Review: Infomocracy

Infomocracy (The Centenal Cycle, #1)Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Infomacracy is depressing to read. It’s fun to read. It’s a good political thriller, particularly if you happen to be an Internet junkie. I’d recommend it to anyone. But it’s depressing. Before we get there, let’s talk about the less depressing stuff. The book cover I have mentions Snow Crash. Unlike Snow Crash, a lot of the tech is just minutes away from existing.Back then, the idea of the information overlay in the real world was still science fiction. Now, we have had Google Glass. While the first version was a spectacular failure, more and more companies are piling on the augmented reality bandwagon and my sister-in-law has use her phone to do real-time translation of signs in another country. I’ve been waiting for this world since I was a kid and it’s finally nearly here. That’s exciting.

It’s also fun that Malka Older explores the politics behind the Burbclaves of Snow Crash, called Centenels in Infomacracy. I first read Snow Crash in High School and the idea of the dissolution of geo-political borders in favor of discontinous government was fascinating. However, in the decades since, I’ve had a lot more real-world experience with the political world and it’s pretty clear Snow Crash is a naive implementation; or rather, Snow Crash was a Cyberpunk novel in which the Burbclaves were just a background element. The politics only matters where they intersected with the story. In Infomacracy, it IS the story. Of course, there would end up being the concept of a Super Majority because a world of infinite governments is a world that’s seconds away from chaos.

Finally, while the characters in a thriller are necessarily a bit shallower than a traditional story, Older writes characters that are a bit more fully realized than the typical thriller. There is, of course, the requisite sex between the leads, but even that typical plot point is tinged with some very unique circumstances related to the characters. I also love that one of the characters is not neurotypical. There are more and more representatives of non-neurotypicals in fiction nowadays, but it’s always good to move away from Rainman whenever possible.

Now to the depressing bit. When Malka Older wrote this book, she was just extrapolating from contemporary complacency in the electorate. She was just extrapolating from the fact that we’d dissolved into echo chambers of news for the left and the right. It was before Fake News was a sequence of words you’d write in capital letters. It was before a president who didn’t simply mislead as all presidents had done since the birth of the nation, but who denied facts that could be confirmed with video evidence. And so a book whose plot revolves around a contested election, disinformation, extreme pandering, and physical violence against people in a different group than the attackers – is DEPRESSING to read in 2017. What was a potential warning when it was written seems trite now. How cute, they spread a little misinformation.

After we started working the wife banned Office Space from being watched. It was too real now, she said. I have at least one Goodreads acquaintance who has held off from this book because it’s too real. I get it. But you should still read this book because Older does such a great job with the genre conventions and I can’t wait to read the next book in The Centenel Cycle.

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Review: The Camelot Shadow

The Camelot ShadowThe Camelot Shadow by Sean Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book free for a review

I never knew I wanted to read a Dan Brown-style thriller that takes place in Victorian England. But one day I became Goodreads friends with Anne Hannah because I love her review style. I especially love her no-nonsense take on comics. One day Sean Gibson started making funny comments on her reviews. I went over to his reviews and immediately became GR friends with him. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but his reviews were right up my alley. Back in may he mentioned on his GR author’s blog that he’d be giving away copies of this book for a review. I read the description and it sounded nuts. And I was afraid – what if Sean is great at funny GR reviews, but not a great author? What if I have to give the book a low review? But my curiosity over how this plot could work over-rode my fears.

Thankfully I had no reason to fear! His writing voice for this novel is not as irreverent as his review tone, but that’s more or less all you need to know to calibrate your expectations. As for the setting, frankly I think it is easier to write a less convoluted Dan Brown-style McGuffin story when you write in an older setting; you don’t have to write your way around cell phones and the Internet. You can head somewhere on a days-long journey and end up with the person you were going to talk to having died and now you’ve wasted time on your time-limited journey. In the modern world you have to resort to some convoluted plot point where everyone lost their cell phones and/or the train ONLY goes through areas without cell service.

I like the characters Sean gives us and I think it’s a sign of his writing chops that I know intellectually that Gibson seems to have written a story that can’t continue and yet I want to spend more time with these characters. And, to up the ante on anyone reading this review before getting to the book, Sean isn’t afraid to kill characters you would have though protected by plot armor. And the characters are developed enough for the death to mean something.

Actually, that reminds me – for a story that’s mostly an adventure tale, there’s some serious stuff in there that hits hard. First of all, one of the characters visited by our main characters is suffering from some heavy Alzheimer’s. Sean toes the line between getting too heavy by peppering in some light moments, but that part hit me hard. It’s such an emotion screw that people don’t stay gone; that they have moments of lucidity. That was a deep scene that actually hit me harder than the deaths. And Sean also did a good job with Alfred’s dealing with his wife’s sickness. The chunk of the book, in particular, in which Alfred has fallen into a deep depression was also a hard hit – particularly where it occurs in the plot.

Finally, to end on a fun note, Gibson does a great job with the thriller double-crossing trope. There’s at least one person who’s triple crossing everyone. You can’t really trust anyone’s motives outside of our main protagonist. There was one very predictable face-heel turn, but the heel-face turn was not foreseen by me and most of the others were surprising, but not in an M. Night Shamalayan cheap sort of way.

So if you’re into the Brownian hunt for an artifact from legend/history genre, I’d definitely give this one a read. I think this Sean-kid is going places.

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Review: Elantris, Part 2 of 3

Elantris, Part 2 of 3Elantris, Part 2 of 3 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the middle section of a novel, it was mostly concerned with expanding backstory and a few false starts at the climax. (Intentional false starts….more of a meta note) The three main thesis Sanderson seemed to have for this part of the book were:

1. Intellectual faith vs emotional faith – This mostly concerned the Doraki priest. (I’m listening to the audiobook so I’m going to go with the spelling of Hrathin). Sanderson continued to make Hrathin’s plot much more complicated than a simplistic good and evil plot. Yes, he’s part of an empire that sees itself as under a godly mandate and yes he must convert the city or they’ll be destroyed by the empire, but while the religion is being forced upon these people, he’s not an evil person. In fact, I wonder if Sanderson, who I found out via the Cosmere reddit is a member of the LDS, didn’t see some comparison to the Prophet Jonah. If you weren’t raised religious or didn’t pay much attention to the actual Bible you probably only know him as the guy who was in a whale’s stomach (like Gepetto in Disney’s Pinocchio). But the story in the Bible has God telling him that he needs to convert the city of Ninevah or else God’s going to destroy them. (Sound familiar?) Of course, things diverge there because Jonah hated the Ninevans and wanted them to die so he skipped out on his deal – hence the whole whale thing. In Hrathin’s case, he is a more militant follower so he does not skorn the idea. In fact, he is haunted by the massacre that followed his previous success at city conversion. While modern humans in non-theocratic countries view it as bad that he wants to force-convert the citizens, he really is trying to save the lives of an entire city. But getting back to plot point in this book – he struggles with the fact that his relationship to his religion is purely intellectual. His intellect makes him a very entertaining sparring partner with Serene, but it means he cannot compete with Deloth over followers. He can logically get you to see his point, but most people need that emotional connection to join a religion. Of course, the emotional followers are the fanatics and this is causing a bigger and bigger problem for him.

2. The value of a human is in having a task – In Prince Rayodin’s plot we end up in the puritanical philosophical point that a human needs a task to have humanity. I would say that some evidence in this being true is the death rate of seniors who retire from working and die without a purpose. At least that’s the current psychology theory behind it once you control for other reasons old people die. What I love about this plot point is that it puts the Prince in a tough spot when Serene intrudes upon his project with handouts. Of course, one way of reading this plot might see this as an indictment against government support. Not sure if Sanderson meant it that way, because it does work beautifully plot-wise given the situation he put Prince Rayodin in. Still, it’s hard to miss that those getting government handouts stop working and just sit there waiting for their next handout. Real life is much more complicated than that and, at least in the USA, we have designed out cutoffs to be step functions rather than a slope such that someone could be worse off with a better job. Anyway, USA politics aside, I do like the way Sanderson is tackling the Elantrian plotlines. I’m curious to see where he goes from here and whether he’s going for a happy, sad, or realistic ending.

3. Earning respect from others vs earning relationships – Serene’s plot has been a pretty interesting one. Sanderson’s given us a strong woman who can accomplish much. Plotwise Sanderson does a good job giving her setbacks that are mostly a direct cause of her overplaying her hand rather than simply because she’s a woman in a fantasy world. As I mentioned in my review for book 1 – in Elantris Sanderson has more of a modern vibe within a fantasy world – AI/Skype in the form of Saiyans, blended families, people who go to university, a society that seems to accept different races without too much overt racism, Hrathin’s country aside – a tolerance for different religions. So while women aren’t co-equal with men, they’re not fighting against outright oppression. So my reading of Serene’s plot here is not so much that she’s being penalized for being manly, but rather that she’s caught in a viscous cycle. Having been spurned by some men who are scared of strong women, she has made choices about the way she acts that alienate people. Her intelligence has made her so sure of herself that she comes off as standoffish. And that’s not something that’s limited to one gender or the other. So I do like when mentors take her aside – they don’t tell her to be more womanly – they just tell her to be more empathetic. She has people’s intellectual loyalty – she needs their compassionate loyalty. And I guess in that way, it’s pretty neat that she mirrors her antagonist, Hrathin. They’re both people who have let their minds get in the way of their friends. Something I know many other real-world intelligent people have struggled with.

A solid middle section that keeps the plot going and enriches the story. Because it’s originally part of one book, it has better pacing than most middle books in a trilogy since those books often seem to be stalling for time.

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Review: Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun Takami

Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun TakamiBattle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun Takami by Nick Mamatas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s been over a decade since I read Battle Royale. It was a book that amazed me with its emotional resonance. It was the first book that ever made me tear up with the lighthouse scene. The author did such a great job building up both the stakes and the relationships, that it was devastating to read. I have enjoyed many a book since then, but few in number are the books who have affected me so much.

The deepest proof for the artistic quality of the story is the fact that these essays represent a bunch of different (and also a few similar) interpretations of what we can gain from the story. There are both obvious lessons and ones that make you think, “Oh yeah!”. There are even a few that deal with my original rejection of The Hunger Games as an anglo ripoff and being upset that it was more well-known than BR. Within a context of remakes of Japanese horror rather than just bringing out subtitled or dubbed versions, I think it’s understandable, even if it’s misguided.

Well, as is the case for anthologies, magazines, and essay collections – here are the thoughts I had as I read each one; a collection of my status updates.

“Death for Kids” – A guy who lived through an evil police state in Argentina sees death at 8 years old and realizes how the world is. Sees BR as a lesson kids need to experience.”

“Blood in the Classroom” – Intro essay to the book. Discusses how the subversive books of yesteryear are today’s boring books that kids are forced to read in the classroom. Mentions that Battle Royale probably won’t suffer this fate.

“The Fight the Night Before” – About deliberations on Battle Royale winning a horror prize and why, perhaps, it did not win.

“Happiest Days…” – Showing ways that reality is like BR and comparing other novels, including Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies. Also a great section of how school shootings are nothing new.”

“Innocence Lost and Regained” – Touches on similar themes to the essay before it – innocence of children is a construct, relatively recent, & a false one. A bit more of a scholarly style of writing & so a bit harder to read than the previous essays in that it it has more complex sentence structure that my brain isn’t quite awake enough to parse right now. Also neat exploration of how Bradbury tackled similar topics.”

“From Dangerous to Desirable” – A look at where BR fits in with gender norms in Japan via various media that is its spiritual ancestor. There’s a lot I missed as an American reading the story and applying my ideas of gender to the story. My takeaway after reading this essay is that the author was a bit more adventerous with the male characters.”

“Girl Power” – A great example that with art, each person takes something different out of it. While many have criticized BR as mysoginistic, this author sees strong women in some of the female characters.

“Over the Top” – An exploration of how wrestling in the USA and Japan inspired the author to write Battle Royale.”

“Generational Warfare” – The author of the essay takes a look at the societal issues that drove the zeitgeist as the author of BR composed his book. Also inadvertently taught me the origin of the motorcycle gangs in Akira.”

“Killer Kids in Jeopardy” – the essay explores how we have been OK with kids being in trouble in novels, but not movies. Or rather that it’s been a reluctant march towards acceptance in movies of that which has been happening in novels for hundreds of years.”

“Seeing the Sequel First” – The writer had a bad childhood in school and talks about how BR2 was a spark of inspiration for him.”

“Dead Sexy” – The author essentially posits the same theory that eventually came to guide how I understand sex and violence in art. There is a difference between the gratuitous and the story-rooted acts. Take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s key to the story that the sex scenes both in the book and TV are depicted the way they are. That is not gratuitous.”

“The Postwar Child’s Guide to Survival” – An analysis of BR as a criticism of what the post-WWII generation did with the country. I’m not sure it resonates as well as the author posits, but it certainly has merit.”

“Children Playing with Guns” – uses BR as a reason to talk about gun violence in schools in America (with a few world examples). Best case I’ve heard yet as to why all the gun laws we can come up with won’t do a darn thing to stop it from happening again.”

“List, Combination, Recursion” – a strange, stream of consciousness essay I did not enjoy. Perhaps something was lost in translation.”
“Buelller” – The author starts off with the same criticism I had when Hunger Games first got popular – It’s a rip off of Battle Royale. Then used this to go back through the history of teen movies since they’re all riffs off each other. Then ends with an absurdist version of Battle Royale containing characters from nearly every movie he mentioned.”

“Whatever you encounter” – How BR demonstrates Zen teachings.

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Review: Elantris, Part 1 of 3

Elantris, Part 1 of 3Elantris, Part 1 of 3 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of Sanderson’s earlier books and it’s exploring similar themes as Warbreaker, so while I’m enjoying it, it’s definitely not as good to me so far. What does it share with Warbreaker? The idea of divinity on Earth vs a god you can’t see, humans becoming divine, and an arranged marriage between royals who haven’t met. What’s weaker from Sanderson’s lack of experience – The Prince seems to be a bit of a Marty Stu so far – a little too perfect in every way.

But there are lots of things I like so far:

Sanderson writes some pretty able women – or at least has in these two books. In this book (contrasted to Warbeaker) the marriage is the princess’ idea. Her father’s actually initially against it, but realizes it would be good politically. While in the new court she uses her brain to manipulate others into giving her what she wants or needs. (Manipulate has a bad connotation, but she’s not malicious) She gets into a metaphorical chess game against the priest in which they’re each trying to outdo the other. And the princess gets herself accepted into a group of nobles to formulate a plan to save her new city.

I like the idea of the AIs that allow a fantasy skype in this world. As in the later Discworld books, I think there’s something interesting that comes from modern tech in a medieval or Renaissance world. So while most fantasy stories can count on a slow movement of information as a plot device, a world with these AIs allows for faster communications. It also serves as an information retrieval device.

So far, across these two novels, Sanderson has also proven adept at starting off with a cartoonishly evil antagonist who then becomes more of a person with complicated morals. I’m enjoying the information we’re learning about the high priest and how he’s trying to make this city’s conversion as bloodless as possible. It makes his fanatical acolyte all the more dangerous.

It’s fun to have the 3 chapter structure where you see the same event or aspects of the same time period through each of the three viewpoints.

Finally, I really like the inclusion of the princess’ uncle’s family. I like the comic relief of his kids. I like how it shows just how much her uncle has grown and changed. And I am enjoying the fact that it’s a modern blended family which doesn’t happen too much in fantasy (at least the way it’s been depicted in this first book). He has step children with whom he has a regular relationship (not some fantasy hatred of step-children). Also, the uncle is a great chef from having traveled the world and so he does the cooking. Overall, it’s a continuation of the refreshing modernity in a fantasy novel that isn’t urban fantasy.

So much can go so wrong with three different people planning independently and with their goals seemingly at odds. We also have the 3 month timer before an invasion or destruction or something. I’m looking forward to it and perhaps parts 2 and/or 3 will get a higher rating.

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Review: Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014

Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014 by Lynne M. Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yet another demonstration of authors who are doing great things with the short story format. I’ll definitely be buying other issues. As usual for magazines and anthologies, a collection of my status updates.

“The Uncanny Valley” – An intro and the the mission statement of the magazine.

“If You Were …. White” – About Jungleland and a premise not unlike Roger Rabbit (the movie, not the book) where all the animal actors in movies were sentient.

“Presence” – Sad tale about caring for a parent in hospice care via a robot

“Late Nights at the Cape and Cane” – A perfect use of the short story form to tell the story of some super villains at a super villain bar.

“Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” – A precocious high school girl goes back in time to visit her grandfather. The story is fun as written, especially Celia’s mindset. But it all comes together in the final page (as is often the case with mysterious short stories)

“Migration” – About a world in which birds carry souls.

“The Boy Who Grew Up” – A teenager meets Peter Pan (who’s now also a teenager) and gains some perspective on his situation. It was sad, but perhaps a bit hopeful at the end.

“Her Fingers like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors” – what I find annoying about many stories of the fey is that they seem cryptic to a fault. You never quite know WTF is happening and that’s annoying. It’s not a trope I enjoy. That said, the story overall was good and was successful in conveying the emotions it wanted to.

“Mars..Attacks!” – This article, like other similar ones, made me both happy and sad at once. And, considering it was written 3 years ago, almost sunk me into depression. It’s about how geek women are constantly attacked, especially online. (Something I just learned about in the past 2-3 years) It’s also about hope with all the female geek cultures. But to see where we are in 2017….ooh boy.

“Worldcon Roundtable” – a roundtable panel conducted via email about Worldcon. Made me more interested in trying to attend a WorldCon. There’s a lot of drama around it and that was even present in the roundtable. But fan comes from fanatic, so I’m not surprised people are extremely passionate about it. The important thing is everyone remaining respectful and polite.

“Does Sex…Soft?” – Shout out to God’s War,which I read last year! I have a hard time understanding the mindset of the people she’s criticizing. Sex, love, & romance are a part of the human condition.While I understand if a story ignores it because it takes away from the narrative (books don’t mention every character’s bathroom use), don’t think any story is poorer for including.

I skipped over the shorts article.

“Kissing Song” – a poem

“The New Ways” – a poem

“The Whalemaid, Singing” – a poem

“Interview: Headley” – So much of the tiger story is based in reality, it blows my mind. Also great to see her thought process.

“Interview: Beth Meacham” – Neat talk about how she worked with Jay

“Interview: Christopher Barzak” – A discussion about his short story in the magazine as well as his career.

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Review: Warbreaker, Part 3 of 3

Warbreaker, Part 3 of 3Warbreaker, Part 3 of 3 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, let me say that the voice acting and foley/music is so great in this series. In this third installment as characters reveal their true natures we end up with different voice performances from the actors. Very good job.

That out of the way, onto the review. It’s possible if I were more familiar with fantasy tropes I might have seen the twists coming, but I was caught completely by surprise as more and more of the story unspooled. In the best cases, I was only one step ahead of Sanderson while I’m often able to spot all the Checkov’s Guns (or wands) in literature, TV, and movies. As is always the method of a good writer, it was all there. Even the prologue gives a hint as to who Vasher is.

The key to making the story work, especially this third part, is that this is where all the characters grow up. While Vivena spent the entire book being confronted by the truth that the Hollandrens are not as evil and different as she’d been taught post-schism, this is the section where she grew as a person. She learns not to be quick to judge others. She learns a lesson that we could all learn about how poverty isn’t always a choice and how morals can quickly erode when you need to evade starvation. She basically learns that you shouldn’t judge until you can see through the life of another.

Light Song also levels up in this section of the story as his investigations have awakened a purpose inside of him. He starts taking things seriously. He also has another growth moment after he finally learns of his previous life and how Laramar knew him before he was returned. Interestingly, in his section we learn something about the returned and why they come back that isn’t shared with others, including Vasher.

Vasher didn’t grow much, but it wasn’t his story. He’s integral….especially so in this section of the book, but it’s not his story. We’re really seeing just a chunk of a very long journey for him. However, though him we get the remaining information we need on how Awakening works and Nightblade’s history. Nightblade’s sections here were the best in the book and I LOVE the voice they gave him in the GraphicAudio narration.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the book, even if it came up quite a while ago. But I’ll definitely say that I didn’t see it coming on who was the true employer of certain characters as well as who was orchestrating the things that set the plot of the book in motion. I will say that I loved the title drop at the end. (So rare for it to be so late in a book) It really did bring a lot of meaning to a certain character. Sanderson then TOTALLY leaves it open for a sequel. But then he went to work on some of his more famous works. I think I’d love to see a sequel following the two characters at the end of the book. I’m not sure how that would work in the meta-context of storytelling since they may not have much more growth left as characters, but this book definitely did leave me wanting more.

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Review: Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014

Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014Uncanny Magazine Issue 1: November/December 2014 by Lynne M. Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yet another demonstration of authors who are doing great things with the short story format. I’ll definitely be buying other issues. As usual for magazines and anthologies, a collection of my status updates.

“The Uncanny Valley” – An intro and the the mission statement of the magazine.

“If You Were …. White” – About Jungleland and a premise not unlike Roger Rabbit (the movie, not the book) where all the animal actors in movies were sentient.

“Presence” – Sad tale about caring for a parent in hospice care via a robot

“Late Nights at the Cape and Cane” – A perfect use of the short story form to tell the story of some super villains at a super villain bar.

“Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” – A precocious high school girl goes back in time to visit her grandfather. The story is fun as written, especially Celia’s mindset. But it all comes together in the final page (as is often the case with mysterious short stories)

“Migration” – About a world in which birds carry souls.

“The Boy Who Grew Up” – A teenager meets Peter Pan (who’s now also a teenager) and gains some perspective on his situation. It was sad, but perhaps a bit hopeful at the end.

“Her Fingers like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors” – what I find annoying about many stories of the fey is that they seem cryptic to a fault. You never quite know WTF is happening and that’s annoying. It’s not a trope I enjoy. That said, the story overall was good and was successful in conveying the emotions it wanted to.

“Mars..Attacks!” – This article, like other similar ones, made me both happy and sad at once. And, considering it was written 3 years ago, almost sunk me into depression. It’s about how geek women are constantly attacked, especially online. (Something I just learned about in the past 2-3 years) It’s also about hope with all the female geek cultures. But to see where we are in 2017….ooh boy.

“Worldcon Roundtable” – a roundtable panel conducted via email about Worldcon. Made me more interested in trying to attend a WorldCon. There’s a lot of drama around it and that was even present in the roundtable. But fan comes from fanatic, so I’m not surprised people are extremely passionate about it. The important thing is everyone remaining respectful and polite.

“Does Sex…Soft?” – Shout out to God’s War,which I read last year! I have a hard time understanding the mindset of the people she’s criticizing. Sex, love, & romance are a part of the human condition.While I understand if a story ignores it because it takes away from the narrative (books don’t mention every character’s bathroom use), don’t think any story is poorer for including.

I skipped over the shorts article.

“Kissing Song” – a poem

“The New Ways” – a poem

“The Whalemaid, Singing” – a poem

“Interview: Headley” – So much of the tiger story is based in reality, it blows my mind. Also great to see her thought process.

“Interview: Beth Meacham” – Neat talk about how she worked with Jay

“Interview: Christopher Barzak” – A discussion about his short story in the magazine as well as his career.

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Review: Put this in your brain

Put this in your brainPut this in your brain by Stu Norvath
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, a collection of my status updates. Overall a good set of essays. Some deeper than others.

Intro – Neat intro by a member of MCR about the role that games play in our lives

“Backward Flow” – About Dune the game and book that I wouldn’t have understood a couple years ago. “As an upper-class white man,

Paul isn’t just better at being civilized; he is better at being uncivilized.”

“Rapture” – Comparing a Lovecraftian game and the Ukraine Crimea thing

“Safe Space” – comparing games to dealing with anxiety.

“I shot the Centurion” – a look at what it means for a game to truly give the user choice. A fun read as I’ve come to see what a lie the choices in games like Mass Effect can be.

“Mission: Unclear” – Interesting essay compares how both elections and the stories told in FPSs fail due to the paradox of choice. People are paralyzed by knowing too much about the candidates. In games,preference for widest market eliminates choice.

“The Myth of Choice” -Loved Choose your own Adventure. This essay gives a history lesson and makes some interesting points on what those books tell us about ourselves.

“Interactive Thingers” – Most personal one so far explores how games have changed through the decades and how that has changed the gamers. Very neat.

“Notes on Luftrausers” – When the author calls out Tim Rogers in opening line I know this is going to be a good essay. Rogers completely changed the way I view games – gave me a vocabulary for what I loved most in them. The author also has an Opening quote in paragraph #4 from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Overall great meditation on what makes great games great.”

“Depth of Field” – explores the grammar of the FPS game and how it requires learning to read with that grammar.”

“Death and Form” – Kane and Lynch as an exploration of Surrealism. Very interesting way of exploring hyper-gruesome games.

“Definite about its Purpose” – Never thought about how much death isn’t explored in video games. It really could move beyond the current role of fail state in many games.

“We All Become” – Reading this, I’m sad I never played Transistor. I really enjoyed Bastion. Perhaps I’ll eventually get to it.

“From a Great Height” – The Fall sounds like the type of game I’d really enjoy playing. I enjoy stories of apparent AI paradox – like the I, Robot short stories.

“We Don’t Talk Anymore” – Interesting conversation about a game betraying you via the ending. This is about Prince of Persia, but could just as easily have been about Mass Effect 3.

“Catching ‘Em All” – I never got into the Pokemon games – I was way older when it came out. But I can see how playing while OCD could be dangerous.

“Dance, Dance, Dance” – An essay that views player controls as body metaphor. It’s one of those things where you usually want the control to be flawless, but some neat exploration can come from making it as cumbersome as reality is or can be.

“The First Step” – An Alaskan native tribe creates a video game to help pass on their values to the next generation.

“Netrunner and my Kid” – About playing board games with his kid.

“Teacher’s Challenge” – teacher tries to use video games to teach and keeps failing to get the students engaged despite a number of them identifying as gamers.

“Burning the Library” – A look at assassin’s creed and what it is choosing to convey about history; despite a facade of complexity, it’s an overly simplistic view of various sides of conflicts throughout history.

“The Many Lives of Edward Thatch” – Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag as an excuse to revisit pirate lore. Neat treatise on Blackbeard.

“Contest of Attrition” – About Banner Saga and how you’re just trying to survive, not defeat the Big Bad. It’s a reminder that games can be about different aspects of the human condition.

“Marjorie” – An exploration of how Pinball machines are art and what they convey to us. Also a look at how copmlexity is both good and bad for the game.

“Finding Cullen” – An article on why Cullen from Dragon Age became an Ascended Extra.

“Who Watches the Watchers” – The role Clementine plays in The Walking Dead S1 and S2. Rings quite true as Clementine is what I thought made TWD worth playing.

“Neverending Horror” – When horror can succeed in video games and how it fails (when you gain power)

“Through the Fog-Choked Streets” – A different look at where horror succeeds in video games by comparing to books and movies

“Alone in a Dark Room” – A simple game can still have multitudes hidden within.

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Review: Warbreaker, Part 2 of 3

Warbreaker, Part 2 of 3Warbreaker, Part 2 of 3 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sanderson continues to weave together 3 narratives in a way that makes me really invested in each one. Well, to be fair, for most of this part of the book I viewed Vivena’s sections with resignation. Interestingly, both sisters are naive in their own ways. Vivena is naive through an overly focused education and a position of privilege. Siri is naive from always blowing off her education and those around her having a vested interest in keeping her in the dark. The difference is that Vivena comes off as a stuck up snob for most of her character arc in this part, although things rally near the end when she finally starts to accept her status as a blasphemer and tries to use it for good.

Over with Siri we have her evolving relationship with the God-King. I can’t remember if it was part 1 or this part, but her subplot about faking not just orgasms, but the entire sexual act was pure comedy. When the God-King looked at her puzzled, I had a feeling his story was going to revolve around being too cloistered. And it’s true – they have cloistered him. They’ve also cut his tongue in order to control him (in a move that I’ve seen in other fictional stories). I think this makes his evolution with Siri very interesting because he’s got a bit of a Stockholm thing going on and I think he might end up screwing up Siri’s plans out of too much trustworthiness with his priests. I’ve also enjoyed Siri’s leveling up on court intrigue and dealing.

Light Song was my favorite from the beginning. I’ve always enjoyed sardonic characters and he’s no exception. That said, it’s been fun to see him move from pure comic relief to starting to investigate Vasha’s actions. I also positively love the way he rejects Blushweaver. Also poo on Blush Weaver for slut-shaming Siri. I know she thinks Siri is a traitor there to destroy the kingdom, but it just sucks her way of attacking Siri is to attack her sexuality (and with a false claim, at that).

And speaking of comic relief as well as circling back to the beginning, the face-heel turn at the end is awesome for the same reason that Littlefinger’s Face-Heel turn is awesome. Both in the book and in the TV show my favorite LF moment is when he tells Ned “I told you not to trust me.” There’s a certain boldness in an author to tell you not only that a twist is going to happen, but to tell you the twist to your face and then write in a way so that you don’t believe him. (or her)

Top priority when I get home is loading part 3 onto my phone.

Oh yeah, and someone I wanted to bring up from my status comments: my favorite Light Song moments are when Laramar (his high priest) exasperatedly reminds him that he can’t get drunk or get headaches.

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Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d like to start off by addressing the big thing I’ve noticed with this story – while it has 3.5ish stars on Goodreads, a quick scroll through the reviews reveals that’s mostly the average of 1 star reviews and 5 star reviews. There are very few people who “meh” this story. They either love or hate it. My current theory, mentioned in one of my status updates, is that this is because a huge swath of the world (or at least the Anglophile world) grew up with Harry and Co as their buddies. It was both their intro into magical fantasy and a friend who was going through the same age-related issues (until the civil war at the end which would only be relevant for a certain chunk of the world). This didn’t happen for me. I think I was in high school when they started coming out – I was certainly done with college by the time the last books and movies were coming out. So the Boy Who Lived was a well-conceived and well-fleshed out story to me, nothing more. Never waited to get the books at midnight. Shoot, by the time I wanted to read the books, I waited a few more years for Ms Rowling to offer them DRM-free on Pottermore before I’d buy them. So I read them last year or maybe 2015.

So not only was Harry not a part of my life growing up, but the stories were fresh in my head. HP #8 was not the continuation I’d been waiting for…reading through fan fiction to satisfy my need to know whether or not Albus made it into Griffindor or Slytherin. It was just the next book.

I think this book does a pretty good job continuing and updating the themes of the series: friendship and love. It also does what I’ve been calling for in reviews, on my blog, and on reddit: it takes beloved characters and makes them older. If you related to Harry as an 11 year old, well you might be close to 30 now and might even have your own kids. It’s a way of making the character continue to relate to the old fans as well as telling new stories. It also gives us Albus and Scorpius and if this were a new series, they’d be a great way for the kids of Harry Potter fans to have their own wizarding adventures instead of borrowing their parents’ stories.

What this book does with mediocrity is to come up with a new villain. (view spoiler) Given who everyone else is, it just seems a bit on the nose. Well, (view spoiler).

What this story doesn’t do well is the Harry Potter and Albus relationship. The idea of not understanding across generations, that’s universal. But the reason for the conflict is never really stated and in the confines of a 4 act play, there isn’t time to explore that, just the consequences. So it never quite rings true. Sure, there’s a scene about how Albus is not good at magic and can’t fly a broom as well as Harry, but it seems a bit underdeveloped and it is what sets the story in motion.

The story eventually becomes a time travel story that ends up being “It’s a Wonderful Life” for a few characters. I always find time travel paradox stories to be fun, particularly if the author is not taking it too seriously – and Brits almost always have at least a wry sense of humor going on.

So why do so many hate it? If it’s not because the Albus/Harry relationship seems contrived, I think it’s because a lot of what makes HP such a great series is missing. All the world building and all the slice of life aspects are gone. A lot of the first few books has Harry and his mates going through all the day-to-day stuff of growing up even as an existential threat hunts them. This book jumps through three years of Albus’ life in one quick montage. After waiting so long for a sequel I can see how long-time fans would find that disappointing. I thought it was enjoyable, but I’m a newcomer to the proceedings.

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Review: Pay Me, Bug!

Pay Me, Bug!Pay Me, Bug! by Christopher B. Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I said it in a few status updates, but after I finished the book last night I was even surer in my convictions, this should be animated. Why not live action? Well, as we’ve seen in all the super hero movies, actors hate having their faces obscured – it’s their biggest asset. So they keep it visible even if it doesn’t make sense in the context of the plot. In this book, the characters spend 1/3 to 1/2 of the book sporting completely different faces. That wouldn’t fly in Hollywood. Also, Hollywood tends to think you’re dumb so they’d resist it thinking the audience would get confused. The success of the Adult Swim shows and Archer have shown that there’s an audience for animation that falls outside the realm of an animated sitcom. With the tone of the book, it could succeed in an Archer animation style – perfect by that team when they worked on Sealab 2021 for adult swim. It could also beautifully work with Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop style. (Although that would perhaps be too expensive for American TV? Maybe Netflix would do it?)

So what is this book? It’s essentially a heist tale – like Ocean’s Eleven. Only good and in space like Cowboy Bebop or Firefly. Like those shows, we’ve got a plucky, motley crew on a rickety ship and a captain with Lady Luck strongly on his side. The title drop comes early on when you learn that the gunner and Ktk (a “bug” – centipede-looking alien) always bet on whether the Captain’s crazy scheme is going to work. When Ktk (who always bets against the captain) loses, “Pay Me, Bug!” is heard on the ship intercom.

Why so highly rated? First, there’s the tone. This book’s got that sarcastic tone I love so much. Similar to Scalzi, Douglas Adams, and many others. Captain Vind is a smartass and Christopher B. Wright has a lot of fun writing him. It’s also a very well realized world. Essentially known space is split up between an empire based on Catholicism, a secular alliance, and the usual independent trade plants called the Baronies. I’m not 100% sure how we could have another story with the crew of the Fool’s Errand or if it would get boring to have them “always” winning. However, I would love to see more stories in this universe. Maybe even a story that presented the holy empire in a good light by focusing on one of their ships. Or a story that follows some of the spies we meet in this book. I think if Mr. Wright has any intention of continuing in this universe, he’s got a multitude of stories he could tell. Of course, there’s also the “Wild Cards” route. He’s created the universe – he could always have others play in his playground.

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Review: Warbreaker, Part 1 of 3

Warbreaker, Part 1 of 3Warbreaker, Part 1 of 3 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am pretty sure I’ve never read Sanderson before. I’ve just not historically been that much of fantasy guy. I’ve read more fantasy in the past few years than I have in the preceeding decades. However, I do know the name and I know he’s supposed to be very good. So when they had a Sanderson Humble Bundle a month or so ago, I jumped on it. The bundle contained a bunch of audiobooks and a couple days ago I finally had listened to all my podcasts. So I loaded up the first Warbreaker audiobook by GraphicAudio.

Before I get to the story itself, let me mention that this audiobook is AWESOME. It is more like a radio play than an audiobook – complete with multiple voice actors, background music, and sound effects. Everyone involved is somewhere from good to very good and it’s a great listen. I heartily recommend listening to Warbreaker in this version if you’re going to listen rather than read.

Now to the story itself. In some ways it is a standard set of fantasy tropes. There’s the trope of the princess married off to a country extremely foreign and with different customs and religions. There’s also the trope of the super badass warrior with a special weapon (including the trope I’ve seen more often in Anime/Manga of his weapon being sentient). There’s the trope of being the youngest in a noble family and the “first world problems” that come with being royalty, but not the first-born. There’s even the trope of Those Guys (aka Rosencratz and Guildenstern). But it’s the way Sanderson pieces it together that makes it so great.

The book opens on our badass warrior (the only bad thing about fantasy names, audiobooks, and my brain is that I can’t really remember anyone’s name save a couple of them) in a prison. Sanderson uses this intro chapter to introduce us to the “breath-based” magic system in this world. People have “breaths” analogous to the Judeo-Christan concept of the “breath of life” that they can give to others. Some people, called animators, collect these breaths and use them to create golems. The more magical the golem, the more breath needed to animate the golem. It then shifts to a royal family ruling in exile, mostly focusing on the youngest of four children, Siri (I think?). I should have caught the hints in the narrative when they kept mentioning how useless the youngest daughter felt. She ends up being sent to marry the usurper government’s king in place of her oldest sister. The usurpers want this to legitimize their rule. We then alternate between her point of view and a “returned god” named Light Song (I think?). It also involves a great pair of mercenaries who fulfill the comic relief role of Those Guys. Their dialog is awesome and are the biggest reason I just wanted to keep listening. Any scene with them is just so great.

I don’t want to spoil anything else in case, like me, you’re getting to this old story for the first time. I will mention in the spoiler tag (view spoiler)

So far I’m only 1/3 through the whole story, but I’m very much into this story and can’t wait until I start listening to the next part.

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Review: The Trinity Paradox

The Trinity ParadoxThe Trinity Paradox by Kevin J. Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Got this in the Time Travel Storybundle

This book was a good read. That said, I was disappointed, given the title of the story – The Trinity PARADOX. I thought it was going to be like Back to the Future 2 where our main character ended up in the alternate timeline and then had to somehow stop herself from creating the alternate timeline. Or multiple people would try to change it or something like that.

Instead, what we had was more akin to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Timeline in which, like the former, someone is knocked out and knocked back in time. Our main character used to work in the atomic industry then became a protestor. Then the time travel results in her working at Los Alamos during the atomic tests.

The book does a good job pointing out how the war split the scientific community. In modern times research transcends national borders and it was more of a government enforcement that splits them apart during the war. This has consequences as it’s one of the ways that our main character ends up accidentally passing information to the Germans.

The author does a pretty good job of showing how things would have changed and how the war was going from both sides. Good character studies of various historical figures. I liked learning about some of the bickering among scientists on the German side. Although I can’t stop thinking of Fermi and Feynman as depicted in The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1: Science. Bad.. A fun read although, again, slightly disappointing considering the title.

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Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this book before talk of the TV show caused the plot to enter the wider zeitgeist and ruin it for me. I’m going to put any big spoilers in the spoiler tag, but this is a book from the 80s and there’s a TV show now that everyone is talking about. (At least 2 podcasts I listen to have spoken abou it) So if you want a pristine read – stop reading this review or anything else online and go read it! Amazon said it’d take 5 hours to read and I think that’s more or less on point. You can finish it over a couple of afternoons if it’s that important to you. OK, now that we have those preliminaries out of the way we can begin with the review proper.

I have so many things I want to talk about that this review may end up being a bit disjointed. Sorry about that. First of all, this book was devastating to me as a parent. I have two daughters and one of them is the same age as Offred’s daughter in the before timeline. (If you’re reading this review because you don’t care about minor spoilers – not because you’ve read it and want to see what others have said – there are 3 timeslines plus a meta-timeline. 1 – Before the formation of dystopia; 2 – Our Protagonist in the reeducation camp; 3 – present time for our narrator; meta – it’s a narrative being told to someone so there’s an after the fact-ness to that timeline) I’ve struggled in the past with the knowledge that if I were to die today, she’d not really have anything but the foggiest of memories of me. The idea that Offred’s daughter could have been brainwashed so easily because she didn’t really remember the past is heartbreaking – especially considering the role of women in the society. Also, the crazy pressure the women were under to get pregnant. As part of a couple who took a while for both pregnancies, it was hard enough without the threat of death over your head. Although I’m not a woman, I felt like Ms Atwood did an awesome job of communicating the way pregnancy and birth are traumatizing in normal circumstances and in the circumstances of Gilead.

Second, I looked at Ms Atwood’s age and correctly surmised the reason for this book’s plot. She’d grown up and reached adulthood in the 1960s. She’d seen women go from having minor rights to becoming full citizens with equal-ish rights. And then twenty years later she saw the Moral Majority (religious right) campaigning so hard to overturn these gains. I remember reading books from the church library about how the Equal Rights Amendment was going to ruin society and how it was going to demoralize men because they wouldn’t have anything they were special at anymore. And a bunch of other stuff. Ms Atwood has one of her characters use similar lines when explaining motives to Offred. (A podcast interview with one of the creators had him mention that while the TV show might seem of the moment to people who want to criticize it as anti-current administration, it was in reaction to what I stated above)

Third, so I don’t know if this has been going on for a long time, but Bush, Obama, and now Trump – everyone who’s in the other party has diluted the epithet by comparing them to Hitler and fascists. So I don’t want to be yet another me too. I bet there’ll be a few dozen think pieces (thanks to the TV show) about how this is an important story now because of the current administration. I’m going to swing in a slightly different way. To begin with, the march towards ever more freedom and equality and awesomeness is not a given and is not always linear. Ms Atwood was not creating a future that could never be – she’d seen it happen in Iran. Iran before the Ayatollahs was just as liberal as the USA. You can see bikini ads from Iran and their fashion looked just like ours. Sure, they didn’t get as dystopian as Gilead, but I’m sure any women alive at the time of the transition would have felt as much dissonance as Offred. And we’ve reached some kind of world zeitgeist with fascist or far right parties winning elections or at least being taken seriously for the first time in decades. It’s not 100% unlikely that things like this could happen here. Shoot – the book even starts with a terrorist attack blamed on Muslim terrorists. That is STILL happening. There have been at least a half dozen attacks that were blamed on Muslims before we realized, nope – right wing white guys. eg The Oklahoma Bombing

Fourth, maybe this is because ever since reading 1984 and Brave New World, I’ve mostly read YA Dystopia, but I kept forgetting our protagonist was a grown woman. It doesn’t help that they were referred to as girls and the Aunts at the reeducation center treated them like kids.

Fifth, I really enjoyed Ms Atwood’s great ability to create compelling and realistic characters. Offred wasn’t a blameless Mary Sue. She had an affair with Luke before he was divorced and they got married. (The second marriage was a great plot point – although I think I missed that’s why they had to run away until I got to the epilogue) She acts selfishly at times. Shoot, her whole thing with Nick was crazy.

Sixth, it was interesting having an unreliable narrator. Most recently I’ve been dealing with that from the A Song of Ice and Fire books (Game of Thrones to you TV-only people). But in that case, most of them don’t realize they’re being unreliable. They don’t have complete understanding of what’s going on or are fooling themselves. This one was someone recollecting what happened. Although the most fun part (and the part that really drove it home) was where she had 3 descriptions of what happened with Nick (and I think even after the third one she said it wasn’t the whole truth).

Seventh, I couldn’t stop myself from schadenfreude against Serena Joy. Because it’s such a weird human trait that we let people get away with such hypocrisy without calling them out on every turn. Women on TV constantly calling for a return to domesticity while they avail themselves of the freedom to have the same jobs men do. Oh, the deliciousness of Joy’s lack of Joy in the world view she made money peddling.

Eighth, Ms Atwood made good use of the concept – “they came for the gypsies and I did nothing because I wasn’t a gypsy….etc”. She had the society slowly remove people until it was too late. First the gays then the slutty people and so on until they reached the people who were on a second marriage and it was too late at that point – too many people had bought into the new society.

Finally, the scene where Offred is cut off from the economy has completely soured me on electronic-only money. I didn’t get why it mattered if you weren’t buying drugs. But now I completely understand – it is control over commerce. (in fact, I’d seen similar issues with credit card companies being shied away from processing payments from certain online places, but hadn’t put 2 and 2 together).

Like all dystopia books, I think people need to read it and then remain vigilant against the dangers. I think 1984 has done more to keep us safe from fascism than any other book. It’s only in modern times that we’ve started to screw ourselves via Facebook and allowing rights to be eroded because fewer people died in a few plane crashes than die from most things we can actually prevent via diet, or restricting gun access, or keeping pools safe, or driving at the speed limit….

Post Script: Because 2 of the first Handmaids we’re introduced to are Of and then word that could be a place or name – Glen and Warren – it took me WAAAAAAAAAAY too long to realize they were possessive names.

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