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Archive for March, 2010

Fallout 3 (Game of the Year Edition), Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2

Posted by Mike on March 16, 2010

These video games go back a few months, I’d almost forgotten to mention at least the first two, which would be a shame. Anyway video games may be unusual in that they often tend to put out sequels that don’t suck and undoubtedly these are three sequels that do anything but suck, in fact all three were pretty much fabulously immersive and incredible pieces of work. And amazingly I had very little trouble with any of them, in fact the final battles of both Mass Effect 2 and Bioshock 2 I completed first go without dying, which is pretty amazing for me.

Fallout 3 is the Oblivion-ized version of the old post nuclear war video game, which means it’s a lot different than it used to be. But like the previous two Elder Scrolls games (or all of them really), this presents a big sandbox world to play in, a grim, mutant-filled Washington DC area that was so large that by the time I got done finishing all the quests and downloadables, I still hadn’t explored every location. This is partially because my character levelled up extremely fast and would have made it fairly boring to do so. For example in the game, there are some rather horrible beasts called deathclaws that are among the hardest enemies in the game to tackle, but by the time I met my first I was already fairly capable of handling them. Of course the trick to these Oblivion-like games is just to stock up nice and full of things that get your health back, nearly everything else cool in the game comes to you (well except for the fabeled mega weapon that randomly drops from the sky depending on your game, such a windfall never occured for me). Anyway the whole experience was great fun, I thought the main quest was cool and the add on perhaps even better, but the other downloadables definitely felt more like the add ons they were despite some decent aspects. Anyway like most who have played this, I’m looking forward to New Vegas later this year, it’ll be an immediately buy.

As will Mass Effect 3, after a severely improved second sequel. To me this was kind of a level up in the video game industry in that if you had a saved character in the first game you could continue it in the second and the creators managed to make those connections more than just surface level and it really added to the depth, which is good because this is space opera and it could have used a little. Anyway I thought the mechanics were nicely streamlined on this one, all except for the very tedious mineral scanning mini game which after a while I wondered why I was even bothering. Better yet I collected my crew and got them all through the final sequence and even managed to take out the boss at the end without dying once. Overall I thought it was fantastic, one of the better video game experiences with a cinematic grandeur that was quite impressive. Like everyone else I can’t wait for number 3 and the trilogy’s conclusion.

I just finished playing Bioshock 2, which plays like nothing more than a less linear and better balanced version of the first. I thought the first was really one of the all time great video games so had no problem with the sequel being more of the same, especially as it’s hard to replicate a twist ending as good as the one in the first. One great change is having weaponary and plasmids at hand together, it really made for an interesting experience in terms of governing what attacks and strategy you’d use. Once I figured out the best way to take out the other big daddies was using telekinesis back at them, things got pretty easy. On the other hand the big sisters usually wiped me out several times. All until the battle with two of them which I managed to get through unscathed. Of course the strategy of setting up any future battleground with a million mines, trip wires and mini turrets helped a great deal. And that’s why this one seems like it will be fabulously replayable. In fact I read in the latest 360 magazine today that it’s a good idea to stick to only a couple plasmids and that’s something I definitely would have done on a repeat. Is there a 3 on the horizon for this one? I have no idea but I want it. It also seemed to me that occasional artwork paid tribute to the Fallout series  (particularly the Please Stand By thing that shows up in both). Anyway great fun. Honestly it’s hard enough managing time enough to play games like this, and I have to credit my furlough schedule for allowing a lot of it. Next up is Crackdown, emphasis on the crack.

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Adam-Troy Castro – Vossoff and Nimmitz (collection), The Funeral March of the Marionettes;” George R. R. Martin “Weekend in a War Zone,” “Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring;” “Ursula K. Le Guin “April in Paris,” “The Masters,” “Darkness Box,” “The Word of Unbinding,” “The Rule of Names;” Larry Niven “Intent to Deceive,” “Grendel;” Lewis Shiner “Tinker’s Damn;” Ellen Kushner “Red-Cloak”

Posted by Mike on March 16, 2010

Alright, time to remember more reading stuff, I think I’m always about three weeks behind, which often means I’ll forget. Anyway, this groups starts with a couple books/several stories that are part or perhaps part of Adam-Troy Castro’s AI Source Universe. The first book is a series of stories that were printed in Science Fiction Age in the late 90s that were all an attempt to mine Douglas Adams or Robert Sheckley territory, that is stuff I don’t tend to read all that often. I probably don’t mention it much but there’s a whole crazy Virgo logic behind what I read that’s probably a bit too complicated to go into (since it’s a given it’s crazy anyway) but it roughly has to do with award books, sometimes authors I really like I discover from this chart, sometimes books that have nothing to do with either, parts of series, a smattering of non fiction. But I do like to read lots of stuff chronologically, maybe I have the weird idea I might learn something about writing mechanics via development or something, I have no idea.

Anyway the Vossoff and Nimmitz stories are a lark, a self-professed bumbling super villain and his idiot sidekick, linked as it goes via the former’s ex wife and the latter’s now wife, anyway most of the stories start due to the machinations of the former and they almost all end hilariously and badly. They were fun and easy to read, but as such a style goes, more of a lark than anything meaty. The other novella, however, was a Hugo and or Nebula finalist and was much more interesting, as an alien dance ritual that ends in suicide surprises the audience and one man in particular when a human joins the ritual. Was quite clever and attempted to do one of the things I think SF does best – clashing cultures.

The two Martin stories here are perhaps minor, the former something of a thematic predecessor to the Michael Shea book I wrote about a few weeks ago, about a guy who spends a weekend buying his way into a real war and the smashup that occurs due to his personal instability. “Star Ring” is the second of two in that universe, you know the whole “Stargate” thing rife in science fiction, except this is about a scientific crew investigating a ring that leads to nowhere basically, sheer blackness. I liked the construction of this one quite a bit and it, as always, kept the focus on the human experience.

The Le Guin stories are all very early work, well within her first 10 shorts. A sorcerer in April in Paris waves his hands and manages one by one to summon people out of time and in doing so the story makes an interesting statement on the loneliness of the outsider. “The Masters” is a fairly typical story about an anti-scientific future society and the rebel trying to discover forbidden knowledge, it’s a definitely an age old story probably told better elsewhere. “Darkness Box” is a neat little fantasy about what seems to be somewhat typical high fantasy characters stuck in time. The final two are the precursors to the Earthsea series, one about a wizard imprisoned who ends up only discovering one way out and the latter about a village’s wizard and the secrets he embodies as a second wizard shows up on a ship. While both seem a bit tried now, I kind of doubt they were so much when they were written. Anyway this early it seemed to me that the shorts were a lot more enjoyable than Le Guin’s first few novels, but now I’m up to the first Earthsea (which I probably read as a kid and have totally forgotten), so undoubtedly I’m now at the beginning of a long string of classics.

The Niven duo continue the Known Space series, the former a short piece reflecting on an early version of a robotic restaurant and what happened when it stopped working right. The latter, another in the Beowulf Shaeffer series about an alien kidnapping (although perhaps the puzzling out of who the Grendel is in this story is part of its subtlelty as it didn’t quite end up being the alien). This latter one finished the Neutron Star collection up.

Lewis Shiner’s “Tinker’s Damn” is online somewhere and I believe is his second published piece, kind of a typical science fiction story about building an artificial intelligence and the tragedy that occurs when they try to make it “love.” I ended up liking the story quite a bit, but can see why this didn’t make the Collected Stories volume.

And finally, Ellen Kushner’s “Red Cloak” the first in her Riverside series of books and shorts, this one a very short piece that has a very Leiber-ian flair as the couple (who assert their personalities very quickly and efficiently in this piece) decide to go for a drink in the evening only for the swordsman to be virtually challenged to a duel. Quite looking forward to the rest of this series if something so viginette-sized can end up being so strong.

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Kage Baker “Black Smoker;” Michael Shea “The Extra,” The Extra; Caitlin R. Kiernan “Between the Flatirons and the Deep Green Sea,” “The Comedy of St. Jehanne d’Arc,” “Hoar Isis,” “Tears Seven Times Salt;” Larry Niven “The Handicapped,” A Gift from Earth; Jack Womack – Ambient

Posted by Mike on March 4, 2010

I read the Kage Baker short not long after she passed away, and in fact I’ve started Mendoza in Hollywood where I left off as well. I’d always meant to get back to the Company sequence, but was spurred on by Baker’s unfortunate death. Black Smoker’s quite good too, picking up the story of Company operative Kalugin relating a story about a future virus from a submarine that’s trapped below water. I believe this one later got incorporated into The Children of the Company as part of a larger narrative, but I started reading the shorts well before this happened and still intent to try to mix everything up chronologically.

Michael Shea’s been writing short stories since the late 70s but has been rather short on novels. He did a fun Dying Earth/Cugel sequel in the early 70s, which was a foreshadowing of his own erractically published Nifft trilogy, but even that first Nifft book is more like a fix up book, despite that it’s really one of the greatest fantasy books of all time. I mean that, I adore the whole Nifft trilogy and it’s very much why I’ve been a Shea fan since.  There was also the near novella length Lovecraft sequel The Color Out of Time (which shows up in the big Autopsy collection and is way more Shea than Lovecraft), as well as a standalone called In Yana, The Touch of Undying, which I’ve nearly held myself back on. But other than all these there hasn’t been any more novel length stories until, surprisingly, now. Back in the day, Shea wrote a neat little story called “The Extra” (or “The X-tra”), it’s the story of a near future where the down and out are given a chance to make money by becoming expendable extras in an alien invasion movie, all they have to do is stay alive against all odds in a vicious onslaught created by creative movie makers. The short’s tight and really well done, and it’s quite a surprise to find out that Tor picked up an expansion of this story (apparently into a trilogy) as a series. The first book was released a few weeks ago, one I immediately picked up. The new book carries over the main idea and a couple characters from the first book (the two buddies if you will) but other than that the whole thing is completely rewritten, with a number of other characters added in and a much more expanded and thought out future world, as well as telling a good deal of story from the movie maker perspective.

Anyway it’s Shea as populist which is something I’d never seen before and given his adeptness in handling different styles over the years, it’s not a surprise he’s done well with this thriller. Perhaps the commonality here is, well, Shea loves (or fears) his spiders, a theme you see in The A’Rak and The Colour Out of Time and the aliens invading in this future movie are created spiders who are loaded onto a set along with 100s of extras and who are let loose on what are a bunch of rather poor individuals hoping to survive and maybe make a future life for themselves. It’s got all the hallmarks of a great movie, fast paced, lots of buddy buddy jabber, a romantic interest, lots of explosions, impossible odds, and of course a hoard of spiders that have the ability to paralyze the extras and suck them dry. In the end I really was looking forward to the upcoming sequel as this was an idea well worth expanding on. And hopefully this will be optioned pretty soon as it deftly handles the irony of Hollywoood without sinking into preaching. Quite frankly I’m pretty excited Shea was handed a deal like this and long may he continue.

I continue my chronological excursion into the work of Caitlin R. Kiernan, whose story in Lovecraft Unbound so impressed me, and indeed these few stories are quite good for early work, and they show a knack for a unique style and prose that I think will easily propel me through an increasingly impressive bibliography. Both Flatirons and Hoar Isis are post apocalyptic near futures, the former set in the Rockies, now part of a seaside, with scavengers as protagonists. The latter is set place in a frozen Chicago, where a lonely girl tries to stay alive and it roughly follows part of the Isis and Osiris myth in an unusual way. “St. Jehanne d’Arc” is set place in White Wolf’s vampire role playing game mythos and tells an alternate history where Joan is manipulated by the world’s undead-influenced politics. And “Tears” reflects a slightly Lovecratian like transformation as a goth girl obsessed with fish and water looks back on the creepy and prophetic words of her grandmother as she takes a journey into the underworld.

The next group of Niven stories continues, chronologically, his future history and I think it’s really at this point they take a level up and get a lot more interesting. “The Handicapped” is a great short once again featuring a favorite theme of mine, encountering new alien life that’s completely different and almost incomprehensible to human kind, in this case what appears to be a sentient life form that can’t move. As it turns out it fits nicely into the whole scheme of the history, as the protagonists try to figure out how evolution would have led a race to this type of dead end. A Gift from Earth is a novel which came from the serial Slowboat Cargo about one of Earth’s future colonies that has turned into a dictatorship of a smaller, powerful group over the rest of its colonists. Naturally the protagonist comes across a group of secret rebels at a party and during a raid ends up motivated to rescue members of this party. However the man has a secret ability, from childhood, that makes the impossible task possible and leads to a number of break ins and escapes that are tautly plotted. This does seem to be early enough to be slightly problematic in the character department, that is most of these people are drawn lightly, the motivation of the protagonists are somewhat glossed over, and the female characters don’t particularly ring true as real people (especially the protagonist’s first erotic encounter whose motivation is later explained along the lines of “I do this to keep the spirits of the rebels up” or some such nonsense). But as a novel I thought it was a lot more gripping that Ptavvs and Protector and more consistent. You can see the peak to Ringworld quite clearly at this point.

I was fairly knocked out by the first book in Jack Womack’s Dryco series, a number of books that posit a pretty awful future United States that seems to reflect the current news almost presciently, where the power ends up residing in the hands of corporations and the recent history seems to show what happens when the capitalists end up getting what they want (well that’s my interpretation, Womack isn’t quite so explicit). The protagonist here is the bodyguard of the head of Dryco, the world’s biggest corporation who is behind the power behind the world and controls everything from the President to future countries. Things become complicated when the head of Dryco comes up with a plan for his bodyguard to knock off his father and when the attempt is set up, things go badly and the protag makes his escape with his romantic experience. There’s some great twists in this and a number of fascinating sequences where a history of the world not only is explicated in the near future but explains events ranging back as far as  the Gospels. It’s easy to see why there are more books in this series, it’s a fascinating universe that shows its political and social sides quite well. I’m looking forward to the rest. And for once this had at least one or two future dialects that were almost poetic in their rendering and very creative. Definitely a bold debut.

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