Friday, June 30, 2017

Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar

Book cover Central Station describes a very interesting cyberpunk style of future, where amazing yet commonplace technology mixes with the traditional and with the local culture in a world in which the Solar System has been colonized. And then the book ends. Lavie Tidhar manages to imagine all of this creative world, but doesn't succeed on making the book more than the collection of short stories it actually is. That doesn't mean the book is not worth reading or that other works from the author will not benefit from the world building in it, but it feels like a missed opportunity. The book is short, it describes interactions between a surprisingly small and somehow related people and then it just ends with none of the threads in it being resolved in any way. The main character remains as the background city of Central Station, former Tel Aviv.

The writing style is also a bit heavy. It is descriptive, a little pretentious, but it might have felt like that because I was reading in the subway or when going to sleep and I wasn't in the mood for intellectual work. Even so I believe that a lighter style with more attention to story development would have benefited this book.

Bottom line: I liked the story immediately and felt betrayed after it abandoned me right when I was intrigued enough to seek closure. It is worth a read and I hope Tidhar expands the world in other stories beyond the insular location of the book. I am also looking forward to reading other things from the same author.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Blood Drive, the perfect combination of Mad Max and Wacky Races, via Z-Nation

Oh, SyFy does it again with a show that is wild, totally over the top and really really fun. Post-apocalypse, hot rod cars that use human blood for fuel, cannibals, wild sex, murder sprees, wild people, Colin Cunningham, corporate overlords, awakened psychotic robots, making fun of corporate overlords, ridiculously attractive people surrounded by ridiculously ugly people... Blood Drive is just too silly to care and too wild to not enjoy. I am watching the third episode already and I am laughing my ass off: "Praise synergy for it provides us with low hanging fruit!", you gotta love that.

Update: of course something truly fun can't last. Blood Drive has been cancelled after just one season.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1), by Yoon Ha Lee

book cover Finally, a fresh, unapologetically sci-fi story with so many interesting ideas and cultural innovation that I can barely wait for the second book in the series to come out.

Yoon Ha Lee creates this far into the future universe in which everything from social structure to space travel and military technology is run by rigid doctrine that uses a particular calendar. Certain battle formations, using certain weapons, doing specific things leads to "exotic effects", carefully manipulated through higher mathematics, that power society and military expansion. Of course, there are multiple possible calendaristical configurations, but they interfere with each other, so after choosing one, any deviation is considered heretical. Add to this an Asian view of hierarchy and politics and you get the most delicious book I've read in a long, long time.

Ninefox Gambit is, unfortunately, merely the beginning of the story. While one could consider the entire thing a standalone book that leaves the rest of the story to the imagination of the reader, the rich universe that it creates makes followups inevitable. In this case, I can barely wait for them. There isn't much else to say about the book other than urge you to read it. As with any good writing, the plot is simple, but the individual scenes give its flavor. It is an almost unspoilable story, since it doesn't rely much on twists, but on bringing value in every chapter, through rich characterization and original scenecraft.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Mist is now a TV series... a bad TV series

The Mist is a novella by Stephen King that has been adapted into a great horror movie. I mean, I rated the movie 10 out of 10 stars. So when the TV show The Mist came around I was ecstatic. And then... I watched three episodes of the most insipid and obnoxious series I've seen since Under The Dome. Nay, since Fear of the Walking Dead.

Imagine they removed most of the monsters and replaced them with mostly insects, then they enhanced everything else: small town politics, family matters, teenagers, etc. OK, the original Mist was great because it showed the greatest ugliness was not the interdimensional creatures, but the pettiness of humans. However, it was the right balance between the two. Now, in a TV show that censors words like "fuck", you get to see teenage angst, drug rape, power hungry egotistic policemen, one of the most beautiful actresses from Vikings relegated to the role of an overprotective mother, husband and wife interactions - lots of those, junkies, amnesiac soldiers, priests, goth kids, nature freaks, old people... oh, the humanity! Three episodes in which nothing happened other than exposition, introduction of lots of characters no one cares for and that's about it.

I am tired. I really am tired of hearing that price is driven by offer and demand - which is quite true because that's the definition of price, it has nothing to do with actual value. Same with stories: they are all about people, because people care about people and most people are people. No need for anything too exotic when all you need to do to please most people is to show them other most people. Grand from a marketing point of view, but quite pointless overall, I would say. But who's gonna listen to me, I am not most people after all.

Bottom line: lately there has been a lot of effort invested into TV. HBO and Netflix have led the way by caring about their productions enough to make them rival and even beat not only film productions, but also the original literary material. This has led me to hope against hope that The Mist will be the best horror TV show out there, one that would maybe last two or three seasons at most, but burn a bright light. Instead it is a dying fire that wasn't properly lit and is probably going to take two or three seasons just to properly die out without anyone noticing it is gone, yet managing to poison the legacy of the film forever.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

book cover The only fantastical element in this book, except for a ghost that makes a short appearance, is a change in location. The rest is historical fiction in some place that feels exactly like Renaissance Europe, only it has another name and other gods. Worst than that, the story is boring and the writing mediocre. I couldn't finish it.

The story in Children of Earth and Sky follows a few chosen characters while they navigate the treacherous waters lying between warring (and spying) nations. I mean this both metaphorically and literally, since it is also about ships crossing the sea. Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing published works since 1984 which is why I was surprised to see such an amateurish writing style. He uses several tools again and again and again, without much effect. The worse, for me, was describing the same scene from different viewpoints, one after another, even if it did nothing to enrich the story or develop characters. Another is a certain repetition of a phrase for emphasis, something like "He didn't like the book. He didn't." OK, emphasized enough! Also I felt that the author coddled his characters too much. Instead of making them suffer in interesting situations, he just lets them off easy with crises that they can easily handle or at least manage with heroic skill. In one of the most important scenes, one of a battle, he kills off a major character, at which point I was thinking "OK, it's getting started", only to resurrect them immediately after. Ugh!

So beside being a boring historical drama (I mean boring even for a historical drama!), it really nagged me that it was marketed as fantasy. Maybe I am just getting fed up, considering I've just read a western and a heist story, both included in the fantasy and sci-fi genre because they happened in the future or in spaaaaaace. Bottom line: I can't in good conscience recommend this book and I am quite amazed that it has such a high rating.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Realm of the Damned, an improbably entertaining animated motion comic

At first I thought Realm of the Damned would be boring. It was a series of comic book images animated via moving them around or deforming them, while a narrator was speaking on the background. The story also had the seeds that have been used so many times with little success: Van Helsing, vampires, werewolves and so on. But it was only one hour long, how bad could it be? And as the story progressed I really enjoyed the experience. And it wasn't because of the gory graphics or the strong voices or the heavy metal music as much as it was the story. Surprisingly deep, it explores not only a world that is dominated by undead monsters, but the inner turmoils of the last defender of humanity. The ending was gripping and terrible and funny at the same time.

I recommend it highly. Here is the trailer:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Three (Legends of the Duskwalker #1), by Jay Posey

book cover Three is a western. The fact that it happens in a post apocalyptic cyberpunk world is incidental. Jay Posey writes about the classical strong silent reluctant hero who fights for a good cause represented by a woman who has changed her ways and her innocent child. There are cyber zombies, there are evil pursuers and a world in which the strong survive in strongholds that are few and far between.

The book works because the writing is good and because the author never attempts to explain what happened to the world or how things actually work. It could have just as well been magic and pixie dust and the story would have remained basically unchanged. And unlike what the title of the review might indicate, you can read the book as a stand alone story, even if it has sequels. It had a beginning, a middle and a resolution.

Bottom line: an enjoyable book, albeit a bit predictable. Its strong suit is the good writing rather than a particularly smart idea or world building or even subtle characterization. Characters are kind of cardboard, but their actions and what happens around them is all well written. I don't think I will continue to read the series, but the author intrigues me and so I may read other books of his, like the new Outriders.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Cool People

cool people next to the water cooler Cool people are those who respond to your opinions with condescension. Anything different from what they believe is ridiculous, pathetic, laughable or dangerous. I mean, they could even be right: you might have said something really stupid. But while you can handle finding out that something you were thinking is not true, they cannot. Their whole world view is based on them being right. While you might see them as a little hurtful and a bit annoying, they see you as a threat, because their truth is something they desperately cling to and any type of difference challenges their way of life.

You will usually meet them in positions of power. They are not enough of a sociopath to be top leadership, but they will be somewhere in the middle, telling themselves the story of how in control of their life they are. They clump together, because a tale is easier to believe in a group than by yourself. They drink together, they watch the same sports, they play the same games, they go in the same vacations, they have the same gods and the same rituals. Their information bubbles existed way before Facebook and while you might see them as ridiculous bubble people, they always fear you are carrying a pin to burst theirs. Cool people always know "how the world works" and to pretend otherwise would only mean you are not as savvy. Major changes leave them helpless and in search of a narrative that explains that away from their view of the world. Beware a former cool person for they are desperate.

They will applaud each other vigorously at every little success as they feel it's a validation of their own. Unfortunately, that means they will stand in the way of your success, as they feel it invalidates theirs. Cool people live on a narrow ladder, where everybody is clearly ranked on a vertical scale. Not being on their ladder makes them feel superior to you. Not wanting to be on their ladder makes them feel threatened by you. While you are exchanging information you possess, they only coerce it out of you in order to judge and rank you on their scale. When they are exchanging information is from a feeling of generosity, allowing you to know where the cool is; not being grateful angers them.

Cool people keep in touch. They cannot allow coolness to exist in different flavors. They maintain contact in order to synchronize their shared concepts. Socially it is easy for two cool people to communicate, because they are very similar. It is important to make other people feel not cool enough, because a cool person can't handle a conversation that doesn't follow a familiar pattern. While the problem is mostly theirs, they need to shift the blame onto others. They smile easily as a well trained skill, not an expression of how they feel. Smiles and laughter are tools and weapons for them.

Uncool people are essential to the well being of cool people. A careful dance of keeping people just far enough to indicate superiority, but close enough to make it visible to any outside observer, is essential to the lifestyle of cool people. While you either despise, pity or envy them, but you could easily do without them, they actually need you.

So how cool are you? I am not cool. I am better than cool. Me and my kind.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

book cover This reminded me of The Call, by Peadar Ó Guilín, another very well received book I've recently read. It features a female perspective, fairies and an unapologetic dissection of the human soul. The Call is better, but still, this is a very interesting book I will also recommend reading.

In Roses and Rot, Kat Howard uses the world of the Fae as an excuse to examine the bonds between people, the toxic effects of self-centeredness, whether in a parent or in yourself as you try to achieve some of your goals at the expense of others, and how people have to sacrifice for what they love. Imagine a magical place where everything is offered to you on a silver platter, with the promise that the best of you will get... a golden platter or whatever. And there is always a price.

I liked the psychological aspects of the story. There isn't much else of it, actually. As I said, the magic is merely incidental as the book is about the struggles of artists and daughters of idiots. I would go as far as not calling it fantasy at all. I disliked the close similarity between Janet and the girls' mother - I won't expand on this for fear of spoiling it. Enough to say that Helena's character and sidestory felt like a training run for what could have happened to the protagonist if not for her sister, so in one fell swoop, two characters from the already short list of relevant ones are just shadow copies of others. Add to this a lot of other details that are customized for the lead and you start to suspect this is a very autobiographical story. I don't know Kat Howard so well as to say it was, though. I will quote from the book though: “These [fairy tales] will be more autobiographical in nature than the Grimms'.”

Bottom line: It was a heartfelt story and I liked it. It is also short and not part of a billionogy, so you can just read it and enjoy it. Less fantasy than psychological drama, though.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Dark Run (Keiko #1), by Mike Brooks

book cover Dark Run is a classic pulp space mercenary book. It isn't even sci-fi at its core. It could have just as well been a western, a pirates or a heist book, as the science and technology don't further the story in any meaningful way.

I don't have anything specific to say about the book. Mike Brooks uses an overused plot of a specialized team of renegades being double crossed and having to defend their honor and punish the responsible. The characters are pure cardboard, with no subtlety, and even the humor is weak. I mean, it's pulp fiction, the author did a decent job writing one. As literature, though, it's not something I could possibly recommend.

The Summer Dragon (The Evertide #1), by Todd Lockwood

book cover Sagas and trilogies be damned! The Summer Dragon was a really entertaining book and having it end as a mere episode in a larger story that hasn't been written yet is quite frustrating.

Todd Lockwood is mostly known for his fantasy illustrations, not writing, and Summer Dragon is his debut novel. It is an YA story, with a similar structure as so many others: young nobody discovers they have special abilities and are thrown in a world of mystery, wonder and danger, with adults being either weak supporting characters and/or villains, but done right! The heroine - yes, a girl - is thrown into a situation in which politics and culture are forcing her to either be completely passive and submissive or to take action by herself. She doesn't do it with superpowers, but with the knowledge she learned from her father and her own personal courage and ingenuity. In the end she does overcome some pretty insurmountable odds, but it never gets too annoying. If there is a flaw I have to talk about it is the fact that each chapter is written with the same hero's journey structure, with new tension added at the end and character building in the middle. The author is a bit too neat in following the writing guidelines.

I liked that the protagonist is a woman. This is, so far, a perfect feminist book, since she is fighting real issues, social, political and military, using her own skills and in the few situations where she is a love interest she doesn't automatically feel she needs to either reciprocate or condescend and insult her suitor. It is also a book about dragons, but she is the daughter of a dragon breeder, rather than a kid that suddenly discovers there are dragons or other crap like that. The world is not very detailed, but what is in the book is pretty consistent and has a lot of potential.

I don't want to spoil the book by giving details, but there was also something that I felt was a missed opportunity. In an already existing conflict a third party emerges, a super villain, if you will. It was the perfect moment to switch the real source of the "evil" and to reframe an existing war as something that no one participating really understood. As written, it is very difficult to understand why career military men locked in a prolonged conflict dismiss vital tactical and strategic information for silly things like religious fervor or personal greed.

Given the opportunity I would have immediately read the other books in the series. Alas, The Summer Dragon was released just last year and it's the only published book so far. If you want to avoid frustration, wait until Lockwood writes a few more books and then start reading the series. I have great hopes for it.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

book cover There is a cover for the book that writes "Best SF Novel of the Year BSFA Award". I can only assert that it was either competing alone, that they give a prize to all contestants or that the British SF Association doesn't know what a good book is. Its worst flaw is that it is naive. First with its depiction of space. Stuff in the book would not have worked in the 80s, I believe, much less in 2012 when the book was released. The style of the prose seems to emulate works from the 50s and 60s and at first I wondered if it wasn't intentional, like a sort of parody or tip of the hat. Regardless, the book remains naive in almost all aspects, even those of the basic plot, which is not sci-fi, but rather whodunnit and escape from the room stuff.

That being said, Jack Glass is not a totally bad book, either. It presented some ideas that were rather fresh. Using convicts to prepare asteroids for colonization, for example, or having trillions of people living in the Solar System, not on planets, but asteroids and such, the idea that each of these habitats would create their own flavor of religion and culture. But other than these rare juicy details, the rest of the book is quite boring, predictable and bad. The clues to solve the mysteries, rather than being presented to the reader so that they can participate in the solving, are brought in by random plot events, like dreams. People that were supposed to be the best rationalists, Sherlock Holmes style, were being manipulated and educated by ordinary people that somehow knew and understood more. The laws of physics, psychology and sociology are being completely ignored.

Bottom line, a bad book from Adam Roberts, with the occasional hidden gem that doesn't really save the silly plot and ugly narrative.

The case of the bitch and her mysterious disease

So, me and the wife were walking our dog in the park one Saturday evening when we saw this female German Sheppard mutt looking all lost and terrified. The wife, being the heart of us two, points out to me that the dog is probably lost and she looks terrified. Me, not being the heart in the relationship, just hoped her owners would show up. Well, one can't ignore one's heart, as my wife keeps repeating in the hope I am listening, so I end up attaching a leash to the dog's collar and heroically attempting to save the dog.

The plan was as follows. Step 1: take the dog to the vet. Step 2: the vet will know what to do. Additional info: the dog was walking really strange, was terrified of everything, but especially crossing streets and was bleeding from between the legs, occasionally appearing to try to piss and nothing coming out. Suspecting a car hit and maybe internal bleeding, I rushed the dog to the vet I know in the area, who also treats my dog. Imagine doing that with a 20 kilos dog who is afraid of streets, basically.

Step 1 went to shit when I realized the vet was closed at that hour on Saturday. I mean, nothing ever happens to dogs in the weekend, right? I tried calling pet ambulances, they all refused to come, claiming not enough capacity. Finally I called the wife to come with the car and drive us to a nearby non stop veterinarian clinic.

The situation looked like this: female dog in heat (not internal bleeding) which was probably not hit by a car, but walks funny because she is probably not right in the head, first suspected to be 5 to 7 years old, but then age adjusted to over 8, erratically aggressive (although what aggressive meant to the doctor seemed to be a low growl of annoyance). Also, the doctor didn't know any shelters, groups that take care of lost dogs or anything like that. Surely no dogs get lost and found and then brought to vets. He had no idea what to do. So Step 2 went to shit when the vet told us the dog was not microchipped, was probably abandoned and, for all intents and purposes, was now ours, since no one adopts old dogs.

We decided to pay for some tests to figure out what is wrong with the dog and to keep her in the clinic, since she's a big unpredictable female dog in heat and our dog is male. We did that daily, paying a lot of money for it, until around Tuesday, when the doctors decided that the dog problems were probably neurological and that her uterus was malformed and probably would have caused the dog to die in the near future unless operated and removed. I was about to authorize the operation, too, and was thinking of names for the dog. Since our dog is named Tyrion, naturally she would have been Arya, but for the fact the dog was older, so maybe Sansa - she was traumatized and afraid of everything, too. In the end I was going for Lysa - since that was the older crazy aunt in Games of Thrones.

And here comes serendipity. A young woman comes to the clinic and asks if it is possible for dogs to run away from home in order to die. Apparently, her dog, staying with her parents, ran away from home and said parents were too horrified to tell her of that until that day. Stranger still, in the rare occasions that the dog was getting lost, she always returned home, which she now failed to do. No, the girl didn't look for found dog ads (which I posted all over the Internet), she didn't ask around in the park where the dog was lost (where I told just about every dog owner to spread the word), no, she just randomly arrived at the same clinic and asked this question. Of course, it was her dog we were talking about. No, lady, when dogs run away from home they usually go to the vet to get checked out!

So, if and when the dog will get operated or receive specialized treatment for her brain issues - which apparently she had since she was a pup - is the owner's business, and we only offered our financial aid in case it was needed. Happy ending, the dog is back with her owners, with some extra medical tests done and possible solutions for her future well being on the table.