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Thursday
Feb212013

Video Game: FTL (Faster than Light)

I try a fair amount of video games and enjoy independent games, but with time far tighter than when I was a kid I don’t play them as long.  One of the recent exceptions to that is FTL (Faster than Light )a game which I have played through a couple of times and still enjoy.

FTL is a rougelike game in a spaceship. That was the sales pitch that got my attention and it’s reasonably accurate. You have a few different spaceship layouts available to unlock as well as things you can add to the ships, crew, energy, scrap to collect and a rebellion to stop.  

The story of FTL is basic, as any rougelike game has to be. You have news of a rebel fleet as well as knowledge of the weakness of their flagship which you have to get to your command.  In order to do this you make jumps from one star to another. At each of these you will find some type of battle or mission to attempt.  Completing these will allow you to get scrap, which acts as money, weapons, crew and equipment.  You can then upgrade your ship and move on.

At first glance this game felt a bit too random.  As if there was little or no chance of actually winning except through sheer luck, but after  a couple of games I discovered it was more strategic than many roguelike  games. You have an enemy fleet behind you, so time is important, but you also want to get to as many systems as possible (especially early on) to get scrap to build up your fleet. You also have to choose how best to upgrade. For example, do you want better shields or to save your money to buy something in the store you haven’t found yet.

Beyond random encounters which make every game unique the thing that makes this gave very replayable are the different ships. Each one has a completely different layout, crew and starting equipment. There are ships with cloaks, one with a ion cannon, missile launchers and one that has nothing more than a teleporter for a weapon.  These are unlocked through missions and generally not easy to do, but once you have you have a game which is very different forcing you to use aspects of the game you may have ignored and become a better player.

The game even builds to a great climax. Once you have reached the end you deliver your message and are sent out to fight the rebel command ship. This ship pushes you to the limit and doesn’t allow for some of the more basic tactics to work well. All that and you have to fight it three times each time facing a different set of tactics.  This makes beating the game really feel like an accomplishment especially when your ship is falling apart and most of your crew is dead when you finally get the last missile past their shields.

The final point in favor of this game is that as an independent game you won’t be paying all that much. The full price is 9.99 on steam and it is often on sale for at least half off so if you watch you can probably get it for 5 dollars. If you play through this even a couple of time’s you’ll get your five dollars worth and with 18 ships to unlock and almost unlimited combinations of weapons and equipment for those ships you’ll likely play through more than a couple of times.

There are a few weaknesses to this game. Unlocking the ships does require random events which can make unlocking them a bit frustrating. In addition the variety of enemies and missions could be improved, and finally it would be really good if they built in a mod tool, because there are a lot of fan made ships, but getting them to work with the game is more effort than it should be.

In the end if you’re a fan of the spaceship genre of science fiction and like video games at all you’re  probably going to enjoy Faster than Light because it understands both the spaceship genre and the rougelike games well enough to make for a good experience on both aspects.

This is one of the best valued games I have played in years and if you’re looking for something inexpensive that can run on almost any computer and will give you your science fiction fix then you really can’t go wrong with FTL. 

Sunday
Jan202013

Fringe, Series Finale: An Enemy of Fate

When Fringe began I didn’t love it. I certainly didn’t dislike it, but it felt like it was going to be the X-files, or something similar. And for a little while there was a monster of the week aspect to the show.  As the show ends though it has become one of my favorites, and certainly risen well above what I expected for the show. This is because it has done one of the things that so few shows (even very good shows) fail to do. It has taken risks.

The biggest risks this show has taken was effectively reinventing itself in the last few seasons, first by introducing an alternate dimension and eventually moving the show forward in time twenty years. These weren’t the only risks the show took though. They often did things that were surprising. Killing off characters, introducing odd technologies and holding out secrets longer than most shows would.  They even allowed the romance and personal lives of the characters to advance, something that so many shows refuse to do it has become absurd.

To discuss the specifics of the series finale would be a bit absurd. If you haven’t been watching the show you won’t follow and if you have you’ll want to see it yourself. But there are good moments between every character on the show.  Walter had the most of these but everyone had plenty to do. They also made a lot of great connections to previous episodes and even seasons of the show.

It’s hard to sum up all the feelings about a five year show like Fringe in a few words, or to really end a show like this in a single episode, and especially hard in a show that really does have good story, good action and good character development. 

In the end this episode, along with much of Fringe is Walter’s story.  He is the one who caused many if not most of the problems that they face and is the one who usually comes up with the solution.  Yet more often than not it has been Olivia and Peter who have actually stepped into danger to fix it and often them who have paid the price. In this season especially having lost their daughter. So it seems fitting that the series ended with Walter being the one who fixed things. The one who sacrificed everything to change destiny and hopefully finally feel forgiven for the problems he has caused.

That is what made the white tulip such an interesting ending to the series. This was the message that Walter had been waiting for to say that he was forgiven, and while he had received it being able to send it to Peter told his son that he was OK as well as saying that perhaps he had finally forgiven himself. This gives everyone in the show their happy ending, with Peter and Olivia’s family together again and Walter getting to explore an entire world of new ideas.  Not the perfect ending, but then endings are almost never perfect. 

Sunday
Jan132013

Dr. Who's New Companion, Clara Oswin Oswald 

I finally got the chance to watch the Dr. Who Christmas special and see a bit more with his new companion soufflé girl. She has a tough act to follow with two excellent characters leaving the show, but while I was sad to see the Ponds leave the show I think it was time for a change and it seems like  Clara Oswin Oswald has potential to be different and I like Jenna-Louise Coleman in the part.

My thoughts on this companion can’t really be explored without some spoilers. But I’ll start with the more basic stuff. So far I like the actress who plays her and the character seems different, though I feel like she might be trying a bit too hard to be different. The simple example of this is the “It’s smaller on the outside.” line. This was cute enough if it isn’t a sign that she is going to constantly be doing that, but I have some fear that she will be constantly trying to do the unexpected whether it makes sense or not.

She also seems to fit the typical companion mold. Willing to help people, not afraid to get into danger, smart and independent enough to not do everything that the doctor tells her. This is fine, but I would prefer if the broke the mold just a little more. Mostly I’m not interested in another romantic relationship for the doctor. First, he is a married man, but beyond that it just isn’t what I’m looking for in Dr. Who. He is after all a thousand year old alien which makes a relationship with a twenty something a bit odd at best. Moreover it’s been done. We already had Rose, Martha and even Amy with some amount of romance with him. In the latter I think the show become far more interesting after she got married and that subplot was completely gone.

What was most interesting about the character is that she died. If my recollection is correct then she has died in both episodes she was in, and reappeared as a different character. The doctor seemed intrigued by this and so am I. Is this some type of reincarnation or something even stranger. 

For me the verdict is still out. I have enjoyed the character so far, but in many ways I enjoyed the other ‘companions’ in this episode more. The lizard woman is interesting, though not someone I would want to see all the time, but Strax could be fun for a while, especially if he’s not the main person on the show. A bit too much comic relief but when there actually is a reason to fight he can become far more competent.

The Snowmen episode itself was weak for a Christmas episode in my opinion. The Snowmen as a villain weren’t all that interesting and it felt as if it were trying to do a bit too much by introducing a new companion, having the Sherlock Holmes jokes, the two alien characters, the children and a bunch of setups for the remainder of the season. Beyond that the idea that the ice was melted because an entire family was crying on Christmas Eve just seemed absurd because beyond everything else it seems as if there had to be plenty of families already crying. London is a big city and people die every day. Those are minor complains though, and in general I liked this episode and it makes me want to see more.

I was reminded of this song as I watched the show and so decided to add it as a bonus. 

 

Saturday
Jan122013

Christopher Nolan and Interstellar 

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors and so anytime that I hear of a new project I am interested. I’m interested because he is one of the few mainstream directors who takes real chances. In a sea of remakes, zombie movies, movies described as the next  xxx and even formulaic science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies it’s important to have a few people out there who do something different and whether you like what he has done or not it’s hard to say that he doesn’t take risks.

The most recent rumors are that Christopher Nolan is going to be directing a movie called Interstellar.  I don’t know a lot about this yet, but it is reported to have time travel and alternate dimensions. These are two of my favorite story types and the second makes the first a lot easier to write by taking out most of the paradoxes and questions.

While I don’t know much more about the plot than that I know Christopher Nolan’s work reasonably well.  So I feel comfortable in saying that if he does direct this movie he’s not simply going to take the easy path, because even when he did what could have easily been a typical superhero movie he took the risk of changing the tone.

This makes me hopeful that if he does direct Interstellar it’s not simply going to be an action movie, but something that makes people think. He might also be willing to take one of the major risks which time travel movies often fail to take which is showing that the ideas in it are actually complicated and that the answers aren’t simple. That time travel is interesting for more than simply visiting your parents or messing with history.

The parallel realities is one of the things that helps make this truly interesting for me though. I have always found that idea interesting anyway, but beyond that it means that the characters could go into the past, change things and return without actually having changed their own world, since the world they were in wasn’t theirs or at the very least still exists along with the other. It could also go into the concept of the infinite because Kip Thorne suggests that time travel could lead to infinite realities and once you begin to get into that concept you can go forever. Simply imagine anything that is possible but extremely unlikely, getting struck by lightning, winning the lottery, dating a supermodel. If there are infinite worlds then not only are all of those things possible but they have happened and far stranger things in one of those worlds. All this gives plenty of room for interesting stories.

Overall I don’t know all that much about this, but I always enjoy stories which let my imagination go and imagining the gritty style that Nolan often uses along with his willingness to take risks and ability to make ideas that seem odd work (such as playing the scenes in the movie in reverse) along with a movie that has wormholes, time travel, alternate dimensions and who knows what else. So here’s hoping that the great ideas we imagine are just the beginning of what has already been written.

 

Friday
Jan112013

The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin

I don’t normally write about anything except science fiction and fantasy on this site, but once in a while there is something that interests me enough to break that rule. The West Wing is one of those shows. I’m not sure why it does, because on paper I should probably hate it, but having went through the show for the second time recently I have to say that in many ways I enjoy it more than a lot of shows that I should like better.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The West Wing is a show by Aaron Sorkin about the people who work in the White House. By nature of that it is naturally a show about politics. I stopped watching shows about politic a while back because they tend to make me angry. But while I often disagree with the people on this show I am rarely angered by it. (There are a few exceptions). 

This is also one of the reasons that I like the show. I have heard the show described as showing the people that we wish were in the office. There are two reasons I see for that. The first is that it is able to rise above politics. More often than not the problems that are central to the show are not really political, or the actual politics don’t matter for the drama. One excellent example is the shows in which they are nominating a Supreme Court judge. The politics of the judges are discussed and as it is a democratic administration they want judges that agree with them, but the show doesn’t devolve to that. Instead it discusses the difficulty in getting anyone who isn’t a moderate on the court, an issue which is true no matter which side of the issues you fall.

The second reason is that it is optimistic. Not in the absurd way that people seem to assume optimism has to be, but in a realistic way. It assumes that people who work in politics are, mostly, trying to do good. It doesn’t do this by making them perfect, having the right answers or even always agreeing, but it assumes they are decent people doing their best. With cynicism seeming to be everywhere it is nice to see a show that really does seem to believe that people are at least trying.

Beyond those points is a third which helps the show a lot. That is that it doesn’t have to manufacture drama. This is a major problem for me on a lot of shows that I like. Take a show like Grey’s Anatomy. It’s about surgeons trying to save lives while living their own. And yet it is constantly stretching my credulity by having people shot, in plane clashes, hit by a bus and many other things.  I can live with this, but the West Wing rarely had to stretch because things that aren’t important, and therefore with drama, rarely make it to the President’s desk.

I would also like to point out that the show is, if you don’t mind stretching, science fiction and not just because it has a story in which the Republican’s nominate a pro choice candidate for president. This is a parallel reality. From the top of my head the most recent president mentioned on the show was Kennedy. I never heard a word of Nixon, Ford, Carter or Regan, though they did talk about Vietnam a lot.  

You could assume this was because they didn’t want to talk about living presidents, but I prefer the more interesting answers. My best theory is that at some point in the near future time travel was invented. Seeing the damage caused by Watergate they traveled back and changed history after Kennedy’s assassination.  Nixon was not elected, which changed who was elected to office but not changing the issues or the parties.

My main point in writing this was twofold, to point out that The West Wing is now available on Netflix Instant watch, and to say that if you’ve avoided the show because of the politics you might want to try it because if you can get past that it’s a good show with interesting ideas that should be discussed and thought about from as many sides as possible. 

Tuesday
Jun052012

Review: Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a writer I found recently and generally I have been impressed, but even the best writers are still hit and miss and for me Frameshift was a miss. That isn’t to say that this is a bad book or poorly written, I just didn’t care all that much about many of the things that happened and in the end much of the story felt as if it was stretching to make a point more than it was truly trying to tell a good story.

Frameshift is generally about genetics, though finding a core idea is a bit tricky. There are two main characters, a French Canadian geneticist who is working on the human genome program and a woman who can read minds. The mindreading ability is one of the only real science fiction elements to the story, but it didn’t really feel like it was all that important in most of the story. It actually detracted from the character to me, while Pierre becomes more interesting as he faces Huntington’s disease.

The major problem of this story is that it felt as if it were pushing a point more than telling a story. I can understand the point it is trying to make, that we have to be careful judging people based on their DNA, but it wasn’t told all that well. In fact due to idea that the character are attempting to hunt down NAZI war criminals in much of the book it feels a bit as if there is an assumption that people who disagree with the main premise are the same as NAZIs. I suspect this wasn’t intentional, and the NAZI hunting part of the story was one of the better parts, but it is still a bit unfortunate.


Many of the points in the book simply felt far too unlikely to truly work. For example (SPOILERS) the main characters want to have a child but can’t do so in the normal fashion so they are artificially inseminated. But the man who helps tricks them by injecting a cloned Neanderthal egg. This turns out to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but is a setup for the ‘family portrait’ of man at the end of the book in which you see the predecessor and future of man together. It’s a cute idea, but not one worthy of this much of the book. And, sadly, this is not the only place where the plot stretches in this way.  The main character also just happens to run into the real NAZI war criminal after accusing the wrong man.

In the end there are simply better books that tackle the idea of genetics and given the opportunity I would recommend the movie Gattaca long before this book because not only is in more interesting but makes the basic point far better. There is more to humanity than what is in our genes and our goal should be to rise above them not to submit to them. Still, if you want to read a book that considers the dangers and possibilities of understanding the human genome you could do far worse. 

Saturday
May262012

Review: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

In most cases there are two separate types of science fiction, those stories that focus on the science and those which focus on the fiction.  Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer is a story that often difficult path between the two. It has science that is both interesting and science while focusing largely on characters.

There are two major themes in Rollback. The first is the title concept. A medical technology which allows someone to become young again with theoretical technology that costs billions. The other is a message from an alien race which was discovered over thirty years ago. These two interact because the woman who deciphered the first alien message has grown old and a new message has arrived.

Because she might be important a billionaire offers to pay for her rollback and, reluctantly, her husband’s as well. The problem is that her rollback fails while his does not. So he has grown  young again while she remains in her late 80’s. 

Much of this story is about the man dealing with the changes in his age, cultural differences between age groups and guilt. Most of which are dealt with well enough. The only real major problem is that one of the major plot points has him doing something that is at best morally questionable. He feels a bit guilty but never deals with it and in the end it becomes a major positive. And while I don’t feel that negative actions always need to lead to negative consequences in a good book it is hard to really feel for a character who acts in such a selfish way.

Overall there is a lot of interesting story in Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer and while there are a few points in the story which bother me they don’t come near ruining the story. In fact one could argue that they add to the moral complexity of a story which focuses on a subject that has a lot of moral complexity. So, if you like science fiction that is able to meld character and big ideal which remaining largely plausible in the science then you’ll likely like Rollback though I can’t say that I expect a lot of people will love it.

Thursday
May242012

Why Write about Dystopian Futures

I have heard a fair amount of discussion lately about science fiction writers using a lot of dystopian futures in their stories. Neil Stephenson even discussed the point lately suggesting that slower levels of true technological advancement may be in part because of this and want to write more optimistic stories. That is great. I for one love Star Trek in part because hope is important in science fiction, but in the discussion I think a lot of people miss the most basic reason that writers often use apocalyptic futures. It’s easier. 

A lot of people don’t think that much about stories, but if you take a moment to think about it dystopian futures you’ll understand why. The most important element in story is conflict. That conflict can be between man and man, man and society, man and God, ect… The problem is that if the future is a kind and peaceful place there is less conflict than if mega corporations have pillaged the planet turning it into a wasteland, leading to a nuclear war that triggered a zombie uprising.  

The basic premise of many of these people is still correct. People are more likely to write dystopian stories in times when the economy is bad and people are afraid, but it is still worth remembering the simple point that futures where everything has went wrong tend to lead to easier conflicts. In fact my problem is often not so much that we have dystopian futures but that so much of science fiction is unwilling to look into the future more than a few years rather than centuries. For example instead of shows like Star Trek and Star Wars that show truly advanced technology you have shows like Fringe and Eureka with advanced technology in our own time. I like these shows, but I enjoy visiting the distant future from time to time as well and it’s OK (at least for me) to assume that sometime might come up with a way to do something that we currently think is impossible like faster than light travel because one of the things science fiction does well is point out we don’t know all that much.

Thursday
Mar292012

Hunger Games by Suzanna Collins Book Review

In an attempt to catch up on some of the more popular science fiction of the recent past I picked up The Hunger Games by Suzanna Collins.  Since it was reasonably short I also read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. This is a story about a young girl who lives in a dystopian future where children are forced into a reality show style combat to the death.

Plenty has been said about this book and the most common comparison is to Battle Royale. This is a good comparison, but I actually found myself thinking of Ender’s Game, especially towards the end of the third book. Both are about children who are used by adults and mix very personal stories with huge political issues. Both also deal with death and how children deal with having killed.  I still strongly prefer Ender’s Game, but I find it interesting.

Reading any young adult novel I try to give it a bit of a pass on the cliché level, but it is a bit difficult in parts of Hunger Games. This is mostly because several of them felt very unnecessary. The most notable of these was the love triangle.  The problem is that it never really felt like there was a decision to be made.  There were other commonly used ideas in these stories as well, but few of them felt as forced as this.

The biggest weakness of this story for me was its staying power. I enjoyed the first book quite a lot, the second book was interesting and by the end of the third I was ready for it to be over. This is the opposite of most books that I love.  Most of this is because the longer the story goes the less it feels like Katniss is actually affecting anything. Instead it feels like she is riding the wave created by her first actions and trying to catch up with the events rather than creating them.

Still, while I am willing to criticize the story there is a lot to enjoy here. I like many of the characters and very few of them feel flat or like they don’t have room to change and the world building is very interesting giving you a real feel for each of the districts even though there are several that you hardly see at all. Even the villains feel like they have personalities beyond simply being evil though there is a bit of moustache twirling at times. 

Just like with Harry Potter I am always glad to see kids excited about genre fiction and can enjoy the stories for what they are, but in the end this isn’t great science fiction, it is only good and I do hope that those who like this story will find their way to some substantial stories after they have finished it. Perhaps something like Ender’s Game if you enjoy the children and death theme, or the often mentioned Battle Royale if you like the life and death arena. For those who like the world building there are a lot of great science fiction universes such as Dune, Ringworld and the Foundation stories. Oh an if you like the archery you could try the Stephen Lawhead King Raven series that looks at Robin Hood from a different view.

Overall I would give this book about three and a half out of five stars. Worth reading, but without as much substance as I would like even out of a young adult novel, but with characters and themes that are worth spending some time with.  

 

Monday
Mar192012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I don’t read a lot of Steven King because I don’t read a lot of horror. It isn’t that I don’t like a good horror book on occasion, just not very often. Since 11/22/63 by Steven King isn’t really a horror novel, and several sights suggested it as the best science fiction of 2011 it seemed like a great story to read, especially with so much of the recent science fiction being of the depressing apocalyptic variety.

The story itself is, like many of the best Steven King stories, very simple on the surface. A man discovers a ‘rabbit hole’ that leads to 1958. You can enter that hole, look around and return easily, and no matter how long you are there only two minutes have passed and if you enter the hole again you return to the exact same moment and can relive the same events. You can even change things, but as soon as you return those changes disappear. 

The man who shows him this ‘rabbit hole’ then suggests his plan. He should go into the past, live there until 11/22/63 and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing Kennedy. The problem is that the past doesn’t want to be changed. It struggles against the actions of the time traveler.

From the beginning a few things seem clear. The time travel in this story isn’t really all that important, except to put the right person at the right time. The giant reset button set up in the first few pages will be used and there is more going on than you really see.

What makes this story, like almost everything Steven King writes, so interesting is that you actually care about the characters. This is vital to his style of writing. After all horror only works if you care about the people in the story because no one can create a monster bad enough that it will scare someone when they don’t care about the people it’s killing or, worse, are actively pulling for the monster kill obnoxious characters. This is generally a bit less important in science fiction, but it is always a good thing to have characters you care about, and characters that the writer also seems to care about, though a bit of the wind is taken out of that when the reset button is hovering over the story like a sword on a string, but even that is used very well.

It is easy to read this and recognize the style of Stephen King. Like most of his work this is rated R though a bit lighter than most of his work, in large part because most of it is set in the 1950’s. It also has some nods to other stories. Visiting Derry one town he hears a story of a clown that was killing children.  There are likely other more subtle nods to other stories as well, though none as clear.  So anyone who loves Stephen King should enjoy this book even if there isn’t all that much to be scared of in it.

On the other hand those who generally avoid horror could certainly use this as a great way to get the feel for Stephen King without the fear of killer dogs, ghosts or even curio shop owners getting too much in the way. The biggest horror in this story are Oswald, and a few other similar human characters and while they may be every bit as much monsters as those in other King novels they are certainly more familiar and something already dealt with. In fact the real drama isn’t in what they will do, because that is already known, but if they can be stopped.  So if you want to check out Stephen King, this is a good place to start.

Overall I’d say this story is about a 4 out of 5 with the only real problems being that it drags a bit in the middle and I could see the ending very early, but even knowing where the story is going it is still mostly fun to get there and a bit of slowing down in the middle to explore the past is part of the reason that you read a story about time travel.