SpeculativeFiction


We put another lander on Mars

NASA InSight has landed. I note that the control room personnel are all wearing uniform polo shirts.

Tue Nov 27 13:47:17 CST 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Were we scouted by an interstellar lightsail?

The interstellar object known as Oumuamua exhibits characteristics we cannot readily explain as natural. In particular, it displays acceleration not due to gravity. Normally this would be explained as cometary outgassing due to temperature increase during solar approach, but our telescopes showed no hint of that. One explanation for the observed acceleration would be a very thin, very reflective object that is tumbling or rotating; such an object would be effected by radiative pressure from the sun. The characteristics necessary for this to work out are an object 0.3mm thick with a 20m radius (as a perfect reflector). It would need to be larger than that if it is less reflective, but those dimensions are eyebrow-raising.

They are basically describing a lightsail.

As it stands, we'll likely never find out what Oumuamua was. The possibilities, however, are mind-blowing.

Wed Oct 31 13:49:15 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Daredevil Season 3

Daredevil's Season 3 on Netflix has a lot to offer, despite some early warning signs suggesting it might be overly political. The overall plotline involves the return of Wilson Fisk (now openly known as the Kingpin), and Daredevil's attempts to keep him from regaining control of the city's criminal underworld. We have an excellent guest villain from Daredevil's rogues' gallery, and there are many well-done and subtle callbacks to that character's earlier appearances in all formats. We get a bit more backstory for Karen Page, which is interesting but awkwardly inserted. We get some significant revelations for Matt Murdock himself.

I had been expecting to see one of the characters from Iron Fist Season 2 make a followup appearance here, as that character is also prominent in Daredevil's rogues' gallery, but that was not the case. I remain hopeful that the introduction of that character means she will appear in later seasons.

This is a classic Daredevil story, and the series remains the best of the Netflix Marvel licenses, precisely, I think, because they are human stories. Matt Murdock is a human being, an exceptional one to be sure, facing superhuman problems. He makes moral choices and then agonizes over whether he made the right ones. His friends want to help, and do, even when it puts them at risk. He needs their help, and the help of others, to succeed. There's no superhuman trump card.

Unfortunately, there is a flaw in the ointment. The solution at the end of the season may not be a supernatural Deus Ex Machina, but it feels a bit like a human one, or perhaps half of one. Still, it's thematically appropriate, so not awful.

We did also get a delightfully unexpected hint at the identify of another member of Daredevil's classic rogues' gallery, and that is not a bad tradeoff at all.

Thu Oct 25 13:20:04 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Iron Fist Season 2

Season 2 represents a clear improvement over Season 1 of this show in every respect. The dynamic between Danny Rand and Christine (his girlfriend and sidekick) changes significantly for the better, with Christine's (or rather, the actresses') noticeably superior martial arts skills getting recognition. Danny's own moral failings are pointed to and wrestled with. Some problems are recognized as unsolvable, at least by vigilante superheros. Like Season 2 of Luke Cage, there's some significant moral ambiguity present, but it's somewhat less drastic.

The sole issue I had was with the potential motivations for some of the changes, which will bear themselves out in future seasons and would be spoilers to explain. Without spoilers, I will say that big changes were made, and there are potentially good reasons for those changes, and potentially bad reasons for those changes. I have no way of knowing which set of reasons are correct, and the hints given for where things are going next don't really help.

On the whole, definitely an improvement over Season 1, and still better than Luke Cage, but not nearly as good as the record Daredevil has set so far.

Wed Oct 24 13:04:47 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Luke Cage Season 2

I don't have much to say about this one. It was better than the first season, but had too much focus on the criminals. There was significant moral ambiguity, particularly towards the end, which could either be a bad thing or a deliberate storytelling choice that will be redeemed next season. This season, it left a bad taste in my mouth. The cameo appearance by Iron Fist was good, but did not mesh well with Iron Fist Season 2 as a whole. (I'm not sure of the chronology). An improvement over the first season, not least because it was shorter and thus had less time to waste. If they had cut it down to 6 episodes instead of ten, it might have worked.

Mon Oct 22 13:58:50 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Run Like Hell (Book 1 of Wandering Monsters)

Elliot Kay's new book Run Like Hell asks and answers the question: "What is it like to be the monsters when an adventuring party kicks down your front door?"

Although the book is technically game-related literature, it doesn't have the usual hallmarks of character sheets or explicit rules elements. It's just set very solidly in the generic fantasy game setting, with the perspective reversed. Gaming fans will have a lot to recognize while finding quite a lot of new and interesting elements from the perspective shift. It's definitely light reading, and quick at just under 200 pages.

Highly recommended for gamers, who will find a few hours of light amusement at a good price (free via Kindle Unlimited). Non-gamers can probably take a pass, not because it's bad, but because you won't have any idea what's going on or why it's funny. Very reminiscent of Drew Hayes.

Tue Sep 25 18:42:58 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Legion (The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds)

Brandon Sanderson has had a series of stories featuring a character named Legion (real name, Stephen Leeds) whose "superpower" (in a thinly defined world mostly similar to our own, but with science fiction elements) is a form of multiple personality disorder. In essence, he hears voices and sees things, specifically, other people. These "aspects" encapsulate and represent the information and expertise that his own own mind cannot itself contain and represent. Think of them as a coping mechanism for a supergenius.

Just released, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds collects two of those existing novellas with a new third. The author says there aren't any more coming with this character, and there's no (admitted) connection to Marvel's Legion character. I enjoyed the character when he first appeared, and this conclusion to his story is interesting without bringing the series itself to any kind of classic significance.

It is, I think, a thinly veiled examination of the typical authors feelings about having fully realized imaginary characters occupying significant parts of their thoughts and attention, combined with the common situation of needing to research details for a book on a lot of different topics well enough to quickly sound like an expert to a reader.

Categories Brandon Sanderson

Thu Sep 20 07:50:00 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Port of Shadows

Port of Shadows occupies a strange place in the chronology of the Black Company; it predates almost all of the history we know, picking the story up after the first book and before the second. The author appears to be numbering it 1.5. Thank god for decimals.

This is not a good place to start the series. Read The Black Company (the first book of the series by the same name) for that.

Honestly, I'd almost say this book should be read in publication order, ie, last, despite its appearance early in the official chronology. If you read it immediately after the first book, you'll have no idea what's going on or who half the characters are.

The writing style is noticeably different, which the narrator lampshades, as he does the fact that this period in the company's history is never referenced or referred to again in the "later" (series chronological) books. The writing is more descriptive and less sparse, somewhat more emotional. There's a reason for all of that.

Talking too much about the content of this book would, inevitably, represent a spoiler. Really. I can't even tell you the name of the main character aside from the narrator, because that would be a spoiler, even while it would encourage you to read the book (well, if you're a fan of the series already).

The only thing I can really say about it without spoiling the plot is this: Croaker gets domesticated.

Wed Sep 19 13:56:54 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Legion (Season 1)

Legion is a TV-form production licensed from Marvel, set in the X-Men side of the universe. Unless you are familiar with the character from the source material, it's not going to feature any well known characters. The first season is very odd, as you might expect from a series revolving around a main character whose defining characteristic is his paranoid schizophrenia. Or, in other words, he hears voices. And occasionally sees things. And occasionally blows up his kitchen with his mind, and then forgets about it.

There's a weird, 60s-70s psychedelic vibe to this. If anything, it reminds me a bit of Twin Peaks. There's that weird, funny, accept-it-or-run-away thing going on.

There are very, very few references to the wider Marvel universe. The show reluctantly describes some characters as mutants in one or two episodes. There are some subtle touches (a window with an X in the background). But mostly, it's a story about a guy who maybe has powers and maybe it's all in his own head. And of the other mutants involved, one has the power to throw things very very far away, another has the power to conduct group therapy, and the last is a man named Carrie whose superpower is literal gender dysphoria.

I wish I was kidding, but that's really it.

I get the impression someone wanted to make a show about that, found a Legion comic, and pitched the idea to Marvel so he could make something like what his muse was asking for.

In the end, it's watchable, reasonably interesting, and holds your attention for all 8 episodes of the short first season. But it never really breaks out of the idea that it's all relevant only to what's happening in the main character's head. I'm left with no real desire to follow the show into its' second season, though I might do so eventually from sheer boredom.

One final note: the fight scenes (and there are not many) are really badly done. The actors can't fight, the special effects can't even handle people being thrown into the distance, and the faceless goons look like they are wearing masks because they are ashamed of being taken down by a girl 6-to-1 in a full speed shot where the actors look like they are moving in slow motion. The show would have been better off if every single fight scene had been removed.

Thu Aug 30 13:39:10 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Kiss the Dead

When the best think you can say about a book is that you don't remember reading it a year later, it's not very flattering. That's the only way I can describe Kiss the Dead, another Anita Blake novel from Laurel K Hamilton. Even reading the plot summary on Amazon just now failed to bring back any signifiant elements of the story. So why am I writing this review, you ask? Even the fact that a book is that forgettable is useful information. If it was really bad, I would remember that. If it was really good, or even just interesting, I would remember that too. But instead, it's just another Anita Blake novel. It'll probably entertain you for a few hours.

Sat Aug 25 13:35:40 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Hard Magic

Set in a richly realized world roughly analogous to the 1930s, Hard Magic diverges from known history with the discovery of many forms of magic accessible to relatively ordinary humans. The main character is known as a "Heavy", someone with the capability to alter gravity and mass. Heavies are stereotyped as slow and stupid, if physically capable -- but despite the book's opening scenes in a prison for the supernaturally inclined, it rapidly becomes obvious that appearance isn't everything and we're dealing with a very smart cookie indeed.

Hard Magic is the first book in a trilogy, and a masterwork equal or superior to Correia's breakout Monster Hunters series. The world building is flawless, at least to someone who didn't live through the period being portrayed; the characters are distinctive and have their own motivations that don't always line up properly. The magic system is very well thought out, presenting a coherent and self-limiting explanation for the abilities of the characters. As applied, the result is somewhere between comic books, gangster movies, and steampunk; it's an engrossing mix that feels both realistically gritty and over the top, somehow at the same time.

Fri Aug 24 13:14:32 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Odysseus Ascendant

The 7th book in Evan Currie's Odyssey One series, this book adds a few new elements to the series that are less than ideal. Still, the writing is good, and the story remains entertaining. There are still space battles, but less exploration.

If you've enjoyed the series up to this point, there's no reason not to continue reading, but I can't give the series a full thumbs up because of the unnecessary and intrusive virtue signaling. If that continues, and gets more intrusive, I might have to give up on the series; but it's not there yet. I'm just baffled as to why the author thinks that has any place in the story.

Thu Aug 23 13:29:54 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Wearing the Cape

Wearing the Cape is the first book in a rather interesting, if not especially deep, superhero series. As you might expect, the first book is the origin story, but it covers a bit more than that. It's obvious by the end of the book that we're not dealing with a comic-book level plot. These heroes have grown-up problems.

It's worth reading at certain price points. I started the series when it was on Kindle Unlimited, but it's no longer there, and the books are currently priced at $8 each (about half a traditionally published new release, and roughly the same as an older traditionally published book). The writing and editing merits the price. The length is ... less so, as the books usually come in around 200 to 300 pages. I held off on finishing the series for that reason, at least for a while.

If you want pro-quality writing and a superhero series, this isn't a bad choice if you aren't sensitive to price.

Tue Aug 21 13:58:40 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Serpentine

The latest in Hamilton's Anita Blake series, Serpentine continues the series with the planned wedding of "Ted" and Donna. Of course, things never go quite according to plan, and there are the usual supernatural complications that seem to follow Anita whereever she goes. Since we're talking about book 26 in a series, this is not the place for new readers to start.

Further, we're talking about a series where the closest thing to a Dark Lord threatening the world was killed off something like 10 books ago. So we're basically running on fumes and leftover melodrama.

What this book has: Edward, Anita, Otto, and Bernard, the "four horsemen" boogiemen to the supernatural. It has wedding drama, a few of the old characters, a new supernatural monster, a chapter or two of pornographic sex (I skipped them and didn't notice any resulting plot holes), and a sort of half-hearted investigation.

It gets positive marks for having less sex than some of the recent books. The rest of the book is wedding arrangements, investigations, and interpersonal relationship drama. There are some interesting developments there that will likely pay off in future books. One of them hints at a possible future OH JOHN RINGO NO moment.

The author is clearly still going through the motions rather than writing from inspiration, but there are some positive signs of a return to form. I don't regret reading it, just paying full price.

Mon Aug 20 13:46:11 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

A Knight of the Word

A Knight of the Word is the second book in Terry Brooks' loose trilogy The Word and the Void. This book focuses on John Ross and his crisis of faith, with Nest (from Running with the Demon) trying to save him from himself. In my description of the first book in this series, I felt it was important to note that it wasn't one of Brooks' Shannara titles. The same applies here, but there's also some stylistic differences from the first book in the trilogy as well. A more adult perspective, more grounded in reality and also more grounded in magic.

Ross has a definite sense of identity. The problem is, that identity is that of a pained, broken, nearly crippled man.

Categories Terry Brooks

Thu Aug 02 13:31:10 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

A Wastrel's Tale

A Wastrel's Tale is (probably) the first book in a swords and sorcery zombie apocalypse series. The story revolves around a member of an order dedicated to fighting necromancy with the use of arms and specialized magic, yet for decades now there have been but few necromancers. Indeed, only one of any notable talent or skill, and that one in captivity. An ideal condition for a third son who would dearly love to spend his life training, drinking, and wenching, no? Unfortunately, duty is about to call...

Fans of the author, RW Krpoun, will get more of what they are used to: a literary interpretation of the sort of adventure they are used to getting with a side of dice. Unlike the new "LitRPG" genre, though, the story is taken seriously without interruptions for stats while the characters think about leveling up. Just good, solid adventure with interesting characters. The setting is a little generic, but time may improve that, and those elements close to the story are creative and fleshed out.

Categories RW Krpoun

Wed Jun 27 13:51:28 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

An Airless Storm

An Airless Storm follows up on the adventures of Andrew Cochrane and his security service of interstellar mercenaries. Following their initial success in funding their operations, the company has ordered more ships and larger ships. But their enemies are doing the same. The book has the same vaguely Heinlein-juvenile feel, and the plot armor is less perfect. Mostly it represents an improvement, but the ratio of people talking about their plans and engaging in covert operation shenanigans versus space battles is still pretty high. The characters are also a bit weak, with most of them feeling like masks the narrator is wearing. That's one of the fundamental risks of delivering information to the reader through characters having conversations, but it takes a bit of skill to hide.

Tue Jun 26 13:18:42 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

The Stones of Silence

Peter Grant's new novel, The Stones of Silence, is set in his science-fiction universe, sharing it with his two other series starting with Take the Star Road and War to the knife). The setup for his new series is interesting, but shares the flaws of the earlier works. In particular, the protagonist appears to wear plot armor. While his efforts to be prepared justify the resulting success, it significantly reduces the sense of peril -- not to mention the sense of realism. The story remains entertaining, but lacks a certain vigor and immediacy.

Stylistically, it's a cross between a Heinlein juvenile and one of David Webber's Honor Harrington books, except not quite as good as either.

Sun Jun 24 13:22:14 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Interstellar

The one-line review is that Interstellar is the movie that 2001 should have been. It has a mysterious anomaly orbiting Saturn, a realistic depiction of a space mission to investigate and explore. But it also has so much more: incredible, moving performances from the leading actors and actresses, an emotional investment on both the personal and the species level, strange and wonderful and terrible things to find, and a powerful human drama that plays out across that background.

The movie is not without flaws. It starts slowly. There's some emotional tearjerking (effective, but manipulative). The hard science approach sort of devolves in the ending. And I can't really talk a lot about the plot without spoiling it. But it's a good movie, highly recommended, very pretty, very inspiring, with a few subtle hints of conservative-leaning politics.

Wed Jun 13 03:21:35 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Brief Cases

Brief Cases by Jim Butcher is a collection of short stories in the very popular Dresden Files series, named for the central character Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard -- or at least the only one with an ad in the phone book. I don't normally go in for short story collections, but occasionally with an established universe my completionist instincts will kick in. In this case I had already read Side Jobs, a similar collection by the same author in the same universe.

If you liked one, you'll probably like the other; perhaps even too much, because they share at least one story in common. Despite that there was enough new material to be interesting, including some time with the camera focused on the smaller characters. There's an adorable story featuring Harry's daughter and his dog Mouse at the zoo, with carefully layered viewpoints from everyone, including the dog. There are two Molly stories (one new), and one detailing Butters' first excursion as a polka loving medical examiner and [spoiler].

If you're a fan of the universe already and you enjoy short story collections, there's content to enjoy here. My only caveat is that $15 (as of this posting, in the Kindle Edition) is a bit steep for a collection of short stories where not all the content is new, even when the total page count runs to 450 pages.

Tue Jun 12 00:35:59 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

On the Shoulders of Titans

A sequel to Sufficiently Advanced Magic, On the Shoulders of Titans manages to significantly complicate the plot. The number of characters who may not be trustworthy or whose interests may lie in a direction other than that of their allies grows to very nearly equal the number of characters in the book. Thankfully, the "magic school" elements of the plot are reduced almost to insignificance; the main character barely attends class and spends only a limited amount of time on screen taking tests. Which probably explains why he isn't doing so well in school, despite having powerful friends (met as a results of events in the first book) basically tutoring him.

There's still a little bit of the annoying tendency to preach about gender and sexuality, and the main character doesn't seem to know if he should be attracted to men (his friend Jin, who asked him to a dance and then betrayed him) or women (Cecily, the girl to whom he has been betrothed for years, but has mostly fallen out of contact with), and the one annoyingly genderless "they/them".

That said, there's a lot of other interesting stuff to keep you reading. There's not going to be a lot of emotional depth or impact, despite the author's hints at an abusive father and absent mother and post-traumatic stress disorder, but there will be intellectually interesting magic and challenges to overcome.

Consistently interesting, if not consistently entertaining.

Mon Jun 11 02:00:00 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Sufficiently Advanced Magic

What do you get when you combine an interesting magic system, a lot of influence from video games, a competent but emotionally distant author, a dash of gender ambiguity, a token pinch of political preaching, and yet another book about a child who goes to magic school? Apparently, you get a pretty good stew of a book (Sufficiently Advanced Magic) that's enjoyable to read, intellectually interesting, and only rarely makes me want to throw it against the wall for brief periods.

Folks, this is why people hate message fiction: it throws you out of the story, it's pointless, it's irrelevant, and it can ruin the reader's enjoyment of an otherwise perfectly good book. For example, in this review I could be writing about how the magic system is pretty unique and detailed enough to build most of the book around, or how the main character is saddled with an unusual set of abilities that force him to rely on preparation and thought rather than simple brute force, or the interesting implications of having a level system that relies on entering what is effectively a series of video games with puzzles, fights, and similar ideas that must be solved or overcome to gain more power.

But, instead, I feel like I have to write about the fact that the main character is mostly asexual, but possibly gay, and that his society has apparently eliminated all conception of how sexual relationships usually work to the point that a male inviting another male to a dance is completely shrugged off as normal when it only takes up a page or so of the book. (It's clearly being set up as some kind of long term love interest, though). It's not bad, but it feels preachy and messagey, and there's a passage early in the second book which is explicitly preachy and messagey. It's like trying to eat your stew, savoring the interesting taste of each element, and finding an ice cube in your spoon occasionally.

They don't taste bad, necessarily, but they don't taste good either, and you sort of wonder why they are there.

Mon Jun 11 01:34:36 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Bulgaria's Vampire Graveyards

Mon Jun 11 01:33:19 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Complex organic molecules found on Mars

Washington PostIn puffs of gas from rocks more than 3 billion years old dug up by one of NASA's robotic explorers on Mars, scientists have identified several complex organic molecules — possible building blocks for ancient life.

But it is “consistent with the past presence of biology,” said Ken Williford, an astrobiologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “And it makes us more confident that if biomarkers” — or direct evidence of biologic activity — “are there, we might find them.”

This is all battlespace prep for the announcement that Michael Valentine has been living in a secure undisclosed location for decades.

Categories Space

Fri Jun 08 01:17:33 CDT 2018 by Matthew. Comments

Mars One project not looking healthy

Ars TechnicaArs has voiced its skepticism of the Mars One plan ever since news of it broke, and it seems that double-take was warranted. Today, writer Elmo Keep published an interview with Dr. Joseph Roche, a professor at Dublin's Trinity School of Education with a PhD in physics and astrophysics who happened to be a Mars One finalist. Though Roche advanced to the inner circle, he spoke out to detail some of his sketchy behind-the-scenes dealings with Dutch non-profit Mars One.

I was seriously tempted to sign up for this at first, but I figured it had to be a scam. And it looks like I was right.

Tue Mar 17 13:04:14 CDT 2015 by Matthew. Comments

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