Lock In (2014)


I remember when I saw the cover for Lock In the first time. My interest in the book died almost immediately. In an age when lots of people start reading mostly in electronic form, covers shouldn’t have the same power as they did in the past, but as far as promotional material go, they still send one of the most important marketing messages what kind of reader and segment a book is coveting and what kind of material you can expect inside.

When I actually read the book, it wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s a murder mystery that grows into a full-blown conspiracy, but it’s also a science fiction book that shows a world where people using surrogate artificial bodies makes lots of sense. Imagine Surrogates, the bad science fiction movie starring Bruce Willis with a similar theme, only this time done by someone who actually thought this idea through and came up with a better reason than people want to look young again (usually that’s a good reason, but most people want to look young in their own body, not some surrogate).

That said, while I liked the book a lot, Scalzi’s usual writerly ticks are present all the time. The book keeps one tone throughout, from start to finish, that of an amused observer. The dialogue is snappy and fun, the main character is sharp and witty most of the time, but while this works often, it undercuts the book when more seriousness or even horror would be appropriate. At times the tone feels almost disrespectful and frivolous. And some of the stuff that the two main inspectors discover is stuff that would be utter nightmare fuel for a lot of people, but the book never manages to convey the full horror of that.

Another problem is Scalzi’s tendency to have endings that are too perfect. Everything ends tidy and neat, with a bow on top. It’s not just a problem for the ending, though, the narrative is highly leveraged to get the biggest effect at the cost of breaking the suspension of disbelief a few times. New friends turn out to be experts needed to solve the case, new allies have a problem that turns into the perfect solution to solve one of the major issues at the end. There’s Chekhov’s gun and then there’s its Data Center-sized equivalent. Subtlety is not one of Scalzi’s strengths.

Still, I really enjoyed the book overall and wouldn’t mind to visit this world again. The setting is different and unique, even if some of the elements feel like old-fashioned science fiction, slightly updated. And the main character was fun to follow, even if his personality felt a bit slight. Like a lot of Scalzi’s books it leaves you with the feeling that it could be even better with some more substance (both stylistically and character-wise), but even as it is, it’s pretty good.

Super Cyborg (2014)

Super_Cyborg_cover Super_Cyborg_gameplay

Super Cyborg is a game that dances on the edge of homage vs outright imitation of the old Contra series. It’s not the only game that tries to pay it dues to the heavyweight run’n gunner, but it is the only game in recent memory that manages it near-perfectly. The design is obviously inspired by the various Contra games, thought at times it feels like a mix of elements of the NES-games and the SNES-game.

Like the first level, which seems like a fusion of the first level of both Contra (the jungle) and Contra III (the boss and some other aspects). The game is never quite just a homage to the 8-bit or the 16-bit line, its some weirdo mix of both generations, with a colour scheme that reminds me more of DOS-platformers at times than console ones, and yet the end results has a coherent and distinctive style and design that is both utterly Contra-like and yet doesn’t feel like just a shallow imitation.

That said, if you never played or seen Contra, you won’t get most of the references and while it’s a game that can be enjoyed on its own (if you manage to get past the hardcore challenge, which is present already on the easy difficulty), it’s really that much more enjoyable if you played and adored the original Contras. Also expect to die a lot, as the game is just as (and at times even more so) difficult as the originals.

But it has some really neat boss designs, a lot of levels and saving slots for finished levels (very untypical for this kind of game, but its so hard it doesn’t even feel like cheating). The only thing I missed were some short story bits and I really expected to see another super-final boss when playing on hard, as in Contra III. Otherwise, it’s a great game.

Analog December Issue (2014)

Analog 2014-12

Most science fiction magazines have a certain reputation for what they prefer to publish. Analog, it is said, is the magazine where you go if you want to read classical, often conservative nuts’n bolts type hard science fiction that veers toward engineering and practical problem solving, not radical new physics ideas or progressive social mores.

Instead the 2014 December issue has stories that try to tackle modern sensibilities and themes as much as any other magazines on the market. The first story has a positive representation of a gay character main character, the second story is about accepting an overbearing big government against human first (AIs second) revolutionaries, the third tries to parade an updated gender view with a time travel and dino spin and the sixth goes for a complex look at modernization.

While all this sounds quite positive, the biggest downside is that the writing ranges from mediocre to terribly, and sadly more to the latter. The antagonists in each story are cheap straw men, the conflicts laughable, the stories badly plotted that go nowhere and just stop with tacked on epiphanies to make them somewhat end. Of the 8 stories herein, only three are okay-to-good reads and only one of those is really good.

The two okay stories are Evan Dicken’s Citizen of the Galaxy, which starts great and showcases a mother-daughter conflict against the backdrop of an Earth slowly subsumed by intergalactic culture and Craig DeLancey’s Racing the Tide, which is much less grandiose in ambition, with a story about sustainable, long-term living, but which is a more rounded experience and doesn’t suffer, like the Dicken’s story, of running headlong into a non-ending.

The clear winner of the issue is David D. Levine Mammals, that sports a story told from the POV of Charles Stross’ post-singularity Vile Offspring, the fast-evolving software minds that killed humanity during the AI-apocalpyse. Alas, evolution doesn’t stop there, and even vile things have enemies.

Overall, not a great issue, but the few good stories make it worthwhile and the non-fiction content is quite nice like always. I especially liked Howard V. Hendrix guest editorial, which was a really inspiring read.

Environmental Station Alpha DEMO (2014)

Esa-demo-1 Esa-demo-2

Usually there’s not much sense in reviewing a demo of a game, as it’s just a slice of the bigger experience you get anyway when you play the full game. That said, I always like it when a game has unique content, even if it is only a short, 20 minutes at most mini-level. The demo of Environmental Station Alpha, one of the best metroidvaina’s published this year, gives you a good sense of how the bigger game plays, you already get a few skills (double-jump, skyhook, boosted shot), see a lot of varied environments and best of all have to finish of a mini-boss, who while not exactly hard can be challenging enough for the first few tries to wet your appetite for the whole game.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)


It seems we haven’t seen a good animated DC Universe movie for some time now. I liked Justice League: War in 2014, but Superman Unbound is probably the last one I would actually call good. In between we had the terrible Flashpoint Paradox, Throne of Atlantis and Son of Batman, the average Assault on Arkham and the middling Batman vs. Robin.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the one to turn the tide, and interestingly it’s the one that plays the loosest with established canon. This is basically an Elseworld or What If project. We have Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, but all with very different origins: Superman is Zod’s son, Wonder Woman hails from New Genesis (and boy is there a twist in her back story) and Batman is a real vampire.

Apart from being a vampire, the biggest change to Batman is that his entire backstory is completely different. Bruce Wayne has been replaced with Kirk Langstrom from man-bat fame, gone is the driven detective and instead we have an introverted scientist trying to live with his vampiric urges.

The thing I really like is how the movie plays into and then subverts the expectations of the hardcore DC audience, like with the backflash that reveals Wonder Woman’s origin. Right up to the moment that feels like its ripped right out of Game of Throne, you feel like you know what will happen and who the enemy is, and then it turns out you were wrong.

This is not the only time this will happen in the movie, for a long time I was expecting the super-villain to be a certain well-known enemy, but again my expectations were played against me. The final reveal of the real power behind everything comes a bit out of the blue, but it does make sense and it’s a great, mean twist.

Still, the good thing about Gods and Monsters is that it works even if you don’t know much or care about the DC universe. The main characters are well written, the pacing is brisk, the animation is great and the plot subverts your expectations (superhero deconstruction) while still delivering a great story. And it’s nice to see more violent, harsher versions of the DC trinity that still manages to come over as sort-of heroes, despite their obviously darker nature.

Super Win the Game (2014)

swtg swtg-spike

Super Win the Game is the sequel to the freeware platformer/mini-metroidvania You have to Win the Game. Gone is the early PC-era CGA/EGA-look, replaced by NES-inspired graphics and a much bigger world to play in. Despite really liking the first game, I was hesitant to buy the sequel, which just seemed a bit tepid in comparison from the screenshots and the few videos I saw.

Sadly, this is one of the few cases where the game looks worse on screenshots and even in videos than when you actually get to play it. It’s really unfortunate, as the game is great fun and definitely worth its price. It sports an overworld with cities and dungeons entries that lead to countless varied, well designed levels, skills btw. items to find that in typical metroidvania-fashion unlock further areas and lots of secrets to uncover. It even has some speed racing courses that can be quite challenging the first time through.

Just like its predecessor, Super Win the Game is a pure platformer, enemies can’t be killed in any way and have to be avoided, as well as any other dangerous obstacle. What sounds limiting turns out to be one of the games biggest strength, as the platforming – the jumping hither and thither – is fun distilled.

It’s hard to describe just what makes it so great, but Super Win the Game really pins down platforming gaming and whether you take up the game to play it through or just for a few minutes to jump around, it easily captures your attention.

ParaNorman (2012)


One advantage of having a blog (or a diary if you still thinking in pre-digital terms) is the ability to see how much your opinions change over time. I still remember how I liked Terminator Salvation when it came out, but since then I have become less enamored by it. These changes can also go the other direction.

When I saw ParaNorman for the first time in 2013, I didn’t like it much. I was expecting another Caroline and instead got a whiny main character and narrative intricately bound together by an explicit moral. Recently I re-watched the movie, and my opinion completely flip-flopped. I realized how much of the movie was a love letter to old horror movies, yet managed to find its own identity under all those visual references.

Norman isn’t exactly super-proactive about things in general, accepting his special condition (he can see ghosts) and most of the time how the people around him react to it. But later on, when he needs to be, he becomes the driver of the story instead of being driven by it. And the final climax is beautifully orchestrated on all three fronts: visuals, sound and the writing. Still, the segment I liked the most was when Norman walked through the city and saw all the ghosts of the violently killed people and animals, it’s hilarious, despite the content, as most of the ghost are rather accepting of their post-mortal existence.

A Trip to the City (1963)


One of the many posthumous Baen-collections of Keith Laumer’s work, Odyssey collects two novels (one great and one average if fun) and a few shorts stories, most of whom are also rather average with one exception. A Trip to the City (aka It Could Be Anything) starts simple and then descends into a sort of madness that only the best pure-concept-based stories can do achieve, yet the story works even on the narrative level.

It’s empiricism driven to the extreme: anything you believe to know about the world, that you haven’t experienced yourself but rather taken in as part of your larger culture, turns out to be wrong. A boy/young adult leaves his hometown only to arrive in a city that is hollowed out by strange beings who have taken over most of the population.

If that weren’t enough, he meets another person who has never heard about our culture (Earth, the United States, etc.) and seems to stem from some fantasy world/middle age society, only that both of them are sort of wrong (and right) in the end, as the world really is not what any of them thought.

A Trip to the City is not especially complex or sophisticated, but on a pure mindfuck-level, it really succeeds admirably and makes you question how real anything beyond the reach of your everyday life really is.

Terminator Genisys (2015)


Terminator Genisys is slightly better than both Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation, but that doesn’t mean much. Since T2 the franchise-owners have tried to re-imagine and re-invent the series, but only the Sarah Connor Chronicles tv-series managed to do something interesting before it was aborted. The movie sequels never managed to leave the gravitational field of the original duology and either tried to repeat it (RotM) or spin it forward into the future (TS), with unsatisfying results.

TG doesn’t even try, as if they have completely given up on making the franchise relevant anymore. This is understandable, the originals managed to tap the double fears of atomic annihilation and killer AI, but both of those don’t rile people anymore, like they did when the originals arrived.

But instead of trying to find something relevant these days (and no, Skynet as an internet-controlling application doesn’t really scratch that same itch, RitM tried it with a faceless virus-incarnation of Skynet that came much closer), they go for more convoluted time travel and extravagant action that manages to entertain, but not to hide how hollow this movie feels.

Often it’s downright corny without being amusing. There’s no existential horror left anymore, just some robots beating each other up, until new, more “advanced” versions turn up and the game begins anew. And the actors really are no substitute for the originals, not even close. Arnold is fun, though.

Dinosaur Beach (1971)


A few years ago I was convinced that I didn’t like time-travel stories much, until I read some of the very few good ones, those that really go crazy with the concept and explore all of the weird stuff you can do with it. Dinosaur Beach by Laumer is pretty much in that vain: An agent of the 4th generation of time travelers who has to clean up after previous generations (those who tried to solve problems raised by the first time travelers; and those who had to clean up after them), finds himself side-tracked into a closed, looping timeline and has to find out who is after him and why.

It’s a true tour de force from start to the beginning: Every few pages a new concept is introduced, the story twists into unexpected directions and you wonder how all this will hold together, as it seems Laumer is spinning a yarn by the thinnest of threads. It’s easy to poke holes into most time travel stories, but if a book fully embraces paradoxes and inconsistencies, makes them even part of the overall story, it’s hard not to applaud the author.

There are some weak spots here, especially the hard shift toward the end away from the save-the-romantic-love-interest angle toward something entirely else, but it’s kind of understandable why Laumer did it, and it works (well, depending on where you draw the line on how often an author is allowed to deploy a deus ex machina to get his character out of any situation). Its not just an enjoyable read, but despite being more or less mostly an action-adventure, all the ideas it contain makes it feel much cleverer and smarter.