Archive for November, 2011

0

Short Story Review: Gem – No Loose Ends

Summary Judgement: Whereas fans of vampires and/or urban fantasy will quite likely enjoy this story, as a self-confessed sci-fi junkie it isn’t quite my cup of tea.

Story by: Craig Jones

Vampires.  I just don’t know what to do with vampires.  In fact, I’m probably the wrong person to be reviewing this story.  I watch True Blood so I can take notes in how not to craft a narrative.  I got about half way through the first Twilight novel before it made me want to hang myself.  When I was in high school I refused to recognize Dracula as a tragic figure in Stoker’s novel.  There’s something in the fundamental romance of Vampire stories that is lost on me.  Or to put it another way, I’m a cynical bastard and I know that were I to be gifted with immortality and super human powers, I would not spend my days pining after one “magic woman” who connects me to some lost element of my humanity.  However, Mr. Jones sent me his story so I feel that I at least owe him something in the way of a review.

Gem – No Loose Ends is the first in a series of longer short stories/novellas about a New York based vampire hit-woman named Gem.  Within the first few pages of the story readers learn some important details about their undead protagonist.  Although she is a freelance killer for a criminal syndicate, she’s also a principled assassin who refuses to take any job that involves drugs, women or children.  Gem is also a sexual creature, as is to be expected within vampire fiction.   What was unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome, was Gem’s flexible sexuality.  Though driven by human impulses, impulses that often prove a distraction to her work, she’s not limited by human sociological mores.  Moreover, Gem’s not perfect as a protagonist.  One of my biggest complaints about vampires in fiction is that they never make mistakes.  Vampires are only drawn into conflicts because of the ineptitudes of the humans who surround them; this is not the case in No Loose Ends. I’ll endure some of the clichés of vampire fiction present within the narrative, aversions to garlic and crucifixes among them, since the plot steers clear of the aforementioned gimmick.

The plot itself is a bit of a toss-up for me.  In its favour is the fact that it is very well paced.  There’s not a lot of heavy exposition or world building.  The only exception therein is the amount of the detail that goes into describing various articles of women’s clothing.  However, such attention is likely a necessary contribution to the sexuality that oozes off Gem and Katrina, the two main female characters.  Otherwise, events unfold quickly and smoothly.  Gem’s affiliated syndicate hires her to do a job, but the nature of that task ends up turning the mob, or at least one cell of the organization, against their prized assassin.

It is in the transition from fixer to liability that I found myself a bit put off.  Maloney, the mobster who hires Gem, tells her that, “The problems you make go away don’t come back.”  Charging a mere $10,000 per hit, I can’t imagine why a mob boss would allow such a useful asset to be removed from his arsenal.  Perhaps the plot against Gem wasn’t ordered from the top, but came directly from Maloney.  But if The Sopranos has taught me anything about organized crime, it’s that the farther down you go in the organization the lower the IQs get.  So when Gem, an experienced professional assassin, finds herself caught off guard by a troop of goons my suspension of disbelief is strained.  The trade off is that Gem’s mistakes make her that much more human as a protagonist.  Sure, she feeds on the blood of mortals and has a libido that works in overdrive, but who hasn’t let one appetite or another blind them to what they should have seen coming?

I suppose it is the fundamental contradiction of the central character that simultaneously helps and hinders the overall story.  Vampires are supposed to be creatures of passion, impulse and desire.  Assassins are cold, calculating professionals who divorce a certain part of their humanity from themselves in order to their jobs.  As a character, Gem reads like an interesting attempt at reconciling those polar opposites all the while establishing New York as an urban fantasy environment.  The Dracula/Vampire Bill part of her nature is there, I’ll cast no doubts on that point.  It’s the Agent 47 or Jules Winnfield side to Gem’s character that felt a bit in need of tightening up. Though the writing hints at reasons why she isn’t like those iconic contract killers, I still wanted a bit more ice in her veins.

On that note, I can’t really say that Gem – No Loose Ends has inspired me to convert to the world of Vampire fiction.  As a sci-fi reader who’s only starting to dabble with horror, too much of me wanted this story to be something that it’s not.  At the same time, I expect that my friend Norton, who loves both The Sopranos and The Southern Vampire Mysteries, would thoroughly enjoy this series.  As well, I would probably recommend Gem to my mom who loves all things Vampire but loathes all things powered by warp drive.  There’s defiantly an audience for this story, I just don’t think that I’m really part of it.

Hits:

+1 for keeping a vampire protagonist accessible

+1 for detail writing of women’s clothing as a means of ratcheting up the sexuality and offering some back story on the characters

+1 for writing a vampire hit-woman story.  Vampire cop, vampire PI, and vampire gadabout are all over done

+1 for being something that I could get my mom to read

Misses:

-1.5 for potentially problematic plot catalyst

-0.5 for occasional whiffs of vampire angst

-0.5 for adhering to the notion that Christianity and crucifixes are somehow anathema to vampires

Overall Score: +1.5

Fang fans can check out all of Jones’ work at TWB Press


0

Movie Review: Pereval

Summary Judgement:  It’s good.  I just wish I understood what the hell was going on.

Directed by: Vladimir Tarasov

Written by: Kir Bulychyov

Warning: There are some VERY unusual lighting effects in this movie.  If you suffer from epilepsy, it’s probably best to give this movie a pass and come back for Fiction Friday.  Yeah, you’re laughing right now, but I’m being serious.  Fine, go ahead, ignore me.  When you wake up from the seizure in the year 2525, don’t blame me.

Right, it’s been a bit of a long month for me.  Although NaNoWriMo has been an amazing experience, it has left me strapped for time to dedicate to reviewing books, games, short stories and so on.  Thankfully, I found Pereval as I was reading through my RSS feeds this morning.

At first glance, I don’t really know what to make of this movie.  Released in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall came down and three years before the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, I’m not sure if this is a pro-state propaganda piece or an odd attempt at counter-culture film making under the auspices of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy.  I could make a case for both.

The story, which isn’t immediately obvious, centers on a camp of survivors who find themselves marooned on a hostile planet after the crash of their starship.  Getting back to the ship whereupon they can signal Earth requires passing through a treacherous mountain pass or Pereval in the original Russian.  None of the old folk of the would-be colony think they can make the trip back to the ship.  Instead, the strongest of the old folk and a group of the colony’s teenagers set out on the journey.

On the surface, the movie plays out like a piece of Western fantasy.  There’s a quest, a magic object (in this case a Geiger counter), monsters/aliens, a journey wrought with peril, and the journey is transformative for the protagonist.  The subtext might be a mishmash, but the structure is nice and accessible.  Of course getting from A to B is an absolute acid trip that didn’t leave me uncomfortable so much as it confused the ever loving crap out of me.  As mountains and valleys melted into pages of books I felt like I needed to be high on peyote while listening to Dark Side of the Moon in reverse all the while eating a scallion and cheese sandwich before I could exactly understand what is going on.

Despite my confusion there are a few things that stand out as significant.  When the kids get to the wreck of the starship it looks nothing like a starship.  It’s a monolithic, art deco series of connected rectangles that looks more like a monument than a vehicle.  I’ll be damned if I know whether it’s a monument to the glory of communism, the coming together of West and East such that the Earth can explore space, or a veiled reference to some other piece of Russian SF that is outside the scope of my knowledge.  Another thing to note is that the movie’s visual palette changes within the walls of the starship.  The planet’s seemingly frozen environment is shot primarily in black and yellow scales.  Things are dull, bleak and populated by carnivorous land jellyfish that the survivors call “Night Monsters”.  Inside the ship everything is soft hues that run 360 degrees around the colour wheel.  Again, any interpretation of this contrast will inevitably come down to how a viewer chooses to approach the story.  Does the ship represent Earth as an abstraction set against the horrors of the nameless planet, or more specifically the Soviet Union in all its glory.

When the teenage protagonist, Oleg, takes a phaser to the cabin of the ship where he was born, is he rejecting some form of Western decadence?  Is it Kantian on a fundamental level wherein he is rejecting immaturity and embracing intellectual independence such that he can enter manhood and thus return to Earth?  Is he just tripping balls and I’m reading too much into this movie?  Pereval leaves me with these and many other questions.  For that reason, I’m inclined to recommended Pereval.  It’s a think piece, of that there can be no question.  But it’s the sort of think piece that I could see translating into a very good discussion over a pint or two, or perhaps a podcast.  Seriously, if you have a read on this movie and want to talk about it, send me an email.

While Tarasov’s 1985 animated short Contract certainly seems to take a swing at capitalism, (I haven’t seen it, I just read a synopsis) the political ambiguity of Soviet Union in the late 80s suggests that there might be more than one reading to this half hour of storytelling.  Regardless of the “right” interpretation, the experience of watching this movie is one that I won’t soon forget.

Hits:

+2.0 for dripping with subtext, obfuscated as it maybe.

+1.0 for visual style.

+1.0 for being a fun/surviving piece of Soviet-era popular culture.

+0.5 for its soundtrack, despite the singing parts.

Misses:

-1.5 so trippy that I don’t think most people would watch the whole thing.

Overall Score: +3

For your viewing pleasure, embedded video of Pereval


0

Reflections on 40,000

Reflections on 40k

Today, November 21, 2011, at about 8:20 EDT, I broke the forty thousand word threshold in my NaNoWriMo project: a contemporary zombie survival novel tentatively titled Run-Hide-Survive.

I know, the game isn’t over until I hit 50k, and even then the game won’t actually be over.  From where I’m sitting right now the first draft is going to be “done” at about 65 to 70 thousand words.  I have no doubt that in the subsequent months I’ll polish, revise, edit, and hand wring that up to a nice 80 to 90 thousand words.  Even then the game won’t be over.  I’ll likely spend the next two years soliciting publishers, sending out query letters, getting said letters rejected out of hand, drinking scotch, doubting myself, and then at some point receiving a glimmer of hope that somebody other than me is interested in this story.  Only when I am looking at a printed and finished copy of my first novel, will this game be done.  Then the next game starts.

So why write about this now?  Why invite the hubris of the gods by putting pen to paper when I still have 9,896 words left to write before I can claim to have “finished” the most monumental writing task of my natural life to date?  Because now is the time to do it.

I know now is the time to do it because I used to run.  If NaNoWriMo has taught me anything it’s that writing comes from the same place as running.

During my time as a runner I learned that the hardest part of a half-marathon is the first five kilometers.  If I was going to quit, I would quit there.  By the time I got to the last few kilometers, I always knew that finishing was a foregone conclusion, even if I had to crawl to get there.

To keep my brain occupied through those last few klicks, I would reflect on the day’s run.  How was my pace?   How were my knees holding up?  What did I want to eat when things were done?  How much of the last kilometer would I sprint?  I knew that once I stopped running the essence of those last moments, the connection that I felt with whatever it is that makes a person decide to get up and run, the very flavour of the day, would be gone.  Those moments get replaced with other things.  Praise from friends and family, sore joints, a new training schedule, and a few celebratory beers.  Pride in the accomplishment lingers, but the nuance of the event is an ephemeral thing.

Over the last twenty one days the parallels between marathon training/running and writing have grown all the more poignant.  The feeling of being driven to do something that I didn’t think myself capable of doing is the same.  The desire to keep working if only to test my limits is the same. The fear that taking one day off will ruin my training/work schedule and torpedo the whole project is the same.   The looks of doubt, incredulity and sheer surprise that I get from people when I say that I’m writing 50k in thirty days are the exact same.  Beyond all that though the most important similarity between running and writing is the recognition that I’m not  quite the same person that I was when I started.

Even though the nature of my life is mostly unchanged between now and three weeks ago, I feel different.  For the past 3 weeks this novel has been my mission.  I’ve balanced writing it against teaching, grading papers, going to a con as a panelist for the first time, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.  Not to mention that I have resisted the siren song of The Elder Scrolls V and the release build of Minecraft.  Somehow, I have made it all work.  The race may continue, but I now feel free from the doubt that kept me from taking on a project of this scope for at least the last few years.

At the same time, I find myself reflecting on past “impossible” tasks.  Would grad school have been different for me if I worked on a steady production schedule instead of screwing around for days at a time and then going into insane work cycles that saw me not leaving the house for days at a time?  Okay, maybe I didn’t screw around all the time as a student.  However, what I did back then to earn the letters that come after my name don’t feel quite as grand in scope as what I’ve tried to do over the last three weeks.

Could I have done this without a few key people (you know who you are) cheering me on?  I’d like to think so.  However it’s pretty awesome to have a cheering section.  So to you select few, thank you.  Hopefully I won’t impose upon your respective patience too much as the months to come see me whinging about editing and revision in the finest fashion of Karl Pilkington.

Mostly, I’m excited.  I’m excited because I feel like I’ve turned the corner on something.  I know I should be more articulate than to describe this intangible concept as a “something”, but I find myself suffering from a poverty of suitably precise language for this moment.  I hope that anybody else who has been where I am right now knows what I’m talking about and can maybe explain it to me.  If I can borrow a trope from gaming, I feel like I have just leveled up for the first time in a very long time.

Of course there’s all the doubts and anxieties that my story is cliché crap, that what I hope counts for emotional development will read as maudlin drivel.  But right now, at this moment, they don’t really seem to matter.


0

Movie Review: Cargo

Summary Judgement: The movie has a great concept for about fifteen minutes, then the story nose dives into monotony, cliché, and thoughtlessness.

Starring: Anna-Katharina Schwabroh, Martin Rapold

Directed by: Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter

Written by: Arnold Bucher, Ivan Engler, Patrik Steinmann, Thilo Roscheisen, and Johnny Hartman

Cargo has all the elements of a great piece of science fiction: a rust bucket deep range cargo ship, an Earth rendered uninhabitable by pollution, large corporations masquerading as government, space terrorists, and a Human Diaspora to cramped space stations which serve as holding pens for the huddled masses, likely in perpetuity, while a privileged few live on the paradise world of Rhea.

European, dystopian, space based science fiction, that’s a no brainer of awesome, right?  Well that’s what I thought when the movie started.

An absolutely stunning opening scene sees the camera panning around, across and through a massive rotating space station that seems to borrow the best parts of Babylon 5 and Blade Runner. Minutes into the movie and the world already feels lived in to the point of total breakdown.  The inside of the space station is dark and dank as water drips from overhead pipes.  Think about the lower decks of Alien’s Nostromo and you have a good approximation of the better parts of Cargo’s space station. Aside from the fact that the protagonist, Dr. Laura Portman (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) introduces the backstory and plot through a bit of twenty-third century blogging, Cargo had me hooked.

The aforementioned blogging offers the following information.  Laura’s sister Arianne is living on Rhea.  The good doctor longs to join her sister in paradise as she has had enough of the disease and epidemics that accompany life on the space stations.  To raise the funds that she needs to relocate to Rhea, Laura braves the dangers of space terrorism and long term isolation as a medic aboard the interstellar cargo ship Kassandra.

Unfortunately, the name’s the thing in Cargo. On some level, I’d like to think that naming the starship Kassandra was a happy coincidence; if the evil corporation that runs the world of Cargo is going to make Rhea look like the Elysian Fields in its commercials, why not name a ship after the second daughter of King Priam of Troy as a way of maintaining the mythological motif?  It’s a tragically ironic choice as the movie descends from an opening sequence that comes close to making the act of watching a movie a tactile experience, to a contrivance of clichés that is so predictable that I too felt cursed with Kassandra’s gift of prophecy and foresight.  Viewers beware that so long as you possess half a brain and haven’t been living on a space station these last ten years you too will feel like the Oracle at Delphi when you guess the movie’s ending before its first hour is complete.

I’d expound further on the predictable nature of the movie were it not for the fact that the most natural comparison therein would constitute a giant spoiler.  Instead, I’ll simply say that when the revelation comes, it comes with all the gusto and originality of a post-Sixth Sense M. Night Shyamalan movie.  At least he had the decency of putting the “what a twist” moment at the end of the movie.  Cargo will make you sit through a pointless extra hour of story while the characters struggle catch up with the audience.

Part of the problem with Cargo is that it feels like a movie that was written by committee.  This should come as no surprise considering that five people share writing credits. Bucher and Engler have a joint “story by” credit while Steinmann, Roscheisen, and Hartman share the “screenplay by” credit.  Movie making might be a collaborative project, but it’s obvious in this story where one person’s influence begins and another person’s ends.

At some points, the movie feels like a cheeky send-up of our world.  The Kassandra is under the auspices of the Transitional Space Authority, or TSA.  Due to recent terrorist activities the TSA is installing Sky Marshalls aboard all cargo ships.  What’s that you say? Your allegory sense is tingling?  Too bad that after the Kassandra’s Sky Marshall, Lt. Decker (Martin Rapold), shows a short film on the dangers of space terrorism – hmm no foreshadowing there – he becomes little more than an overly enigmatic vehicle for forwarding an unnecessary romantic subplot.  Said subplot is set against the Kassandra’s crew getting killed off in a fashion befitting a tiresome 80s slasher flick.  After an hour and forty-five minutes of this and maudlin romance/angst/blogging, Laura Portman is forever blogging, any good will that the movie might have earned in its opening movement is shot to Hades. (Look at me I can also bat about Greek mythology in an attempt to be clever.)

In the end, Cargo fails one very important litmus test for me, the CPR test.  If in a fictional work a doctor performs CPR on a person who has no pulse, rather than getting a defibrillator, then pulls the “He’s dead, Jim” shtick, the movie fails the CPR test.  Anybody who’s ever taken a first aid course knows that CPR doesn’t start hearts, unless you are on Baywatch.  Once a movie fails this test, I start noticing all the other small flaws.  Why is a starship burning its main engines when cruising through the void?  Why aren’t people aspirating cryo goo while wearing those not very airtight looking face masks.  Why does the space station rotate to make gravity but the spaceship doesn’t? How in god’s name did that person randomly fire space suit thrusters and still manage to hit the tiny airlock on a moving starship without so much as a slide ruler to help with the math?  Are we using night vision in this scene because we are too cheap to properly light a very dark set?  Those flaws very quickly add up to a place where I’m doing my best impression of a cranky old man longing for the good ol’ days of space movies.

Twas a good effort, Cargo. In another world, a world where you were written by one person and the mood was consistant from start to finish, I might have liked you.  You could have been the sci-fi import that I bragged about to all my friends.  Instead, you’re at best on par with a SyFy original feature.

Hits:

+1 for a decent dystopia

+3 for an amazing opening sequence that gave me hope for a great story

Misses:

-0.5 for being cheap and using night vision instead of proper lighting.  (Protip: you should never copy a cinematography trick that appeared in the Freddie Prinz Jr. version of Rollerball)

-1.5 for failing the CPR test

-2 for too many plot directions

-2 for being pointlessly predictable

Overall Score: -2


2

Shaftoe’s Rants: On Other Critics

The Short Version:  As critics we should attempt to maintain a modicum of common sense if not internal consistency in our evaluation.

The Long Version:  One of the first things that I was told when I started writing reviews is that critics don’t criticize other critics.  It’s just not done.  The general consensus seems to be that in criticising ourselves we become the snake that eats its own tail.  Our words will somehow become less relevant if we use our public voice to hold our peers to the same standards of performance that we do movies, books, games et cetera. However, I think that precept is built upon the misconception that criticism is an act of educated opinion rather than an act of evaluation that can be, and ought to be, easily quantified.

Rather than constructing a theoretical framework for criticism, an act which would no doubt drive away more readers than it would attract, I’m going to recap two recent examples of criticism that illustrate a dire need for more thought and less opinion in cultural criticism.

Example 1: A video game review of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A well-established Canadian online publication released a review that scored Skyrim at 10 out of 10.  I didn’t bother with reading the long form of their review since their short form completely invalidated the score and any credibility that I might have attributed the following words.  In sum, if the game is going to get a perfect score then the “Con” section of the “Pros” and “Cons” overview should be empty.  Full stop.  It should not read, “Some frame rate issues as well as occasional bad texturing.”

Frame rate issues speak directly to the ability of the game engine to render sprites with a baseline of consistency.  If there are enough frame rate drops as to merit putting a black mark against the game in the preamble, then the game can’t possibly be perfect.  Even a half-educated reader will look at such an incongruity and assume that Bethesda paid the publication in question to write a glowing review, or that the author of the review is so blinded by their love for the franchise that they can’t reconcile what they want the game to be against what it is.

Example 2: Movie reviews of The Immortals and J. Edgar.

A well-known Canadian film critic considered The Immortals and J. Edgar as both worthy of “3 stars”.

Well and good except for the way in which he justified both movies.  In his words, J. Edgar ought to have focused on a single event in Mr. Hoover’s life rather than aging Leonardo DiCaprio through fifty years.  The critic also said that the makeup job on DiCaprio was outstanding but sub-par on the supporting cast.  He wrapped up his evaluation by saying that we should expect an Oscar nomination for DiCaprio’s performance.

On The Immortals, the critic said that it was a visually stunning picture but utterly devoid of any story.  He said that the people playing the Olympian gods looked like a bunch of kids preparing for a night out at the club.  That was the extent of his qualifications for a 3 star review: very pretty but stupid, very stupid.

I don’t want to get crass with things here, but if a movie is going to get three stars just because it is pretty, I had best leave the theatre with a marked desire for a cigarette and some spooning.  How the hell does a professional critic justify putting a movie that has Oscar worthy acting in the exact same category as sword and sandal puff piece without any observable plot?  It boggles the mind.

Turning to the question at hand, why am I complaining about this?  Primarily because weak sauce criticism from the big boys makes me look bad by association.  The aforementioned incidents make critics and reviewers look like either incredulous and unthinking PR instruments or morbidly stupid fan boys who can’t divine when a product is flawed.

That said, where is the harm in a little internal oversight?  Are critics so thin skinned that they can’t accept a bit of the feedback that they dole out on a regular basis?  Gods know my readers have called me out from time to time, and I for one enjoy not only the dialogue but the motivation to justify what I am saying in a quantifiable fashion.  Contrary to what some believe, there is no divine right of criticism.  It is a responsible relationship between critic and reader wherein the latter extends a measure of trust to the words of the former.  The expectation is that the former won’t use their position to forward anything other than a thoughtful argument.

I know that one editorial-ish rant form one obscure writer isn’t going to change the reality of the entertainment industry wherein critics can become PR flunkies.  Life will go on as usual, and I’ll grumble about it to those unfortunate few who remain within earshot.  Be that as it may, this code of silence among reviewers and critics does nothing other than to further isolate us from the very people we are trying to serve.  Let’s not hide behind arbitrary degrees of professionalism and inaccessibility when it is painfully obvious that some among us are making stupid mistakes.


1

Short Story Review: Alien Apocalypse – The Storm

Summary Judgement:  It’s incredibly difficult to pull off an innovative alien invasion story.  Alien Apocalypse manages that task in just under ten thousand words.

Written by: Dean Giles

Alien invasion stories are an interesting sub-genre of science fiction.  They compare quite nicely to high fantasy in that the seminal entries were written about a century ago, and in that time we haven’t really come up with any interesting ways to divert from the formula.  Consider that Independence Day is for all intents and purposes War of the Worlds only bigger and bloated with American jingoism.  Despite the ninety-eight years that separate the two stories, the ending is still the same:  all the armies of man couldn’t defeat the invaders were it not for a humble virus; a computer virus with respect to the latter but the conceit remains a constant.  Therefore in evaluating an alien invasion story only one all-important question comes to my mind: Does it do something new?  Alien Apocalypse: The Storm, most certainly does.

The story, though a discrete unit on its own, represents a first episode in a much larger narrative.  Yet it would be mistake to assume that this is a blasé introduction.  There’s no filler or extraneous back story as the plot shifts between the story’s two principle characters. Elliot Weber is an eleven-year-old living with his grandparents in the English countryside.  Leon Weber, Elliot’s father, is serving out the last few months of a four year prison sentence.  For reasons that are both deceptive and poignant, Elliot has not seen his father since Leon’s incarceration.  In spite of the physical isolation, the two maintain a relationship through phone calls, email and letters.  At the beginning of the story, their most recent correspondence involves a comet that passes very near to the Earth.

My first thought when I read about the comet: “Great.  Here come the tripods, heat rays, and black gas.”

I’m convinced that Mr. Giles took this approach just so he could have a laugh at the expense of readers like myself who jumped to a false conclusion.

Either by accident or design, the close pass of the comet deposits a form of semi-sentient plant life on the Earth. Excreting acid and multiplying at exponential rates, the moss eats everything that it comes into contact with.  Earth and all its life upon it have no natural defence against the invading life form.  In that sense these “aliens” are more akin to the virus from The Andromeda Strain than any sort of grey alien.  Of course, the green moss assimilates biological life with such terrifying efficiency as to make Andromeda look like a bad case of the sniffles.  At this point, I could draw a line between the red weeds that H.G. Welles’ Martians used to terraform the Earth.  However those plants were nowhere near as pernicious as the green moss and only took root, pardon the pun, as a consequence of tripods and war machines.

After only a few days of exposure to our planet’s biosphere, the green moss has brought civilization, or at least England, to an absolute ruin.  Leon wakes up in his solitary confinement cell thinking that the prisoners are rioting only to find that society has collapsed in around him.  From there, the plot is rather straight forward; Elliot must survive the encroaching moss long enough for his father to rescue him.

I will admit that at first I found both of the characters to be a little archetypal.  Granted invoking familiar archetypes is necessary in a story that very quickly moves from everyday life to a post-apocalyptic environment.  While Elliot remains little more than a goal for his father throughout the story, Leon’s personality develops quite nicely beyond the cliché of an ex-military ex-con with a heart of gold.  In fact, by the time the story was done I felt genuinely connected to Leon as a character.

There are also hints of environmental and colonizing force motifs at play within the story.  It begins with Leon’s attempts to maintain his sense of self within the brutal environment of Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs.  The metaphor continues with the nature of the green moss as a literal colonizing force upon the Earth.  In both instances an environmental force is acting upon a pre-existing system to forcibly convert it into something made in the former’s own image.  Since the grand narrative is still very much in its nascent phase, the over arcing ideas remain somewhat undeveloped.  However, the seeds have clearly been planted for some interesting extended metaphors in subsequent editions of the series.

Overall, Alien Apocalypse deals with what I call the “Welles Paradox” (Where the capacity for narrative depth within an alien invasion story is proportional to the efficiency of the invasion) by destroying the world and then turning his characters loose within it.  This setting results in an immediate empathy with the story’s adult protagonist as he embarks on a routine but wholly accessible quest.  The nature of the story is focused enough to keep a reader interested while maintaining a natural potential for serialization without feeling pulpy.  I for one can’t wait to see what Mr. Giles come up with next.

Overall score: +3

You can buy yourself a copy of Alien Apocalypse: The Storm as well as reading its free prequel story at TWB Press.


0

Video Game Music Review: The London Philharmonic Orchestra Performs The Greatest Video Game Music

Summary Judgement: The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s  Greatest Video Game Music is a delightful collision of high culture and pop culture.

Though I come from a family of musicians, my father, grandfather and sister are all talented with a variety of instruments, I am not one myself.  I struggled through playing the trumpet in grade nine and ten and I haven’t looked back since.   In that light, I’m probably the last person who should attempt to critically discuss music.  The only caveat to that reality is that we are dealing with video game music in this instance.  Thus, I think I’m marginally qualified to speak my mind.

In short, the performances are excellent.  However, I find myself only three-quarters in love with the playlist.  But what I do love, I love very much.

Part of the reason for my raised eyebrow of scepticism is that at least a quarter of the songs are nothing new.  For example, both The Legend of Zelda Suite and Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII were originally arranged for orchestral performance.

When I first heard the Zelda Suite, ten years ago, it blew my mind.  Finally, a piece of seminal music within gaming history was given the treatment that it deserved.  Though LPO’s performance of this piece was stellar, there was nothing new to it.  Measure for measure, beat for beat the song is the same.  As well, the Star Wars meets Raiders of the Lost Ark fanfare at the start of the song now sounds tedious to the point where I would rather just listen to the original 8-bit melody and revel in my nostalgia.

The same goes for Liberi Fatali.  Final Fantasy VIII’s opening cut scene had an operatic quality due primarily to the orchestral performance of this song.  But no matter what orchestra plays this song, it always sounds the same.  In the twelve years since FF:VIII’s release, I’ve heard Nobuo Uematsu’s music so identically performed that I am positively desperate to hear  the piece taken in a slightly different direction.

Perhaps I’m playing the role of the philistine Austrian King who tells Mozart there are too many notes in his opera.  But if I, as a lifelong gamer, am sick of these songs after only a decade then they might not represent the best that gaming music has to offer.

Indeed this might just be a matter of taste because LPO’s take on the Sons of Liberty Theme from Metal Gear Solid 2 sent chills down my spine.  But at least in this instance, there was an audible difference between the game version of the song and the live rendition.  The strings of the orchestra replace the synthesisers of the game and it is nothing short of rapture to my ears.  The only way it could get better for me is if the very next track was the LPO backing Cynthia Harrell as she sang Snake Eater, the Bond-esque theme from Metal Gear Solid 3.

The real genius of this CD is when it takes music that isn’t made for an orchestra and gives it the high culture treatment.  Consider the humble Tetris theme.  Every time I have to load my car, or my freezer, after a trip to Costco that song starts playing in my mind.  Hearing a simple little jingle like that blown up to such grand proportions is, for my time, why video game music works.  It is a form of cultural evolution where a simple melody grows into something new and infinitely more complicated.  In this case, sixteen bars of melody are Russified (Yes, Tetris can be made more Russian) into something that sounds like it came off the score for Fiddler on the Roof.

Some might call nostalgia on that last point.  However, any accusations therein will have to be dismissed when I admit that I’m genuinely taken aback by how well the Angry Birds theme works when done by an orchestra.  Through the alchemy of the LPO, the most innocuous six bars of jingle ever made for an iPhone app turn into something that is memorable.

Then there are the entries from Halo, Bioshock, Fallout and Mass Effect, all of which put me in mind to spend some money on this CD.  For the sake of context, the last album I bought was Clint Mansell’s Moon Soundtrack.

If you’re in the US, Amazon is selling a digital copy of the album for $2.99.  We Canadians, however, are not afforded such a deal (yeah, I know, I’ll rant about it another time) but can still pick up a digital version of the CD on itunes for $9.99.

Overall Score: +3.5


1

Podcast #16: Doctor Who chat with J.M. Frey

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and JM Frey.

Topics under discussion include, Doctor Who season six – because really, am I going to have her on to talk Star Trek – my thoughts on JM’s novel Triptych, non-linear storytelling in Doctor Who and a look at what happens when characters reach their expiration date before the actors do.

For news on her novels and upcoming appearances, make sure to visit http://jmfrey.net/

Opening Thoughts:  0 – 1:45

On The Doctor as a character: 1:45 – 9:05

Non-linear story telling and how to introduce a newbie to Doctor Who: 9:05 – 15:45

I go grad school on Triptych: 15:45 – 18:45

The Doctor, Rory, and Amy: is it a parting of the ways or a break-up? 18:45 – 34:25

Amy and Rory: are they past expiration? 34:25 – 42:25

Time for some Timelords? 42:25 – 54:25

Wrap up: 54:25 – 57:05

Right click “download” and “save link as” to download the ‘cast


4

Contest: The Eldritch/Undead Giveaway

Wow, it has been a while since I’ve done a contest.  So here’s what I’m thinking; since I’m still not done editing the podcast that I wanted to post today – that is to say that I haven’t even started the editing – I’ve decided to give away some free stuff as an act of contrition.

Sadly, it’s not a free copy of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Though if the good folks at Bethesda Game Studios want to send me a review copy that I can later contest away, I’d be happy to accept it.

Instead I’m going to give away a copy of a delightful indie game called Cthulhu Saves the World. If you’re a fan of classic RPGs in the fashion of Final Fantasy V and Chrono Trigger, a loyal minion of the Old Ones or somebody who thinks that games are just too damn easy, this is the title for you.  The game is also tongue-in-cheek funny in a way that I haven’t seen since the old Space Quest games.

But wait, there’s more.  Cthulhu Saves the World comes bundled with Breath of Death VII: The Beginning. In this game you’ll lead Dem the Skeleton Knight, Sara the ghost historian, Lita the vampire techie and Erik the zombie prince as they “explore an undead world in search of secrets from the past.”

Both games are published and developed by Zeboyd Games, who are in no way affiliated with this contest, but I imagine them to be very charming folk.

Leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win.  I’ll roll 4d6 to determine the winner and send you an email so you can claim your prize.  Contest closes on Tuesday, November 8th at 11:59pm Eastern Time.

Kindly note that Steam is telling me this is a PC only game.  Sorry mac users, but you made your choice and now you have to live with it.


3

Shaftoe’s Rants: MechWarrior Online, Yay! Right?

The Short Version:  I’m glad to see that MechWarrior is back, but I think making this a free-to-play game is a bad idea.

The Long Version:  Today started out on a bright note.  Director and renowned PC gamer Duncan Jones re-tweeted a link to some long awaited news on the fate of the MechWarrior franchise.  This was a welcome surprise as it was in July of 2009 that Piranha Games first announced that they were working with FASA/WhizKids to reboot the long slumbering IP.  As a long time BattleTech/MechWarrior fan (I might have a collector’s edition and original release of the Jade Falcon Trilogy novels on my bookshelf) I was positively giddy when I saw the concept video that Piranha floated around the internet.

Then the rumours started.  The promotional video for the game featured BattleMech designated “The Warhammer”.  The Warhammer, along with a half dozen other classic ‘Mechs that came with the launch of BattleTech as a tabletop game back in the 80s, bore a striking similarity to the mecha of Super Dimensonal Fortress Macross or Robotech to us North Americans.

There’s a long and ugly history between FASA and Harmony Gold, Robotech’s distribution company, that I won’t bother to detail here.  Sufficed to say, gamers and game insiders made the assumption that Harmony Gold cited old grievances and filed a cease and desist order against Piranha Games.  Though Piranah’s development blog claims otherwise, the noticeable absence of the Warhammer from the ‘Mech lineup on their website gives me reason to suspect that legal actions took place.

Officially, Piranha Games states that the delays were due to the big five publishers all passing on their MechWarrior pitch.  Though, they do credit their work on MechWarrior as something that helped the company secure the Duke Nukem Forever contract.  Wow. Duke Nukem.  A muscle bound chauvinist and half naked sprites is so much more fun for me than giant robots set against the politics of the Inner Sphere.

At any rate, the official word came in yesterday when Piranha Games announced MechWarror Online, a free-to-play first person MMO.

Pro: The game is moving forward.

Pro/Con: It’s an MMO. 

Pro: It’s set in late 3049 which means you can bet your ass that the Clans are going to invade the inner sphere.

Pro: Promises for heavy customization as well as the ability to form lances and mercenary corporations.

Potentially fatal Con: Free-to-play.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch in video games unless you’re a pirate or it’s a shareware title.  Innocuous google ads on loading screens and in-game billboards don’t generate enough income for a developer to stay in business.  Unless the boys and girls at Piranha are really working out side of the box, it’s going to come down to micro-transactions as a means of real world income generation.

To placate the angry hordes, the devs have promised that access to better weapons and “game winning” equipment are only going to be accessible through actually playing the game.  Thus, I expect that would-be MechWarriors will be paying for the privilege of driving specific ‘Mechs while the free players will be relegated to their own pool.  As egalitarian as that might sound, I don’t think it will work.  In fact I think there is a fundamental flaw to the concept of doing MechWarrior as a free-to-play game.

I say this as an old-school MWL player from back in the days of MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries. At that time, I was a blood named member of Clan Hells’ Horses at the rank of Star Captain.  Granted that means nothing to most people.  However, I’ll happily expose my nerditude if it establishes my credibility as an expert on BattleTech/MechWarrior.

Part of the fun of playing in MWL was the tactics.  During a league match, battles could take as long as an hour to resolve themselves as the opposing forces played cat and mouse about the map.  Even when a battle ended in ten minutes, it remained a game of strategy and immersion (we all played with joysticks and throttles) with blowing shit up as a fun fringe benefit.  Toss a bit of Space Opera back story into the mix and MechWarrior brought out the most dedicated of PC gamers.  There were no casual MechWarriors; you either loved it, or you didn’t.  A game that evokes such a strong dedication from its gamers is problematic for a free-to-play title.

The very nature of free-to-play gaming is that you want as many people playing as possible.  That means fast paced play with continual feedback and gratification.  It’s the reason why everybody plays Farmville. At most people have to wait a minute before a “winning” event occurs.  That method of manic game play is utterly incompatible with MechWarrior.  If Piranha dares to change the very thing that drew people to MechWarrior, it will create such a shit storm of nerd rage that none of the old guard will go near this new iteration.  Meanwhile the game will have to market itself to the very outsiders who didn’t bother playing MechWarrior when it was popular on the PC from 1989-2002.  Will those folk be willing to pay for the privilege of piloting a Vulture II-C or an IS-Awesome when one giant robot is pretty much the same as the next?  Piranah could pour millions of dollars and the next year of their staff’s lives into making a game that nobody will pay to play.

The smarter move is to keep the format of the game in-line with that which has already been established, and pitch the product as a subscription service game.  PC gamers like supporting companies that give us what we want.  Anybody who ever fought with Microsoft’s “Zone” to find a MWL match or cried into their beer while a private website crashed and took with it the records of a year’s worth of league play, will swear fealty to a company that centralizes all of that into one platform.  In sum: if you build it, we will pay, but only if we are all paying the same amount.