Review: Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tor, 2010

First Line: In the late afternoon on the Roof of the World, the guards stood silent on the practice ground, their eyes fixed on the blackness rising just above the western horizon as Istril stepped out of the main door of Tower Black and crossed the causeway.

As I mentioned when I first wrote about reading Arms-Commander this is my first Recluce novel since I read The Magic of Recluce some time after having plowed through the first couple of Wheel of Time novels.  I had forgotten precisely how odd the chronology of the series is where the first novel written is, in essence, is the penultimate tale in the series with the fifth novel written The Death of Chaos is actually the conclusion of the saga at large.  Needless to see for someone used a distinct beginning to end chronology in his fantasy Modesitt stands amongst a bare handful of fantasy authors whose series’ internal chronology leave me scratching my head in confusion (Katerine Kerr’s Deverry novels, and Steven Brust’s Draegaran novels, being two of the other that I struggle a bit with).  You read it hear first folks, non-linear story-telling confuses the hell out of me.

Despite my confusion as to the chronology of the Saga of Recluce the blurb for Arms-Commander had me a bit excited:

Arms-Commander takes place ten years after the end of The Chaos Balance and tells the story of the legendary Saryn. The keep of Westwind, in the cold mountainous heights called the Roof of the World, is facing attack by the adjoining land of Gallos. Arthanos, son and heir to the ailing Prefect of Gallos, wishes to destroy Westwind because the idea of a land where women rule is total anathema to him.

Saryn, Arms-Commander of Westwind, is dispatched to a neighboring land, Lornth, to seek support against the Gallosians. In the background, the trading council of Suthya is secretly and informally allied with Gallos against Westwind and begins to bribe lord-holders in Lornth to foment rebellion and civil war. They hope to create such turmoil in Lornth that the weakened land will fall to Suthya. But Zeldyan, regent of Lornth, has problems in her family. To secure Zeldyan’s aid, Saryn must pledge her personal support—and any Westwind guard forces she can raise—to the defense of Zeldyan and her son. The fate of four lands, including Westwind, rests on Saryn’s actions.

There are a number of points that jumped out at me in that little blurb, particularly the role of gender politics in the novel (not something every fantasy novel explores) and the hint of a blend of military action and politics.  Unfortunately while the novel certainly succeeds in delivering the latter it is on the former that I’m less certain.

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Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

The Empress of Mars by Kage BakerThe Empress of Mars
Kage Baker
Tor, 2009

Kage Baker is one of those author’s that I always mean to read but never get around to doing it. I’ve always been intrigued by her Company novels but intimidated by the prospect of jumping into a new series. The Empress of Mars is listed as being a Company novel, and the cover certainly mimics the the other Company but new readers should rest assured that The Empress of Mars feels like a standalone work and I never felt at a loss for having missed out on other Company novels.

The plot is fairly straight-forward. Mary Griffith runs a bar on colonial Mars, run by the British Arean Company, called the Empress of Mars. The plot is not grandiose but rather almost quaint. I don’t mean that in a bad way but the story of a hardworking colonist struggling against the oversight of an oppressive administration is something quite familiar; especially from the American perspective. Baker manages to imbue that familiar struggle with a vivid originality; I was particularly fond of her use of the Celtic clan structure to increase bonds between colonists and the emergence of a sort of monotheistic Dianic neopaganism as an more widespread religion.
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Recommended Reading: Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson

Fitzpatrick’s War
Theodore Judson
DAW, 2005 (mass market edition)

This is bay and large one of my favorite books of the last decade and I am consistantly surprised that it has gotten such little attention over the years.  Given the current post-apocalyptic craze ushered in by games like Fallout 3 and, likely, the sorry economic state I have seen little, if any, mention of Fitzpatrick’s War on any lists of of post-apocalyptic fiction.   Fitzpatrick’s War is told as the autobiography of Robert Mayfair Bruce a General of the Yukon Confederacy.  In it Bruce relates of the rise and fall of one Lord Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick.  The book is written in a fairly straightforward narrative but masquerading as non-fiction with footnotes by a modern day scholar Roland Modesty Van Buren pointing out the supposed innacuracies of Bruce’s text with “known and accepted history.”

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Hypochondriacs FTW

John Timmer over at Arstechnica has an good rundown from the World Science Festival.  Specifically, he summarizes a panel about the prospects of genetic testing.  Not like the simple genotyping currently done to see if patients are carrying mutations or markers for a select few disorders but whole genome scans, producing a vast array of information for multiple phenotypes.  The holy grail of genomics is a scenario in which your DNA can be easily and quickly sequenced, risk factors in your genetic code identified, and therapies prescribed.  Clearly that scenario does not currently exist.  All the panelists agreed on one thing: genetic testing hasn’t gotten to a point where it’s a viable basis for treatments.  And I completely agree with that.  Right now the technology does little more than provide hypochondriacs lots of stuff to worry about.

The problem I have is the negative vibe that comes across from some of the panel.  Sure, running a SNP chip on your DNA right now would accomplish practically nothing.  The chip would be laughably incomplete and you’d only be getting a test for the fraction of disease-related SNPs that we’ve identified.  That doesn’t mean the technology should be shunned or put down.  You have to crawl before you can walk, other trite phrases, etc.   Technology is an exponentially growing field.  And as the gaps in our knowledge base get filled in, we’ll be able to provide better and better diagnoses for patients.  Each individual marker or polymorphism may only be a tiny piece of information when determining disease risk.  If I have a G instead of a T somewhere, maybe I have a 0.5% higher risk of getting Disease X.  But putting together a large number of them forms a foundation for a quality prediction.  Now you’ve got the genotype for hundreds or even thousands of revelant points in the genome.  And their benefit is exponential as we learn not only how they relate to risk by themselves but in conjunction with the other polymorphisms.  We may never reach the holy grail scenario I mentioned earlier (possibly because of environmental factors) but the potential is still there and that’s a reason for optimism.  Besides…if we don’t push forward with genetic testing the hypochondriacs will be stuck in the past, using WebMD to diagnose themselves with various ailments.  Won’t somebody please think of the hypochondriacs!?

Bring on the cyborg future

It’s always good to end the week with the knowledge that our society is that little bit closer to creating our cyborg overlords.  From Dean Kamen (the guy who brought you the Segway scooter) comes “Luke”, a robotic arm controlled by a series of pressure pads and other controls.  In addition to being just plain badass and a far more useful display of Kamen’s technological genius than the Segway,  it movies us one creepy step further into cyborg territory.  Soon this king of technology will pave the way for the true cyborgs who will inevitably rely on eugenics in an attempt to perfect their remaining human components while forcing the rest of us to do their bidding.

But wait, you say…there’s a huge flaw in this plan.  Everyone knows that cyborg software technology often warps the human brain, turning the “person” into a promiscuous nymphomaniac.  How will the cyborgs keep from diluting the gene pool of their robotic master race?  An Australian research team found the simple answer: remote controlled implants that can block the vas deferens.  Now these horrible combinations of man and machine can hump anything that will sit still long enough and not have to worry about pregnancy unless they decide to allow it.   And as a huge added benefit, they can install them in the rest of us non-cyborgs to keep our population under control.  Leave it to Australians to mess up our only hope: overpowering them with sheer numbers.

Samba de Amigo

The videogame industry as a whole as always loved the idea of the “peripheral”.  The Power Pad, the Zapper, R.O.B.  Dance pads, guitars, this monstrosity.  All of this, of course, flies in the face of reason since the vast majority of peripherals fail horribly and those that do succeed in the short term are inevitably reduced to hat racks because future games don’t support them.  Companies are always moving on to the next peripheral once interest in the current one winds down because they’re stuck trying to ride hype for sales instead of creating a reliable, future-proof product.  Most of the games using these peripherals are never revisited.

Samba de Amigo was one of those games.  It’s hard to top maracas and trippy looking monkeys in a music game for pure originality (and ridiculousness).  And based on the fact that there’s not a particularly large built-in market for maraca games, it seemed unlikely that the series would be revived after the Dreamcast died.  But fortunately for us somebody working at the husk of a company we used to call Sega stood up one day and declared, “Sweet merciful crap! The Wii controller could be a maraca!”.  Initial previews from Joystiq say the game works but doesn’t feel exactly the same as the old maraca controllers.  My own experiences with the Wii remote are leaving me skeptical about the ability of the games ability to read the appropriate movements.  I’m struggled through some sloppy motion detection on the system already, although I can’t tell you whether it’s from bad programming or the limitations of the controller’s hardware.  Needless to say, missing or misreading a shake of the hand in this game is going to leave a lot of music fans pissed and ruin the game entirely.

On a related note, Activision (hereafter referred to as “Sheep Inc”) saw their ready made fortune in the music industry slipping away as the Harmonix-helmed Rock Band started to seriously eat into Guitar Hero’s dominance.  And of course Sheep Inc did the only thing they could think of: they followed.  So now we’re going to have three different games (Konami’s making one too) that are remarkably similar.  Sheep Inc has practically no history of innovation and originality and it’s only gotten worse in recent years.  Harmonix suckered them completely.  They built up the number one music franchise, sold it for tons of money, and then quickly knocked it off the mountaintop with something new and better.  Sheep Inc is going to feel pretty stupid when all they can think to do is add two cymbals to the drum kit while Harmonix continues to basically print money by truly pushing the genre forward.

Review: Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is the sequel to Buckell’s previous novel Crystal Rain though that might not be apparent in the beginning, especially to anyone who hasn’t read Cyrstal Rain, a fact that might cause a problem when the reader hits the middle of the book and the narrative shifts from space to the previous novel’s Nagagada (or New Anagada if you prefer).  The plot initially focuses on Nashara a badass ladystyles sent from her homeworld Chimson to generally kick ass and deliver a secret weapon that will hopefully help liberate the masses of oppressed humans from non-human/alien overlords.

The novel started a bit slow, which I think was intentional, since as a reader I shared in Nashara’s sence of being trapped on a world she didn’t want to be in.  Once she hits open space though, gets a chance to really open up and kick the aforementioned ass, things really shine.  In a particularly brilliant action scene Nashara uses a minigun in a rather unorthodox, though fairly awesome, manner and later, in the novel’s final climatic battle, Nashara shines once again with brilliant use of her secret weapon.  Buckell introduces other new interesting aspects like the mind-controlling Satraps and certain revelations regarding the Teotl, both of which may or may not be related to one another.

The previously mentioned shift in narrative came right as I was starting to really enjoy Nashara so the shift back to Pepper, John and company really killed the pace for me a bit.  While I like the characters here I can’t help but feel this was the weaker section of the book.  The Jerome(John’s Son)/Xipilli element is what really brought things down for me.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t badly written, in fact Xipilli was actually quite a tragic character and what he was trying to do in the novel was actually quite noble but both it felt rather extraneous in terms of the novels actual plot and story development.  It did lead to an important moment for Jerome towards the end of the novel and did reinforce the overarching theme portraying to what levels aliens have caused humans to sink to but regardless detracted from what I felt was the more interesting and better written parts of the book.

Regardless this wasn’t enough to stop me reading and the last 75 to 100 pages were more than enough to make up for any chaff along the way.  In many ways the final scenes reminded a bit of the space battle from Return of the Jedi: a disparate alliance fighting an implaccable enemy in an against all odds scenario; thrilling stuff.  Overall, given the greater emphasis on action and overall fantastic world-building I’d rank Ragamuffin slightly above it’s predecessor.  Highly recommanded title for all sci-fi fans who enjoy a well-developed, colorful world that is at the same time familiar and refreshingly original populated by unique and, for the most part, universally appealing characters.

Retro Review: NHL ’94 (Sega Genesis)

I’ve spent (or wasted, depending on your viewpoint) a significant percentage of my life playing videogames. And while there’s always some newly purchased game serving as the flavor of the week, most of my gaming time has been spent on a relatively small number of games. And with the NHL playoffs in full swing, it’s the perfect time to give you five good reasons to play one of them: NHL ’94.

Reason 1: Simple and effective controls. There’s only three face buttons on the normal Genesis controller: A, B, and C. And this particular game can really be played with just B (pass) and C (shoot/check) if you don’t feel like the dumping the puck in or changing lines. Sure, there’s a little bit of depth with one timers and wrist shots vs slapshots but in the end it’s just a couple of buttons. Fast forward to 2008 and sports games are pretty much dead to me.  I don’t want to play a simulation (unless the name is a hilarious misnomer) and that’s what the sports genre has inevitably pushed towards.  Now if you want to play sports game, you have to deal with a control scheme that’s more complex than Splinter Cell.  Do I need a button dedicated to blocking the puck during a shot?  Not particularly.  Apparently the EA team responsible for Madden thinks I need a “pump up the crowd” button.  They are wrong.  The only remaining hope is that Nintendo’s lust for leveraging the Mario brand (read: milking) by combining it with any and all activities will result in Mario Hockey and provide us with quality and simple arcade controls.

Reason 2: Quality animations. For its time, NHL ’94 had some excellent animations. Goalies dive and slide to make kicks. The players skate pretty well. But it’s not the normal stuff that makes this one of the five reasons to get this game. It’s the unique animations that show you somebody working on this game cared. If you check a guy near the bench, he’ll fold up over the wall and then fall back onto the ice. If you stop really fast, ice will actually spray up. There’s the elusive “shattered glass” scenario where the puck breaks the glass behind the goal. I’ve only had this happen to me once in my ridiculous number of hours playing the game. But my personal favorite (and the reason why I made this it’s own category) is that if you look closely, players will take one hand off their stick and swat at a puck that’s in the air near them. I don’t even know if the game is programmed so that they can make contact with the puck in that scenario but someone drew the sprites and somebody coded the animation anyway. Sweet deal.

Reason 3: Organ music. Organ music is dying out at most sporting venues. The Flyers have a great organist in David May and he gets to solo sometimes during the intermissions. Still, he’s not use nearly enough during the actual game and the replacement music is usually mediocre pop-rock. So for all of the people who’ve had their Mexican Hat Dance and Hava Nagila taken from them, this game has your back.

Reason 4: Anaheim Mighty Ducks. After playing this game for so long, you pick up lots of cheap ways to score that exploit the game design. You can loop around behind the goal, cause a defenseman to run his own goalie and grab an easy wraparound. Or on breakaways you can just drift to the side while shooting to the opposite post. The goalies never figure it out (probably because their AI is just slightly more advanced than the standard Goomba). Eventually crushing the computer becomes boring and you have to handicap yourself to bring the challenge back to a reasonable level. Enter the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. This was the year that Disney came up with the second greatest marketing idea ever (here’s the best): buy a major sports team and use that to promote movies about a fake sports team. As an expansion team, the Ducks completely got the shaft in NHL ’94. See, back in 1994 it was hard to distinguish player qualities like “puck handling” and “checking” because the games were so simplistic. So the easiest way to separate good and bad teams was to make the bad teams slower…everyone on the bad teams…even the fast players. The result is a Ducks team that looks like they’re wading through quicksand while the Red Wings of the world make a line change and still have enough time to stop your breakaway. The ability to handicap yourself (aka choosing a different difficulty level) gives this game added replay value (albeit in one of the goofiest ways possible).

Reason 5: Unsportsmanlike Conduct. In contact sports, hitting someone after the play is over is generally considered a bad thing. The primary reason is that the person assumes the play is over (he’s correct in this assumption) and then he gets blind sided. Well video games have always been about escapism and being able to do things you can’t do in real life. And NHL ’94 wasn’t programmed to punish extracurricular activities. Give up a goal? Check that lucky jerk into the boards. Score a game winner? See if you can knock down all five players from the opposing team before the game switches to the box score. You should buy this game just for the ability to duel with a friend after every goal scored.

Note from Mike:Check out this review of the NHL ’94 Manual from 10 Cent Freeze Pops.

In vitro chicken-meat…?

Science allows us to do plenty of cool and creepy things.  But whether you’re into weird science for resurrecting extinct species or just to grow ears on the backs of mice, PETA wants you to know that they’ve one-upped you.

PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the contest participant able to make the first in vitro chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The contestant must do both of the following:

• Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.
• Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.

First off, I would like to salute PETA on this. Usually they strike me as militant dolts, but the phrase “in vitro meat” is a stroke of brilliance. The idea itself is doomed to failure at the moment though. Many vegetarians won’t eat the meat because “animal cruelty” is not their primary reason for being vegetarian in the first place. And the number that do switch over to eating in vitro meat will probably be offset by people who are scared or weirded out by the concept itself and refuse to eat it. Plus, even if they can get people to eat it, there’s still the problem of cost. The amount of R&D needed to grow edible tissues in culture will be astronomical (and the $1 million prize is likely a laughable drop in the bucket). All of that money will be reflected in the price of the meat and realistically, crazy organic-loving hippies aside, there’s probably not a huge market for bizarre pseudo-chicken that costs more than regular chicken.


Upon seeing this I immediately thought of an episode of Sci-fi Channel’s blissfully goofy Eureka.  It took me a while to find the info but a blog over at tvguide by pgoody had a succinct summary of what I remember:

With that crisis averted, Jack turns his attention to the “dumb virus” and soon deduces that all the dummies all ate chicken at Café Diem. After investigating the chicken farm, Jack finds out that the chicken farmer doesn’t want to kill birds so she uses stem-cell technology to grow independent chicken parts (yummy?). The cloned chicken parts, while organic, causes some chemical reaction that makes people who eat them stupid. A vegetarian doctor, who kept her smarts, develops the antidote, and all goes back to “normal” at GD.

Episode was from Season 2 called “E=MC…?” Not that I expect anything of the sort to happen in real life but it reminded me of that whole fiction to reality surealness I posted about earlier.


It’s evolution, baby

It’s been a big week on the evolution front. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is looming on the horizon, threatening to again paint our country as a bunch of backwards yokels who don’t understand a) the distinction between faith and science (and why one can’t substitute for the other), b) what a scientific theory is and why it’s different than a theory in everyday language, and c) that not all scientists are atheists but rather all scientists have to ignore faith in their experiments because it’s not a valid part of the scientific method. For those that don’t know what the movie is about, let me give you the tl;dr summary: “The Man” (referring to scientists here) is keeping creationists down and blackballing them. Plus evolution brought us Social Darwinism and the Holocaust, therefore it’s bad.

You might be tempted to think I was using hyperbole here to mock the film. Nope. They actually went so far as to edit Darwin’s writings to make it look like he approved of eugenics, despite the unedited paragraphs saying exactly the opposite. Expelled is just now filtering out to audiences that can actually analyze the movie’s content instead of just test audiences from the uber-right and the reviews have been predictably bad. Watch the movie (preferably by finding yourself a copy on BitTorrent) and understand that we live in a country where the teaching of evolution is threatened in numerous states, including right here in PA.

But it hasn’t been all bad for Darwin and his theory. He got his complete works put up online for all to see at no cost. There’s some great stuff on there, including original sketches from his time on the H.M.S. Beagle. Plus Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania just announced 2009 to be the Year of Evolution. Philadelphia is frequently mocked (sadly with good cause) for being low brow and a second-tier city, so it’s good to see the city take an active role on the front lines of an intellectual battle.