Modern Masters of SF: Greg Egan (2014)

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An in-depth study of Greg Egan’s fiction that forgoes any forays into the biographical and only works with the fiction output provided by Egan himself, sorted into four chapters (ethics, identity, science and society). As a big fan of Egan who has read nearly everything he’s written, there’s nothing new to be found, not even in the new interview between Burnham and Egan at the end, which merely underscores points he made in other interviews or his fiction.

It’s a good overview of Egan’s themes, his strengths and weaknesses as a writer and his career path, but at least to me it lacks a more methodical and less haphazardous comparison to similar writers. Watts and a few others are mentioned, but apart from a welcome if a bit meandering discourse of Ted Chiang’s work compared to Egan (and a close analysis of one of Chiang’s stories), there’s not much there to position Egan to his contemporaries beyond the superficial (he’s at the core of what hard SF is, he writes transhuman fiction but doesn’t adhere to the Singularitarians, etc.).

It’s all the fact, sorted in an easily digestible package. Probably far more interesting to those who read only a fraction of his fiction and want a primer for the rest. Don’t expect any new or deeper insight beyond the obvious ones you get from reading his fiction.

Dead Pig Collector (2013)

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A novella by Warren Ellis about a killer with his own, very methodical approach to dispose the dead bodies of his victims (for the sake of not getting caught). The human angle is that one of his victims surprises him and he tells her about his process.

I’m pretty meh about the story. The whole body disposal felt like the sciency bits from CSI, but without the moral and ethical strength of any of their characters it felt like a wasted effort that could have worked better in a non-fiction piece. And Ellis’ attempt to write a killer comes off as bland and boring, with a character who is so matter-of-fact about his business and everything that it’s hardly enticing and whose personal details and history is so sketchy to not let the reader in to understand why he is the way he is. Admittedly, that is partly a sleight of hand (we see some of the inner thoughts of the killer, but not all to know what will happen) to not foreshadow the end, though how anyone couldn’t have seen that coming would be beyond me.

In the end it’s a minor story whose only asset is the description of the body disposal, which, as I said, would probably be more effective as part of a non-fiction article.

Crooked Little Vein (2007)

Crooked Little Vein

Warren Ellis’ first major foray into prose fiction is a pretty enjoyable if superfluous read that feels like he found a way to stuff all the various ‘research’ into the plain crazy or weird he posted on his various blogs and websites over the years into one overarching, coherent narrative. His protagonist McGill, a detective who for reasons unfathomable to him, always gets the crazy cases since he left the police force and struck out on his own, gets his first big case. Not the big break he thought it would be, though.

Tracking down a secret Constitution of the United States sends him on a tour through the US, with a young, female aide he picked up on the streets, always getting himself into situations where he rather wouldn’t want to be. The whole book gives the impression of trying to show how fucked and freaky the US can be, but maybe I’m too jaded, most of the stuff in there merely made me smirk. Still, it works well enough, even if it’s somewhat formulaic: you know each and every time McGill closes in on the McGuffin he will just be sent further again.

Most of all, despite being sort of written in the hardboiled tradition of detective fiction, it’s actually a lot of fun to read and seeing McGill fumble on and on makes it even more funnier, even or because of how likable a guy he is. Surprising actually that Ellis ended it on such a well-meaning note, I was expecting something mean and nasty, but somehow I can’t fault him there, seeing McGill catching a break at the end was kind of nice.

Succubus Nights (2007)

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Second in a six-part urban fantasy/paranormal romance series about a succubus working at a bookstore, doing her evil work (seducing people obviously while stealing their life-force in the act) and falling in love with a famous author while solving various cases involving the supernatural community on the sidelines. This time a magic drug makes people reach their peak-potential with some nasty side-effects and Georgina goes to the rescue.

But like with the first case, this stuff is mostly background, the real story is about Georgina, her love live, her ridiculous infatuation with author Seth, who seems like a walking cliche of the shy, smart, bookish geek and the impossibility of their love (no sex or he loses lifeforce). For a book about a thousand-years old succubus, Georgina comes off as both far too young-ish and naive, not really world-weary as you would expect someone this old to be like.

Also the two big sex-scenes in the book (it is after all about a succubus) felt off-turning and awkward, which worked as intended in the first case, but the second at the end felt just as ridiculous and off-putting. The whole paranormal romance genre is pretty predictable when it comes to the whole romance part, but if they drag out the romance-aspect of Georgina’s and Seth’s relationship for four more books, this will become tiresome very fast. And when it doesn’t even offer some good porn (porn-wise and romance-writing-wise) along the way, I’m not sure why I should read further.

Mhh, forgot I’m a sucker for the genre and I do want to see if the series gets even a bit more interesting than what is has offered so far.

A Sorcerer and a Gentleman (1995)

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The first part of a two-part prequel to The Well-Favored Man, that seems to deal with the hinted at War of Independence of Argylle from Landuc. Seems to be, because what it actually deals with is the war of Argylle’s founder/creator with his brother and throne-stealer, the king of Landuc, the adventures his two children have at the same time and various other machinations and intrigues.

It’s nicely written, but like The Well-Favored Man eschews the more interesting story, the War of Independence, for something that feels far less interesting, since Argylles creator hasn’t realized yet that his own young kingdom is better than regained the decrepit one his brother has usurped. Also, the female character I expected to take a more prominent role here, since even her absence in the previous book implied a strong, imposing presence, is delegated to weak and disappointing secondary character who, unlike her father and brother, is less of an actor and more of a plot token. Slightly disappointing.

The Well-Favored Man (1994)

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A perfect example of a book where the plot run away from the writer, or is it the other way around? Vaguely reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber sequence (though instead of the order-chaos-dichotomy, it’s a three-part stalemate of magical kingdoms based on three of the four magic elements (fire, stone and water)), at least from the world-building angle, it’s a story that sets up a rising threat to then completely derail into a different direction about bringing back a seemingly lost family member.

What saves the book is the excellent writing that makes it even satisfying as it goes further and further away from the initially promised conflict. It really captures positive family dynamics and that it’s a family of mighty magicians and adventurers who are also princes and queens and so on only helps. And while it’s reminiscent of Zelazny’s famous series, it doesn’t entirely feel like a copy-cat and it hints at enough mystery and adventure that is left to be told that makes you want to go back to its setting and discover its intricacies .

Guacamelee (2013)

Guacamelee_key_art_final Guacamelee

Metroidvanias are my favorite version of platformers, but I never expect them to be original and are already satisfied when they get the basics right and provide an overall fun experience to rival the best of the genre. Guacamelee managed to surpass those expectations with ease, offering a perfect example of a metroidvania (the Choozo statues are the best hint to its inspiration) with unique setting and a mix of gameplay elements I’ve never seen before in that kind of game.

Guacamelee sports an infusion of beat’em up elements, that go from initially simple kicks and throws to evermore complex combos. This required a bit of rethinking how to approach this kind of game, but once I’ve mastered the basics, this became second nature and I really enjoyed the combat. It’s different from the usual in that kind of game, but not different enough to feel completely alien (and not as complex as pure beat’em ups can get). Later on you also get the usual assortment of skills, from wall-jumping to double-jump and so on, to make up for the departure in battle mechanics.

Setting-wise, Guacamelee provides a pop-culture version of Mexico with the hero a mexican style wrestler and the enemy a skeleton garbed in mexican style clothes. I don’t remember having seen this kind of setting in any other game and it’s both a fun diversion as well as it’s neat to see something different than the usual western fantasy or space fare.

Difficulty-wise, the game can be hard if you don’t grok the whole beat’em up infused gameplay, but overall it’s pretty easy and not all that demanding. That said, the game has two endings (the good and the bad) and you can only get the good one by finding various mask pieces, with two of them particularly hard to get. I did manage to climb the tree level, but the disappearing platforms in the Sierra Morena completely stumped me.

I had to go to YouTube to see the good ending, something I really dislike (good endings should be part of the course of normal gameplay, achievable by normal means, something that’s sadly not true in a lot of the Castlevania metroidvanias as well and which I find extremely aggravating). That said, it’s still a great game and every fan of metroidvanias should have played it at least once.

The High House (1998)

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James Stoddard’s High House evokes all those childhood memories of big, old houses and their particular magic: seemingly endless corridors, an infinite number of rooms full of treasure and mystery and wonder. There’s a small tradition of fantasy that plays into those, ancient houses that indeed are full of magic, full of doors to uncountable fantasy dimensions and housing various wondrous and dangerous creatures.

The High House hits all the right notes in that regard, making it easy to get lost in it’s myriad descriptions of the various worlds that can be entered through it and all the dangers it harbors. Plot-wise, it’s about the young son of the present master of the house, who gets a new (evil of course) stepmother, has to leave and later return to claim the title of the master of the High House himself.

If the book is one thing, it’s a bit too predictable. I was expecting some unique or at least a few minor plot twists, but the story, as expected from early on, unfolds exactly as fate foretold. This, to be honest, is one of the two major faults of the book. The other, which for no reason I could discern exactly, was that nearly all the acting characters were male. Only three females actually appeared in the entire book: the evil stepmother, an evil, female incarnation of order in two parts (an adult temptress and a young child being order itself) and one good female whose kingdom was only saved by the presence of our hero.

This configuration isn’t exactly unique to fantasy, but somehow it felt more than usual overwhelmingly male-centric with the endless, slightly bromantic variations of good guys congratulating each other about their various virtues and goodness (the good son of the evil stepmother, a lawyer who becomes the best friend of the main character, various other house servants). Very distracting, especially when you want nothing more than enjoy the book at hand but your mind begins to wander why the world is only full of males.

While I did initially enjoy reading the book, its predictability and male-centric made me less enthusiastic as I read on. This was further aggravated by the fact that the enemy faction is never more than a facile opponent without any motivation that makes much sense and the final reveal (sorta) that the High House is a construct by God, which took away a lot of the mystery surrounding it makes me wary of trying out the sequel.

Javel-ein (2013)

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Originally created for the 28th Ludum Dare contest (theme: you only get one), Javel-ein is a game where I like everything but the gameplay itself. Usually I’m a sucker for platformers, but the combination of mouse-look shooting and the usual platformer movement with the limitation that you have to retrieve your weapon each and every time after you’ve shot it, make for some truly annoying moments.

Like when your Javelin lands in lava, an abyss, somewhere high upon a wall where you can’t reach it and so on.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to like about the game, the soundtrack and the pixel graphics are neat, the level design is well done (played partly to the second chapter) and the controls are tight. I just don’t like the whole shoot with precision and hope your javelin doesn’t land somewhere where you can’t retrieve it gameplay.

The Queen’s Squadron (1992)

QueensSquadron

I’m a big fan of Meluch’s novel War Birds, but other books I’ve tried by her were pretty much disappointing. The earlier Jerusalem Fire because the characters annoyed me to no end and the Tour of the Merrimack books because they showed a writer who had replaced the complexity of plot and characterization of her earlier novels with simplistic and dumbed-down notions of the same. Entertaining in a way, but utterly without ambition nor substance.

The Queen’s Squadron on the other hand showed that Meluch’s War Birds wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder. The background is odd, with a race of immortals establishing a space empire far off from Earth once humanity has discovered space flight and gone to the stars. The various groups fighting each other seems to originate on the same planet (two nations of free mortals and the immortals) and yet various other worlds (connected by wormhole-gates) are colonized and Earth is still around, though playing not much of a role.

The immortals have the tactical advantage, because they have true FTL-drives and aren’t depend on the gate. Their disadvantage is their age and their believe that they are unassailable.

It’s told mostly from two viewpoints and Meluch manages to give both characters a different style. The male character reminded me both in outlook and writing style of Garrett from Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series, the other is a female immortal who has gone native among her own people’s military to abandon her former live.

I didn’t mention Glen Cook’s writing just for the character similarities. A core value of his entire output is that whoever you are, however mighty, nobody can plan for everything and bad luck can fuck up the best of plans. And that outlook, that no plan survives contact with reality, that nobody can ever really control the outcome of any scheme, is at the heart of Meluch’s novel. Things happen, very often horrible things, and the characters either survive them or don’t, but control is rarely in the hands of anyone and even those who think they have it, loose it when it counts the most.

There are few scenes that make for pretty uncomfortable reading, the torture scenes halfway in were pretty graphic and the whole follow-up with a Stockholm effect by one survivor a bit too neatly and flippant written to not feel disturbing. Still, it’s a hell of novel in many ways, marrying complex characterization to an interesting, slightly hard SF setting and a space opera plot that feels realistic enough with all the political shenanigans and yet with enough action to also satisfy those aspects. It’s as best as any other space opera I’ve read for some time and it’s levels above any of the stuff Meluch has written as part of the Merrimack series.