Yearly Archives: 2009

Iorich by Steven Brust – Book Review

Iorich will be released in a few days (January 5), and it is with utmost certainty that I suggest you go buy it if you are a fan of Steven Brust and his Vlad Taltos novels.  If you are unfamiliar with the Vlad series, I would say that you need to go research that inadequacy in your fantasy reading.  Each one of the books is a bit self-contained, as Vlad will sometimes refer to something in the past, but during his narration tell the reader that he is going to jump over that part right now as it is not crucial to what he is currently involved in.  What I am not so certain about is my ability to explain why I enjoyed this novel, because I did enjoy it.  When I stop to think about Brust, it is a a grand complicated puzzle of great writing, great characters, and a story I did not think I would actually enjoy when I read the back of the book.  That is why I am always impressed with Brust; he makes me like things I do not think I would ever be interested in.

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Day of the Triffids – BBC Mini-series | review

Bill Masen, a scientist who has spent his life working with the genetically engineered, carnivorous plants known as Triffids, finds himself one of the few sighted people left in the world after an intense solar event blinds much of the population. But if you think that sounds like a bad day, then imagine his horror when he finds that a loony environmental activist has released the deadly Triffids from the farms where Masen was attempting to study them.

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Dante’s Inferno (PS3) Preview – First Impressions

It is said that one should not discuss religion at a place of employment. Fire and brimstone itself rain down upon you if this sacred workplace rule is broken. But at Visceral Games – the heralded developers behind the Dead Space franchise (one of, if not my most, favorite franchises of all time) – this rule is broken on a daily basis. Why? Because they’re the developer behind the highly anticipated Dante’s Inferno multi-platform video game due out on February 9, 2010.

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Fire Raiser by Melanie Rawn | Book Review

Fire RaiserHolly McClure is a witch, something that won’t be a surprise to readers of the first volume of this series.  She isn’t a particularly powerful witch, in the big scheme of things, which is a very novel approach in fantasy fiction.  In many contemporary fantasies, a witch who doesn’t seem able to cast any spells is usually either untrained or hasn’t yet figured out what she can actually do.  That isn’t Holly’s problem at all.  She has a particular talent, which is making spells permanent with a drop of her blood.  This means she isn’t worthless, in fact, much is made in this book about how valuble her magic is, but she can’t actually cast any spells. Rawn’s system of magic is interesting, with each witch having a particular affinity for some kind of physical item, such as wood, or gemstones, or cloth.  The witches can then work magic based around that affinity, something that makes sense and makes it much better for the reader to interpret how, exactly, the magic works in Rawn’s world.

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Avatar | movie review

Avatar is a great film.  Here is a movie that will actually surprise you and offer things you have never seen before.  James Cameron has delivered a special effects powerhouse that is actually an extended acid trip in the jungle.  The human tech is underwhelming, so is the heavy-handed theme, but consider these as elements tacked on to a movie about exploring the forest.

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Best Albums of the Decade, 101-90

This was a big funky decade for music; walls crumbled all over the place, meaning that we could listen to anything in the whole world we wanted at just about any time, if we were smart or sneaky enough. It also meant that everyone could share their CDs — or their opinions — just by touching a few buttons. Pretty cool, in most ways, but kind of crappy in others. Hey, it’s a tradeoff.

It was also pretty clearly the last decade where THE ALBUM really meant anything. I’m not saying people won’t make albums in the future, I’m just saying…well, I don’t know what I’m saying. We’ll see how it all shakes out.

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The Princess and the Frog | movie review

Brad Pitt called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button “a love letter to New Orleans.”  Well.  If Button was a love letter, then Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was a Homeric poem in the grand lady’s honor, because it caught the culture and flavor of New Orleans and southern Louisiana far better than the 2008 opus did.  I honestly don’t know how this movie will view to people across the United States, whether the region-specific presentation of the story and the setting will diminish its appeal or raise it for being a uniquely American fairy tale.  But for me, as someone who lives down here in the swamp, it was a fantastic movie.

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The Blue Bloods Series by Melissa de la Cruz | Book Review

blue bloods

 

I have never reviewed multiple books at once, but the Blue Bloods series is a series in the truest sense—the books cannot and do not stand alone.  Instead of reviewing each of them individually, I am going to give my general thoughts on the series and maybe a few specifics from the first book only.  That way you can get a feel for whether you might like the series, without getting into spoilers (although, if you read the summaries of the first four books you get some spoilers just from that; but, from someone who knew them going into book one, it didn’t dim my enjoyment one bit).

So, what is this series all about?

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Disney options rights to Lauren Kate’s ‘Fallen’ novel

Medora was kind enough to point me in the direction of this news item and it was a tough call between BSCkids and this site, but in the end I felt it belonged here.  Disney has optioned the rights to Lauren Kate’s young adult novel Fallen that heavily features angels.  Some believe that vampires and werewolves are taking a back seat to the next trend which will be a slew of angel related books and movies.  Disney looks to believe the same thing with this move.

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (PS3) – Final Review

Infinity Ward has made quite a name for itself since 2003. Beginning with Call of Duty, they’ve shown the world – and publisher giant, EA – that they can thrive on their own and take the action shooter genre by storm at the same time. Subsequent titles developed by IW’s “sister” company, Treyarch, haven’t lived up to those crafted by the geniuses at IW. If you read my First Impressions review, you’d think I had a personal bone to pick with IW’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In truth, it’s not a bone-picking session at all. I have a valid fear: IW has grown into such a writhing beast at creating the best games in the shooter genre that their reputation has – pardon the pun – become bulletproof. In the media’s eyes, IW does no wrong, and even controversies such as the now-infamous “F.A.G.S.” reference in a TV commercial (see that here – discretion advised for youngsters) has done nothing but fuel the media machine in IW’s favor.

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Shadow Season, Jump and Revolver | The Electric Mayhem

Shadow seasonShadow Season by Tom Piccirilli

With Shadow Season, Tom Piccirilli shows that he is a master who is comfortably at the top of his game. Shadow Season takes elements of gothic horror and the haunted house story and mixes them with a crime story, coming up with a sure-fire end of the year top 10 book. Piccirilli revels in the challenge of the situations that his blind protagonist finds himself in, using sensory details, mental imagery, and memory in wholly unique ways that double down with an extra emotional resonance. I would even go so far as to say that one of the chapters, where Finn meets his wife for the first time, is perfectly written. The chapter is as carefully written and deeply felt a showcase of skills as you are likely to find anywhere, making astute observations with a clarity of vision that cuts right to the heart of the  characters and situation. In many ways it’s a microcosm for his skill set at large and proves that he has an O’Nan-like ability to willingly turn and face emotional confrontation rather then avoid it or simplify it like a lot of other crime fiction does.

Not only does Tom Piccirilli have a fierce imagination, but he also has the skills to back it up.

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Sweets, The Creed of Violence and The Water’s Edge | The Electric Mayhem

sweets and other storiesSweets and other stories by Andre Williams

Andre Williams is a 70-something blues musician who went into rehab and wrote this book for its therapeutic value. It contains a novella, a short story, and a couple of song-poem things. The title story is the novella, and it’s a raucous, bawdy affair that is just like an Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines tale. As per the usual for these street books, you have to be willing to overlook the lack of copy-editing, but you just fall right into the book’s rhythms soon enough. The title story, Sweets, is unlike any other crime story out there at the moment because of the central character. She gets thrown out of her mother’s house for being pregnant and then, in an effort to make money, becomes a drug kingpin. The gender switch on a rising to power crime tale is, quite frankly, a revelation. Williams did a hell of a thing here and it is more then worth your time.

Sweets is being published by a record company, and the only way to get it is from them.

creed of violenceThe Creed of Violence by Boston Teran

The Creed of Violence is the 6th book by the John Twelve Hawks of the crime genre. This 20th-century western focuses on the binary opposites of a father and son who find themselves on the same path with a common goal. The complexities of their relationship (the father abandoned the mother and son) manifest themselves as an underlying current of violence and hostility that is always present and just below the service, waiting to erupt. Whether they can or will work through their history is almost never really an option, which lends a tone that is fraught with tension to the book. The Creed of Violence exudes an atmosphere that gets progressively more claustrophobic the deeper into Mexico the characters travel.

waters edgeThe Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

This was my first Karen Fossum book and was a great introduction to her work. Finding out whodunit isn’t the point here, as Fossum casts a far wider net. The Water’s Edge is really about the ways that a community tries to deal with a horrific crime. Particularly in a country where violent crimes are not of the norm. All of the characters are nuanced and real as they try to come to grips with not only the act itself but also its close proximity to them.

The Water’s Edge is interesting, well written, and thoughtful, and I look forward to reading more of Fossum’s work.

Does True A.I. Exist in Video Games?

Before I delve too far into this op-ed piece, I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not a programmer, nor am I involved in any higher form of computer science, computer languages, or modern A.I. theory. But I dare to speak on these things because I am a gamer, a writer, and have experienced the results of A.I. numerous times in my 32 years at the controller.

AI_1

A.I. – Artificial Intelligence…the imitation of life, choice, and behavior. A.I. is programmed into almost every aspect of a video game, from the way non-playable characters (NPCs) act, interact, and react in the world around them to the paths birds fly across the sky. As video games become more and more complex, A.I. systems follow suit. More microprocessors and raw processing power means additional layers of computation, random patterns, and simulations of emotional responses. But does A.I. boil down to basic pre-programming, void of emotion and reasoning? Or can the video game some day give us a real emotional experience just like another human can? The short and sweet point of this article is to spark a discussion. I’m coming at it from one angle, but if there are any computer science gurus out there who have worked on A.I. algorithms and programming, I’m inviting you to speak up and add your knowledge to this discussion.

The goal of this article does not include upsetting or offending programmers, because as I stated above, I am not a programmer and can only imagine the complexities involved with such systems. Not all A.I. systems are created equal, however, and in video games it seems like there are no standards in place.

For example, there is a popular physics engine known as the Havok engine. For Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, developer Naughty Dog admitted they used their own proprietary physics engine, but for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, they switched to the Havok engine “standard” because it allowed them to do so much more without reinventing the wheel. Apply that to A.I. and I must ask…why isn’t there a standard A.I. toolset or system that developers can implement? Is it possible? Sure, there would still need to be customization and such, but what’s preventing a baseline system of A.I. that has proven itself to work realistically at all levels of difficulty? I will note here that Havok also has an A.I. engine product, which appears to offer the same baseline standard as their physics engine.

Valve’s Half-Life shooter game revolutionized the way A.I. opponents reacted to the player, and the engine continues to impress gamers to this day in subsequent installments. But then there’s Infinity Ward’s A.I. system in Call of Duty that receives constant criticism, even (and especially) in their latest, Modern Warfare 2, where it’s worth noting that enemies will literally turn their backs to the players out in the open, not toss grenades back, and basically pull all sorts of nonsense that comes off as cheap, cheating tricks rather than actual “intelligence.”

And I must complain a bit about the term “A.I.” as it’s used in video games versus academia. In the latter, the field of A.I., to my understanding, is much more complex than in the former. Academic A.I. in its truest definition deals with machine learning, the ability to reason and to learn, application of logic to real-world scenarios and conditions, robotics, etc. In gaming, it seems that A.I. does the lowest possible set of surface illusions to enable the game to be enjoyable and nothing more, dealing with scripted events rather than portraying true “intelligence.”

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This finally brings me to some game examples…more like genre-specific examples. I intended on calling some games out in full detail, but I decided against that for obvious reasons. Instead, I wanted to discuss the differences in A.I. systems between genres like Adventure and First Person Shooter (Action genre). FPS games are almost always more combat focused than adventure games, even though adventure games can include gun play elements. Combat A.I. systems are a different beast. I refer to this article I found as a reference, which is a fantastic read for those interested: http://ai-depot.com/GameAI/Design.html. In this piece, the author notes the following:

Combat AI’s have plenty of room for improvement before they even get closed to replacing human opponents. Even though combat AI’s can dodge incoming fire and shoot like a pro, there are four major things that human combatants offer over AI: knowledge of their environment, efficient use of teamwork, the ability to “hunt,” and survival instincts.

Is this why multiplayer modes in FPS games are wildly more popular than any single player campaign offering? I think the answer to this is most vehemently “Yes,” or even “Hell yes, B.T.!” It stands to reason that human players prefer human opponents. Honestly, with my experience with FPS, this is the biggest factor in why I don’t enjoy them as much. Multiplayer is fun, but it’s rarely a deep and lasting game experience for me. That’s personal opinion and preference, I get it, but playing through the storyline in FPS games is an exercise in frustration because of lackluster combat A.I.

With combat A.I. systems, a tougher difficulty is represented by tougher enemies, less health for the player, and impeccable accuracy for the opponents, not to mention feats of shooting no human could ever hope to achieve (using a close quarter weapon from 400 yards away while running, for example). So does a tougher difficulty setting simply mean that the A.I. system cheats? In a word: yes. Game developers, because of time and money, simply take the baseline A.I. engine that powers the normal difficulty setting, and make small tweaks and then say it’s “higher difficulty.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be challenged by smart A.I., not cheap A.I. Flank me, use pack tactics, toss grenades into my hiding spots if I decide to hang back and camp…but don’t shoot me from impossible angles while on the run from a distance that would rival any human potential every single time.

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But do all games exhibit this level of what passes for “intelligence”? No, they don’t. Games like Uncharted and Uncharted 2 are challenging on Crushing Difficulty, but the frustration level was 150% less (for me). Perhaps it’s the nature of the games, sure, but ultimately I think it’s because of developer prowess. Uncharted is a series solely dedicated to the single player experience, while Call of Duty is not, or at least isn’t any longer (I argue that it used to be). Some will say that my skills are in question or that I suck, and that’s fine, I will accept the fallout from this. I don’t mind a good challenge if you’re pitting my wits against yours (the developers’), but if you’re pitting me against try-fail cheat scenarios with less health and insurmountable odds, that’s when I squawk. I’m not a programmer, I’m not an A.I. algorithm creator, but I believe there must be a better way. What do you think?

47 Miles of Barbed Wire: Back to Regulate Like Warren G.

WARREN G

Friends, I have to tell you something important–this was almost my last column. I was going to resign, kind of, in a weaselish manner, or something like that. Just wasn’t feeling it anymore, having some personal and professional issues, all that stuff.

Most of all, though, I was thinking that music criticism didn’t really matter in this day and age. I mean, in a world where Susan Boyle sells more records than [insert cognoscenti-favored but poor-selling musical act here]…. But then some people started to mess with me and my critic posse. No one messes with my posse, even the ones that piss me off.

It’s so on now it might as well be called “Beyoncé Songs at the Homecoming Dance.”

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Notes from New Sodom | The Marriage(s) of Science Fiction / Fantasy by Hal Duncan

The Great Debate

“The question of whether a certain story of imagination is a fantasy or a science fiction work would depend upon the device the author uses to explain his projected or unreal world. If he uses the gimmick or device of saying: ‘This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but suspected,’ then one could call it science fiction. But if he asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say: ‘Here is a fairy tale I’m going to tell you,’ then it is fantasy. It could actually be the same story.”
Sam J. Lundwall

Down in the ghetto of Genre, in the SF Café that is our literary salon, in this scene of zines and forums, conventions and clubs, there’s a Great Debate that kicks off every so often. The diversity of the clientele maps to a diversity of opinions — convictions, even — and few of these are as contentious as those addressing the differences or lack thereof between science fiction and fantasy. To be fair, the taxonomy of literary genres is a game that appeals to the geek in me as much as anyone, but the diversity we’re dealing with in the SF Café is obscured by the very word genre, its meaning muddled by a conflation of openly-defined aesthetic idioms with conventional forms that are closely-defined and marketing categories that are all but empty of definition.

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The Road | movie review

the road

The Road is, unfortunately, a boring movie, and the title might as well be Sittin’ Round the Campfire. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is one of the very best books of the decade, and this adaptation falls flat for about half the running time. There are good actors, moments, and visuals, but the whole isn’t more the sum of its parts. Viggo Mortensen puts in his patented perfect performance, and he carries the movie as far as his considerable talent can, but he is only one man, and can’t make up for the shortcomings of the director and writers.

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (PS3) – First Impressions Review

The Call of Duty series has been breaking new ground ever since the series hit gamers in 2003. Published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward, Call of Duty blew the lid off the first person shooter (FPS) genre in ways few games in the genre have ever accomplished. The story behind Infinity Ward and how they came to be is an enlightening one, a story you’d all enjoy reading if you care enough about drama in the gaming industry. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but the gist is that Infinity Ward was formed in 2002 by 22 employees of 2015, Inc., the developer behind the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault game. But since the emergence of Infinity Ward, the Call of Duty series fast overtook the top spot among war-based FPS and has set the bar continually ever since…wait, there’s a bit more. Activision decided to farm out the series to another developer, Treyarch, a game developer acquired in 2001 and merged with Gray Matter Interactive. Treyarch developed Call of Duty 3 at the behest of Activision, which caused upheavel at Infinity Ward, who were upset that a numbered sequel was given to another developer.

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Joe Abercrombie, Best Served Cold | Interview

joe_abercrombie_colour2_72dpiJoe Abercrombie is the author of the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold.  I have been a fan since the first book in the First Law found me in a bookstore, so I was very excited to ask him a few questions.  We talk shop on everything from doing research for fantasy books to the inspiration behind his next book to his favorite curse word and more.

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