Head On (2018)

Quick, whats worse than a written commentary on sports for somebody who isn’t all that interested in sports? Detailed descriptions of fictional sports. Thankfully, that’s the only major negative point I can come up with about the book, and even then it’s not too drawn out.

The sequel to Scalzi’s 2014 Lock In is a much slighter book, both in terms of size and ambition. The first part had to present an intriguing case while at the same time introduce its unusual world, where a virus locked many people into their bodies and the only way to interact with the outside world was via robots. The main character is both one of those robot-controlling locked-in people (called Hadens) as well as working for the FBI. The case from Lock In was intricately linked to the world-building and highlighted a major development (the US stopped subsidies for anything Haden-related), whose repercussion would be felt even after the case was over.

Head On, a subtle dig at what happens in the next case, is about a uniquely Haden-fronted sport, more murder among Hadens, and yet as intriguing as it is, just doesn’t has the same impact as the first case had. That said, while the sequel is less ambitious, it’s just as enjoyable as the first one. It’s quite short (my e-reader says around 200 pages), written in the usual Scalzi style that is refined dry, amusement even in the tensest situations.

While I dislike description of fictional sports (or sports in general), I did like the whole discussion about how it was financed and how that linked back to the Haden-subsidies cut off in the first part. It’s probably not the part most sports fan care about, but it’s the part I find fascinating, as the whole issue of how leagues or non-team sports are run and financed is more complicated than you would assume.

Also, the Haden-sport in the novel at times feels like an analog for esports, that right now is in a similar position, lots of hype, but few people know about its long-term viability and how to finance it.

Ash vs Evil Dead S3 (2018)

When the series started I got the strong feeling they had a clear idea of where it would go and how the overarching plot would develop. That evaporated soon, but by the end of the second season it felt like they were just making things up as they went, to quite a hilarious effect, but any sense of progression had left. With the third season, they put progression back on the program and then finished it all off satisfyingly.

The third and final season sees the trio of Ash, Pablo, and Kelly still hanging around in his old town, with Ash and Pablo having opened a hardware store. What sets off the season is somebody finding the Necronomicon again, which brings about the evil-again version of Ruby who plans on doing more unspeakable things. We get introduced to another old fling of Ash (killed very fast), to whom he was even married for a few seconds, and a daughter he didn’t know about (not killed off, hangs around and is annoying in the beginning but at the end grew on me).

As usual, things go from bad to worse, but unlike the previous seasons, it really felt like they were ready to close shop. The major threat that was previously just hinted at (the dark ones Ruby betrayed) become a major thrust of the show in the second half, and while the first half is more about evil Ruby doing mass murder again (growing her own evil Ash), it’s mostly a setup for that second half. Also, I really liked how the show explored what happened to people who died, and thus gave us a glimpse into a horrific afterlife that made it look like there are worse things than death.

The season ended with an apocalyptic outbreak of gigantic, Godzilla-sized demons around the world (made me think of the ending of Cabin in the Woods and how somebody tried to visualize it) and Ash going for a last stand. It finally left Ash in a place and time that felt somewhat similar to the alternative ending of the Army of Darkness, even if it was less hopeless and more Mad Max.

While I wouldn’t have minded seeing the series continue, even if the plot most of the time felt a bit aimless, I do like that they managed to go out with a bang. It’s a nice epitaph for Ash’s whole history, had some neat sights to behold and lots of gore.

Level Up! (2009)

Level Up! is one of the more original takes on a metroidvania-ish platformer. You start out by not being able to do much, but the simple usage of running, jumping, standing around doing nothing, healing, and other things upgrade up to level 5. Leveling up also means you jump higher, heal or run faster. Albeit, every few hours (ca. 7 to 8 minutes), you fall asleep, meet some shadowy guy who kills you and you awake like at the start of the game with all your levels reset to zero and you have to do it all over again.

There are two things with permanence, however. One, you can collect jewels, which even after every restart remain with you, as long as you haven’t bought anything. Second, every ability you collect in a run, like double jump and other useful stuff, remains with you as well. Basically, the game amounts to you exploring, collecting jewels and buying all the abilities available until you’re strong enough to beat your nightmare enemy.

Controls are okay, the art direction is modern pixel retro who no strong aesthetic flair but not bad looking either, in its generic way. But what makes this stand out is the neat idea. Not sure I would have liked this if the game world were bigger, but its just the right size to make the individual runs fun without the time limit stressing you out.

William and Sly (2009)

Due to a lack of a better term, I call games like William and Sly object collectors. These are basically exploration-driven platformers which shares aspects with metroidvanias, but who often either lack a way to combat enemies (which this game has in a very limited capacity) or upgradable abilities that allow players to reach new areas (although the game has a limited flying upgrade, it’s not essential to winning).

You play a fox who has to unlock 13 portal gates for his master, which can only be done by collecting 5 fairyflies that randomly appear in the environment. Once you have the correct number of fairyflies and touch a closed gate, it opens. This is made more difficult due to enemies that lurk around in the grass and try to take away your fairies.

That’s basically it for the core gameplay. Pretty rote, but the main character is easy to control, the game is somewhat fun to play and it’s short and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Not great, but nice to kill half an hour.

Pieces (2008)

Pieces feels like somebody played Knytt and wanted to do something similar, but just didn’t quite manage that level of quality. You get transported to a strange new world and have to collect a certain number of pieces for your spaceship to repair and go home again. Aside from the story and the main objective, even the environments look like they are inspired by Knytt, just that they don’t look very good and feel kinda empty.

Like many metroidvania-type games you can get new abilities by collecting items or triggering various elements, but as far as I played I only got some simple jump upgrades. The game has pretty wonky controls (once you get the upgrades they go from wonky to outright terrible) and just isn’t much fun to play.

A simplistic and barebones game like this has to have at least good controls and stylish environments to make you want to press forward and keep going. Pieces has neither of those and just feels like its wasting your time.

The Mummy Demastered (2017)

In the 80ies and 90ies, there were hordes of cheap (and occasionally quite good) movie-to-game 2d-action tie-ins, which is something that rarely happens these days. You occasionally see a movie tie-in, but not a 2d-action game. So, while I’m probably one of the three people on this planet that liked the Tom Cruise mummy movie, even I didn’t expect to see a highly competent metroidvania made based on it. Not a property where I would have expected to see a game made, and not one that has such high production values.

Visually and even how the levels are designed, this feels very much like playing one of the GBA or NDS Castlevania metroidvanias, although there are a couple of differences that makes his one seem inferior in comparison. I say in comparison because it’s still quite good. The devil is in the detail, and because it looks and even plays so much like one of the Castlevania games, when it doesn’t it feels wrong. Save points don’t replenish health nor munition, when you die you get punished by losing all your upgrades (health, weapons) and have to defeat an undead variant of yourself that still has them.

It’s not that hard to survive without dying (I died only 4 times and 3 of them were at the dino boss), if you know how to preserve health and are willing to grind for some occasionally. Still, it’s a mechanic that is fun the first time and then it only becomes annoying and gimmicky. Worst, even though I didn’t have it happen to myself, I read a couple of reviews where the mechanic leads to uncomfortable situations that made going on almost impossible if the reviews were to believe. Overall, it just doesn’t add much to the game.

The other thing that makes this feel different from the Castlevania metroidvanias is the basic gameplay. Instead of melee weapons you have ranged guns (many different kinds and the different weapons are fun to play with), and the game is really designed around running fast, killing lots of enemies from afar, losing lots of health even with one enemy touch and trying to grind for health to survive the next few seconds. This approach seems almost antithetical to how a metroidvania should work (both either Castlevania or Metroid games), which are much slower paced and reward exploration and looking into every nook and cranny.

Instead, many sections have repeatedly spawning enemies (birds or vampires) or enemies that aren’t worth killing due to how much health they take away (the jumping brains or the flaming skeleton heads), so that often the best course of action is just to run by. Which, again, doesn’t work well in this type of game or at least this game doesn’t make a case for faster-paced, high-octane action gameplay in metroidvanias.

Another irritating element (even though I understand what they tried to do) was that you can’t take all the weapons you find with you, and instead have to select two of the seven available (plus the basic gun) and one of the three types of grenades. The purpose here is to make you think about which weapon you really want, but what it really does is merely annoy you and force you into taking only the two weapons you like the most (frak rockets and plasma thrower are best for the final boss btw).

I’ve said a lot about what doesn’t work, but I have to highlight just how well the game plays otherwise. Controls are excellent, visuals are beautiful, sound and music are great, level-design is perfectly fine, and overall it does feel like playing a (somewhat weaker) GBA/NDA Castlevania. If you played them all and crave something new in the same style, its the perfect mix. Also, if you enjoyed the movie, this is a pretty good tie-in.

Slow Birds (1983)

<< Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction 1983 (01) 3/25 >>

Ian Watson’s Slow Birds is a weird one. It’s clearly science fiction, but it feels at times like a twilight zone version of science fiction, not exactly horror but with a strange vibe that makes it feel distinctly different from the usual science fiction fare.

It starts in a rural community that is majorly unconcerned with the slow birds, mechanical floating devices that vaguely look like birds, teleport in and out from an unknown place, move extremely slow and occasionally explode. These explosions are quite hefty and destroy anything close-by, to the point that the surface of the area becomes like molten glass, and the whole of the country at that point (the UK) looks like a checkerboard of glassed and yet untouched areas.

The story follows two brothers, who partake in a local festive activity. The younger of the two manages to get himself on one of the birds and vanishes, the older brother afterward has a religious epiphany when forced to do the same (without vanishing). From that point on, the story moves forward in fast strides, with the younger brother returning years later offering an explanation to what the slow birds are and how to stop them, but by this point his older brother, who has grown into a cult-like leader figure, tries to take him out of the picture as he sees his younger brother messing with his vision.

The story moves on with another time jump, the older brother is dead, the younger founded his own movement that tried and successfully stopped the birds.

If someone would ask me into what subgenre of science fiction to sort this into, I wouldn’t know how to answer. The background of the slow birds is intriguing, even though the explanation of where they came from and why at all doesn’t explain everything. Still, if the story seems about rural people dealing with strange things happening initially, the later time jumps completely change that. Instead of the slow and meticulous beginning, the story becomes a parable about people more interested in their own beliefs than what is really going on. But its not really a story that tries to have a moral. It just starts in a weird place, ends in a weird one, and the journey there also feels not quite conventional.

To be honest, I have no clue what to really make of this story. Maybe that’s what Watson was going for, he does have a tendency to write stories that are just off and strange, and I’m not sure there is a deeper meaning and instead, it’s just Watson following his instincts for this kind of stuff.

Happy! S1 (2017-2018)

Happy! is a hilariously demented take on the buddy cop genre, with a nearly indestructible and highly violent cop and his partner Happy, the nice and harmless imaginary friend of his abducted daughter. This is based on a comic by Grant Morrison, so I was expecting something unusual, but even then I’m not quite sure I was entirely prepared for what I got.

In some ways, its a done by the numbers show, the disgraced cop who couldn’t take it anymore trying to salvage his all in one last case. Only cranked up to the 9th degree, with a perfectly cast crime boss who gets increasingly unhinged following the orders of his mysteriously and seriously creepy higher-ups. This tells us, that even normal crime is out of its depth here, with crazy killers, weird things happening all around and a hero who looks worse with each episode, yet manages to survive everything thrown at him.

That said, his enemies definitely don’t and the show occasionally gets quite violent with blood splattering everywhere. It’s never really horrific (IMHO), as it always keeps its darkly humoristic tone, but neither is it something you could show a kid.

With 8 episodes, it’s a bit on the long side, yet rarely does it ever feel boring. The unique combination of utterly cynical ex-cop and utterly, to the point of delusion, optimistic imaginary friend is just perfect, and it’s hilarious to see those two interact most of the time. As expected, both of them learn something from the other, the cop becomes a bit more hopeful and tries to do something productive for a change, Happy learns that not everything is fun and roses and even manages to kill another evil imaginary friend.

The ending makes it clear that there could be a second season, and I really hope we will get it.

Medusa Uploaded (2018)

One of the best science fiction books I read for some time. The story takes place on a generation ship (the Olympia), told by one of the members of its lowest cast, the worms who are controlled by the Executives quite literally through implants in their bodies and do all the maintenance and service work. Our hero Oichi actually comes from another generation ship (the Titania), that was on the same course but then blown up for unknown reasons, killing Oichi’s family and all her friends.

Actually, whether Oichi is a hero at all, remains open to debate, as murder and killing is her main tool to foster a revolution among the low class. Along the way to bring change, she discovers mysteries and secrets that make an already complicated situation even more opaque and difficult, while also making lots of mistakes and trying to learn from them.

For me, the best example of Oichi not being a hero is the moment when she realizes that some of the Executives women are suicidal, and she waits for one of them to kill herself so she can take over her role. A while later, she realizes that the woman she callously let herself kill could have been a great asset and ally, or worse, could have become a good friend. And while she recruits the other potential suicides, she knows that is one mistake she can’t ever correct. It’s one of the rare moments where the author hammers home just what Oichi is not.

There are writers who want us to like their characters, but who most readers realize are just terrible people, while at other times writers write really terrible people so on the nose that even the most stupid person would recognize them for what they are. The much rarer moment is when writers write really terrible people in a way that makes them likable and whom we want to forgive all their sins because we are in their heads all the time and like them to some degree and don’t want to acknowledge that they are monsters. They have humanity, they seem like smart and fun people, and yet they still murder without abandon or a second thought about whether there could be a different course of action.

What Emily Devenport does here is going to extremes, but most of us have friends where we are willing to overlook some behavior we would have called out in strangers. Fiction is often black and white, the good guy, the bad guy, and these narratives are easy to buy in. But the truth is there are some good people you’ll never like because you can’t stand them personally and there are monsters out there, who we easily forgive every sin because we like them and see things from their point of view. It’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.

The other thing I really liked about the book was just how inventive it was about the setting. Generation ship stories often go for a claustrophobic, closed-in mood that can lead to boredom, but Devenport hints at so much more of the setting beyond just the ship (the place from where they came from and why; the place to where they go and what awaits them there), while also making sure that the society inside the ship offers lots of room for complexities and secrets to arise. The best approach to write generation ships is to slowly unveil them, peel back every layer of whats going on. Here, its handled even more deftly, with each new layer peeled back making things more and not less interesting.

While Devenport is already working on a sequel, you could easily read this as a stand-alone and feel utterly satisfied.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

This is the rare comedy that makes you laugh out loud while still weeping at the same time. It shows Stalin’s inner circle as a cabinet of fools that fall to bickering and petty rivalry once the big monster has been ill-disposed by a heart attack and all these people can think of in his wake is their own advancement.

Most of them are self-conscious enough to know that they treat a fine line between rise and fall themselves, having lived close to death with Stalin’s mood often turning deadly. And yet, once he’s finished, they don’t try to turn things for the better, but instead all they do, even the things that are good for others, are merely steps to get ahead in the race to supplant him. These are not great or good men, these are shills and hacks and useful idiots Stalin surrounded himself with after he killed and exiled everyone more able and better.

With such a subject you might think its hard to find the humor, but the movie masterfully hones in on the darkly humoristic, especially when people die by the dozen to keep the secrecy. The other side of the humor is how ridiculous and downright clownish Stalin’s inner circle was. It doesn’t matter whether its historically accurate, few people who saw the inner workings of his circle survived long enough, including all its members.

What the movie does is make you aware how flawed, small-minded these people were, so fearful of death that they were a willing collaborator of all of Stalin’s evil. It’s deeply cathartic to see them bumble around and fuck up but at the same time, it’s hard to forget just how many people they got killed and how little they cared.