Friday, December 15, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Pinball Arcade

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Nod by Adrian Barnes

Catastrophe fiction, so popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has in recent decades kind of, sort of, given way to post-apocalyptic fiction—what happens after rather than during the catastrophe.  Perhaps because all the obvious ideas have been taken—drought, floods, carnivorous plants eating people blinded by an alien meteorite shower—it’s a bit strange these days to see a book that reverts to so simple a premise.  But such is the case with Adrian Barnes’ 2012 Nod.  Like Ballard, however, Barnes (thankfully) focuses his book on something more human than the details of cataclysm.

Paul is a poor, introverted writer of quirky books about etymology who lives with his bread-winning girlfriend Tanya in Vancouver.  A golden dream visiting him one night as he sleeps, he wakes to discover that Tanya hadn’t slept a wink.  Arriving home from work that evening, Tanya reports that nobody else she knows slept the previous night either, that Paul is somehow part of a 1% of the population able to get a night’s rest.  A novelty at first, the situation worsens, however.  Night after night, only the tiniest fraction of humanity are able to sleep.  The insomnia getting so bad, the government makes the drastic decision to shut down all telecommunications in an effort to remove potential interference.  But nothing helps.  Cut off from the net and phones, society dissolves, leaving Paul to navigate a city of sleep-deprived madness, and survive.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Buying a sequel published several years after its wildly successful predecessor is a risky venture.  The reader never knows whether the writer is simply trying to cash in on the popularity (aka ‘desperately attempting to revive a flagging ouevre’), or has produced a story that genuinely fits within the context of the predecessor.  Examples can be found on both sides.  Thus, going in to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, first book in The Book of Dust (a prequel trilogy to the original His Dark Materials… trilogy), I didn’t really know what to expect.  About a quarter of the way through, my concerns were assuaged, however.  La Belle Sauvage is genuine.

La Belle Sauvage is the name of fourteen-year old Malcom’s canoe.  Son of an innkeeper in an alternate-world (steampunk-ish) Oxford, he’s a smart, good-mannered young man who helps his father around the inn, as well as the nuns in the priory across the river when time allows.  In the midst of serving a small influx of VIP guests at the inn, including some shadowy members of the Magisterium’s secret police, an infant is secretly brought to the nun’s priory for hiding and safe keeping.  A tiny little girl named Lyra, Malcom falls in love with her while helping the nuns one day.  Spring rains incessant, however, the river separating the inn from the priory swells, making Malcom’s trips across in La Belle Sauvage dangerous.  When Malcom witnesses a rough man with a hyena as a familiar attempt to kidnap Lyra from the priory one night, the action is on.  And when floods break out, it’s anybody’s guess as to the fate of the little girl.  Malcom’s canoe may prove just as precious if she is to survive.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of Stories: All New Tales ed. by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio

Given the sheer volume of text appearing online in the past ten years (not excluding this blog), it’s fair to say the answer to: ‘What makes a good story a good story?’ is different for many, many people.  For some, it’s the marriage of political or social themes to setting, event, or character, while for others it’s non-stop action.  But for certain, what all sides appreciate is flat out, good storytelling.  Well told stories simply resonate beyond the borders of genre taxonomy or reviews would put on them.  Attempting to capture this magic is editor Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantino’s 2010 anthology Stories: All-New Tales.

Dazzling with the stars and lights of a 20’s jazz club in the desert, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” by Jeffrey Ford A drop dead gorgeous bit of storytelling, is.  Ford proving mood matters, this tale perfectly captures the essence of action and romance without being either of those things. The neon of this story will burn in memory.  The shortest story in the collection, “Parallel Lines” by Tim Powers is about a dead twin trying to get back into the world through the writing hand of her sister.  Setting the tone for the collection (edgy, apparently), “Blood” by Roddy Doyle is about a everyday man who develops a thirst for blood—or at least seems to develop, the tendency possibly having been there all along.  The story walking a strange, unpredictable path (from raw meat to parallels with Ozzy Osbourne antics), the man is not able to keep his thirst a secret from his wife, but they do come to a common agreement, which is the biggest surprise of all.  About demon twins, “Fossil-Figures” by Joyce Carol Oates traces their paths through life from the very different dispositions they begin with.  One weak and frail the other strong and virile, it takes the ending of the story to confirm the relationship.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of fiction.  Subtlety its middle name, the book presents the quiet limitations we impose on ourselves (versus those imposed from external sources) in poignant, elegant fashion that speaks to the true nature of humanity.  The story of a butler so focused on his sense of duty that he denies himself the basic aspects of existence, it’s one of the main reasons Ishiguro recently won the Nobel for literature.  Equally subtle but less believable in execution, Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is another strong reason.

Plot-wise, Never Let Me Go is straight-forward: three young people grow up in what is essentially an orphanage, coming of age with the idea they are clones who will someday be organ donors for ordinary people.  The real meat of the novel is found, however, in the interaction of the three and the perspectives of the world as they evolve.

Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is highly introspective, integrating the tiny but telling details of quotidian life and relationships.  The story is told through the eyes of Cathy, an intelligent, sensitive young woman trying to fit in yet retain her identity among the other young people at their boarding home.  Having a troubled relationship with a fellow student Ruth, the two, through a series of events and compromises, form a strong but strange friendship.  The third primary character is an emotionally volatile young man named Tom who is initially bullied by the other boys, but after realizing certain things, comes into his own and is able to form stronger relationships with others.  The art the young people produce of odd importance to their overseers, Ishiguro slowly unveils the underlying logic to their situation in the boarding home, all the while the young attempt to reconcile their state state as clones with the wider world beyond and themselves.

Monday, December 4, 2017

2017: Starcraft 2 Year in Review

I had other plans this evening, but after reading Liquidpedia’s 2017 Starcraft 2 awards, I was called to action.  

Generally speaking, Liquidpedia got the year right.  In the past I have found myself sometimes blinking in surprise reading a mizenhauer write up, but given he was consolidating award input from Liquidpedia staff, the results are more balanced.  But not without some oversights I believe, hence the call to action.

The first award was to Special as ‘Breakout Player’.  My first instinct was that it didn’t feel right, but slowly came around to agree.  First, Special didn’t win anything.  His best showing was a top-4 at Blizzcon, which, to be fair, is a major accomplishment and indeed the best showing of his career.  Otherwise, he failed to get out of all the GSL round of 32s he qualified for and did not win any other Premier tournaments—Dreamhacks, IEMs, etc.  At the same time, none of the other options feels right either, for example Elazer, Gumiho, Stats, and Rogue.  An argument could be made for each in comparison to their past performances.  But in the end, I think the greatest distance covered was indeed by Special.  A new id for a new mindset, we now call him Special instead of Major.  And for sure he put in a huge effort this year, so good to recognize him.

'Strategy of the Year’, meh, whatever.  Better to give one per race, not one overall (if at all), but what do I know?  ‘Biggest News Event of the Year’ was awarded to Starcraft 2 being free to play.  Sure, why not?  It’s as good a pick as any—and beats “KESPA offices raided by police on suspicion of corruption”  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Since reading Cloud Atlas a few years ago, I have been on the David Mitchell bandwagon.  But there has always been a nagging sense of incompleteness, of rough edges in the novels I’ve read since.  For as singular the storyline of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is, it has a little trouble blending its viewpoints and thus building a holistic plot.  Cloud Atlas is an superb mish-mash of fiction, but has some trouble distinguishing its character voices.  Ghostwritten is an excellent debut, but has issues balancing exuberant prose against focused theme.  With 2014’s The Bone Clocks, however, everything has finally come together, the edges smoothed, and a polished gem the result.  An extremely satisfying read that would seem to fulfill all of Mitchell’s potential, it might just be a masterpiece.

Structured like a pinwheel, the story of teenage-runaway Holly Sykes forms the center pin of The Bone Clocks, while the stories of an unprincipled Cambridge student who eventually faces the most difficult choice of his life, a curmudgeonly British writer who  must face declining sales, a war reporter who has trouble balancing his family life with being in the action, and a reincarnated therapist who must use her centuries of wisdom to combat an evil foe—all form the blades spiraling away from the center of the pinwheel.  Sykes’ story (in old age) forms the final section of the novel, forming a cycle by spinning full circle the events and characters,. Mitchell using this structure to great effect in terms of both plot and theme, The Bone Clocks is innately a questioning of contemporary culture while telling the highly engaging story of one woman’s anything-but-normal life.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Console Corner: Review of The Frozen Wilds (DLC for Horizon: Zero Dawn)

There are numerous rumblings and grumblings in the scene these days regarding video game developers’ practices for releasing DLC as some DLC seems more like key material from the base game released separately in an attempt to earn more money.  Regardless of opinion, the days of buying a complete game in a cartridge are past us.  But if there is anything the community does agree on, it’s that The Witcher 3 did DLC right.  Releasing two massive expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, each was reasonably priced and offered players a tangential rather than imperative experience in the Witcher world, all with a large amount of content delivered with the same attention to detail and plot as the original game.  The former at roughly 14 hours and the latter at a whopping 28, they are longer, or at least the same length as a lot of stand-alone games.  It thus makes me glad that Guerilla Games opted to follow CDProjekt Red’s lead when developing DLC for Horizon: Zero Dawn. 

The Frozen Wilds is everything the player who enjoyed H: ZD could hope for, and, perhaps more.  A massive new section of the map is opened up, new machines are unveiled, new weapons are available, new characters appear, and a new thread of story is introduced—a thread that ties into the main storyline of H: ZD while offering something entirely new.  Venturing into the snowy northeast, Aloy encounters a Banuk tribe dealing with daemonized machines.  The tribe tearing itself apart attempting to deal with the threat, Aloy becomes the key to unraveling the mystery and putting it to rest.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Review of Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

The (disc)world was Terry Pratchett’s oyster.  No subject too big or small to be tackled by his continent’s worth of trolls and humans, dwarves and exploding dragons, even after nearly fifty novels and Pratchett’s passing the possibilities still seem endless. He dealt with silent films in Moving Pictures to YA coming-of-age in the Tiffany Aching series, religion in Small Gods to the fallacy of economy in Making Money—Pratchett went anywhere his ripe imagination wanted.  Music inevitably popping up, in 1994 Soul Music, and all its glorious appreciation and humor regarding the evolution of rock ‘n roll, rolled onto the scene like Death on a Harley Davidson.

A poor, young guitarist named Imp Y Celyn comes to Anhk-Morpork looking for work.  When he discovers he needs a license from the musician’s guild to perform on the street, he joins forces with Glod Glodson, a dwarf who plays horn, and Lias Bluestone, a troll percussionist (aka rock beater), and the trio hold their first, illegal gig in a local tavern called The Mended Drum.  The improv performance drawing a more positive reaction than expected, a strangely disparate yet rebellious-minded group of people love the new music, and show their appreciation for the style they call ‘music with rocks in’ by inciting a small riot.  The night also has other implications.  Imp intended to die in the rioting, it’s only that Death was on existential hiatus that Imp remains alive.  ‘The Band with Rock In’ exploding popularity with every performance at the Drum thereafter, rock stardom is born, and the disc will never be the same. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Non-Fiction: Review of Requiem for the American Dream By Noam Chomsky

I was born, raised, and lived in the US until the age of twenty-four when a certain wanderlust took over.  That thirst since quenched, I have settled in Poland, and now only occasionally visit the country.  The result is a contrasting perspective whenever I visit: almost twenty years having passed, the US I grew up in is not the US I see now.  Besides technology, one of the biggest differences is the erosion of the middle-class into the lower-class—the upper class absorbing the gap in wealth.  On the surface you cannot see this: people still drive new cars and have the latest model cell phones.   It’s the knowledge that banks actually own the majority of this is where the difference lies.  The majority of Americans now living almost their entire lives in debt, a kind of neo-feudalism can be observed, bringing about the question: is the American Dream of owning the white picket fence, two car garage and a dog named Rover still alive?  Noam Chomsky in his Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (2016) takes his view.

A blunt critique of the American system, Requiem for the American Dream is a concise outlay of the American economic, financial, political, and social system as it stands today in relation to the past 100 years.  Chomsky postulating that the few contrive to maintain political and economic power over the many, the scene framed is difficult to deny.  Citing quotes from writers of the constitution all the way to Donald Trump, Chomsky lays down the ten principles he believes are key to ensuring the system predominantly benefits those in power.  From another perspective, it is Chomsky’s views distilled into the most basic elements.