Monday, December 5, 2016

Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds

Fiction River is a series of anthologies from WMG Publishing. The first one published was Unnatural Worlds, back in 2013. I recently read it after picking it up in a Storybundle.
Before getting to the stories, a bit about the publication. In the foreward/introduction, editors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch write about the (then new) idea of Fiction River. Both had worked in publishing in the past, decided it wasn't for them, and had solid success as authors. But the rise of crowdfunding via the Internet mitigated the financial risk of putting together an anthology project, and the editors were able to commission stories by authors from their own personal networks. Fiction River is a good example of new technologies driving innovation in an established industry.

I was pretty sure going in that many of the twelve stories would be solid since I recognized the authors. And this was in fact the case, with names such as Esther Friesner and David Farland, plus stories by each of the editors. I'd not encountered most of the other authors before, but given the experience of the editors, I wasn't surprised to find that I enjoyed most of their stories as well.

While the theme of the anthology is stories that deal with different worlds, the stories treat that theme very differently. Some are literal, such as Devon Monk's Life Between Dreams, where the characters actually walk across multiple worlds. Others are more symbolic, dealing with characters that come from different worlds, such as Ray Vukcevich's Finally Family.

My personal favorite is Esther Friesner's The Grasshopper and My Aunts, which was fairly predictable since I've read a bunch of her books. It's written in Victorian-era style and deals with Greek myths living in the English countryside. Quick moving and humorous throughout.

I like the idea of the Fiction River anthology series, and there's plenty more of them by now. Unnatural Worlds is a good opening effort. I'll probably seek out some more of them in the future.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Necessity by Jo Walton

Necessity is the final volume of Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy. After finishing The Just City (more on it here) and The Philosopher Kings (more on it here), I picked up Necessity from the local library.
There's a gap of a few decades between the end of The Philosopher Kings and the beginning of Necessity. The cities have adjusted to their new planet (called Plato, unsurprisingly) and a new generation has grown up there. They've met two different alien races, and within the first few chapters receive communication from other humans, the first since leaving Earth. That re-contact is the subject of a lot of discussion, but isn't the primary subject of the book.

Much of Necessity is about exactly that - necessity, in the sense that the gods are bound by necessity to certain courses of action. There's a lot more about the nature of the gods, the flow of time, and the universe at large in this book than either of the others. Apollo, Athene, and an alien god are central figures in this book, taking a direct hand in much of the story.

The viewpoint characters in Necessity are almost entirely new. Other than Apollo, none of them were the narrators in the prior books. I particularly liked that Walton used Crocus, one of the sentient machine Workers, as a viewpoint character in several chapters of this book. It was also nice to see the viewpoint of Jason, who is a "silver" citizen (practical work rather than the philosophy and leadership of the "gold" citizens) on Plato. The majority of the prior two books were written from the perspective of "gold" citizens, so that perspective was a bit different.

Unlike the first two books, Necessity doesn't end with a major shakeup affecting the Platonic cities. Appropriate for the final book in the series, but I'll admit that it felt a bit anti-climatic. After the way The Just City and The Philosopher Kings ended, I kept expecting some kind of bombshell in the last few chapters of this book. We do see the that aforementioned re-contact with other humans, which is certainly important, but it's not in the same class as the splitting of the city or relocation to a new planet.

The Thessaly trilogy won't be for everyone, but for those who enjoyed the first book, finishing out the series is well worth the read.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Joe Buck's Memoir "Lucky Bastard"

Joe Buck has been a fixture in sports broadcasting for most of my adult life. I heard about Lucky Bastard from various sports media and via Buck's guest appearance on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.
The full title of the book is Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad, and the Things I'm Not Allowed to Say on TV. That's a pretty good sample of the writing style: slightly profane and irreverent, but honest. Within the first chapter he's explained that using the word "bastard" is technically true as well as being an eye-catching title - he was conceived well before his parents married - and shared a slew of his own embarrassing life moments. It feels very real and open to me, and the same is true when he moves on to talking about other people.

I'm a sports fan, particularly baseball, so I found plenty of interest in the many stories and descriptions of the people that Buck has met and events he's worked. As the son of a Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, Joe has even more of those stories than most life-long sports personalities. He literally grew up in baseball stadiums, and has been part of big events like the World Series for years. I enjoyed his perspective on the people and events that I remember following as I've grown up.

Even more than the sports stories, though, I thought that Lucky Bastard is excellent for its portrayal of Buck's personal life story. The father-son relationship between Jack and Joe is a large part of that story, and I thought the love there was very evident. Buck isn't afraid to admit that he's made plenty of mistakes, either, both at the personal and professional level. His descriptions of both the good and bad times feel very real to me.

I have no reservations recommending Lucky Bastard to any sports fan, certainly, but I think even those with only a general knowledge of the last few decades of sports events would enjoy it. Buck has an engaging writing style and an interesting life story to tell.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Doctor Strange (2016)

I caught the latest Marvel superhero movie today, Doctor Strange, at the local AMC theater.
I was pretty surprised to be charged exactly $5.19 for my ticket. I'd heard that some theaters were doing flexible pricing these days, but this was the first time I'd seen it in action. The 11:30 AM Wednesday show (not in 3D) was apparently pretty low on the demand scale. As someone who almost never goes to a theater during peak hours, I approve heartily. I also approve of the recliner-style seating that this particular theater was equipped with, took full advantage of that.

Doctor Strange is an origin story, like most of the other MCU productions featuring a character for the first time. Like most comic book nerds, I knew the basic story already: egotistical surgeon gets into an accident, loses his ability to perform surgery, goes searching for help and finds a mystical world where he becomes a hero. The movie does a fine job going through that origin, even if it feels a bit rushed as Strange goes from inept neonate to battle-sorcerer.

The movie is almost entirely about developing Strange's character, and there's not a whole lot of room for others. The renegade-sorcerer villain is a single-minded, one-dimensional character intent on his path of destruction. The supporting cast of other doctors and magicians mostly just seem to emphasize one aspect of Strange's transition: his old love and professional lives, the mentors leading him into magical domains, the previous master falling to make room for him. I don't think this is a bad thing, since the whole idea is to tell Strange's origin, but it's worth mentioning.

There are a whole lot of special effects in this movie, and they sure seemed well-executed to me. All the MCU films have plenty of CGI muscle behind them, and this one is near the top of the list in sheer amount of visual effects. In several places the entire screen is full of shifting landscapes - even if you haven't seen the movie yet, you've probably seen it in all the commercials - while various characters bounce around, fighting each other and dodging the scenery. A bit overdone, perhaps, but it's certainly impressive.

As with most MCU films, this one has some small tie-ins to the larger universe. Avengers Tower shows up in the New York cityscape, there's mention of an Infinity Stone, and if you stay past the first bit of the closing credits a certain Avenger makes Strange's acquaintance. I'm looking forward to seeing Strange mixed in with the rest of the MCU.

Given the prevalence of sweeping special effects, I'm glad I saw Doctor Strange in the theater. I'm sure it'll look fine on a small screen too, but those kind of visuals have a bigger impact on the big screen. Especially for $5.19.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Back to Netflix

Netflix is so needy. Leave it alone for a year or so, and it just comes crawling back. "Please, take me back, here's a free month!" Well, who am I to say no to a plea like that?
I tend to cycle through streaming services: a few months of Netflix, then some Crunchyroll, maybe some Amazon Prime Video, a bit of HBO Go. I can't watch enough different shows to make it worth while to have more than one at a time anyway, so why bother paying for more than one? It does mean that I rarely get to watch anything when it's first released, but that doesn't bother me much.

The latest Netflix free month has been an excuse to catch up on various stuff that has come out since the last time I had an active subscription. So far that's been Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, both of which are excellent. I've never actually read any of the Marvel Comics on which the characters are based, but I'm familiar with them from video games like Marvel Heroes. Luke in particular is one of my favorites, and I love what they did with his series. Jessica Jones was actually a bit better in terms of story, I thought, but I still enjoyed Luke Cage just as much.

I had a friend over the other night, and we were talking about old favorite shows, and it turns out that she'd never seen Firefly. Well, that's just wrong, and it happens that Netflix has the whole series online. So we watched the first couple of episodes, and now I can't stop myself from going back through the whole thing. For some odd reason, the Serenity movie isn't available to stream, but when I get there I'll rent it somewhere.

For the most part, my Amazon Fire TV works perfectly with Netflix. The navigation within the app is pretty terrible, but one thing it does well is show the list of shows that you saved to "My List" on the Netflix site. So I just find whatever I'm interested in on my PC and add it to that list. No need to wade through the masses of recommendations or use the terrible search function on the media center.

With the weather finally turning colder and baseball season over, I've got plenty of time and inclination to sit in front of a screen and vegetate. Perfect time to take Netflix back for a while.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Mr. Robot (USA)

I've heard good things over the last year or so about USA's Mr. Robot, and thanks to a combination of Amazon Prime Video and Playstation Vue I have easy access to all the episodes of the two seasons released at this point.
Part of what attracted me to this show is the hacker theme, which seems well-executed to me. Several of the characters, including the protagonist Elliot, are heavily into hacker culture. They spend a lot of time gathering information on people via social media, going after corporate networks, and occasionally even helping to catch criminals. Unlike a lot of popular media, this show tries to keep their technical segments realistic, or at least within shouting distance of realism. I particularly like how almost all their activities involve a human (aka "social engineering"), which is majorly under-represented in most "hacker" storylines. Why break in through technology barriers when you can get someone to let you in?

In the first few episodes, Mr. Robot is almost entirely about the characters using their hacking skills to set up a major breach against "E Corp" (always referred to as "Evil Corp"). The idea is to wipe out all of the corporate data, thus freeing people from their debts. My gut reaction on hearing that was "oh, the writers saw Fight Club" and that parallel certainly is accurate, even more so once you get around the end of the first season.

It's not long before the major conflict shifts from the external hack-the-evil-corporation to Elliot's internal struggles. He's an addict, with lots of social anxiety and some major personality issues. His inability to remain in control and recognize reality versus fantasy causes some fairly major problems for himself and his friends. His mental issues take up a lot of the show, especially in the second season. A good portion of the time, the viewer isn't sure if what we see is reality or not. Frankly, I felt like about half of the "Elliot's struggles" scenes could have been cut out and the viewer would still have gotten the idea.

There's a significant anti-establishment theme to Mr. Robot, more than just what you get with the "a bunch of hackers" main character group. No opportunity is missed to paint government and big corporations as thoroughly evil in the first season. This is mitigated a bit in the second season when we see things from the viewpoint of an FBI agent, but the overall tone is clear. I'm fairly sympathetic to those ideas; nonetheless, it seems overly preachy to me. The show is heavy on "establishment bad" and light on how average people are hurt when that establishment crumbles. That starts to change a bit toward the end of the second season; it'll be interesting to see how it continues to develop in the third.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robot also adds in a hefty dose of psychopathy in the form of Tyrell and Joanna Wellick. He's an "Evil Corp" executive that beats up on bums, sleeps with other executives' assistants to steal information, and eventually commits murder. She's a master manipulator of her husband and just about everyone else, and a masochist. I felt that pretty much all the nasty stuff they do was completely unnecessary, useful only as shock value. Their paths do cross with that of Elliot and friends, so it's not like they're useless characters, but I think the plot points could have been handled without all the "50 Shades of Grey" moments.

I like the concept behind Mr. Robot, and enjoyed the mystery feel while trying to figure out the various inter-personal intrigues and what's going on in Elliot's head. I just wish it was a bit more focused, eliminating some of the over-the-top psychopath moments and repetition of similar scenes.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

After reading The Just City, I was interested enough to continue the trilogy. Book two, The Philosopher Kings, was easily obtained from the local library.
The Philosopher Kings doesn't start immediately after the end of The Just City, but rather more than a decade later. There's no longer a single city on their island, but five different settlements that were established after the events that ended the first book. The reader learns what happened in the intervening time as the characters discuss or remember it. They also discover what happened to the group that left the island entirely.

Most of the viewpoint characters remain the same, with one major exception. Simmea dies (not really a spoiler since it happens at the very beginning) and her place is taken by Arete, Simmea's daughter by Apollo. I thought that Walton did an especially good job with Apollo's reactions to Simmea's death, through grief and revenge and acceptance. As a god, he's not used to that kind of loss, but is forced to deal with it in his incarnate form.

The Philosopher Kings feels more active than The Just City. The first book took place almost entirely within the one city, while the second deals with the divided island as well as a fairly extensive sea voyage. Until the very end of The Just City, there was very little large-scale conflict (though plenty between individuals). That's not the case in The Philosopher Kings, which starts with "art raid" battles between cities on the island, and continues with both physical and political altercations with those from outside.

Religion plays a larger part in this book than the first. With multiple cities, there's a wider variety of ideas of all kinds. For example, a form of Christianity takes root in some places, despite being in a time before Christ. Some people try to tie everything together into a single belief system, others permit free exercise to all faiths, while others establish state religions and persecute heretics. I personally find it discouraging that some people feel it necessary to establish exclusive beliefs and force them on everyone else, but a quick look around the world makes it pretty clear that's the reality of human nature. I think this is a pretty realistic outcome of the scenario that Walton has established.

Like the first book, the power of the gods plays a major role in The Philosopher Kings. This shows up mostly in the form of Apollo's children, who find that they are "heroes" with various kinds of supernatural abilities thanks to their heritage. The process is explained in a logical manner that I thought made the idea pretty easy to accept. There's very little overt exercise of godly power until the very end, when concern over the impact of the time travelers on history results in very major changes for the entire population.

Anyone who enjoyed The Just City should certainly read The Philosopher Kings, and I am definitely planning to finish out the trilogy.