Year: 2009

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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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?

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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Heat Wave by Richard Castle | Book Review

Heat Wave by Richard CastleNew York City is in the grip of a heat wave, and Detective Nicki Heat is in the grip of a stubborn case.  Real estate mogul Matthew Starr was pitched from his balcony, and the only suspects either have alibis or could not have accessed his apartment at the time of the murder.  The case gets more complicated when a second body enters the mix along with a multi-million dollar art theft.  And, as if things weren’t complicated enough, Detective Heat has a ride-along with her on this case:  Pulitzer-winning journalist Jameson Rook….

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