a few things I always look for in a high quality anthology: first, it should have a wide range of selections that yet epitomize the theme of the anthology. Second, it should be a diverse collection of author and genre. Third, it should have a well written introduction that acts as a thesis of sorts and adds to the literature on the subject. Digital Rapture has all these things.

“Digital Rapture” itself refers to what Sci fi fans call the Singularity. The stories and essays collected here all add up to a fascinating spectrum of writings surrounding that theme. I like that the anthology is divided into different sections that are sort of subgenres, too–like The End of the Human Era and Across the Event Horizon. Kelly and Kessel’s introduction explains this subdivision, as well as why the selections fall under each category. This is a great feature, in that we get to appreciate the book’s organization, but also think about this theme more closely in the process.

As far as diversity and variety, Digital Rapture has that too. Everyone from Asimov to Vinge, from Doctorow to Pohl and more appear here, and there are essays, short stories, novellas…everything a Sci fi reader could ask for.

Bottom line: I highly recommend Digital Rapture, especially to those scholastically interested in or wanting to write about the Singularity themselves.   ~Prof. Jenn

Cover image from here.

Book Review: Just Cause

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Ian Healy’s Just Cause is a great superhero book because it creates a world that is so close to our own we almost think that maybe these things did/are really happening, it’s just that we don’t live in the right city, and don’t maybe have that special brick touch pattern to get us to Diagon Alley. Healy creates a realistic setting, characters, and world history to put us right there in the world where superheroes are paid by the government, and the privately owned groups are wannabes.

Setting: we’re not in Gotham, or Metropolis, or another planet, we’re in Denver, Arizona, Guatemala. The settings are described with enough detail that we feel there with our hero, but not so much that, Tolkien-like, the action is put on hold for the descriptions. It’s perfectly balanced. The way the climate affects the characters is spot on and realistic as well.

Characters: the parahumans in this book are just like people we all know, and nothing like the superheroes we know. Okay, maybe you could say that Sally’s speeding powers are a bit Flash like, but as a character she’s nothing like the Flash. It’s heartening to have a female protagonist with just the right mix of honoring her family history while also acting like a teenager about them. It’s refreshing to have the perfect balance between YA relationships, advice from adults, snappy dialogue, and thrilling action scenes. Our hero is neither too focused on revenge, nor too passive, but a compelling, realistic combination of both. The parahumans are absolutely unique (the Christian centered private superhero group is a fascinating idea). I mean, who in comics is at all like Sondra Desert Eagle? And don’t tell me Hawkman. It is a nice thing to have a big sister type helping us out. I wonder how much better Bella’s life would have turned out had she had a Sondra. Does Sondra’s advice get a little didactic? Well, just a little. But again, it is completely within her character to be so, and it is excellent advice for any young readers. Mustang Sally as a hero is just smart, sassy, and young enough that we have fun with her, turn pages waiting to see how she solves the next mysterious piece of the plot puzzle, and we get lectured at so that world details are filled in for us, without the dreaded info dump.

History: each chapter starts with a quote about some aspect of para human politics or machinations. These quotes so thoroughly and realistically build this world, that you might just find yourself looking up the sources to see where the quote came from. Even though they’re made up. The figures from history are completely drawn (and the villains are scary, threatening, not over the top) and we are left with obvious hints at sequels to come, but with a stand alone plot that will satisfy till the next one is out.

Bottom Line: this is a fantastic book for YA and adult readers alike. I literally couldn’t put it down.   ~Prof. Jenn

Below, enjoy this documentary by Two Filmingos about Healy’s recent book signing in Boulder, CO.

Review: After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall

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After The Fall

What do you call a dystopian sci-fi novel with a glimmer of hope? Hope-topia? That’s it—I’m coining a new genre name: the Eco-Hopetopia.  After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall by Nancy Kress is a prime example of this term.

We’ve all read our share of stories set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, haven’t we? After the Fall is a little different, and compelling enough that I read it in one sitting.  There are two plots to this story—one that takes place in the immediate future (just Before the Fall), and one that takes place in the more distant future (After the Fall). The distant-future folks are living in what’s called a Shell, protecting them from a dead planet. They are very few, survivors left over from the apocalypse, and they are trying their best to repopulate the human race. They have been given technology by their keepers, the Tesslies, that gives them the ability to travel back in time to before the apocalypse, so they can Grab: supplies, clothing, food (besides the soy they grow) and babies to continue their small community. The very near-future plot involves an investigation into these baby-Grabs.

What’s strong about this book is the unusual time-travel aspect: only children can go through the Grab portals, we’re not sure what the technology is, and they only have ten minutes to Grab and be gone. The other major strength is the very short chapters wherein we get zoomed in, to the functioning of mutating bacteria just before the apocalypse. These particular chapters add to the tension and makes one want to know what happens next. I also appreciate the hyper-ecological message echoing throughout. Even though it gets a bit preachy, it’s a strong message and it works well within these two plots.

The thing is, I’m not sure if this is a YA novel or not. The main character in the future-plot is fifteen years old, but the discussions and experiences surrounding sex are…weird. Well I suppose it would be weird if you were one of a handful of the human race that was left. I don’t know, it just struck me as a bit jarring, almost out of character. Also, it’s a short book, which is good in a way, but when we get to the climax and end of the story, it does feel a bit rushed.

My only major beef with this otherwise compelling book is the moment where the two plots conjoin. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, as I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but I have to say that I didn’t buy it. I’ll leave it at that—go out and read this book and come back here and tell me if you agree.

Bottom line: I highly recommend this book. It comes out in March—seriously, go read it and come back and let’s talk about it with spoilers.

~Prof. Jenn

Image Courtesy of blakenorthcott.com

Review: Vs. Reality #1

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Image Courtesy of blakenorthcott.com

What if?
What if the person we are in our dreams was who we could become in the waking world?

Volume one of Blake Northcott’s Vs. Reality series asks just that. The book is a raucous mix of the comic-book, a little bit of science and philosophy and far too much pop-culture memetics, with a sprinkle of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts,) just for kicks.

The book is a quick, light read, true to it’s obvious comic book roots. If you have a teenage Urban Fantasy fan in your household, or if you love comics, Vs. Reality will make a nice addition to the e-book library. That doesn’t mean the narrative isn’t flawed. The protagonist, Donovan Cole is drawn a little too thinly, while his best-friend/sidekick, Jenns is a clear cardboard cutout. Cole redeems himself a bit and shows some depth by the end of the book, but I never found myself caring about him. The most interesting characters are Dia and Paige, by far. In their voices, Ms. Northcott finds the humanity necessary to tell a story about people who can become the things we dream. Dia Davenport is a person, not a hero, not a villain: a person. Paige Davenport shows the pragmatic side of being a hero: Sometimes it’s the only option left. Rounding out this group of misfits is stoner/chemist Brodie, providing a touch of comic relief as well as the literal catalysts for the, “manifestations,” of abilities.

The plot is standard discovery and recognition of abilities, as the evil organization trying to suppress people with special abilities looms over our heroes. What lifts this above the trope, is that who we think is the villain, is the villain, but certainly not the only one. By the end of the first installment in this series, Ms. Northcott has raised the stakes to a truly comic book worthy shadow conspiracy, in the best way. What jumps off the page is the author’s ability to write snappy, slightly noir, slightly screwball-comedy dialogue in scenes that aren’t about superpowers or villains. Dia and Cole’s first meeting in a nightclub springs to life, while a later scene about heroism falls prey to an overly-aware tone that’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

Most of the pop-culture touchstones are amusing. Yet the saturation in self-awareness weighs down a narrative that raises some very interesting points about science, politics, and the nature of reality. What does it mean to live in a near utopia? What will politicians do to foment fear? How many universes are there, anyway? What are human beings truly capable of? Do we create our own reality? Is society already too narcotized with happy pills and fear? Dig beneath the glossy superhero layer, and there are some very real issues at play. It left me with the impression that some of that glossy veneer is in place so as not to scare off the normals.

I’m not disappointed that I read it, but I’m not completely satisfied with Vs. Reality, either. It’s a fun read that left me waiting for a more direct exploration of the issues it only dances around. With a little more character development and either a full commitment to meta-fiction or a less self-referential tone, this could be a “series to watch”.

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