Tag Archives: science fiction

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.

Crossways

As usual, a weekend in the woods means another Deathlands book[1]. I don’t have a lot to say about it, because it was extremely transitional. Also because reviewing these is starting to feel a little like reviewing individual issues of comics? I think the latter is more true because this one was transitional. Like, when you have a really good four to six issue Spider-Man or Avengers run, and they’ve set up hints about what will happen next that’s big, but in between there are a couple of episodic villain of the week bits, with maybe two panels each dedicated to “no really, the next story is about to happen”? This is that but in book form.

And don’t get me wrong, the aggregate story is not hurt in the least by the transition, but there’s not a lot to say about it, nevertheless.

They’re still teleporting around, there are still dropped hints about teleporting Samurai too, plus a cast change and the first seeds of the big story that will follow whatever resolution occurs with the Japanese teleporters. Also: Crossways has enough dining establishments in a row to make me realize I can’t really wrap my head around either the economy or the distribution chains that would make some of the dishes they are making on the regular possible.

This last bit makes me sad, because I don’t want to accidentally ruin the series thirty books in by overthinking whether the world is plausible.

[1] Except I didn’t actually read a lot, and then took the rest of the month to finish. At least I am reading, unlike in August.

The Institute

It’s nice to have read a book within a reasonable timetable for a change. I mean, sure, The Institute came out nearly a month ago, but I’ve only been reading for a week or two. (I think?) Since I’ve been taking a lot longer than that lately and for shorter books to boot, I’ll gladly accept the win.

My last impression is one of sadness. Because, okay, anyone can just be walking down the street and get plowed into by a bus van, and bam, lights out. That is the way of the world. But this is the first time I’ve seen an author photo of Stephen King and thought that he looked old. Which means there’s a time limit outside the confines of happenstance.

If I were terribly clever, I would now tie in the plot or theme(s) of the book into this sense of impending loss. And okay, maybe I could at that[3], but I don’t want to get too deep into spoiler territory. So, instead, let’s start over.

My first impression of the book was… well, okay, it has a pretty confusing intro. I say confusing because it has nothing whatsoever to do with the visible plot of the book, as judged by the cover. And, in retrospect, this is 100% awkward. I don’t mind, because I will give the man a lot of leeway, but if you are really interested in the structure of writing, yeah, I cannot say this is a stand-out entry.

My middle impression of the book was extremely favorable! See, there’s the hyper smart kid, one of those people who is a supernova in a world of candles and light bulbs, right? I’ve met one or two of them, and while I don’t consider myself a dope, I’m smart enough to know the difference between me and someone like that.[1] And via a few dozen pages of plot events occurring, he finds himself in a prison for children who have certain small talents.

Everything else follows from here. Why was he taken? What do they want? What can he do about it? Everyone wants to compare this book to It, because the main characters are mostly children, and… I mean, that’s a true point of overlap between the books, but man are they nothing alike. And almost none of the things I love about that book are present here either. Some of the kids are outsider types, but some are not, and it is certainly not the meat of their friendships. There’s no sense of the sweep of a dark and disturbing history[2], no slice of small town life through a lens as warped as conservative ideology paints our mid-century past, only warped in the opposite direction. In all the ways that make that book matter, they’re nothing alike.

Which is not to say I did not like The Institute. It’s a lovely adventure story with characters I cared about. But it’s a fun book, not a great book. Which is okay! It’s just irritating to compare the books on the basis of “kids vs evil”.

Long story short: I hate writing reaction reviews, and I’m sorry that either of us had to sit through this one.

[1] Also, happily, it means I don’t have to dwell on how King didn’t write him nearly intelligently enough, what with the twin excuses of how would I know the difference past a certain point, and that, supernova or not, he’s still twelve.
[2] Although if the book were twice its length perhaps there could have been. This is not a thing I can recommend, though.
[3] Anyway, after further consideration, the thing I was thinking of doesn’t even really work.

Bloodlines

I know mostly all I do is complain about being behind and/or working constantly. But here’s my point. I read another Deathlands book, right? This is the book I take camping because I might finish one or two over a long weekend, all while helping with a giant fireworks show plus explosion, and also getting up to who knows what all manner of shenanigans. (I mean, I know, but this is a public forum, of however limited readership.)

It took me a month to read Bloodlines. A month. Something has got to change, somehow. There are too many books in the world for me to take a month on a book that has otherwise taken me a day.

Also, you might argue, there are too many books in the world to read the Deathlands at all. And, well. Maybe, but this is an old argument. Especially now that this book has turned the entire series on its head. Because up until now, this has been nonstop science fiction for people who think they are gun-and-sex apocalyptic enthusiasts. (Or, if you’re me, occasional gun porn for people who are apocalypse-and-sex science fiction enthusiasts. But unlike the people it’s actually for, I’m not fooling myself.) But as of this book, they have thrown horror into the mix.

Specifically, Louisiana vampires. How weird is that? But let’s be honest, it’s the mid 1990s now (adjusted for publication date), it was a weird time.

Does this mean that around 2010 the series will introduce comic superheroes? (I’m pretty sure it definitely means that around 2003, the series will introduce zombies. Maybe sooner.)

 

 

Alien III

Meanwhile, another Audible dramatic presentation, because that’s a thing I do now? It’s not really my fault, both of these were monthly freebie giveaways, and I still haven’t finished the Malazan side book I’m reading, due mostly to the previously mentioned horror show that is my professional life. Although to be fair, I would have spent a hard-earned credit on this one.

The thing is, I don’t really like Alien3. I mean, as a horror movie it’s actually fine, and as an Alien franchise movie, well, the truth is I like the world so much that I cannot fairly judge the film’s individual merits, but I’m pretty sure I like it in that context too. But I absolutely hate it as a sequel to Aliens, because it undoes everything that movie accomplished, from a character perspective. Hey, says James Cameron, let’s give the Final Girl from Alien a tragic backstory, where she loses her entire family over this mess because she’s lost in stasis for over fifty years, and now her daughter, older than Ripley and a grandmother in her own right hates and resents her over something Ripley had no control over. And then let’s send her to an amazing showdown with the creatures that took everything away from her, and have her claw her way back to a family of her own, over the corpses of the family members of the alien bitch that took it all away in the first place. That is narrative gold, and even as much as people mostly approve of Aliens, I still think it is badly underestimated. Top five movie, probably.

And then Alien Cubed comes along and says, haha, nope, what family, they all died in a random crash landing because all we really care about is Ripley v Alien, character development is for other genres. So yeah. In context, I really loathe the movie.

Enter William Gibson, who apparently wrote a script for Alien III, which for reasons unknown to me was disregarded in favor of the dreck above. If I had to guess, it’s because he delved a little too deeply into the corporatist framework of the previous two movies. Which, I mean, is what you expect out of the father of cyberpunk, right? Anyway, I had heard someone mention that his screenplay was floating around the internet, but I never got around to seeking it out. And now, I no longer need to!

The audiobook version is really just a movie performance without the images. So they spend a little more time dialoguing descriptions of what they can see to each other over the radio, which means a little less time in quiet claustrophobic scenes that drag on just long enough to stay scary. It weighs in at a little under two hours, and while there are aspects I would have tinkered with here and there, I am left saddened that I never got to see this movie, and even moreso that I will never get to see or hear its sequels. Because not only is it a better concept for a movie, it’s a better world-building trajectory for the Alien franchise than we will ever see.

Happy Death Day 2U

At the very beginning of Happy Death Day, while the Universal logo is appearing, they did something clever. It hitches like a record scratch and restarts, twice, before proceeding. Just enough to let you know what you’re getting into, right?

Happy Death Day 2U starts with a mild similarity, in which the hitch splits the screen in two, and then in three. Which, if you don’t know what they’re going for, I guess it would be a spoiler to tell you? But anyway, my point here is mostly to say that I believe the science fiction slasher movie is wholly untrodden ground, and they deserve props for this alone.

Except for the slight genre shift, though, the movie follows an extremely important rule of horror movie sequels, first spoken by Joe Bob Briggs more than thirty years ago[1], and here I am paraphrasing: Just make the same damn movie as you did the first time. (In some ways this movie takes the advice even more literally than is typical, but that stands to reason.) But yeah. Starts on the same day the last movie ended? Yes indeed. Follows (mostly) the same characters who are faced with (essentially) the same problems? Aye. Rule: followed!

The plot is so full of holes that it would more properly be referred to as a colander, but neither movie takes itself very seriously, so that’s fine. Plus, the more serious parts are actually thoughtful and touching, which gives them even more leeway as far as I’m concerned. As long as they keep the same cast and (I presume) writers/directors, I will cheerfully watch (and probably rewatch) these movies in perpetuity.

[1] Citation needed.[2]
[2] Haha, beat you to it. It’s possible I could find it, if he was writing for the Dallas paper that still exists and if they have internetted their 1980s archives. I first read it in a book of collected columns, so.

Emerald Fire

I haven’t read anything but comics in about a week, because I’m behind on this book review. The irony is, of course: in what world am I worried about the quality of a Deathlands review that nobody cares about?

Emerald Fire was a mixed bag. I liked the setting (somewhere in Central America, for a change of pace) and the idea of helping local tribes against slavers trying to keep a silver mine running. I probably should mind the “American saviors of helpless natives” trope, up to and including the part where the albino kid was worshipped as their god. But that was overshadowed by the part where our heroes were nobly disgusted by all the ritual human sacrifice.

It’s like, in-world you’re descendants of the people who blew up the world, and your home stomping grounds treat life as cheaply as the rotgut that passes for liquor; and from the reader’s perspective, you’re a subgenre mashup of two barely respected literary forms. In each of these cases, you’re not good enough to cast aspersions at other cultures.

Of course, the problem here is, now I’m forced into the role of apologist for cultural relativism and human sacrifice, and that’s not very exciting for me. But man were they being holier-than-thou about it.

Oh, hey. One other random thing, regarding the cover. I wonder if they had this in mind for an earlier book, but it wasn’t ready in time or something like that? Because two books ago, there was definitely a fight with a giant mutant crab. There equally definitely was nothing crablike in this book. So!

Ground Zero

Sometimes the title of a Deathlands book will make me scratch my head in puzzlement, since it seems like they just took a couple of random words, one of them semi-complex, and strung them together, irrespective of the plot of the book. Other times, such as Ground Zero, I’m pretty well on board.

See, our heroes have landed in what used to be Washington DC but is now simply referred to as the Washington Hole, what with how many missiles were aimed dead center of the seat of American government. So there’s a blasted pit several miles wide, a new volcano, Lake Potomac, and villes all around the pit where people still live and do business, since it was after all a populous area, pre-nuke. Yeah, ground zero works just fine.

That said, it’s really just a string of largely disconnected events, though I guess the second half of the book is tied pretty well together. Highlights include the most powerful mutant seer anyone in the series has ever met, a creepy zoo of rare oddities, a pivotal tornado, more signs of the samurai that rumors say have been all over the place lately, and most rare and wondrous of all, a bartender who remembers our heroes fondly from encounters past.

Shadowfall

By now you know the Deathlands drill, or have been ignoring reviews of the series and will ignore this one too. The main things that stand out about Shadowfall are the introduction of a new ongoing antagonist (a mutant hypnotist who collects hair, nominally for the sale of wigs) and the inversion of the usual formula, where the ruling baron of the area is typically a power-hungry sadist and tyrant who needs to be toppled.[1]

A thing I found interesting is that this was one of the few places where… let me back up. See, Krysty (the redhead who can sense the limited future enough to warn of impending doom, or else have a good idea of whether her friends are safe or not in real time, over long distances) has been wanting Ryan (her boyfriend, the one-eyed leader of the traveling group of… heroes? mercenaries? I guess ronin would be a pretty good analogue[2]) to settle down somewhere pleasant and make babies. The thing I found interesting was that this was one of the few times since she’s wanted this that they voluntarily left a locale where settling down would have been feasible, and she didn’t say a single word about it.

The thing you should find interesting about this is that the lack of consistent characterization is a noteworthy outlier.

[1] Power vacuums are not really a problem for our heroes, since they will be teleporting somewhere else by the beginning of next book at the latest.
[2] Appropriation being what it is, I should first note that this is my assessment, nobody has said anything like that in the books (not that they wouldn’t, because really, this is mid ’90s authorship[3], but they didn’t), and second note that I really can’t think of an American cognate for ronin. The only thing close is some Westerns tropes, but most of those are lifted wholesale from Japanese samurai / ronin stories and dressed up with six-guns and leathers in the first place, so you see my problem.
[3] There have been hints in fact of some probably but not definitely Japanese people popping up in weird places and slaughtering folks, which I expect to pay off in a book or two (and which may be what put the lordless samurai comparison in my head in the first place, come to think of it). None of this would be relevant, except that they’re being referred to as Orientals, which by 1995 really should have been out of common usage. So that’s been an annoyance.