Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, Part 7

Hello all, and welcome to week 7 of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Avatar!  I’m a few days late this time, due to having way too much work to do over the weekend.  Better late than never, right?  We’re finishing up this read-along next week, but if you’re interesting in catching the end, or in future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group page!  This week covers chapters 74-82, and the discussion questions are provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow.  Beware of spoilers, and let’s get to the discussion!

1.Yevuneh and the other women agree to help Phedre continue on her quest, and though it doesn't go smoothly, she succeeds in finding the Broken Tablets and the Name of God! What did you think of how this part of the story played out?

I think this is how it had to have happened.  If the men hadn’t chased them down, Phedre wouldn’t have been threatened.  If Phedre hadn’t been threatened, Imriel wouldn’t have tried to defend her. Then if Imriel hadn’t been in danger, Phedre might not have been able to reach that place in herself that held selfless love.  I really appreciate that it was an adopted parent/child love that made her worthy to carry the Name of God.

2. When the dust settles, Imriel's position on where he feels he belongs is all the more firm - he wants to be with Phedre and Joscelin, and not with House Courcel. Do you have any thoughts on how things will go for them when they return home?

I would be extremely sad if Imriel didn’t end up as Joscelin and Phedre’s son at the end of this.  He clearly has chosen them as his parents.  For their part, both Phedre and Joscelin seemed not altogether content with their decision not to have children.  Phedre didn’t want to risk her child having to also bear Kushiel’s Dart, and Joscelin thought that would be going too far against his former Cassiline ideals.  For both of them, it was more external reasons than emotional reasons that they didn’t want to start a family.  Now, their love for Imriel will allow them to have a child without having to worry about any of these considerations!  In terms of the politics, I still hope Phedre will use her boon to adopt him as Imriel nó Delaunay.

3. Among other important changes to their way of life, the possibility of trade between Saba and other nations has opened up in the aftermath of what Phedre has done. This leads her to speculate that the intentions of the gods go far beyond what she was aware. What do you think of that bigger-picture theory? What might it mean for the world in general?

I hadn’t really considered that angle on the situation.  In that sense, perhaps the deities are working together, Elua and his Companions alongside the Jewish God.  I think that does make some sense, given the connection of Elua’s birth with the death of God’s Son.  In that sense, perhaps it was God’s intention to find a home for Imriel, to stop the Angra Mainyu cult, to forgive the people of Saba, and to free Hyacinthe from his curse.  I still don’t like that Imriel had to suffer to start this chain of events, but it does seem to be righting a lot of wrongs that have been resting unaddressed for many years.

4. We're heading toward the finale, and hopefully to a resolution regarding Hyacinthe's fate... Do you have any thoughts about what might happen when Phedre gets back to him?

I’m hoping he’ll be free, and he’ll go to be with his British almost-girlfriend.  Of course, I’m also hoping they’ll visit Phedre and Joscelin from time to time.  Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’m so ready for everything to end up happy!  If freeing Hyacinthe really is part of God’s plan to right wrongs, then I am wondering if the Name of God will vanish from Phedre’s mind after she uses it to lift Hyacinthe’s curse.  It was a gift, after all, and seemed to be given to her for this purpose.

Other Things:

—The descriptions of rain were just so miserable!  I can’t imagine having to travel like that for so long.

—Joscelin’s lion mane is amazing.  I even found a fan art of it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Published: Doubleday (1974), Gollancz (2001)
Awards Won: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo, and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

Jason Tavener woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognised, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future. When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.” ~goodreads.com

I’ve read a handful of novels and short fiction by Philip K. Dick, and have enjoyed most of them.  Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said didn’t really work for me.  On a happier note, Amazon Prime’s television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, one of Dick’s novels that I did really enjoy, is now online!

My Thoughts:

It might be the case that I was really just in the wrong mood for Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, because I have generally enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work in the past.  I know a lot of people really enjoyed this novel (look at all the awards!).  In fact, I’m really surprised I bounced off of this one as hard as I did.  For me, the first issue was the writing style.  Philip K. Dick’s prose is often pretty plain and workman-like, but it seemed particularly clunky in this novel.  For instance, he actually used the word ‘friendlily’ multiple times.  I wondered if he was deliberately playing up the artlessness of the prose to get the right tone for Tavener’s life of shallowness and celebrity.  Even if that’s the case, though, I find modern-day celebrity culture tedious, and thus was not really drawn in by this fictional version.
This lack of interest ties into my issues with the characters, who all seem pretty vapid and aimless, and with the plot, which is more or less nonexistent.  Random things happen, but they often don’t seem to have an impact on either past or future.  For instance, shortly after the opening of the story, someone nearly succeeds in murdering the main character.  Afterward, neither the event nor the perpetrator have any further role in the story.  Tavener’s vanished identity is a mystery, but it’s not one he’s going to solve.  Instead, he wanders around, encountering the a variety of women, and the reasoning for his situation is tacked on to the end of the story like an afterthought.  I gather that this is one of those books where the wandering around is really the point, and I know PKD often abruptly ends his novels with wild ideas that are interesting but might not make much sense.  In this case, though, I think I was just not engaged enough with the story or the characters to really appreciate the ideas behind them.

It seems like the world might have been a kind of 1970s nightmare, and in that sense I think it has not aged well.  Some of the things which might have been extrapolations of trends in the 1970s no longer have any resonance with this Millennial reader.  I think this would be a surmountable obstacle, except that the world-building seems to exist only for these atmospheric purposes that it does not achieve for me.  Tavener’s country is a police state, where rebelling university students have been trapped underground and people are regularly sent to labor camps for little or no reason. Everyone is always ready to turn on everyone else, so there’s not much genuine connection between people.  There’s also this weird thing about the main character being a ‘Six’, a person genetically engineered to be better and smarter than baseline humans.  Except he isn’t, at least in any way I can tell.  I’m not sure if this is a jab at the idea of genetic engineering or a failure of voice. Given how many novels Philip K. Dick has published, I suppose it’s not surprising that some of them are just not my thing.

My Rating: 2/5

I normally like Philip K. Dick’s work, but I bounced very hard off of this one. This is the story of a shallow pop star briefly losing his fame and identity, and of his wandering around until it is restored.  All of the characters seemed vapid, shallow and incapable of meaningful human connection, and I was frustrated by the apparent pointlessness of the plot.  I think the reveal at the end could have been an interesting twist if I’d been in the mood for it, but instead it just felt tacked on.  I’ll probably still read more Philip K. Dick in the future, because I am honestly surprised I did not enjoy this one.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Video Game Reviews: Science Fiction Variety

In another departure from my usual reviewing habits, today I’m going to tackle science fiction video games for Sci-fi Month!  I have been a kind of intermittent gamer since I was a child. I played my share of NES titles, but then switched to PC games until the PS2 came out.  After a brief, intense period of playing PS2, I switched back to computer games--most especially World of Warcraft, in which I had a lot of fun.  These days, I mostly play Resident Evil, Left4Dead and Diablo 3 on PC, and my husband and I have launched a new project to enjoy console gaming.

Shortly after the PS4/Xbox1 came out, we purchased an Xbox360, planning to check out all the best used games.  To that end, we had an amazingly fun day-trip to Lyon, where we visited all of the gaming stores we could find and picked up a wide variety of titles.  We have primarily targeted science fiction or fantasy games that are not FPS, since FPS on console is extremely annoying for my left-handed husband.  I’ve been considering doing short reviews of these games on this blog, as we go through them, so I figured Sci-fi Month was a great time to give it a try!  

Remember Me by DONTNOD Entertainment

Remember Me is one of the most memorable (haha) of the games we’ve played so far.  Not only does it include some creative game dynamics and aesthetically pleasing art, it also featured a really interesting future world and story.  The story is set in a dystopian future Paris, where a corporation called Memorize has commodified memories through a popularly-used implant.  The main character, Nilin, begins in the Bastille, where the prisoners are kept docile through forced amnesia.  The amnesiac discovering her own identity is not a unique story in video games, but I loved learning about the world and Nilin’s life alongside her.

The game dynamics ranged from decent to really interesting.  The combat involved the ability to build your own combos, which would allow you to both do damage to your enemies or heal yourself. There was also a fair amount of climbing around Neo-Paris, but only on predefined paths. The most unique dynamic of the game is the main character’s ability to change a person’s memories, and therefore change who they are in the present.  I liked how it emphasized the relationship between our experiences and our identities, and the shaded morality involved in the manipulation of memories as means to an end.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West by Ninja Theory

In case you didn’t pick it up from the name, this post-robot-apocalypse game is based on the ever-famous Journey to the West. I was really surprised by how well the ancient story translated into science fiction, though of course there were some changes. The main characters are the ‘monk’ Tripitaka and Monkey, though in this version they are a young woman who manages to trap a muscular guy known as Monkey through the use of a modified slave collar.  They journey to the west together towards Trip’s home, and they learn about the truth behind their broken world in the process.

This is another fighting/climbing adventure game, but with the added fun of partner-based strategy. The player takes on the role of Monkey, and has to coordinate with AI Trip’s particular set of technology-based skills in order to survive.  For instance, Trip can send a robotic dragonfly around to spy out the land, or make a hologram to draw fire away from Monkey.  I really loved the AI-teamwork aspect of the game, and finding out how to optimize the use of both characters.  The way the story ended was very unexpected, but I think it is a more ambiguous, thoughtful ending that will stick in your mind long after the game is through.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis Games

XCOM is a game I’d always heard was awesome, but I seemed to have missed my window to play the original game--I ran into all sorts of problems trying to run old XCOM on a new computer, and eventually gave up.  I’m glad I checked it out in its newer incarnation, because it is an awesome game!  In fact, it’s one of the only games I feel like I might want to play again sometime (and maybe not lose Australia to the aliens.  Sorry, Australia!).  I don’t mean that as a slight against other games, though, I just think that a strategy game like this one tends to have more replay value than an action role-playing game.

XCOM balances base-building, research, and turn-based combat.  All of these things are really fun, but I think the soldiers that you gear up and take out to fight aliens were my favorite part.  I was surprised by how attached I got to my soldiers, and I still have happy feelings about Maria the psychic sniper being one of the survivors of the final battle.  I was one of those people that obsessively saved after every minor skirmish, because I just couldn’t handle the thought of my favorite soldiers being killed by aliens.  Just writing about this makes me think it might be time to play it again soon...   

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified by 2K Marin

Then one day, someone thought that XCOM really needed to be reimagined as more of a shooter/ role-playing game.  In practice, it was reminiscent enough of Enemy Unknown that I was disappointed by the differences.  There is some research, but it doesn’t quite carry the same weight.  You do fight with a squad of soldiers, but the combat is time-based instead of turn-based, and it revolves around the main character. I didn’t feel as attached to the soldiers, and their class skills seemed less interesting and useful.

The main positive difference is the inclusion of a story that involves a small set of major characters.  If you want a kind of XCOM that has more immediate action and a more linear story, this might be what you’re looking for. Agent Carter (no, not Peggy, sadly) starts off as a pretty standard doesn’t-play-by-the-rules tough-guy, whose dark past has sent him into alcoholism. Once the aliens get involved, though, the story picks up and becomes more interesting. If one can avoid comparing it to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then it really is a fun game in its own right.

Prototype by Radical Entertainment

Prototype follows a guy named Alex Mercer as he tries to find out the truth behind the virus that is changing his body, while it simultaneously spreads to kill everyone in his city. The story is not that complicated, but the game is really based around action and violence.  You have a lot of freedom to leap around the city map--engaging in challenges and generally rampaging--in between the central story quests. The story is kind of interesting, and it was kind of exhilarating to send Alex running up skyscrapers and leaping from rooftop to rooftop, though I had a hard time getting fine control over his movements.  

The world has three factions: civilians, military, and infected.  You’re supposed to stay undetected by the military, or they’ll send tanks and helicopters after you.  Of course, you can always just commandeer the tanks and shoot down the helicopters instead of hiding, and it’s usually faster.  The infected include the most difficult enemies to fight, and the civilians are mostly collateral damage. Prototype was a little less my style than the other games listed here, in that it felt more like an action game than a science fiction game, and I’m not really into the gratuitous violence. I’ve already got a copy of Prototype 2 on the shelf, but it might be a while before I get around to playing it.