So, there is an embroidery machine in my house at the moment. My partner borrowed it from a friend to make Monster Hunter-related patches. The monster designs are still a work in progress, but whilst he was working out how to work the machine he asked me if there were any designs I would like as patches, and I immediately thought of the faction emblems from Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series that are on the Solaris site. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know how much I loved that series, and everything else Yoon Ha Lee that I’ve read. I only have a small bag though, so he just did the Kel and Shuos emblems for me. I’m very happy with the results, and thought they’d be worth sharing. I’ll add more pictures when I decided how to arrange them on my bag.
Speaking of Machineries of Empire, the final book in the Series, The Revenant Gun, will be out later this year. I know I have mentioned that, but I haven’t been so excited for a new book in ages. The conclusion of the trilogy takes place nine years after the end of Raven Stratagem and will follow a teenage, cadet incarnation of Shuos Jedao, who has been tasked by Nirai Kujen with re-conquering the Hexarchate. He has no memory of his time as a general or the massacre he committed, but he is good at video games.
That probably won’t make a lot of sense to people who haven’t read the other books or at least followed my reviews, but trust me, it is going to be awesome.
Whilst I’m here, I should probably apologise for the lack of reviews. The most recent novel I read was Ada Palmer’s The Will to Battle. Since I have already reviewed both previous books in this series (Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) I don’t want to do a review on it. All I’ll say now is that this series just keeps getting better, and I am as excited to read the final book, Perhaps the Stars as I am to read The Revenant Gun.
I’ve also been reading some short fiction from last year for the Hugos. I read Linda Nagata’s The Martian Obelisk last night and added it straight to my ballot. I use a site called Rocket Stack Rank to keep up-to-date on short fiction, and have found a lot of gems on it that I would have otherwise missed.
I’ve also been reading Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, which I’ll review when I’m done. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading next. There are a few novels from last year that I should read before nominations for the Hugos close, but the death of Ursula K. Le Guin has made me realise that it is an absolute travesty that I have read barely anything she has written, so fixing that oversight is a bigger priority at the moment.
Le Guin’s work has influenced so much of modern science fiction and fantasy, and her death earlier this month has really shaken the SFF world. I’ll be late to the party, but reading more of her work is something I look forward to.
At the end of the day, I cannot promise more regular blog posts. But I do hope you enjoyed looking at some of my crafts.
At the start of the year, I set myself a reading challenge on Goodreads. 50 books in one year seemed doable in January, but towards the start of December, less so. Which meant I turned my attention to all those novellas I’d been putting aside in favour of full-length books. I should have gotten around to it sooner; there have been some great novellas this year.
The highlight of this novella binge has been catching up on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series. I started this series when the first novella, Penric’s Demon, was nominated for the 2016 Hugo Awards and became hooked on Bujold’s world and characters. Earlier this year I read the third book in the series, Penric’s Mission, which saw an older Penric help a widow after her brother was blinded for false charges of treason. This month, I read Mira’s Last Dance, and The Prisoner of Limnos, the 4th and 6th entries in the series and direct continuations of the story in Penric’s Mission. This trilogy-within-a-series has been amazing, especially The Prisoner of Limnos. The series has great worldbuilding with a fun magic system, amazing characters, a thrilling plot, and a sense of humour that I quite enjoyed. These books are set in Bujold’s World of the Five Gods/Chalion universe, which I really need to explore more.
I also read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the first time in late November. I was familiar with the story, and had watched the 1954 animated movie before. Given Animal Farm’s status as a classic, I can’t really say much that hasn’t been said many times before. Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, this little book is still an important read, as we would do well to keep in mind that dictators like Napoleon the Pig are still a possibility even today in the West. We must be careful we spot them before it becomes too late.
The other recent novellas I’ve read are Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson and The Murders of Molly Southbourn by Tade Thompson. Snapshot is a detective story that makes use of a fake world of sorts: a complete recreation of a past day. I really enjoyed it. I thought I could see the ending coming, and whilst I was partly right, Sanderson managed to add a twist I wasn’t expecting. This story really lives up to the hype. Murders of Molly Southbourn has also gotten a lot of praise, but this story just didn’t do much for me. The concept is that every time Molly bleeds, the blood grows into a new Molly who tries to kill her. It is a gory, creepy body-horror story, but whilst it had some cool parts, I feel that the plot didn’t deliver.
My Goodreads Reading Challenge
Speaking of my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I did succeed in reading 50 books in 2017. Kinda. I originally decided that by ‘book’, I would only count novels, novellas, complete short story collections and complete magazine issues. I did however end up adding a couple of novelettes to the list when it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. We can argue whether I cheated or not, but the point is I had a wonderful time with my books this year. According to Goodreads, I have read 12,781 pages across 50 books. Considering that there is quite a bit of short fiction that I haven’t logged with the site, I’ve really read a lot more. I’ve talked about most of the novels and many of the novellas I’ve read, but for those interested, my complete 2017 reader challenge can be found HERE.
I’ve found that one benefit of keeping a record of what I read is that looking back at the stories reminds me of the significant events that occurred in my life whilst I was reading those books. I first noticed this when every time Naomi Novik’s Uprooted was mentioned, I couldn’t help but remember reading the book on my Kindle whilst laying on a mattress on the floor of my new house. It is as if my world intersected some other magical world at that point, and I am glad for one more reminder of how it felt to buy and move into my own home.
This year has been a somewhat quieter one for me, and therefore reviewing the books I’ve read doesn’t trigger such special moments. Just mundane ones, like that time I drank a whole Red Bull at work and then couldn’t sleep. At about 4am I gave up on sleep, went to my bookcase, and took down the copy of Neuromancer my partner had given me for Christmas. I didn’t get to sleep that night, but Gibson made the early morning much more bearable. On a more positive note, I went to look after my Nana whilst I was reviewing novellas for the Hugo Awards. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was nice to catch up. After she went to bed I finished reading The Ballad of Black Tom, and now that gory Cthulhu tale has an unintended sweet happy spot in my heart.
I find it interesting how stories (and songs too) can become linked to our memories. Just one more magical thing about books. If anyone else has any stories about strange associations that some books evoke, I’d be interested in hearing them.
My Book Bingo Card
Haven’t forgotten this little challenge I set myself. Much. Here is what my bingo card looks like at the end of 2017. I didn’t fill it, but at least I got a bingo. I also added Phasma to it even though I’m still reading that book, just to make it look a bit less empty.
A Hugo Winner: Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
Has a Dragon: Tech Mage – Chris Fox
Graphic Novel or Comic Book:
Translated Book: The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
A Hugo Winner: Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire
Space Opera: A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
Book from a Wider Franchise: Phasma – Delilah S. Dawson
Animal Main Character: Animal Farm – George Orwell
Owned for over a Year: Alien Influences – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Alien Characters: Cycle of Fire – Hal Clement
A Hugo Winner: Neuromancer – William Gibson
Self Published: 2084 – Mason Engel
Continue a Series: The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
Written before the 20th Century:
Recommended by a Friend:
Horror: The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
A Hugo Winner:
Short Story Collection: The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales – Yoon Ha Lee
Has Magic: Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff
A.I Character: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
LGBTI Themes: A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson
Re-read a Favourite:
A Hugo Winner:
Reading Resolutions for 2018
Again, I’ve set myself a 50 book challenge on Goodreads. It’s a challenging amount, but I feel a doable one. And again, I’ll try to only count works of novella length or longer. Unless I suppose the shorter story was already on my ‘to read’ list.
I think I’ll skip the bingo card this year. I just forgot about it for most of the year, and the Goodreads challenge is motivation enough. Though if anyone is interested in bingo cards, I’d be happy to make a challenge.
One side challenge I will task myself however is to read at least 5 Hugo Winning Novels or Novellas. Not including the 2018 winners if I read them for the first time this year. I’m also thinking of reading some of the short story Hugo winners with a friend of mine. She isn’t much of a reader, but over the past couple of years I’ve ended up reading to her on a few occasions and enjoying that. Not sure if this could translate to an interesting series of reviews for this blog, or even if it’ll happen, but who knows?
My next two resolutions are somewhat in conflict. I wish to diversify my short fiction reading this year. I have a subscription to Analog, which I wish to keep. However, reading every issue of Analog means less time for other magazines. In particular, I want to read more Uncanny and more Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. To make my goal of reading more diverse short fiction harder, I also want to read more of the back issues I have collected over the years. Most of these are old issues of Analog from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. If I read these, I will review them on this site. Maybe something like Jamie Todd Rubin’s seemingly abandoned Vacations in the Golden Age, but given the piecemeal nature of my collection, less structured. One reason why I haven’t already started such a project is because I want to add an art component to it. I’ve always loved the artwork from these old magazines, and I’ve really been slacking off in my drawing, so it’ll be good to have some practice.
What to Expect in 2018
I know that lately my reviews have been fewer and far between. I intend to keep reviewing, but I want to shift the focus of this blog away from just reviews. Either discussions of short stories or reviews of old magazines could help to breathe new life into my little blog. I’m also thinking of sharing more of my own writing. I know I said that last year, but I have more interesting things in the works now.
Last year, I finished the 1st draft of a novel I’m calling Beyond the Fence. It’s about an alien. A very alien alien who must learn to live with Humans even though this species doesn’t even use language or see the world through just one set of eyes. This year, I’ve began the long process of re-writing it. So far, I’m 30,000 words in. I plan to put the first chapter up on this blog when I’m done, but before then it would be nice to get another set of eyes on my work. I always get terrified showing people my work, but that’s something I’m going to have to change. When I get further along I’ll start asking for some beta readers.
Depending on how things work out this year, I may also do a NaNoWriMo challenge in November. I was planning to do it this year, but this November turned out to be busy and I didn’t want to stop working on Beyond the Fence. This year, I’m going to make it a priority.
I’ve also been working on a table-top role-playing game with my partner that has a futuristic, space opera setting and theme. Hopefully we’ll be at the playtest phase in February, and if all goes well I might share some of this universe on this blog.
And finally, I have joined the 76th Worldcon as a supporting member, meaning I will be nominating and voting in the Hugos yet again. As with the previous two years, I intend to keep up a similar coverage of the awards, and to review the fiction nominees.
Voting for the 2017 Hugo Awards is now closed. I have reviewed all the short fiction and talked about all the novels at some point on this blog, but I think it’s time to have a talk about all six nominees in the same place. And we’re going to look at these novels in what I consider a perfectly logical way. By seeing what the six nominees would be like, it they were Pokémon.
I think I’ve made it clear by now that I love Pokémon. Not only do the Pokémon games provide an enjoyable RPG experience , but the ability to battle other humans leads to a rich, complicated strategy game.
For those unfamiliar with how Pokémon work, let me give a quick description. Battles are between two Pokémon Trainers, who both have a team of six Pokémon, and the teams fight a turn-based battle with one Pokémon from each team in play at a time. Each of the six Pokémon has hitpoints (HP), which when depleted will cause the Pokémon to faint from exhaustion and be unable to fight. Each Pokémon can learn up to four ‘attacks’ that they can use to wear down their opponent’s HP.
I put the word attacks in quotation marks because not all techniques are simple attacks. Some of these techniques allow a Pokémon to heal itself, or make itself more powerful, or cripple the opponent by putting them to sleep or poisoning them. Even the weather and terrain can be altered. And even if you did just want to go all out attacking, you would still need to take into account types. There are 18 elemental types in this game. Each attack is assigned one of these types, and each Pokémon can have up to two types. These types have a rock-paper-scissors-like relationship of strengths and weaknesses against each other. For example, if you attacked a fire type Pokémon with a water type attack, it would do a lot more damage than a grass type attack of equal power.
There are 802 Pokémon. Those 802 different creatures represent not just a huge variety in type combinations, but also in stat variation. Some species have more hit points than others, some are more powerful and so do more damage. Then we go back to those techniques; there are 719 of them in total.
A Pokémon team is composed of 6 Pokémon. 6 out of 802. And each of those 6 can only learn 4 moves between them. As you can imagine, this makes choosing your team hard. You have to choose six Pokémon that’ll be able to stand up to any team imaginable. Building a Pokémon team involves thinking long and hard about how your Pokémon will complement each other. Building a team that works well together takes a lot of planning.
Or, you can make a theme team. Don’t worry about synergy. Just choose Pokémon that resemble six house motifs from Game of Thrones. Or six Pokémon that look like cats. It’s fun coming up with such teams, and since they’re likely to not be a balanced team, battling with them can provide an extra challenge.
Since there are six novels nominated for this year’s Hugo Award, I decided to make a 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel team. Or, just Team Hugo 2017 for short. So, let’s talk about the nominees, and what Pokémon each book would be.
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders;
Choosing one Pokémon to represent All the Birds in the Sky was hard. The biggest challenge was that this story combines both fantasy and science fiction storylines together. It’s a story with witches and AIs and two-second time machines and talking birds. With two very different genres interacting with each other, how could I choose one Pokémon to represent both? I could have chosen Mismagius, to represent a witch, or Metagross, as a supercomputer, but choosing one of them would be ignoring half the book and half its world.
For a while, my pick for this book was Dodrio, a three-headed bird. This was to represent the Parliament of Birds that we meet early in the book, and also a reference to the title. But then I thought about it more, and decided that the tree the birds meet in is probably a better representation of the story as a whole. The two main characters both ponder a tree related riddle throughout the story, and that tree itself is more special than even the birds realise. I’m afraid I may be edging towards spoiler territory here, but I’ll just say that the tree is where the fantasy and science fiction elements of this story both come together. Can’t explain how, you’ll have to read the book to find that out.
There are many tree Pokémon I could have chosen. I decided on Trevenant because it shares a few features with the Parliamentary Tree. Trevenant is known to be very protective of the creatures that nest in it, likewise, the parliament tree hosts birds of all types. Trevenant’s pre-evolution Phantump is said to have been created by the spirits of lost children possessing tree-stumps. This morbid origin shows a union of the natural world with the human world. Likewise in All the Birds in the Sky, we see a union between the natural (magical) and human (technological) worlds, that involves the parliament tree.
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers;
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A Closed and Common Orbit; a space opera that explores an AI’s attempt to live in organic society and a slave girl’s efforts to repair a spaceship and escape her planet, represented by a washing machine?
I swear, I’m not crazy.
I had trouble picking one Pokémon for this book because there were two stories here. There is Sidra’s story, about a ship’s AI reluctantly possessing a fake Human body and passing in a galactic society that forbids giving AIs such bodies. Then there is Pepper/Jane’s story, about a young girl genetically engineered to slave away in a junkyard, who escapes and then gets raised by a spaceship’s AI. Jane and the AI spend years repairing the ship, so that they can finally leave the planet and be free.
I was thinking about using Porygon-Z for this one, since it is a digitally created Pokémon intended for space travel. However, it felt like I was leaving out Pepper’s story, and using the ‘Virtual Pokémon’ seemed to be hinting at a more cyberpunk story. Although, in hindsight, Porygon-Z’s glitchy nature could work well with the fact that Sidra and Pepper both go against what they were ‘programmed’ to do. Hmm… the more I think of it, the more I question my decision. But oh well, the Dubious Discs needed to get a Porygon-Z are hard to come by, and my team did need a water type.
So, why Rotom? Well, Rotom isn’t really a washing machine. Rotom is a small electric/ghost Pokémon that possesses the motors of appliances and controls them. You could say Rotom is a ghost in the machine. Rotom isn’t the appliance it inhabits, like how Sidra isn’t the Human bodykit she inhabits. Sidra’s disconnect with her artificial body is the driving force for a lot of what she does. Meanwhile, Rotom is an expert at manipulating machines, Just like Pepper. Pepper not only makes a living repairing machines, but it was this expertise that allowed her to repair the spaceship and escape from the junkyard. A junkyard that was probably full of discarded fridges, mowers, fans, ovens and washing machines.
Yes my logic may be a bit farfetched here, but I still think Rotom is a good addition to the team.
Also, Rotom is motor backwards. How did I never see that before?
Death’s End – Cixin Liu;
Death’s End was a really hard one. There are so many mind-blowing concepts that this book explores. Mutually Assured Destruction, the effect of sub-light interstellar travel on humans, alien invasion, suspended animation, changing spacial dimensions and the results of fiddling around with universal constants, the terror at knowing how insignificant we are and how hostile the universe is. So many concepts, but not a lot of Pokémon to fit the bill.
I considered Absol, the Pokémon that foresees disasters, since a big part of this book is about Humanity knowing a disaster is inevitable. I also thought of Stunfisk, since it is flat and two-dimensional space plays a big role in this book.
In the end though, I decided an Ultra Beast would be the best fit. Ultra Beasts aren’t quite Pokémon. They arrived in the Pokémon world through a wormhole, and because they are so alien, pokéballs don’t work on them. They are also quite aggressive at first, since they have been caught in a wormhole and taken from their homes. This aggressive alien invasion parallel, the transition between different dimensions, and the idea that being cut off from your home planet can change a person for the worst represents Death’s End quite well I think.
But which Ultra Beast? Kartana obviously. Why obviously? Well, it’s origami. It is a tiny, flat piece of paper with the potential for great destruction. Which probably makes sense to people who have read the book, but if I explain the connection anymore I’m going to spoil the ending.
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee;
This should be an obvious one. Ninefox Gambit gets a ninefox. There’s no huge leaps of logic or overthought symbolism here. Just, ninefox. Simple.
In Ninefox Gambit, we are introduced to the Hexarchate; a controlling, vast interstellar civilisation, controlled by six government factions. Each of the factions is given an animal motif, and the ninefox is the sign of the Shuos, the faction responsible for spying and assassinations. One of the main characters, Shuos Jedao, is a general from this faction. Since most generals in the Hexarchate come from the Kel – the factions that controls the military – him being a ninefox is important. More important though, is that he is probably crazy, and once destroyed his whole army. That has given him the title of the ‘immolation fox’, which is why I chose the fire type original Ninetails, rather than the ice/fairy type Alolan variant.
I suppose if I thought about it more, I could have come up with something that represents Jedao’s status as an undead consciousness, or the fact that him and Cheris share a body. I probably wouldn’t have been able to find a Pokémon that represents the horrors of war this book portrays since the game is intended for kids. In the end though, there’s no reason to make such an abstract connection when both Nintendo and Yoon Ha Lee included Kitsune/Kumiho in their worlds.
The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin;
I suppose it’s weird that I didn’t choose a ground type, since the magic system in this world is tied to the Earth and earthquakes. It would have been really nice to get a Pokémon that could use the attack Earthquake. I was considering Lunatone for this role, as it gets Earthquake and the moon is important in this series. Froslas would also be appropriate, since orogene magic works by drawing energy from the orogene’s environment, causing the air around them to go ice cold. Part of the reason they are feared so much is because they can freeze someone solid by using their powers. Froslas would make a good proxy of Essun, the protagonist of the series. Essun is a powerful orogene, who has gone through several upheavels in her life at the hands of anti-orogene authorities and a general population that hates orogenes.
But in the end, I went for Carbink because I wanted to represent the titular obelisk gate. The gate is made of hundreds of large obelisks that float above the world, each one being made of a precious stone. Carbink is a precious stone that floats. Given how important the obelisk gate, and individual parts of it, are for Essun and her daughter Nassun, I thought it would be appropriate to choose a Pokémon that can represent it. Ores are also significant because the Fulcrum, an organisation that trains and exploits orogenes, names it’s orogenes after different ores. The Fulcrum may not control Essun anymore, but in this book we see the devastating ways it still affects both her and her daughter.
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer;
There were a lot of options for this political story. The flying cars play a big role, connecting the entire world together, so Magnazone could represent this book. Or Durant, since the main power blocks on the planet are no longer nations, but groups called Hives. 18th Century Paris and the gender roles and costumes from this period are also important, so Mega Gallade or Mega Gardevoir would also fit if they were obtainable.
But the most important thing in the world, according to the characters of this book, is thirteen-year-old Bridger and his miraculous ability to bring toys to life. This book touches on a lot of interesting topics; a post-nationalist future, a lot of theological discussions, whether we can ever achieve peace. Bridger and his power added a layer of magic to this story that made me get into it despite some slow points at the start.
Banette is an old discarded toy that has come to life. Bridger finds his toys amongst the rubbish. None of his creations seem to be fuelled by a grudge at being thrown out, but other than that, I think Banette would fit right in with Bridger’s other creations.
If you have Pokemon Sun and Moon, you can see this team in action over the Vs. Recorder (accessible over the computer in Festival Plaza) by entering the code R95G-WWWW-WWW7-TE4Y. If you would like to battle Team Hugo 2017, feel free to contact me and ask for a battle. My friend code is 1547-5851-7576.
All six nominees this year were amazing. Last year, The Fifth Season was my top pick, and I wasn’t surprised to see it win. This year, I honestly don’t know which book will come out on top. 2016 was a great year for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the six books that got nominated for the Hugo are all very special.
The winners will be announced at the Hugo Award Ceremony at Worldcon75 on the 11th August. So far I haven’t been able to find the time the ceremony will take place, but I assume it will be confirmed closer to the date. Last year I watched the ceremony live at ustream (Link), though I noticed Worldcon75 also has an official Youtube channel too. I’ll share more details about how to watch the awards closer to the date.
My house has been all cold and damp lately, which has led to some fungal invaders setting up camp. At first I thought they were just confined to the bathroom, but the last few days I’ve noticed it cropping up in other places too. One of those areas was my bookcase, so tonight I bit the bullet and pulled all my books off to see the damage. As you can see, it wasn’t pretty:
The good news is the mold only seemed interested in my bookcase, not the books themselves. In that bottom corner I had a really nice hardcover book which still has clear white pages. I was so relieved to see there was no permanent damage done. I’m pleased to say that the bookcases are all clear now; front and back.
This endeavour has however reminded me that my bookcase needs an attack of a different sort. You see, last week I went to a convention in Sydney called Supanova. As happens at conventions, I ended up buying a new book (The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu) and when I got home I just didn’t have any room on the shelf for it. Oops. The terrible truth is, I need a book cull.
You would think I wouldn’t have this problem, since I get most books on my Kindle, but I do like a good old fashioned dead-tree book at times. I asked for a bunch of physical books for Christmas, and made the decision not to ever buy physical books for myself again. From then on, if I wanted a paperback or hardcover, I’d put it on a Christmas or birthday wishlist and only get myself ebooks. It seemed like a sensible idea since I live in a small house.
Now here’s a picture of all the dead-tree books I have bought myself since I made that decision:
Most were from op shop binges, and so far the only one I have read is Lovecraft Country. I made the decision that one of these would be the next book I read, but then I noticed that I had quite a lot of unread books that have been waiting a long time to be read. Some I might not get around to, and others I really want to try to read before the end of the year. There are also a lot of books that I have read, that I think I have to admit to myself won’t be read again. So, cull time.
A bit off topic, but going to Supanova was awesome. I saw lots of cosplayers, bought a lot of stuff, and got my Maze Runner trilogy signed by James Dashner. So, that’s three books that won’t be in any danger during the upcoming cull.
Now the question is, what to read next? And what to review next. I’ve nearly finished the Hugo Novella finalists, so I’ll be looking for something new to read soon. I suppose the logical thing to do would get one that’s been on my bookcase for ages, probably an older science-fiction story. It would be fun to review some classic SF, since I love the classics but have been reading and reviewing a lot of modern stuff lately.
Oh, but the sequel to Ninefox Gambit just came out. Sorry older books, looks like it’ll be a little bit longer before I start attacking that backlog I need to read.
James LaBrie, Simone Simons, Floor Jansen, Hansi Kürsch, Tobias Sammet, Tommy Karevik, Michael Mills, Russel Allen, Tommy Rogers and Zaher Zorgati
I’m not going to make a habit of reviewing music. After all, just because readers are interested in the same books as me, doesn’t mean you’ll like the same music. But I have to talk about Ayreon at some point, especially now that there’s a new Ayreon album out and damn it sounds good.
Ayreon is the musical project of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, a Dutch singer, songwriter, musician and record producer. Ayreon albums are rock operas, with each one telling a complex story featuring multiple characters, each represented by a different vocalist. Describing the genre of Ayreon is tricky; the most apt label is prog, or progressive rock, but elements of power metal, folk, classical, and electronica music are also heavily featured. Each album tells a separate story, but all bar two of the albums are set in the same universe.
And this wider Ayreon universe is why I’m reviewing this album. The Ayreon albums tell a story of an alien race called the Forevers, who are kept alive by machines and no longer feel emotion. To help them regain these lost emotions, they seed Earth, thus creating Humanity (01011001). They run a number of tests on Humans (Into the Electric Castle and The Human Equation) but in the end we destroy ourselves (The Universal Migrator and again 01011001). We do attempt to prevent our destruction by sending a warning message back in time (The Final Experiment), but this isn’t so successful. It’s a great science fiction saga, which leans a bit on the fantasy side at times, but is a lot more complex than you’d think given the media.
The Source is a prequel to this saga, detailing how the original humans on planet Alpha became the Forevers. It details how the Alphans reliance on technology led to the destruction of their world and most of their population. The main characters are amongst the few survivors, who escape their dying world on a spaceship and relocate to an ocean world. To live on such a planet, they must undergo certain changes to their biology. They also aim to make other improvements using machinery, while also trying not to make the same mistakes as before.
I’ll admit, as a stand-alone story it isn’t the best Arjen has done, but as a prequel to the rest of the Ayreon story it works well. It is an emotional ride, and I loved hearing all the references to the wider story arc. Musically, it is a masterpiece. All the vocalists were great, and I especially loved Floor Jansen, Michael Mills, and Hansi Kürsch. But really all the performances were perfect. I’ve been listening to this album a lot since it came out. I’ve listened to the whole thing in its entirety, both with my full attention and in the background while driving. I’ve listened to individual songs (cannot get enough of Run! Apocalypse! Run! at the moment) but I don’t think I could pick a favourite one. Most of the tracks are good in very different ways; compare the heavy Everybody Dies with slower tracks like The Source Will Flow and All That Was. Arjen has unleashed another masterpiece on the world. He has been called a genius many times, and I feel that that label is well earned.
If you enjoy metal, or rock operas, or science fiction stories that kinda brush up against the fantasy border, then go check out Ayreon’s music. I find Youtube a good place to listen to music, but I think that makes me a bit of a weirdo when there are so many actual music streaming places out there. Check out Arjen’s official channel to listen to all the songs from The Source and see lyric music videos.
Reviewing music is much harder than reviewing books. I find it hard to articulate what I like about music; it’s a much more instinctual thing than books. But I can say that Ayreon is a truly epic, and unique experience. The Source is one of the best concept albums I have heard in a long time.
I get most of my books through the amazon kindle store. As much as I like physical books, I have limited space. Besides, moving house four times in recent years has made ebooks seem very appealing; I don’t have any problems carrying them.
But now that I can only access the kindle store from Amazon’s Australian site, there are some books I cannot get this way. In particular, there was a book released last year that really grabbed my interest, and when I couldn’t get it on my kindle I was rather disappointed. Fortunately, good old-fashioned online delivery combined with gift cards meant I could finally get my hands on it. Can you guess which book I’m talking about?
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff interested me for several reasons. The big one is my interest in cosmic horror, but also the premise of the story. A young army veteran named Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip across New England (USA) with his uncle George and childhood friend Letitia to find Atticus’s missing father. Before we even get to the crazy rituals and magic, this is already a terrifying and dangerous prospect for Atticus and co because they are black, and the year is 1954. To quote the New York Times Book Review;
“At every turn, Ruff has great fun pitting mid-twentieth-century horror and sci-fi clichés against the banal and ever-present bigotry of the era. And at every turn, it is the bigotry that hums with the greater evil.”
The one thing I hated about Lovecraft’s stories were the constant racist overtones, so it seems fitting to read a book that uses Lovecraftian themes to tackle the horrors of racism. I know I have a lot of other books to read, but Lovecraft Country will be jumping to the head of the queue. You can expect a review soon, and hopefully it lives up to the hype I’ve given it.
In the meantime, 10/10 on that front cover. I wasn’t sure what to make of the ‘pretend to look old and well used’ look at first, but I feel it works well. And what do you see first at the bottom? Tentacles? Or the KKK?
This year I have made my own book bingo card, with some challenges I want to complete. I’m going to put more effort into finishing these challenges than I did for last year’s one; not that there was anything wrong with the challenges last time, I’m just more motivated to set reading goals this year.
I’m hoping to read more previous winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year. I have my own checklist of Hugo and Nebula award winners that I’ve been working through for a few years, and so far I have read 12 out of 69 Hugo winners, and 8 out of 51 Nebula winners. I put a few Hugo winners on my Christmas and Birthday wishlist this year, and for Christmas I received American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. I’m aiming to tick off a few more Hugo winners this year, which is why this Book Bingo card has five ‘Hugo Winner’ challenges, arranged in such a way that no bingo can be made without one.
The rules for this challenge are simple: each book can only count for one challenge, and I have until the end of the year to complete it. If anyone else is interested in giving themselves a reading challenge or making themselves read more Hugo winners, then feel free to copy the card and play along with me. A list of all the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel can be found here. Happy reading everyone.
Well, my kindle is now looking like my bookcase; full of interesting books on my ‘to read’ list. I recently bought a package of sixteen science and science fiction books for $15. Well, $20.78 when converted from US dollars. Since cheap books seems to be one thing everyone loves, I decided to turn into a spam bot for a few minutes and share some information about this deal.
My partner is the one that showed me this deal, which is found on Humble Bundle. He usually finds bundles of games there, but until now I’ve never known they do books as well. The purpose of Humble Bundle is to support charities by offering games and books at a pay what you want rate. In this case, you get to name your price for up to $294 worth of digital books from Springer Publishing. Proceeds go to Unicef, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, or a charity of your choice. Theoretically, you could pay as little as $1 (though that would only unlock six of the books on offer) or up to… well I don’t think there is an upper limit, but the highest contribution so far as been $100. It’s a great way to support charity, and so far, this bundle has raised over $80,000.
As for the books themselves, I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of any of the ones in this package before, though some of the names are familiar. I remembered Nick Kanas – the author of three of the novels in the bundle – from his articles about the psychological and physiological effects of space travel in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Brad Aiken’s short story collection Small Doses of the Future: A Collection of Medical Science Fiction Stories includes a couple that have previously been published in Analog. Including Locked In, a story I remember quite fondly. H.G Stratmann is also an Analog regular who has a book in the bundle, called Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Anatomy. As an aspiring writer a fan of Stratmann’s fiction, and someone who is interested in Biology, I’m really looking forward to that one. I’ve never heard of Stephen Webb before, but his book, If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens… Where is Everybody? Will probably be one of the first ones I read, because the possibility of alien life is one of the most fascinating unanswered questions facing us today.
One more thing before I leave you. There are only five days left for this deal. Not having read any of the books here, I can’t with confidence say ‘if you have an e-reader go buy these books; they are awesome and you won’t be disappointed.’ But they can be as cheap as you want, and it’s for charity. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in checking out, head over to Humble Bundle as fast as you can.
This isn’t going to be like my normal blog posts. I have a number of things I want to talk about, but nothing I really want to spend an entire blog post about. So, strap in for a dose of reviews, advertisement, ramblings, and tadpoles.
First of all, I should mention that after I made that big post about everything Harry Potter related, new stories came out. The Pottermore Presents series; trio of ebooks that contain short stories and tidbits from Pottermore that shed more light on the wizarding world. They are currently on sale at Pottermore (but not Amazon), though I have yet to get around to reading them. Pottermore has always been a source of interesting information, so it’ll be fun to read these books. However, I’m not super excited about them like I am with everything else Potter-related. Though it’s great that this world is still getting so much attention. I’ll let you know what I think of these stories when I finally get around to reading them. If you want to beat me to the punch, you can buy the Pottermore Presents trilogy here.
Those of you who have been paying attention would have noticed that a book I’ve really been looking forward to came out last month. I have finished The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. It’s book two in the Broken Earth Trilogy, and book one, The Fifth Season, won this year’s Hugo. I’m not going to write up a full review, because I’d be repeating a lot of what I said from my review of Fifth Season. This series features a rich world, compelling characters, and an interesting magic system. I’d give Obelisk Gate a score of 9/10. It is a great continuation of the story, though not as strong as Fifth Season. Possibly that is just standard Middle Book Syndrome. Now I just gotta wait for the final book to be written.
My partner and I had a Stranger Things binge the other week. It’s Netflix’s new big show, and I’d say it is well worth the hype. It’s a horror/Sci-Fi show (though it leans more towards the horror) that is set in the 80s. It has a good Stephen King vibe to it and pays homage to a lot of 80s genre films. There’s a monster, a conspiracy, telepaths, all the good stuff. I have to praise the acting in the show too; really got the feels at times, especially in episodes 3 and 4. The child actors were also great, and it was nice to see a mature show that featured kids as main characters. Plus D&D rules. A second season was recently announced, so that’s another thing I am really looking forward to, and would recommend without hesitation to anyone reading this.
I have also just finished reading The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. I suppose technically it’s fanfiction, since this story takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and features some of his characters. Though, Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain. There also seems to be a trend for retelling fairytales and folk stories, but I don’t know if they’d count as fanfiction. It’s one of those interesting cases that shows how blurred the line can be between fanfiction and well, regular fiction.
Whatever we want to call this novella, it was amazing. The setting had all the creepy, exotic richness of Lovecraft’s vision, but was told from a perspective he would never have considered. Johnson wrote this story as a way to revisit something she loved in childhood (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) and fix some of the things that made it problematic for her. In my previous post about Lovecraft I mentioned that the man’s persistent racism was a problem, but the lack of female characters is another downside to his work. I love that Johnson has brought me into the Dreamlands, with their zoogs and ghasts and zugs, and now included women into the mix. It is the Lovecraft experience without the baggage. And guess what else is new and improved? Kij Johnson can write dialog.
Now I also have something for fans of old pulp magazines out there. Well, I don’t, but Jamie Todd Rubin has. Back in 2012, he bought a whole bunch of Astounding magazines, ranging from 1939 to 1950. In other words, the Golden Age of science fiction. Rubin began a column called ‘Vacations in the Golden Age’ where he reviewed the magazines and discussed what was happening in the world when they were written. Due to time restraints the project was dropped, but now it’s back and in a new home. Even if you aren’t interested in Astounding/Analog, if you like history, science fiction, or the history of science fiction, you might be interested in these reviews. Check them out here.
And finally, I would like to share that I have a pet. Sort of. Spurred on by a spate of backyard activities, we ended up draining the old septic tank out the back. It hadn’t been used in years and had filled up with rainwater. As the pump got to work, I noticed that the tank was full of tadpoles. It didn’t seem like a good long term home for them (even after we gave up emptying the tank) so I decided to have a go at raising them. I only managed to catch one, and now I’m going to try and raise him to froghood and release him into a nearby stream. Try being the operative word; it seems tadpoles are quite fragile creatures. As for the ones still in the tank, well there is some exposed roots and rocks for them down there, and a hole in the top. Maybe if I can get a long branch down there they’ll be able to get out. I’ll figure something out.
That’s all for now. I gotta go check on Taddywaggles.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you know what Pokémon is. You probably also know that there are new games coming out called Sun and Moon. (Pokémon S&M, oh my!) Last week a trailer was released in Japan, and in the west we got to see some gameplay footage. In both places, we got to meet the three starters.
For those who don’t know, the starter Pokémon are a big deal. At the start of every game, you get presented with three Pokémon; a grass type, a fire type, and a water type. You can only choose one, and that critter becomes your first Pokémon; your partner throughout the game. For Sun & Moon, the grass type starter is Rowlet, a little owl with a bowtie, the fire type is Litten, a black cat with red markings, and the water type is Poplio, a happy little sea lion.
After processing all that information, I began to wonder if there was some sort of theme among these starter Pokémon. In X and Y, the final evolutions can be seen as an RPG team (a fighter, a mage, and a rouge), and the final evolutions of the starters in Diamond and Pearl are based on legends (Torterra is a World Turtle, Infernape is the Monkey King, and Empoleon is Poseidon). Of course, spotting such a theme at this stage would be hard, since the final forms of these starters has not been revealed.
It was when I tried to imagine what Litten could possibly evolve into that it came to me. You see, the marks on Litten’s face and its colouration suggest to me that it could become a big tiger-like Pokémon. A fire tiger? Tigers in the circus jump through rings of fire, and Polio obviously fits a circus theme too. I’m not quite sure how Rowlet fits in, but he could evolve into something that resembles an acrobat, or a magician, or a ringmaster. I think it’s safe to say that the finale evolutions of the Sun & Moon starters will have a circus feel to them.
As you can imagine, I felt pretty good figuring that out myself. Of course, a quick Google search showed that I was about three days behind the rest of the internet, and people were already talking about the circus connection. However, so far I am not seeing any discussion about the parallels between the circus, Pokémon games, and the themes of the Japanese Sun & Moon trailer. So let’s start talking about 19th Century circus troupes and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Yes, I’m digging that deep for something new and relevant to say about the this announcement.
During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was subjected to an isolationist policy and trade with foreigners was strictly controlled. In 1636, an edict enforcing sakoku (literally, country closed) was handed down, stipulating that no-one could enter or leave the country, the punishment for breaking this law was death. It remained illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this time there was still trading with Dutch, Korean, and Chinese merchants, but only at designated ports. The majority of Japanese people during this time would never have any contact with foreigners, and vice versa.
Four years after the Meiji Restoration, Richard Risley brought a U.S circus troupe to Yokohama, and the Japanese loved the show, which was mostly equestrian acts. Risley also got a chance to see local performers and was impressed with what he saw. He sought permission to bring a troupe of Japanese contortionists, conjurers, acrobats and other performers to tour the U.S. and Europe, thus creating the The Japanese Imperial Artistes’ Company. More Japanese circus troupes would later travel overseas, and more Western circuses would tour Japan. The Meiji Emperor once visited a circus performing at Tokyo and was so impressed he gave the ringmaster $5000 worth of gold.
So… what is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, apart from the merchants and the statesmen, the first Japanese people to travel overseas were circus performers. In the 19th century, the only place the average Westerner would see a Japanese person would be at the circus. Likewise, the circus was the first exposure a lot of Japanese people had to Westerners. The circus was an early channel for cross-cultural interactions between Japan and the West. Different cultures were bonding over something fun and frivolous.
Does this seem familiar to anyone? Let’s have a look at the Japanese trailer with this context in mind. (Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r0_F-_ClcQ) In the trailer, a young boy moves to Hawaii, and has trouble making friends. Not that the other kids are mean, it’s just hard to make friends in a new place where everyone speaks a different language. The new Pokémon games help the boy connect with his classmates, as all the kids are drawn together by playing the games. Pokémon transcends language barriers and national borders. It’s a way to play with people from different cultures, who you may never be able to play with in any other setting.
See what I’m getting at here?
It’ll be interesting to see how this circus theme – this coming out from isolation, travelling the world, meeting people from different cultures, sharing skills and experiences, and bonding over a fun event – is applied in the rest of the game.
Yes, the rest of the game. In Ruby and Sapphire, the starters represented different habitats, and the environment was front and centre in the games. In Diamond and Pearl, the starters had that legend theme, and the games were very big on expanding the Pokémon mythology. In Black and White, the starters had a theme of different cultures, and these games were set in an expy of New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The villain team also had an inability to see any views other than their own as valid; their views were not about race or culture, but the lesson of being able to accept difference still fits with this theme. In X and Y, the starters represent different roles players in an RPG may take on. In these games, you travel and fight against the baddies alongside a group of friends at many points in the story, and all your friends are constantly trying to figure out what role they want to play in the world.
So, what can we expect from a circus theme? Will the focus on cross-cultural bonding play a big story role? How will that focus on meeting people from across the world impact the wireless battling and trading features? Will the locations and travelling play a bigger role than usual? What will the villain team’s motivation be?
I am super excited about these games. I can’t wait to find out the answers to these questions alongside my brand new Pokémon partner; which will be Litten, of course.