Gene Mapper (2012)


Gene Mapper is your typical hard(ish) SF book: it has a nice, more engineering-than-science driven mystery at the core, superfluous characters that feel a bit simplistic and a main character who is far too naive for his age. The plot is pretty simple too, with a conspiracy that has only one layer and many happy coincidences (a super-skilled hacker joins the cast after a short time and becomes the deux ex machina to solve almost all of the major problems).

I do like the sentiment of the novel and the ending reminds me positively of the ending of Bester’s The Stars My Destination, where a discovery/technology is given to the public at large, with the hope that people will learn to use it for the best instead of the worst.

But while the whole artificial fauna and flora angle is fascinating, once I had finished the book I knew I would never crack it open again. It’s just too slight, too simplistic in almost all regards apart from the sciency bits.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside_Out insideout-pc

I’m not much of a fan of Pixar’s movies, too often I feel like I’m played like a fiddle by a master-manipulator who tries to wrestle complete control of my emotional reaction from me. This time, though, I have to admit Pixar has really outdone themselves, going from figurative to literal and creating a masterpiece that not just plays with emotions, but makes them the main characters.

On the surface it’s a story about a girl growing up and sort-of a fable that shows the audience that with growing up our emotions mature and become more complex, requiring the full spectrum from joy to sadness. But what makes this a real masterpiece, is the not-so-subtle current underneath that shows that all humans are basically finely honed constructs with no ego or personality of their own, always under complete control of five little homunculi sitting in their own, updated version of the Cartesian theater.

The real question at the end of the movie, when joy discovers the meaning of sadness, is whether its turtles all the way down, with each of the emotions and all the other inhabitants of the mind having their own version of the theater with their own homunculi running around.

I applaud Pixar for this bold move of merging psychology 101 with philosophy 101 and showing us what we knew all along: we are just machines, there is no free will, no real I. All the human characters we observe in the movie are nothing but empty shells. Pixar’s brilliance is in telling us upfront that we are empty vessels and then make us love a story about how that insight is uplifting. Because little people inside our heads.

The Annihilation Score (2015)


I don’t think I really liked where this was going from the get-go, not because of the protagonist, which this time was Mo and not her husband Bob, but the superhero angle. I disliked that for two reasons, first I’ve never liked that Stross is enamored by the idea to find a unique angle for each of his entries of the Laundry series, making each entry a meta-level pop-culture reference.

These books are at their best when they showcase Stross’ unique twist of Lovecraftian horror, and especially each and every time Stross actually ventures deep into really scary scenes and shows otherworldly dimensions and monstrosities. Often, sadly he prefers to write a clever twist on James Bond, vampires or in this case superheroes, that makes it hard to ignore and get to the good parts.

Secondly, I usually don’t enjoy superheroes written by someone who tries to frame them in real-world terms, as superhero comics operate by a rule-set that makes no sense in real-world terms, and trying to frame them as such is neither new nor interesting and in this case comes off as merely annoying (“haha, look at how clever my commentary on superheroes is“, sadly it is not).

That said, the whole superhero angle is really a cover for a story that is about something completely different. And the book hits all the usual buttons that makes this series a joy to read: office power plays, work meetings and powerpoint slides contrasted with demonic possession and ancient horrors. I wonder how younger people or people with different live experiences enjoy the series, because I have to assume they do enjoy them, but only for parts of it. But for me, some of the elements about the Laundry (endless pointless meetings, just for one, or the insights into mid-level management), and also in this case the infighting between various government organizations rings true in so many ways.

So, while I didn’t liked the starting point of the book, it really grew on me. It advances the overall arc of the series, showcases a different but welcome viewpoint (it’s really neat to see things from Mo’s viewpoint and as a plus Stross makes her an interesting, complex character that at times is more compelling than plain old Bob), has a really scary threat that gets out of control and things get sideways in a terrible way and it sports one of these few, truly scary Lovecraftian scenes for whom I just love the Laundry series.

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.