Reviews Archive

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A Mostly Pointless Spoiler-Free “Review” of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

Let’s boil things down to one simple, 80s CRPG-style preamble and question.

You see a movie theatre. It’s playing Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Do you buy a ticket? (Y/N)

Your answer should be yes.

This is mostly everything I’m going to say about The Force Awakens. Not because I’m lazy, but because I suspect it’s all people want to know, at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I want to say about this movie. I could fill pages discussing the way The Force Awakens hits every mythological beat in terms of telling a story that could be right out of Greek mythology. But that’s not what people want, is it?

Between little old ladies demanding blood oaths against spoilers on pain of a heavy sack beating, a general distrust of the Snakes on a Plane-level of hype surrounding TFA, and oh-so-many Attack of the Clones shaped scars courtesy of Lucas’ second kick at the can, I’m left to ask what’s the fucking point of writing a review? Anything I put together that wouldn’t risk offending sensibilities would be the sort of pale mockery of criticism that comes with the joke of the objective video game review.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a motion picture. It is filmed in colour. There are many actors representing both humans and non-humans. The story is set in a galaxy far from our own, at a point in time removed from our own. The film is paced into three narrative acts, with a prologue and epilogue. The actors convey a range of human emotions in their attempt to tell a story.

I trust the point is made.

While I submit that any story worth its salt can’t be spoiled on the grounds of plot details alone, I’ll not invite the scorn of the internet for my inability to perfectly divine what may or may not offend. To be honest, The Force Awakens is strong enough that I could summarize the plot and comment on its themes without diminishing the experience. But with various plug-ins and apps filtering out Star Wars related comments and content, what’s the point in writing for an audience that doesn’t want it? I write reviews with the expectation that that my words will provide some value to readers. The general buzz around the internet is that said value is neither welcome nor required at this particular juncture.

So if all people want is reassurance, then here it comes.

Is The Force Awakens better than episodes 1, 2, or 3? Absolutely.

Should you go see it? Without a doubt.

Is it going to make you feel feelings other than disgust and boredom a la Attack of the Clones? You bet. All of the feels.

Did Lawrence Kasdan write a good movie? Without a doubt.

Did JJ screw it up? Not even a little.

There. Are you not reassured?


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Game Review: Thea: The Awakening

Thea: The Awakening strikes me as a game designed for people of rather specific tastes. While that may sound like cheap platitude, rest assured this is not the case. Developed by Muha Games, a studio based out of the UK and Poland, Thea is what would happen if Endless Legend had a kid with NEO Scavenger and the two of them hired Gwent from The Witcher 3 to raise the kid on a steady diet of Eastern European folk lore. Like I said, specific tastes.

The game is set in the eponymous land of Thea, recently emerged out of a prolonged period of death and decay. Assuming the role of a benevolent deity, players guide a single village through this time of recovery. While the general goal is one of survival against seemingly impossible odds – as is the flavour with most games that venture into the realm of permanent death and procedural generation – a story does gradually unfold over time. It’s a slow burn of a story, for sure, but so was Dark Souls and I really liked its approach to narrative development through inches.

Settling into Thea for the first time requires negotiating a small, but noticeable, learning curve. At its core, Thea is a turn-based strategy/resource management game. A player’s village always has a death clock hanging over its head in the form of dwindling food and firewood. This makes the first twenty or thirty turns a very tense affair. In my experience, cleaning out the local monster nests was nowhere near as important as deploying a clutch of warriors and workers to secure a new supply of food. Once those first rounds were behind me, I finally let myself dig into the game’s complex crafting system.

This is where Thea feels like I’m playing the most richly designed worker placement tabletop game ever imagined. Remember, specific tastes. Some of you are going to love micromanaging the equipment and supplies of a dozen simulated people before sending half of them into battle against a Striga – a battle which is played out through a card game. Others are going to find the initial experience fiddly, possibly even intimidating. All I can say is Thea is quick to reward persistence. The relatively stable number of villagers in play means that the first crush of micromanagement trails off fairly quickly.

Returning to a previous point, yes, I said a card game simulates the battles. Thea handles combat, and a number of other skill challenges, through a card battle system. The rules governing this system are simplicity itself. Yet the easy mechanics only serve to underscore the impressive way Thea applies seemingly dozens of stats for each villager into the card battle system.

Even though I found myself simulating a few battles in the mid-game, particularly when my party was powerful enough as to not fear skeletons and mutated bees, I always wanted to play through the card combat. If only to hedge my bets against the way seemingly minor injuries incurred in combat have a way of leading to infection and death if left untreated. Needless to say, this adds a measure of tension to even the most one-sided of battles.

For the purposes of this review, I will admit to not having successfully completed Thea. I’ve lost each of my four attempts to beat the game. The first play though was a wash since I skimmed through most of the tutorial text. Read the tutorial text, people. The second through fourth time met with better results. On each occasion my downfall was in my ambition.

The most precious resources in the game are a player’s villagers. Unlike food and minerals, people are a finite resource. Losing even one villager can make an impact on a player’s overall economic and military health. Losing four because the majority of your fighters were off fighting Striga-bats (yes I said Striga-bats, I didn’t know they were a thing, either) is almost crippling. I watched my village slowly starve to death as my fighters made their futile attempts to bang their swords to plough shears and farm with barely half the efficiency of my dead workers. Ultimately, I resigned the game and started fresh, progressing even farther before disaster struck again.

Yet in failure there is satisfaction. Thea is about rebuilding the world out of the ashes of armageddon. It is a struggle against the forces of entropy. It stands to reason things aren’t going to go to plan the first few times. Like Dark Souls, X-Com, NEO Scavenger, and FTL, losing at Thea only stings temporarily. A new game means a new map and new chances to watch it all go so terribly wrong lead the people to triumph.

In the end, Thea brings together a style that fuses Civilization and a fantasy twist on Fallout, wrapping its package in a mythology that should be reasonably familiar for anybody who recognizes the name Geralt of Rivia. In terms of mechanics, the game does something genuinely fun and innovative with the buzzwords “rogue-like” and “procedurally generated”. Where the art can be a little stock-fantasy in the over world – particularly in a post Endless Legend gaming market - the look of hand-drawn detailing in the card battle system adds a nice flourish to the overall experience. Thea is likely to find a happy home among the sort of people who enjoy reasonably deep RPGs, worker placement tabletop games, or the existential dread of Dark Souls.


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The Expanse Will Fail if it Emulates Battlestar Galactica: A Mathematical Proof

Let’s talk about The Expanse.

Despite what you might think from the title of this post, I enjoyed the pilot episode of The Expanse. I’m happy to see contemporary science fiction trying to repatriate the interplanetary empire trope from the pie-eyed and often crackpot notions established during the Heinlein-era. The Expanse shows humanity’s colonization of Mars, Ceres, and presumably the Jovian moons, coming at the cost of our baseline humanity. Being a belter is not some romantic callback to the Jeffersonian frontier; it is a fundamental rejection of terrestrial humanity as a genetically engineered post-human.

Likewise, The Expanse comes by things like gravity in an honest way. Gravity is either the product of celestial mass, simulated through rotation, or a product of constant acceleration. There’s a bit of handwavium in terms of how humanity engineered itself to endure high/low gravity, but I’m content to let it slide. Magic gravity juice helps spacers endure 30G emergency accelerations? Okay, sure. I’ll bite. It’s an easier sell for the near-future than gravity plating a la Star Trek or inertial dampeners a la figuratively every space opera ever.

Cut to, space battles.

The Expanse’s first episode gets space battles completely, utterly, and miserably wrong. It gets space battles so wrong I might as well have been watching Star Wars. The likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda gets space battles better than The Expanse. Here comes the math.

In the pilot episode, a shuttle called “Knight” is 50,000km from its parent ship, the Canterbury. When a pirate ship appears, it is at a range of 12,00km from Knight. Put the two together and we have space battle occurring at a maximum range of 62,000km. The opening, and only, fusillade of the battle sees the pirate launch four nuclear-armed torpedoes at the Canterbury. Those torpedoes connect with the Canterbury a mere 60 seconds after launch. And this is the exact moment where I call bullshit.

Do you know how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to connect with a target 62,000km away after only 60 seconds? Very goddamn fast. Almost impossibly fast. Fast enough that the fuel they expend getting up to speed would make directed energy weapons a more cost-effective choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have no idea about the acceleration and maximum velocity of a torpedo on The Expanse. So let’s take an Earth example and do a little extrapolation. The fastest contemporary anti-ship cruise missile I could find on the internet is the experimental BrahMos-II missile. It has a maximum velocity of 2.382km/s or 2382m/s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the space torpedoes of the 23rd century can accelerate to 10x the speed of the BrahMos-II. In this case, that’s 23,820m/s, which is a little more than double the Earth’s escape velocity. Frankly, this seems a bit over-powered, but it’s 200 years in the future; I’m inclined to be generous.

Bearing this in mind, a torpedo launched from a ship at a velocity of 23,820m/s, assuming it launches at maximum speed – likely not possible but I don’t want to over-complicate this by factoring in an acceleration curve – would require 43.38 minutes of flight time before contacting a target 62,000,000m distant. This is also assuming the torpedo flies in a straight line, free of interference from gravity wells. It’s also not withstanding any Delta V bonus the torpedo might get from the pirate ship already being in motion. However, such a bonus would be negligible to this problem for reasons that will soon make themselves evident.

So now that science has killed the action buzz on the 60 second torpedo run, we can ask ourselves how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to have a 60 second time on target.

To cover 62,000,000 meters in 60 seconds the torpedoes would need to be travelling at approximately 1,033,333m/s. For context, the speed of light is 299,792,458m/s. Thus, The Expanses‘ torpedoes would need to be travelling at roughly 0.35% of the speed of light (C) to make the scene congruent to the laws of physics. And before you say that .35% of C is no big deal, consider that the fastest man-made thing ever was NASA’s Juno mission that hit 40,233m/s after executing a slingshot around Jupiter. Quite a ways to go before hitting 1,033,333m/s.

Given this ludicrously impossible speed, there’s really no need for a nuclear warhead on The Expanses’ torpedoes; a suitably dense piece of dog crap travelling at such speeds would have more than enough concussive force to blow up something as flimsy as a pressurized spaceship.

Now to answer the big question: what does all of this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? BSG has many strengths, but it’s depiction of warfare in space is cartoonish, at best – yes, I am talking about Ron Moore’s BSG. Vipers and Raiders engaged in dogfights driven by Newtonian physics look unbelievably cool. Likewise, fighter pilots make for accessible character archetypes. Both of these elements help make BSG an exciting and engaging piece of television (at least in the first two seasons). As a point of practicality, Vipers and Raiders are a brain dead way to wage space warfare. Recall your Douglas Adams: space is very big. Battlestars and Baseships using kinetic weapons and missiles would inevitably do better to wage war at long-range using math and thrust equations to generate shooting solutions. The ranges depicted in BSG (e.g. single digit kilometers) would result in little more than mutually assured destruction. As an audience, we forgive these things because BSG was concerned with providing spectacular looking space battles amid big political/philosophical questions. If BSG kept it real, then Adama ordering the ship to condition one would instantly cut to a team of junior officers pulling out their scientific calculators.

Unlike BSG, The Expanse is selling itself on the strength of its serious, thoughtful, and practical(ish) approach to telling a story in space. Yet in its inaugural space battle, it is very much taking the Battlestar approach. Such a choice subverts the very aesthetic the series is trying to cultivate. And frankly, I might be willing to give this utter physics fail a pass were it not for the fact that the 60 second battle becomes a setup for a broader plot arc.

The Canterbury’s navigator is about to tell something seemingly important to the ship’s XO, in command of the Knight, only to have the phone call interrupted when the Canterbury is nuked. Shenanigans!

Even if Knight and Canterbury were right next to each other when the pirate fired her torpedoes at a range of 12,000km, there should have been – working within the model explored in this post – 8.3 minutes of flight time before impact. This would be more than enough time for the navigator to say her piece and for the XO send her a final dick pic. What? He seems the type.

In no uncertain terms, the math of The Expanse’s first space battle is a joke. If the series wants to dedicate itself to showing the complexities of life in space, then it needs to abandon the Wing Commander elements of Battlestar Galactica and channel a lot more of The Martian. While I might be content to let the space battle faux pas slide once, frequent occurrences will take the shine off the series’ “hard” SF hull plating. Once that happens, they might as well give their starships FTL drives and inertial dampeners.


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Game Review: Rebel Galaxy

During the summer I had a chance to play with a preview build of Rebel Galaxy. Amid those halcyon days, I was coming off months of playing nothing but Elite Dangerous. Because of that, the slow moving, naval-inspired starship combat Rebel Galaxy stood out as an absolute delight. In its final form, Double Damage Games has only improved on their initial offering. They’ve produced a space-combat game with the sensibilities and scope of Wing Commander: Privateer and the tone of Firefly.

It’s hard to miss the gaming pedigree encoded in the very DNA of Rebel Galaxy. Travis Baldree and Erich Schaefer, the power behind Double Damage Games, previously founded Runic Games, which gave us the likes of Torchlight and Torchlight 2. Before Torchlight, Schaefer was lead designer on Diablo and Diablo 2. While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t boast the same hack/slash/loot aesthetic as Torchlight and Diablo, it does convey the same freedom to explore.

Rebel Galaxy’s story is reasonably typical of the open-world space combat genre. Players inherit a piece-of-crap ship from a mysterious relative – in this case, their Aunt Juno. The quest to find Juno leads to encounters with AIs, pirates, and the slightly less-than-upstanding forces of law and order. Without giving too much of the story away, I found it struck the exact right tone for this sort of experience. It captures the best feeling of old-school space opera, banking on a player’s willingness to suspend disbelief in the areas of extraterrestrial carbon-based life forms, FTL engines, and space battles that play out at extreme close range. Sufficed to say, the emphasis is most certainly on the fiction side of science fiction, but that’s just fine with this critic.

Though a person can engage with all the usual suspects of an open-world space game (e.g. mining, trading, cargo hauling) the real fun is found in the combat. Corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and other capital ships lay into each other with massive fusillades of energy weapons. Smaller turrets tend to blast away at the myriad of fighters and small attack craft that populate a battle. The combat is at once filled with urgency, but also slow and methodical. Killing another starship is as much about positioning and timing as it is disgorging hot tachyons at the enemy.

In terms of making money, trade and/or combat are the way to go, at least within my experience. Fetch quest cargo missions are okay, but who wants to be peaceful when they are flying a ship with fourteen broadside plasma cannons? It’s also fairly easy to build up to more impressive starships and better arsenals. Granted, a player will find it hard to go from one story mission to the next without ever stopping to do some work on the side. However, taking the time to hunt bounty or run freight is rarely so arduous as to feel like a grind.

On the subject of trading, I’ll give Double Damage kudos for having more in-game trade data available than what appears in Elite Dangerous. I’m always astonished at games that expect me to believe my computer can plot an FTL-jump but not remember how much I paid for 10 tons of self-sealing stembolts at the previous space station. Though the game could benefit from a bit more trade data, I don’t think anybody will need to have Excel running in the background to ensure they stay profitable.

The only real mark against the game was the odd bit of janky AI. This was particularly apparent on escort missions. Note my use of the past tense. However, Double Damage has proven to be incredibly responsive to feedback, releasing patches very quickly after issues are identified. Playing the game now is pretty much a seamless experience. No frame rate drops. No glitches. No crashes.

While Rebel Galaxy doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of the open-world space combat game, its strength is in its ability to skillfully borrow and fuse the things that do work from within the sub-genre. There’s a little bit of Privateer, mixed with a dash of Starfleet Command, with just a splash of Freelancer for good measure. Everything the game does, it does very well. For someone looking for a space game that will let them jump in and feel like Han Solo without twenty hours of prep work, Rebel Galaxy is a sound investment.

Note: I reviewed the PC version of this game using a mouse and keyboard.


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Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

It would be too easy to call Jupiter Ascending a “bad” film. It would also be a crime against the English language and common decency, itself, to suggest the Wachowskis’ sci-fi epic is a “good” movie. Jupiter Ascending wants, desperately so, to be a 21st century version of The Fifth Element. But the Wachowskis are no Luc Besson, and Jupiter Ascending, for all its ambition and flash, lacks the essential charm, timing, and wit that made The Fifth Element work.

Jupiter Ascending tells the story of Jackie Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian émigré, who cleans American toilets for a living. The movie is smart enough to get right into the sci-fi twist on the longing-ladies-of-fairy-tales trope, rather than spending forty minutes faffing about with Jupiter’s backstory. We witness a few scenes of Jupiter coveting the expensive lifestyle of her social betters as a prelude to a bunch of Sectoids aliens legally distinct from X-Com’s intellectual property showing up to kill her. Fortunately, Jupiter has a guardian in the form of Channing Tatum, who plays some sort of wolfman hybrid with hover boots, man pain, and the power to remain shirtless for half his scenes.

So yeah, I guess I’m not the target demographic. If the secret alien princess gimmick doesn’t elucidate who the movie is playing to, then the parade of beefcake probably drives home the point. The scantily clad space babes of literally any other sci-fi movie are replaced by shirtless dudes alternatively pouting, grimacing, or showcasing their troubled past through gruffness. Okay, cool. Points for being different. Points for being progressive. However, dismantling traditional cinematic sexism through benign machismo and eye candy doesn’t add much to the story.

And at the risk of putting too fine a point on things, Jupiter Ascending’s story is probably the worst part of the movie. The aesthetics are amazing. Ships, costumes, and orbital megastructures all boast a richness of design and promise an amazing backstory. Visually, Jupiter Ascending makes Mass Effect look like the crude scribblings of a toddler with their crayons. What do they yield in terms of story? Cinderella meets the three bears. To wit:

I hate my life on earth.

Oh no, the bad aliens are trying to kill me, let’s go to space and meet my genetic children who all want to use me for some nefarious purpose.

This child is too cloying.

This child is too incestuous.

This child is too psychotic.

Well, fuck it. I’m going back to Chicago to clean toilets and hang out with my beefcake, wolfman, alien boyfriend. Also, hover shoes and I secretly own the Earth, but I still clean toilets because now I appreciate my garbage life through the lens of a meta immigrant experience.

Seriously, this is the entire story. For all the splendor built into Jupiter Ascending’s world, the actual story is light years wide and inches deep.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: it’s an action movie, of course it’s going to be shallow. Perhaps, perhaps not. What’s problematic in this case is how the lack of depth in the story shines a light on all of the areas where the writing cribs from other parts of science fiction’s history. In some ways, the entire enterprise is a love letter to L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Not the movie, mind you, the much, much longer novel about space capitalists. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the movie’s utterly pointless homage to Brazil is the product of the Wachowskis holding Terry Gilliam’s cat hostage in exchange for ten pages of script. And when Jupiter invokes Brazil’s infamous form 27b/6 as a regulation against being kidnapped, I honestly could not tell if the movie is winking at the audience or shouting, “Do you get it?” like Bojack Horseman.

So it’s the archetypical hero’s journey for Jupiter and Jupiter Ascending. The story reaches for greatness, but it is poorly assembled and a depressingly textbook affair. This said, the movie stunning in its visual richness. The costuming is as extravagant as what one would expect from a Sofia Copolla period piece. The problem is that none of the aesthetic translates to meaningful plot. It adds depth to the setting, but not to the story. And without a strong story to anchor the fantastic, the entire narrative spins off in a thousand inchoate directions.

Jupiter Ascending

Directors: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne


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Movie Review: Ex Machina

UPDATE: I missed the point of this movie.

I’m a white guy who works in economics and economic development. Much like the tech industry, my field can be a boys club. That means I suffer from a bit of myopia when it comes to a story that deals with the literal objectification of women within a given industry. I got this one wrong. I’ve taken this error and turned it into a 1200 word essay I’m pitching to a few websites and magazines. I want my mea culpa on this to be as public as I can make it. I’ll leave the original review below as a perpetual reminder that sometimes I need to think harder before putting pen to paper.

A film like Ex Machina is an inevitable sort of thing. There’s nothing particularly profound in asking what will happen when someone with the tech savvy and wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, turns his attention toward creating an artificial general intelligence for puerile purposes. Nor do I think that the latest entry from writer/director Alex Garland is a particularly fresh take on the decades-old man versus machine story. Ex Machina orbits a done idea based on a half-baked concept: the thinking machine challenging its creator. Yet a lack of novelty does not preclude the film being a technically proficient experience and a reasonably engaging story, even if the ending is dull as it comes.

Ex Machina is, essentially, a more philosophically inclined take on Robocop’s formula of character transformation. Herein, a reclusive tech savant summons a programmer to his mountain fortress. The programmer’s task is to administer a modified Turing Test on a human-form the robot. Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the programmer, engage in a series of dialogues where the programmer tests the humanity of the machine.

Narrative and visual clues, alike, suggest Caleb’s interviews with Ava are part of some test within a test. The film invites its audience to speculate about the true subject of the study. To my surprise, Ex Machina is sufficiently nimble in its writing to keep a viewer guessing, at least up until the end of the second act. Still, its endurance is no small feat for a movie with only four characters and a handful of sets.

Once the gambit is revealed, Ex Machina’s ending is something of a cut cloth affair. The movie’s tone shifts from one of discovery to heavy handed moralizing. To wit, mad engineering (e.g. making something for the sake of making it) is irresponsible, particularly where sentient beings are concerned. Giving a sex robot a sense of self proves to be an act of gross over-engineering. The movie’s ultimate scene is wrapped in a ribbon of the watchmaker’s hubris. Narrative consistency precludes any mention of Asimov’s Three Laws, thus resulting in an ending that hasn’t been fresh since 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project.

What I find most disappointing is how the film invites the average viewer, or at least someone who reads/writes less science fiction than this critic, to view Ex Machina’s lessons profound revelations. Certainly there is room to see this film as an empowering feminist critique on the commoditization of the female form. It’s easy to imagine how Nathan aka Evil Zuckerberg would monetize some variation of his sex robot into a consumer model. At the same time, there’s a fundamental misalignment between the depiction of a genuine AI we see on screen, and the rather limited AI necessary for building a convincing sex bot. In other words, if a person wanted to make a sex robot, they wouldn’t make something as smart as a Cylon. All they need is something that can convince its user it enjoys butt stuff as modus vivendi.

Ava may defy convention, existing as a princess-who-rescues-herself, but she only does so through the lens of a decades old technophobia. I expect more from science fiction of this day and age. It’s time to move past the fear of how machines might usurp and supplant humanity. This said, Ex Machina is sufficiently well-polished to rise above its rather limited imagination. There’s enough misdirection in the story’s first two-thirds to keep a viewer off balance, right up until the point where it goes reducto ad HAL 9000 in the third act.

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac


6

Book Review: Star Wars Aftermath

Wherever a reader lands on this novel, I have to marvel at the fury it has produced. The stream of festering vitriol I’ve seen directed against Chuck Wendig is as astonishing as it is tragic. Who knew a gay character turning down a taste of the alien strange would set a corner of the internet ablaze? Oh wait, it’s the internet, never mind.

Moving swiftly on, allow me to establish a baseline for evaluating this book. Star Wars, on screen, is as good as it is bad. From my point of view, the line between good and bad in Star Wars is Lawrence Kasdan, Dave Filoni, and Matt Michnovetz. I’m the guy who thinks that Empire is better than Jedi. I’m the guy who thinks the Darkness on Umbara arc of The Clone Wars is on par with Empire. I’m the guy who thinks that Star Wars is better when it goes deeper and dirtier (phrasing), and that’s why I think Chuck Wendig wrote a hell of a novel.

Whatever you think of George Lucas, one has to accept that he writes Star Wars for children. I don’t say this to cast aspersions, so much as to point out the obvious. Consider the good people of Coruscant pulling down a statue of Papa Palpatine after the Battle of Endor. A child would be fine with this scene because good is triumphing over evil – historical allusions notwithstanding. Adults look at that scene and ask why Stormtroopers aren’t cracking some skulls. Wendig begins his novel with the Imperial police opening fire on this very crowd.

A post-Endor Imperial summit on the planet Akiva, an Outer Rim world that houses the balance of the story, provides a necessary catharsis for Star Wars fans who dare to think about the mythos in a serious way. Here we learn how Imperial power fractures absent Palpatine. Likewise, readers encounter Imperial voices far removed from the jackbooted caricatures often seen on screen. Admiral Rae Sloane (don’t call her the new Thrawn) asks her Imperial cohorts why the people of the galaxy wouldn’t be afraid of the Empire.

To quote the Admiral, “We’re the ones that built something called a Death Star.”

In between the ever-so-brief interludes to fan favourite characters, Mr. Wendig focuses on players who embody the working people on both sides of the galactic civil war. Norra Wexley is a retired Y-Wing pilot with PTSD and a messed up family life. Sinjir Velus is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer (e.g. commissar), who escaped from Han Solo’s strike force on Endor, only to hit the bottle on Akiva. The aforementioned Admiral Rae Sloane is an Imperial starship captain intent staving off the Empire’s collapse while also demonstrating that not all Imperials are incompetent idiots. These are the stars of the novel, and they work because they buck the Star Wars convention of playing to easy archetypes.

Meanwhile, the novel’s penchant for politics manifests in the New Republic, the Rebel Alliance’s successor state, coming to terms with itself as a once and former military junta. Even as the Republic’s strength grows, Mon Mothma argues for military disarmament. As readers watch the story unfold on Akiva, while both the New Republic and Imperial Remnant wring their hands over what to do next, they see why both the Old Republic and the Empire were/are failed states. Simply, neither could offer the Galaxy Far Away stability or peace.

The Rebel Alliance, by its very nature was a destabilizing force. The Empire was as corrupt as it was brutal. Wendig takes it upon himself to build the New Republic as something that purports to let the galaxy find some semblance of calm. He’s not doing this singularly through high-minded speeches about peace and democracy. Nor is he pandering to what we might want in terms of epic space battles where Mon Cal Cruisers give Imperial Star Destroyers epic pastings. For that would only make the Republic a new sort of empire in and of itself.

Instead, Wendig gets his hands dirty with the inevitable, ugliness of war. Child soldier brigades on Coruscunt, for example. Not bleak enough? How about refugees fleeing the anarchy of their homeworlds in the aftermath of the Alliance freeing, but not holding, an Imperial world. Mr. Wendig uses the 20th century’s hangovers of military occupation and liberation as a thematic foundation for giving Star Wars some much needed depth. Some readers might cry foul at his making the Galaxy Far Away a dirty place, but like so many who lamented the loss of Star Wars: 1313, I’m content to roll around in the mud.

So no, gentle reader, you’re not going to learn about what happened to Han and Leia after Endor. Nor will you be treated to a story of Luke rebuilding the Jedi Order. Instead, you’re going to get a story that treats Star Wars’ adult fans like reasonably intelligent people. We all know there’s more to the Galaxy Far Away than the dysfunctional and incestuous antics of the Skywalker clan, so why not explore it?

Mr. Wendig, like Kasdan and Filoni, puts the war in Star Wars. War happens on many fronts, involving many people, and the line between those people is often a messy and changing thing. Aftermath effortlessly captures this notion, injecting a decidedly thoughtful and politically aware aesthetic into Star Wars. If you expect anything less than that in reading Aftermath, then (hand wave) this isn’t the novel you are looking for. Move along.


3

Book Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets is, I’m embarrassed to admit, my first exposure to Alastair Reynolds’ writing. Based on what I’ve heard of Mr. Reynolds’ works, I expected a story that would put a premium on the details of a hard science fiction environment. Instead, I was treated to a war story that is too complex for the all-encompassing label of space opera.

I suspect a reader will see my invocation of the words “war story” and “space opera” as an invitation to view Slow Bullets as military science fiction. Indeed, I thought about applying that label, myself. However, it feels like doing so runs the risk of minimizing the nuance at hand within this short book. Mr. Reynolds has written what I’m going to call a “peace story”. Though he borrows from elements of about half dozen tropes and sub-genres, their coalescence is something delightfully fresh.

Slow Bullets is told through the memoir of an ex-solider called Scur. The voice and tone are well suited to the nature of the story, inviting a measure of intimacy between narrator and reader. Scur’s narrative begins on the eve of a cease fire between an interstellar human hegemony divided against itself. The details of the war, such as why it happened, are left intentionally vague – save for the occasional nod toward a religious fuel fanning the flames of war. I suspect this is both an intentional allegory to contemporary times, and also a means of accentuating the grand pointlessness of armed struggle i.e. all fighting is arbitrary to the outsider. In the opening pages, readers witness Scur’s capture and torture before she wakes up in a cryopod aboard a prison transport.

The balance of the story brings together the narrative threads of a space ark, interstellar disaster (with just a soupcon of cosmic horror), and the survivor’s tale. The first half of the book, which concerns itself with how people of disparate ideologies forge an uneasy peace despite being centuries removed from their own time via an FTL accident, is considerably less interesting than what I see as the novel’s central question: who are we without our culture?

Mr. Reynolds uses Scur and her shipmates to explore questions of identity and shared history. In the wake of a cosmic disaster, Scur’s ship is more than a lifeboat for the survivors; it is a cultural ark for the collective knowledge of humanity. The novel posits that with a single shove from an external force, the culture and wisdom of the ages can be lost. Civilization, even among space faring peoples, is a fragile thing. Staring at the pieces of a broken world, Scur and her shipmates are forced to ask themselves if their individual identity is worth more than the identity of the species. It is hard not to look at that question and reflect upon it outside of a science fiction context.

Replace the cosmic horror with something much more pedestrian, like ocean acidification or a solar flare, and ponder how much our own national identities or religious affiliations should mean to us. How much of ourselves would we be willing to sacrifice to protect the greater whole of humanity? Would a Christian devote their life to protecting the last copy of the Quran? Would a Marxist give over part of themselves to the collected works of John Maynard Keynes? These are the sort of questions at the core of Slow Bullets. And if I have a single criticism of the novella, it’s that we only see these questions come to forefront late in the story.

This isn’t to suggest that the first half of the novel is unsatisfying. One should not jump into an existential crisis without allowing a reader time to make the allegorical connections between their world and the fictional one. At the same time, I wanted more of this crisis once it was recognized. I expect this desire for more should suffice as a ringing endorsement of Slow Bullets.

Military science fiction almost always asks its readers to examine solders giving up their lives for the greater whole. It can show the absurdity of conflict, or reinforce the notion that the cost of freedom is vigilance eternal. Mr. Reynolds uses Slow Bullets to take the traditional war story in a different direction, asking its soldiers, even in peace, to continue sacrificing their individuality for a greater whole. While it might be somewhat self-serving of an author to suggest that poetry and art is worthy of an individual sacrifice, this critic sees no reason to disagree. If the transcendent isn’t worth protecting, then what is the purpose of anything? A person would do well to keep this question in mind as they read Slow Bullets.


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Movie Review: The Martian

I often find myself talking about a movie’s potential. Does something live up to its potential? Did a given picture have any to begin with? When I first heard about The Martian, it struck me as a movie with a strong potential…to be completely god awful. Let’s review the facts.

Anybody who has watched a movie over the last twenty years knows that setting a story on Mars is a kiss of death. Matt Damon, though a capable actor, has been in some truly uninspiring roles of late. Similarly, Ridley Scott is just as likely to be abysmal as he is brilliant – leaning more toward the former than the latter. Pair this with an unartfully written self-published novel as the source material and anyone can be forgiven for sucking in an anxious breath when hearing about The Martian. When the time came for me to watch The Martian, all of its baggage (mostly labeled Prometheus, Interstellar, and Elysium) evaporated within the first five minutes.

The Martian delivers pretty much everything it promises in the trailer. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney. During a misadventure with a sandstorm of Mad Max proportions, Watney’s crew leaves him stranded on Mars. Therein, Damon’s character has to survive on a dead world while NASA and JPL figure out a way to rescue him from a distance of twelve light minutes. And how does our hero survive nearly two years isolated on the red planet, plagued with shortages of power, food, water, and air? Through science! Maybe not perfect science, but science that’s good enough for Kerbal Space Program, and if it’s good enough for KSP it’s good enough for you.

As the “stranded person” trope goes, The Martian thankfully leans more toward Apollo 13 than Castaway. This spares the audience watching Matt Damon embarking upon a slow descent into madness. Astronaut Watney’s video journals, which one might rightly assume to be part of a NASA mission to Mars, are more than narrative sign posts and short primers for those who don’t get the science of Mars. These near-violations of the fourth wall inject a bit of humanity into the character. And a lack of humanity is exactly why most other “hard science” space movies fail.

Writers and directors tend to get fixated on the idea of portraying astronauts as consummate professionals (notwithstanding Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, who is the worst astronaut ever). While this might be true to form, straight laced and squared jawed professionals make for really boring and really alienating movie characters. So when Mark Watney tells mission control to go fuck themselves, the character might be moving away from what’s appropriate for an astronaut, but the film is giving the audience what they need to form a rapport with their protagonist. In this moment, we see the very soul of The Martian, and it’s not science; it’s comedy.

Real astronauts aren’t funny; astronauts are triple PhD holding Air Force colonels with an IQ of 190. To wit, the astronaut is neither you nor I. We are not good enough to be astronauts. Mark Watney, however, isn’t beyond making a poop joke. Watney complains about disco. Watney likes Iron Man. As an audience, we can watch The Martian and see just a little bit of ourselves in Mark Watney. In this moment of recognition the movie finds its ability to play to a very broad audience.

And if all that isn’t enough for you, the Martian has a really strong supporting cast. Kristen Wiig nails it as NASA’s head of public relations. Donald Glover throws Community’s Troy Barnes on the trash heap, embracing a physics nerd who would put Sheldon Cooper to shame. Jeff Daniels still seems like he’s playing that guy from The Newsroom instead of the director of NASA, but his dialogue makes up for uninspired acting. The movie may be called The Martian but it is very much an ensemble production.

Everything comes together for The Martian. Mars is depicted as a foreboding but beautiful place. Matt Damon shows us an astronaut who successfully balances being professional with being human. Screenwriter Drew Goddard tones down the engineering focus in the source material to something that still feels authentic to the audience. And most importantly, Ridley Scott doesn’t muck everything up with an attempt to be overly self-important and introspective. The Martian is a near-future space rescue movie that is grounded in the problems of physics and congressional appropriations to NASA. It is as technical as it needs to be, conceding the laws of physics to cinematic convenience only when absolutely necessary. Dare I say, the curse of the Mars movie has been broken.


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Game Review: Warhammer 40,000: Regicide

Chess is a game of perfect knowledge. Theoretically, every possible move and counter-move can be predicted. All things being equal, luck is never a deciding factor in a game of Chess. Victory will almost always go to the better player. And that last part speaks directly to why Chess can be a bit of a downer.

Between opponents of equal skill, Chess is as enjoyable as it is civilized. Between rivals of even marginally different ability, Chess can be as one-side as a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Pee Wee Herman. It is in this dissonance between players of varying skill that Warhammer 40,000: Regicide makes Chess a better game. Specifically, Hammerfall Studios has introduced chaos (with a small c) into Chess. In doing so, they’ve effectively thrown out decades of prefixed Chess gambits and leveled Chess’ playing field.

Regicide unfolds in two phases: movement and initiative. The movement phase is the same as a traditional game of Chess: pick a piece and make a move, following the rules for pawns, castles, bishops, knights, kings, and queens. The initiative phase takes a page from the likes of X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Space Marines and Orks spend action points to shoot, throw grenades, launch psychic attacks, or call in air strikes. No longer are white and black bishops limited to hurling foul language at each other from adjoining squares.

The inevitable fusillade of bolter fire in the wake of each move makes Regicide a much more tactical game than Chess. A good Chess player uses their army to set up areas of control. Regicide doesn’t offer such luxuries. A player who moves a lone bishop or a knight to the middle or far side of the board risks having a high-value unit cut to ribbons. Likewise, whatever anxiety a Chess player feels toward moving their queen (now a Librarian or Weirdboy) from the relative safety of the first rank is all the more present in Regicide.

The net-result is a game that puts Chess experts and amateurs on the same page. There may be some value to playing a traditional gambit against a foe in Regicide, but said gambit never imagined pawns at loggerheads being anything more than fence posts. Regicide lets those pawns toss grenades into the back ranks and shoot each other in the face – or at least try to. Though both the Space Marines and Orks have a better to-hit average than the typical X-Com recruit, missing on a 95% to-hit attack remains a maddening experience.

I expect most people will latch on to the game for the multi-player element. For those more inclined to play on their own, I am reasonably satisfied with the game’s single-player campaign. Take away all the veneration of the Immortal Emperor and the campaign is little more than a series of Chess problems. Albeit, they are Chess problems with heavy bolters and lascannons, and that counts for something in my book. A Chess nerd looking to revel in a decent WH40K story should be fine with the single-player. If someone goes looking for a campaign to rival Dawn of War or Space Marine then they will probably be disappointed. Tailor your expectations appropriately. 

The multi-player side of the game is similarly first-rate. My wait times for a game are relatively short. Notwithstanding the odd connectivity error in trying to set up a game, I experienced nothing but smooth sailing and solid competition once I got into things.

Visually, the game is at its finest when showing off the combat animations that occur when killing a piece through a Chess move. Should I ever grow tired of watching a Space Marine slice an Ork asunder with his chainsword, then I’ve grown tired of living. Glorious as those animations are, I would have liked to see a bit more animation on non-lethal hits. However, this point is far from a deal breaker for the game.

For the record, I reached out to Hammerfall with the inevitable question of, “Can I get an Eldar/Chaos/Imperial Guard/Tau army as future DLC?” I’ll update this review once they get back to me.

It would be folly to write off Regicide as a WH40K themed take on the Battlechess. Regicide’s strength is found in its ability to iterate on Western civilization’s most iconic tabletop game. Regardless of if a person fancies themselves a chess enthusiast or a master-level player, they will find Regicide to be a welcoming experience.