Crux Archive


The Best of 2013

The holiday season is well and truly upon me when I have a pile of presents to wrap, and I’m wringing my hands for a good introduction to my “best of” post for the year. Hey, what do you know, I just did it.

I have to admit, 2013 was a pretty fun year. Though I ran afoul of a few truly terrible films, movies, and games, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. However, television, at least in the conventional sense of the word, was almost exclusively a waste of time. Thank the gods for Netflix, premium cable, and web series. And on that note, let’s get right into it.

TV of the Year – Spartacus: War of the Damned

The fact that Spartacus was able to survive the death of Andy Whitfield is reason enough for Starz’s sword, sandal, and sex series to rate as best of the year. Then there’s everything else that the fourth and final season of Steven DeKnight’s series did well: powerful roles for females, openly gay lead characters, and battles more impressive than anything seen on Game of Thrones.

War of the Damned also saw leading man Liam McIntyre grow into his role as Spartacus. Though capable enough in his first season, Spartacus 2.0 projected an obvious sense of reservation about treading on the legacy of a dead man. McIntyre, ten years junior to his predecessor and relatively inexperienced as an actor, was good mind you, but obviously still trying to find his way with the character. For his grand finale, McIntyre owned the role and consequently excelled as the slave turned general.

Despite standing in the shadows of giants like HBO’s Rome and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the series took its own direction with the story of Thrace’s most infamous son. The writers seemed well aware of the fact that the history of Spartacus was written by Romans, who were never apt to make themselves look bad before posterity and the gods. Sidestepping any slavish dedication to dubious history, DeKnight’s series offered a version of the past that is arguably more balanced than what Kubrick offered on film.

Honourable Mentions: Bob’s Burgers season 3, Archer Season 4, Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad Season 5

Movie of the Year – Gravity

Gravity might not be a perfect movie, but it is as close as I saw in 2013.

The intelligence of Gravity’s story and Alfonso Cuarón’s dedication to the physics of space yielded the first “hard” science fiction movie I’ve seen in ages. I don’t want to the be the guy who jumps right to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I can’t think of any recent movies which really compare to Gravity. Correction, I can’t think of any recent movies that compare to Gravity and aren’t abysmal wastes of time. Mission to Mars and Red Planet tried to offer some lip service to science, but then gave up on the effort by the end of the first act. Remember, boys and girls, it’s easier to tell a story about ancient aliens and killer robots than the cruel vicissitudes of momentum.

For me, the key difference between 2001 and Gravity, adjusting for about five generations of technology between the two films, is that 2001, though technically flawless, is overly drawn out and arguably quite boring. On the other hand, Gravity captured the reality of space at a pace befitting an action movie.

It’s also worth mentioning that Gravity found a place for a forty-nine year old actress as the lead character. I know, that shouldn’t be a big deal, but let’s not kid ourselves about how Hollywood treats women once they hit a certain age. Moreover, Bullock handled the role so well that I can’t imagine having to suffer through ninety minutes of Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, or Oliva Wilde as Dr. Stone.

Honourable Mentions: Pacific Rim, Europa Report

Novel of the Year – Crux by Ramez Naam

This one was a no brainer. Literary science fiction needs more writers like Ramez Naam. As a study in technology, politics, ethics, and the human condition (as well as other themes I’m leaving out because it is incredibly difficult to package a novel this complex into a single paragraph), Crux manages to walk a very fine line between ebullient optimism about a post-human future and a brutally honest representation of the environmental problems our world will face in the coming decades. Naam’s writing finds the perfect balance between the styles of Michael Crichton and Paolo Bacigalupi.

If the above were not enough, there’s a powerful empathy to the way in which Mr. Naam writes his characters. All of the key players within Crux’s post-human war on drugs are developed to the extent that their moral compasses, regardless of which way they point, make sense to the reader. Even when the story focuses upon a near-future Department of Homeland Security, there’s an obvious rationale to morally dubious actions, which in turn serves to fuel Crux’s key conceit: do the ends justify the means?

The debate ebbs back and forth between pragmatism and idealism, leaving the reader as the ultimate arbiter of which characters are on the wrong side of history and humanity. Is it the hacker? Is it the philanthropist-who-would-be-king? Is it the G-Man bound to defend the status quo despite his addiction to the future?

If science fiction is meant to be a morality play on contemporary events, then Crux is truly a microcosm for our world.

Honourable Mentions: iD by Madeline Ashby, Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos by James Marshall

Big Budget Video Game of the Year – XCOM: Enemy Within

I know I’ll probably lose some credibility among classic X-Com diehards for recognizing this as my BBGOTY, but there was really no competition in my mind. Branded as an expansion, EW took the core experience from XCOM: Enemy Unknown and roughly doubled what was already there, seamlessly weaving two new plot arcs into an already robust campaign. While the resulting changes maintained XCOM’s core experience, they also forced players to develop new tactics as they worked their way through a familiar but tactically evolved alien invasion.

While there’s always been a certain amount of freedom to choose one’s path within the X-Com games, Enemy Within took this to a new level. Very early on it presents players with an option to turn some of their soldiers into cyborgs – amputating their arms and legs in the process – or genetically engineered super humans. In terms of game play, these early advantages for XCOM make up for aliens that are much harder to kill on the higher levels of difficulty. As if, XCOM wasn’t hard enough on its own, EW found a way to make a “Classic Ironman” play though even more of a challenge.

Beyond that, there’s an almost intangible moral dilemma that comes with the expansion to Enemy Unknown. Imagine looking at a soldier modeled after a friend – standard fare in these games – and then weighing the tactical merit of injecting them with alien DNA or sticking their torso in an exo-frame. XCOM is smart enough to down play the ethics of this decision, but in doing so they put it at the forefront of my thoughts. Unlike Bioshock, where the morality of a player’s choices really don’t matter, XCOM: EW makes the choice an inherently personal question.

Honourable Mentions: Though I saw fit to leave this blank, Matt, my “assistant editor” and podcast co-host, would nominate Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm and State of Decay.

Small Budget Game of the Year – Kerbal Space Program

Even though Kerbal Space Program is still in development, it is one of the best games I have ever played. Stop and think about that for a moment. The game is yet unfinished, and already it has secured a spot in my all-time top ten.

Perhaps the simplest description of KSP is Minecraft with rockets, a robust physics engine, and no mining. In its current state, KSP is a self-guided sandbox where players design rockets and set out to explore planet Kerbin’s solar system. Therein, it rewards intelligence, patience, and creativity in equal measures. The opposite side of the coin is that KSP happily punishes hubris and stupidity, though watching a rocket explode mid-flight because bad design has led to its vibrating like a coal powered marital aid isn’t much of a punishment. It’s actually kind of awesome.

Despite its work-in-progress status, KSP is legitimately beautiful to behold, infinitely open to mods from a very active and supportive community, and challenging enough that I find myself daydreaming about rocket designs during business meetings.

Honourable mentions: Spelunky, Shadowrun Returns

Christmas Card of the Year – Helen Marshall

She knows what she did. As for everybody else, buy her book as I originally had it up in the honourable mentions.

And that as they say, is that. Thanks to everybody who has stuck with my blog over the last year. I look forward to another year of ranting and reviewing for your amusement and education.

I’m taking a couple weeks off writing to finish up a few other projects and record some podcasts. As always, you can chat with me on twitter or email me if you have something you’d like me to review.


Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books