Tag Archives: science fiction

Ancillary Sword

Look at me, cleaning up my partially-read series backlog. Woo! But also, it’s nice in this case because I still remembered at least a little bit of Ancillary Justice. Not nearly everything, but probably enough.

A thing about that book and about Ancillary Sword that I find disheartening in myself is how much importance I place on gender. I should not spend large swathes of a book who is purposely (by the author, at least) cloaking gender by making it completely irrelevant to the society the series portrays, I should not I was saying spend most of the book wondering as to the gender identity of its characters as they come and go. And yet I do. Not that non-binary is what the book is portraying, exactly, but it is definitely clear to me via this book (and okay, not only via this book) that it’s not a concept I have yet comprehended. Gender dysphoria, I comprehend. Rejection of the concept, I just… don’t. (And for all I know, that description of it may even be missing the point.)

That bit of failed self-examination aside, the book continues to concern itself with the concept of justice, albeit from a different angle. A particularly of the moment angle, although the fires[1] of BLM had not yet started when the book was being written, as it happens: what justice is owed by a government to its citizens, especially when not all citizens are considered equal, and the divisors are by (in this instance) planet of origin[2].

Anyway: it is a) a good book, once more, and b) a maddeningly sparse book in the sense of resolving what I had considered to be the prime issue of the series. Okay, that’s not right. You don’t resolve the issues of your trilogy in the second book, but you… you advance them, right? This barely felt like that at all.

But that’s a me issue, reacting to the structure with which I have been presented. Taken on its own, this book, just like the one before it, is one of the best things I’ve read in many a year. Would heartily recommend.

[1] Figurative fires. Don’t even with me on this.
[2] At least I think I’m reading this correctly, between the lines. It’s made explicit now and again that there are alien species, and how many. Therefore, everyone else must be human and just of different origins prior to the Imperial Radch swallowing them up, whether decades, centuries, or millennia ago. I think. Like a lot of sci-fi, things are left for you to figure out on your own, and therefore arguably this entire footnote is a massive spoiler.

Godzilla vs. Kong

After three previous movies, one of which I didn’t see, the second of which I liked pretty well[1], and the third of which I liked less, since it was so closely related to that first movie I never saw… after all those movies, it was inevitable that I would eventually see the capstone movie where the two main titans clash it out[2].

So yes, I saw Godzilla vs. Kong (at home, even though we’re seemingly in the home stretch), and yes, I liked it, because y’know… monster fights! But I didn’t love it, because of how I spotted basically the entire plot within the first ten minutes, and also because of a spoiler regarding characters[3]. But the set pieces were pretty great, and the monster fights!, and did I mention footnote one?

I think it’s because I like to root for the underdog, and, despite physical appearances, that’s who Kong has always been, in every role he’s garnered.

[1] But then, I’ve always liked Kong movies
[2] To be fair, I like Godzilla movies okay too, even if I did miss that one somehow.
[3] See footnote four, below the cut[4]

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Slaves Unchained

I started reviewing things here in September of 2004. The first two books of the Slave Trade trilogy were published in 2003, and Slaves Unchained was released in early 2005. My lack of reviews on the prior books indicates that I definitely read them in earlier 2004, and then just never moved on to the third one. But I’ve got this stack of old books I’m trying to get through, and so…

The problem with a trilogy whose first two entries I read 25 years ago[1] is, well, a) I barely remember why I read them in the first place[2], and b) I even more barely remember the plot. Which is why I went looking for my previous reviews in the first place and discovered that they just missed the temporal cut. Too bad for me.

What I know is: humans are treasured as pleasure slaves by the other species of the galaxy, because those other species cannot have sex outside procreative imperative, but humans can. And I know that a bunch of said human characters found a way to rebel and escape from their imprisonment, with the occasional help of sympathetic aliens, who are all involved in a two or three way war with some of each other. Not a lot to go on, but of course this third book was written with people who had not read the prior books in 25 years in mind, so… haha no.

Basically I stumbled from chapter to chapter following subplots that matched my memory, subplots that were destined to eventually tie into the plots I remembered, and subplots that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the book, only to crash headlong into an ending that was extremely open, but which has never been followed up upon.

Was it good? I legitimately have no idea[3]. Was it good enough to reread the first two books and form a real opinion? It was not.

[1] More than half my life!, at least for now.
[2] I believe they were recommended by Lara Beaton as having been written by her sister-in-law. No doubt she will immediately appear to correct me if I have this wrong. No doubt whatsoever.
[3] Notably, it was not actively bad. It was also not especially erotica, despite what the cover would have you believe. I dimly think the first two books were? But this one, huh-uh.

Gears 5

Back at the dawn of time, I played Gears of War. Later, I started to play Gears of War 2 and got maybe two chapters in, and then… never touched the series again, except in multiplayer. Even though I liked it! They were good games! But I did a thing I maybe do with frequency (in games especially), and let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Because these are two player games, and they are explicitly different in two player at times, so you feel like more is going on if you get the full experience, and since I was not at that time getting said full experience… well, here we are.

Fast forward fourteen[1] years, and I have now played Gears 5, which for one thing is no longer “of War” apparently, and for another thing is the second(!!) entry in a new trilogy, the original Gearsing having apparently been completed with volume 3 until they decided they could make more money, and for a third thing is now a three player game.

I know you’re asking. “Well how do you have three players to play a game with when you haven’t had two for over a decade?”, and that’s a fair question. But this new Game Pass dealie has drawn people out of the woodwork, is what. The important part is, I did have three players, and the game seriously uses them to good effect! Because one character is something something that’s a spoiler for this game and probably way more of a spoiler for volume 4 which I have not played, and one player is a hoverbot with a lot of cool non-gun-based powers, and one player drives sail skiffs, and together you wander around doing the kinds of things people expect out of War Gears, which is mostly fighting indigenous underground aliens. But now with occasional open world exercises instead of non-stop rails.

Long story short, it’s pretty cool still, and except for being allergic to third-person shooters or characters who have necks the size of an average American’s waist, there’s basically nothing not to like here.

[1] god help us

Circle Thrice

Nearly a year since the last Deathlands. Oops? But between a global pandemic and a new son, I’ve had things going on. …boy howdy. Things.

Circle Thrice is a weird book, even by the standards of the series so far. For one thing, it’s highly episodic. Except for the fact that our post-apocalyptic teleporting companions are not literally on the Mississippi River (it’s the Tennessee instead), the first two thirds of the story remind me a lot of Huckleberry Finn. Because there they go, downriver[1] on a raft, running into various weird people and situations[2] without very much fear of consequence, because, as you know by now, our heroes are very well-armed and other people generally are not. It’s a peaceful interlude, if you correct for mutant death around every corner.

Later, in the last third, we get to a more typical “heroes run into a baron who may not have their best interests in mind and/or former enemy makes a new appearance” situation, and that part is fine as well. I guess a thing I like about these books is that, 32 volumes in, they are simultaneously comfort food and something I’ve never read before. It’s not like I’m getting bored, clearly. Probably because they still keep me guessing with things like the first two aforementioned thirds, and with things like wondering if that wound that keeps being mentioned and which keeps not getting resolved is going to turn into a really big deal major character death or in fact is just an oops, need to stretch more and maybe take it easy for a day or so. It’s nice to not know for sure, instead of seeing it coming from miles away.

Also, though, the book title? It feels like a religious or especially pagan religious reference, right? No idea if it is one, my briefest of googles tells me not especially, but man it sounds like it. Also, it doesn’t mean a single thing relative to the story being told. Nothing. Pick any other random imperative verb and slightly archaic modifier, and it would fit equally well here.

So that’s weird.

[1] Did Huck and Jim go upriver? Because on the one hand, how do you stop being a slave by going farther south? But on the other hand, raft + river rarely results in an upriver trip. How is this the first time I’m asking myself this question?
[2] Villagers who have a raft that needs stealing. Non-consensual BDSM priest. Tour of the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh. Graceland[3]. Rabid villagers (not the same ones as the ones with the raft).
[3] Look. I’m not saying it’s on the Tennessee River. I’m not even saying the writer is saying that. It’s just another episodic thing that happened. They don’t all have to tie directly to the raft, okay?

The Turing Test

Because I am extremely timely, have another review of a game that’s leaving Game Pass today! The Turing Test is a sci-fi puzzle game[1] in which Ava Turing wakes up from cryosleep above Europa and is tasked by her AI companion, TOM, to go to the surface and find out why communication from the crew has ceased. Not as in “why aren’t they answering anymore” (although that too), as in “why is the communication link down?”

Upon arrival, however, the mystery deepens when the rooms of the base have been repurposed into puzzles that require creative solutions to proceed deeper, apparently to keep someone (or something?) out. Whereupon follows 77 rooms’ worth of puzzles combined with an ongoing discussion between Ava and TOM on the nature of consciousness plus occasional clues as to what happened down there.

The puzzles are very occasionally ridiculous, but mostly the right amount of difficult[2]. The plot is deeper and ultimately stronger than I gave it credit for. On the whole? Pretty impressive game; recommended, even.

[1] If you’re thinking “poor man’s Portal“, well, that’s a fair comparison. Happily, there’s a lot of room to go downhill from Portal and still have an enjoyable and plot-dense experience.
[2] Well, for me at least, and not counting the rooms that were extra simple, just to teach you new rules.

Tacoma

So far, my favorite thing about Xbox’s Game Pass service is that it gives me the freedom to try things out that I cannot otherwise convince myself to pay for. To wit, Tacoma, which is apparently the only other game from the people who made Gone Home.

The upshot being, a) I really liked this story, about an abandoned orbital station where I was tasked with downloading the station AI and acquiring the associated hardware, which perhaps (or perhaps not?) inevitably involves learning some details about why exactly the station is abandoned; but b) I felt somewhat misled into believing that I would have some kind of influence over the outcome, rather than only walking through a story. I am not per se opposed to this form of visual novel, I just want to have a clearer idea of what to expect? I don’t think I ever felt this way about Gone Home, and by contrast I think I actually did have some minor influence over the outcomes of Firewatch, which was also a much larger game.

But that is an issue of expectations contrary to reality; the game taken as is was pretty excellent, and I would have no trouble recommending it. Which would be easier to do if it hadn’t fallen off the Game Pass thing at the end of the month, some very few brief hours after I finished it. Which is good news for me, but… oops.

Palm Springs (2020)

Palm Springs is a “the less you know about it the better” comedy in which Andy Samberg (one of The Lonely Island, or, if you’re not me, the lead in Brooklyn Nine-Nine) interacts with a destination wedding and the bridesmaids thereof, over the course of an interminable wedding day. (I mean, it’s only like an hour and a half or two hours, because, movie.)

The problem I have now is how to fill at least enough space to match the poster. Um. It’s funny! It’s also philosophical and has characters that change and grow. Which is three things that a lot of comedies don’t have, even though almost all of them should have at least two of those things.

Plus, it’s on Hulu, and apparently they made it. Which I think means it’s technically free unless they changed their online viewing policies, which, how would I know? But man, I hope it doesn’t have commercial interruptions. Anyway, check it out!

The Outer Worlds

I played a game!

In even more shocking news, I played a game within about half a year of its release![1] I’m, uh, I’m actually having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. So, The Outer Worlds is a sci-fi RPG in which you wake up to a colonial civilization in decay and have to work out what to do about it. See, everyone came to the system from Earth about 70 years ago in two colony ships, except the second ship never showed up. Not to get too on the nose politically (primarily the first couple of groups), but the system is divided into approximately four groups.

  1. The Halcyon Holdings Corporation, who sponsored the outbound flight and even now works to develop new products for the many inhabitants of the Halcyon System
  2. The employees of the ten companies that pooled resources to form the HHC, mostly indentured to pay for their passage, and mostly unable to see a path to buying their full freedom from the situation, and that’s not counting the ones who haven’t really thought about wanting to
  3. Dangerous marauders who have broken free and now prey on society
  4. A handful of independents who through either corporate success or unlawful escape now live free of corporate restrictions, but at the mercy of the aforementioned marauders, not to mention the deadly beasts who roam the worlds and, sometimes, corporate troopers looking to enforce the original code

And now there’s you, a recently awakened colonist from the second ship, which is not lost after all, it just arrived extremely late, and by then enough water had passed under the bridge that the Board of the HHC decided… but I suppose now I’m getting into details past the first hour of play, so I’ll leave it here.

The story of this world is a delight. I can see lots of options I could have taken differently that would have had major impacts on the outcome, and some of them I would even want to see, only, who has time for playing for another 40-50 hours? The path I took, I have very few regrets about, so that’s nice. Plus the one sidebar about 90% of the way through the game that had me laughing in delight about one sublime moment of full character immersion for easily 30 minutes, before I restored and played like an adult instead.

The gameplay is… well, it’s fine, right? This is largely a shooter RPG, as I think they all are now, and it has companions, which means that your companions will always screw up your ambush and use up half or two thirds of its effectiveness. Which is a bummer. And the inventory system is nightmarishly bad. But on the bright side, once you acknowledge that there’s no way around that fact, it mostly melts away into irrelevance and just becomes the thing that makes you play a couple few extra hours than you would have in total. But if I had cared less about the plot and characters, I would have stopped playing quickly in frustration over just how bad it is, and never gotten past that threshold.

The story and backstory of the world definitely end up with more questions than answers, even as the story of the game concluded very satisfyingly. I very much want a sequel, and… I think I want that sequel to not include character importing, because my character’s story is over. But I’d hang out in the universe again from a different POV, no question.

[1] There is no question, in retrospect, that this is quarantine[2]-related. But I started in January, so it’s not solely due to quarantine.
[2] Note to future generations: It’s the Covid-19 coronavirus quarantine of 2020, not some weird personal thing or one of the other quarantines you will have learned about in your history classes.

Keepers of the Sun

This week in the Deathlands, our heroes… are not in the Deathlands, actually. See, for the past three to five books, there have been hints of circa 17th C samurai that have been using the same teleportation gateways that our band of semi-heroes have been using to travel around the post-apocalyptic remains of what was once the United States. (So, y’know, near future sci-fi.) All of which to say, this time they come out in Japan!

Well, in the post-apocalyptic remains of what was once Japan. Because, you know, global thermonuclear war has only the one winning move, and nobody in this series took it.

Anyway: Keepers of the Sun is mostly interesting as a historical time capsule of the late ’80s[1], when we had an economically tense relationship with Japan. I have frequently lauded the sexual egalitarianism of these books, and I would have guessed that the racial parts would be the same. This is… kind of true here? Not as much as I wanted, but in some ways it felt like the blustery, rough-edged folk of the future were learning not to be racist against the Japanese[2] as a stand-in for the (let’s be honest) mostly working class truck driver type who became the biggest audience for this series.

I know for sure that I kept expecting [hereafter follow spoilers for a book you will never read] the other shoe to drop with the nominally noble-minded, Bushido-coded warlord[3], but no, he really was what he seemed. Even their points of contention over a possible mass invasion of the Deathlands could I think have been solved by the realization that even with the many uninhabitable or outright destroyed regions of North America, population reduction has resulted in plenty of room for everyone. But the mostly episodic nature of the series largely prevents that size of change to geopolitics, I suppose. So they found another way to resolve it.

[1] I’m trying very hard to disregard the 1996 publication date here.
[2] Except manga. Everyone stayed racist against manga.
[3] Okay, what I cannot especially defend is the premise that the meager remains of Japan’s main island would revert to circa 17th C warlords, samurai, ronin, and peasants. But since the US has mostly reverted to feudalism, it’s not as troublesome as it sounds at first glance.[4]
[4] I’m a little proud of that phrasing.