Friday, March 16, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully by Jane McGonigal

Compared to literature, film, television, and the other forms of media we regularly consume, video games are the new kids on the block.  But they have taken the block by storm.  Their popularity only increasing as each generation’s thumbs develop left and right brain coordination, they are also the most lucrative form of media in terms of profits.  Despite the rise in popularity, misconceptions about video games persist.  They cause violence.  They isolate.  They addict.  And so on.  What real-world research has to say about video gaming is something entirely different, however.  Naturally, as with too much of anything, there can be problems, but as a whole the number of positives outweighs the negatives.  The world, in fact, is round.  In SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully (2016), Jane McGonigal takes advantage of the misconceptions by creating her own program: how “gaming” can improve our lives—without the need for a television or controller.

Aimed at people who are dealing with things from PTSD to procrastination, anxiety to loss, stress to motivational issues, depression to irrational fears, and a host of other problems, SuperBetter describes McGonigal’s program for tackling such issues in a manner heavily influenced by the science of games and cognitive behavior therapy.  The program possible to be approached individually, with friends, or with professional help, McGonigal takes the conclusions, empirical and cognitive, from game research and implements them in a new form. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Being the wise old man that I am, one of life’s lessons I keep close to hand is: avoid the things that you like the idea of more than you like the actual thing. Humans being humans, for whatever reason there are things we invest a great deal of hope, desire, even material wealth to acquire, only to quickly discard them, or be disappointed due to some misperceived incompatibility with our personalities, interests, or preferences.  Our eyes can be bigger than our plates in more ways than just food.  Books have great potential in this area.  Reviews make them seem interesting, commenters praise their glories, and awards apply a bright, neon-yellow highlight, meaning this wise old man does not always learn from his mistakes.  Such is the case with Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts (2012), first in her Eternal Sky trilogy.

Looking back to my notes for Bear’s Undertow, I should not have invested in Range of Ghosts.  Flat, flat, flat prose that sucks the life out of what could have been an interesting story, Range of Ghosts indicates nothing has really changed in Bear’s style in the intervening years.  Under the microscope, there is nothing overtly wrong with the flow of words.  Syntax is correct, the words are descriptive, and the text moves the story forward.  And yet I perpetually struggle, paragraph after paragraph, line after line, to maintain focus—even in the so-called dramatic bits.  (The exact same thing I experience reading Daniel Abraham.)  I must continually rein my wandering mind in.  Needless to say, it’s an indication something is wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Slam by Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner’s first couple of novels, Frontera and Deserted Cities of the Heart, were, not too make things too general, character-oriented stories that highlighted individuals’ personal dramas—serious fiction, some might call it.   Looking to borrow a page from friend James Blaylock’s The Last Coin and take a break from gravitas, in 1990 Shiner released the caper-esque thriller, Slam.

We meet Dave being released from a Texas prison after serving a six-month sentence for tax evasion. Picked up by his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, he is deposited at a beach house where a friend has found work for him housesitting for a recently deceased elderly woman.  Her will stating that the house be cared for precisely as she left it—twenty-three cats included—in order for the parameters of the will to be upheld, Dave’s post-prison life would seem to be cushy.  But such is not the case.  Neighbors and friends of all eccentric varieties stopping by in his first few days of freedom (a deaf and blind couple, a UFO cult leader, a pot-smoking granny, an orthodox parole officer, a group of skateboarders, a prison escapee), meeting the conditions of his parole and the old lady’s will gets difficult, very quickly.  If Dave doesn’t get control of the situation, his newfound freedom may be short-lived. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review of Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

There is certainly a portion of readers who read and enjoy short fiction, but equally certain is that novels get most of the love.  Those readers’ loss.  Writing a form of art that exists in different shapes and sizes, short fiction presents its own challenges and limitations, meaning that a truly good writer is master of all, and when the reader finds one who is particularly good at short and novel-length, all the better.  Jonathan Lethem is one such writer, and his latest collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories (2015) is an example why.

‘Dynamic’ one word to describe the collection, Lucky Alan is one unpredictable story after another.  Differing in style, prose, perspective, realism, setting, aim, etc., each story stands alone, which, in my opinion, is a great selling point to any collection or anthology.  Diversity keeping content fresh regardless of quality, the mystery of what comes next is often enough able to keep pages turning.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula Le Guin

I first encountered the work of Ursula Le Guin seeking a topic for my Master’s Degree.  Eventually going on to write the thesis on the Earthsea cycle, in the process I became familiar with a wider swathe of her fiction, from the early Planet of Exile, through The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, to the later The Telling, as well as her non-fiction—Dancing at the Edge of the World and The Language of the Night among them.  Still a number of her novels and collections I’ve yet to read, upon hearing of her passing in January this year, I decided to pull A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, a short story collection from 1994, off the shelf and read as tribute.

Collecting eight stories and one essay, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is short fiction representing what I would call the middle, or transition period of Le Guin’s oeuvre.  Le Guin looking to revise her earlier approaches to theme, Tehanu, the Earthsea novel intended to entirely revision the original Earthsea trilogy, was published just a couple years prior as a strong starting point.  Busy developing greater emphasis on feminism, racism, and other social justice topics, in Fisherman one can find the fruits of this new perspective in short fiction form.  Whether or not there is synthesis between theme and the remaining of building blocks of fiction, however, depends on the story.

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Among Thieves

Uncharted: Drake Fortune, the first game in the Nathan Drake series, was an average shoot ‘em up with mild bits of puzzle that was enjoyable in the moment but didn’t achieve a storyline or complex enough gameplay worth additional playthroughs.  A repetitive cycle of shooting up a hundred baddies than finding your way out of the area so you can shoot up more baddies, any sequel held a lot of potential for adding variety and depth to gameplay.   With Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, ask and ye shall receive (just not a bucketload).

A notably better game than Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves goes further down the Hollywood road.  It remains a repetitive cycle of platforming and gunfighting, but Among Thieves presents these elements with better visuals, more complex puzzles, and better cut scenes to create an experience closer to the Tom Cruise/Bruce Wills/Sly Stallone/   (fill-in-your-favorite-action-hero-here)    movie developers were aiming at.  There are still numerous, sometimes overlong scenes with shoot ‘em ups and platforming, but overall the level of idiosyncrasy increased significantly.  It’s still a juvenile game with gaping plot holes and ludonarrative dissonance, but it’s now slightly easier to ignore this factor.   

Monday, March 5, 2018

Non-fiction: Review of The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

In my post-reading on Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude I came across a comment (somewhere that’s difficult to find again after an hour of web surfing) that anyone interested in further reading should check out Lethem’s 2005 collection of essays and assorted non-fiction The Disappointment Artist.  Taking the comment at face value, I invested.

Falling somewhere in the fuzzy arena of memoir, cultural reflection, and book and film commentary, The Disappointment Artist is, if anything, fully Jonathan Lethem.  Indeed linking directly and indirectly to The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem looks back at his youth in Brooklyn, the biographies of various artists, his evolving relationships with his family and friends, schoolmates and other people in his neighborhood, often through the lens of his artistic interests, and the music and movies that have informed his views, his craft and the person he was, is, and may become, making for an interesting collection for those with similar interests or curiosity about the man behind the fiction.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review of The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Most everybody knows the meme: ‘the great American novel’.  Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, DeLillo’s Underworld, Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!—these and others have been referred to as such.  And there is commonality among most: social and personal transitions within the past two centuries of history that in some way embody the American ‘rise from nothing’, all utilizing dense, typically quality prose.  The trajectory of this transition has shifted from ascending to descending the further into post-modernism we go, but in general remains in place.  Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is one such contender—granted an outside shot, but a contender nonetheless—for the epithet.

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of two boys, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, and their teenage and early adulthood years in Brooklyn and beyond throughout the 70s and into the 90s.  Dylan the introverted white son of an equally introverted artist, and Mingus the troubled son of a formerly successful soul singer now turned drug addict, neither boy has a strong mother figure in their lives either, meaning the streets are their greatest educators.  From the games children play to the wider contextualization of their racial and social positions, the two boys arc in and out of each other’s lives, through graffiti and music, pranks and pizza, as New York City and the US beyond, evolve around them.

Console Corner: Review of Bioshock

While the world of live-action film and computer generated graphics are essentially hand in hand these days, it remains the remit of video games to be 100% computer generated.  One of the things this means is that developers have near perfect control of every aspect of aesthetics.  Motifs to tiny details, all that matters is how well programmers and artists are able to capture the vision being sought (and, of course, the technical limitations of the console).  Developers can ask: what would the tap in a lunar colony toilet cubicle be like?  Or, how would a fantasy version of 19th century Japan look?  Or, as is the case with 2K Boston, what if we implemented an Ayn Rand socio-economic social vision in an underwater city?  2007’s Bioshock would be the result. (To be clear, I played the 2016 remastered version, but as much as I have read there is no difference to the original save graphical and speed improvements.)

Jack is flying innocently over the Atlantic Ocean one night when his plane suddenly goes down.  Left floating among burning wreckage, a nearby island lighthouse seems his only refuge.  Swimming to its steps, Jack enters the lighthouse to find a submersible vehicle which whisks him downward into the dark depths of the ocean.  The lights of a city appearing on the bottom, he is deposited in a leaky, neon tunnel with only a voice on a radio to guide him.  The man behind the voice is Atlas and he tells Jack the name of the city is Rapture, a former utopia now in dystopian disarray.  Soon after, Jack encounters people genetically upgraded to the point of agro-insanity and is forced to trust Atlas to guide him—the number of crazed people springing from doorways and hallways only seeming to increase.  From location to location Atlas guides Jack, trouble is, where is he being lead?  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

There is a strong sub-faction of science fiction and fantasy readers these days who, without looking too deeply, take a book or story and champion it on premise alone.  If it is said to highlight women’s issues or racism, it is automatically praised as ‘great’ regardless of the actual quality of the novel—the trigger enough to recommend.  Genre novels set in Africa can also be on this list.  Somehow mention the struggle of Somalese or Nigerians in a story and it’s almost sure to garner the support of this sub-faction, regardless the quality of the backing narrative.  As a whole, this does science fiction and fantasy no favors.  Good, unique novels which do not go out of their way to billboard ‘Africa’ yet intelligently examine issues inherent to the continent get lost in the shuffle, while more generic novels which put a few cheap, neon lights around the setting or culture tend to get more press.  Tade Thompson’s 2015 Making Wolf utilizes contemporary Africa as its setting, the question is, is the surrounding narrative substantial?

Making Wolf opens with Weston Kogi thinking he’s making a brief return trip to his home country of Alcacia, Africa for a beloved aunt’s funeral.  The post-ceremony commemoration getting out of hand, Kogi quickly finds that his plans for return are not to be.  Press-ganged into detective work that his job as mall security in London would not seem to qualify him for, the local rebel group LFA tasks him with identifying the killer of a recently assassinated politician—as long as the killer is not a member of LFA.  And it’s not long into the ensuing investigation that the opposing rebel faction, the CPA, tasks Kogi with the same: identify the killer as long as it isn’t one of us.  As men from the government emerge from the shadows as well, Kogi’s chances of identifying the assassin and making it back to London in one piece grow grimmer by the day.