Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

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Diversion and Distraction of the Gaming Kind: Ingress

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Those who know me, who have played games with me anyway, can tell you I don’t like to be restricted by a small board. For example, I dislike chess because I find the board too small and crowded. I think I may have found the game that really suits my personality, Ingress.

Ingress is an augmented reality game (really an overlay of Google maps created by Google’s Niantic Labs) that uses the real world as it’s game board and an Android smart phone as it’s interface. Nominally the point of the game is to link portals that appear at notable locations to create fields that either control (for the Enlightened/Green/ Frogs team) or protect (for the Resistance/Blue/Smurfs team) the population using/from the influence of XM, or exotic matter. Control of territory by way of insurgent warfare sounds very strategic, and it is, but the true heart of the game is logistic. To me this is the future of gaming.

Maybe I’ll find time to post about some of my Ingress adventures, if I stop playing long enough.

Classic Sci-fi / Fantasy Distraction

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When you come in to work and find boxes full if classic Sci-fi and Fantasy paperbacks sitting out, (Chalker, Hambly, LeGuin, Asimov, Harrison, Heinlein, Card, among others) don’t be surprised when the store almost doesn’t open on time.

Just sayin.

On the Bookshelf: Influx by Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez is one of those authors that in a few more years (or after one of his novels reaches the big screen) is going to be talked about as one of the top authors of contemporary science fiction. His latest book, Influx, while I wouldn’t say is his best novel (that honor in my mind goes to Daemon) it is probably his most cinematic.

The plot is based around a “what if” scenario. What if humanity was in reality far more technologically advanced than we thought we were? What if we had already perfected fusion power, created true nano tech, found the cure for cancer, created Artificial Intelligence, vastly expanded human longevity and physical and mental limitations, and made huge advances in materials science? What if the human race had all these things but they had all been hidden from us by an organization that hides them from us for our own good because the consequences of their discovery would do more harm than good?

When you put it like that it sounds noble. However, as the main character of the novel, Jon Grady, finds out it is far from anything of the sort. Jon is a thinker with a unique mind and discovers a technology that could represent one of the greatest technological shifts in human history; the Gravity Mirror, a device that can harness the most powerful force in the universe. That’s when the BTC, the Bureau of Technology Control, arrives and destroys his lab before any news of his accomplishment can spread.

You see, while the BTC may be protecting us from rampant change it has also been taking all of this revolutionary technology and hoarding it for itself, abducting those who created it and attempting to turn them to its own research agenda. Those scientists who decline their offer are imprisoned and tortured. Jon is one of these Resistors.

Influx is a roller coaster read with a wide-ranging scope and well thought out premise. A summer blockbuster waiting to happen.  I think I killed the book in about two days because it is one of those page turners that you don’t want to put down. I only have a few quibbles. 1) While most of the book has dead-on pacing the finale seemed a little rushed, but that may only mean it will translate even better to the big screen (including the epilogue that I think could have tied up some loose ends with just a few more words . 2) One of the characters is improbably able to acquire and adapt the BTC’s advanced technology and provide it at the most opportune moment. 3) One simple answer invalidates every single disaster model the BTC produces: Space Colonization. The last scene is good and I like the feeling behind it, but all I need is an orbital elevator or space launch to make me feel better.

On the Bookshelf: Bolos

Bolo Mk. XX

I haven’t, lately, been much into writing but since I have a few minutes I thought I would ramble a bit about some reading I’ve been doing lately. On a whim I picked up a paperback that has been on my bookshelf a while (an old friend already well read) and since have read through most of its series brethren. This book was Bolos Bk 1: Honor of the Regiment, a collection of short stories set in a universe created by Keith Laumer that features huge self-aware tanks known as Bolos.

It may be kind of a small thing but the very first time that I read these books the aspect that probably hooked me was the name for a Bolo’s main offensive weapon, a kind of plasma cannon that in the books measures its destructive output in megatons-per-second; the Hellbore. The picture above, a Mk XX Bolo (the first marks that were considered to be fully self-aware), features two Hellbore cannons as well as a suite of point defense and anti-personnel turrets (known as Infinite Repeaters), a bank of mortars, and magazine fed VLS missile cells behind an armored hull strong enough to resist the fire of virtually anything except for another Bolo’s Hellbore. Furthermore, this arsenal is powered by a pair of fusion reactors, and rolling on multiple, independent, track systems capable of cruising at 55mph and spiriting at 75 mph. It is a fourteen thousand ton juggernaut and later marks just get bigger, smarter, and more powerful.

Now, there is something to be said for the utility of tanks this size, especially in the current era of warfare where the tank seems to be falling by the wayside (the earliest Mk. I Bolo was essentially a late-model variant of the Abrams tank) but I always saw it in the context of where the Bolos fought, which is mostly not on Earth. No, Bolos are the human’s sword and shield on battlefields among the stars, against aliens who see us as prey, wish to take our resources, or stand in our way.

After all is said and done the very coolest thing about the Bolo universe is that most of the books are collections of short stories written by a whole host of sci-fi authors. While this does lead to a bit of confusion at times as the different authors sometimes are inconsistent in the capabilities of the Bolos themselves, it leads to many voices exploring different aspects of the universe and as a reader I love that.

Diversion and Distraction of the Amusing Kind: The Killing and Firefly

I was watching the first episode of the new season of The Killing on AMC. We meet Detective Holder’s girlfriend played by Jewel Staite (who played Kaylee on Firefly) who reveals Holder’s “Serenity” tattoo.

I had to pause my DVR. That’s just about as funny as Richard Castle (played by Nathan Fillion) dressing up as Mal for Halloween.

By the way, though the first two seasons of The Killing seemed to drag on interminably, the third season starts a whole new case and it is looking incredibly interesting based off just the first two episodes.

The 2012 / 2013 Jericho Award

Jericho AwardFor those of you who aren’t familiar with the Jericho Award, that honor is bestowed, by me, upon the best new show of the season (starting in the summer and ending with the close of the spring finales) that was cancelled. Granted, it is kind of an ignominious award to win but, it is also intended to point out injustices and frustrations with “The Powers That Be” who decided what shows live and die even apart from their respective, and sometimes rabid if small, fan bases.

This year I even kept track of all of the new shows I started watching to make my selection process even easier! In no particular order:

Defiance on Syfy

I don’t play the game so I’m not exactly sure how it ties in but the show has… potential. I kind of like it because everything isn’t explained right away, avoiding hours of exposition for the sake of explanation. I also dislike it because we, the audience, need some exposition from time to time to figure things out. A note to the writers: a lot can be learned just by showing the audience a map, no dialog needed.

The Following on FOX

The only problem I have with this show is suspension of disbelief, otherwise it had some pretty good entertainment value. If think were it lost me most was watching Kevin Bacon personally end a cult member or two in virtually every single episode. Actually I think he did shoot somebody in every single episode.

Ripper Street on BBC America

Why did I start watching this one? I have no idea except to explain it as the curse of the DVR. So many shows, so much memory. I actually kinda liked it. I’m pretty sure it is a cleaned-up depiction of Whitechapel in that era, but the acting is good and the writing doesn’t assume the audience is stupid. Check it out on DVD if you run across it.

Revolution on NBC

You know what? I don’t like this show and yet I continue to watch it out of sheer stubborness. I haven’t even watched all the episodes and I’m pretty sure I know how the season will end (the last episode is either on my DVR or will be soon). I so wish it had hewn closer to S. M. Stiriling’s “Dies the Fire” type of world, but it didn’t, it has guns. I’ve got news, guns pretty much killed any reason to carry a sword that you actually fight with. Aside from that, the plot is so convoluted and contrived in order to put a dozen people at the heart of every single major event before and after the power went out it blows my mind. Seriously, aside from these dozen people nothing else has or will happen in this world. Everybody is just waiting for them to get near so they can actually do something.

Elementary on CBS

Far and away my favorite new show of the season. I wasn’t sold on Watson being a woman at first but I really like the juxtaposition. The writing is smart. The acting is great. Above all Holmes isn’t single-handedly solving every crime for the NYPD. My only complaint is that Moriarty was introduced way too early in the series. I could happily have watched whole seasons without bringing in the arch-nemesis. Make him go away for a few years then bring him back when you know you only have a few seasons left.

Copper on BBC America

A gritty and brutal period show. The crimes and mysteries and situation seem believable and the acting and writing is very well done. Another show to watch on DVD.

Arrow on CW

Another show I liked quite a bit. Granted, it is on the CW so there is a fair amount of “pretty people doing pretty things” but the action is good and you need a little bit of brain-candy every now and again. It also did a really good job of working in the back-story all through the season instead of dumping it in all at the beginning. Some of the acting is good, some is pretty rotten but hey, how many other live-action super hero shows have made it on TV without being really weak in writing and acting or just  too campy. I think Arrow will avoid both of those things.

Continuum on SyFy

I started out not liking this show, probably because the main character relied very heavily on her future tech at the beginning. As episodes went on it gradually was whittled away from her and the show got better. You get to see her actually being a policewoman and a detective. Great job writers! (Everybody else take notes, Bond has toys because he is Bond and he is awesome. Your characters need to be characters first and use gadgets second). I like where this show is going. Lots of potential.

Perception on TNT

Sherlock Holmes meets A Beautiful Mind. Yeah, I can watch that. The imaginary people seen by the main character are more interesting than most of the other characters on the show but I’ll take what I can get.

Longmire on A&E

My second favorite show of the season. The acting is super. The writing is spare and elegant (Walt Longmire is a man of deep introspection and few words).  This is the kind of show where something happens and it seems at first to be straightforward, but Walt gets those narrowed (or more narrowed) eyes and you know there is something else afoot and the next hour of TV is going to be interesting to watch.

Hannibal on NBC

This show has grown on me. I started off not liking it simply because of Lecter’s terrible accent. I still don’t like that accent. It is Scandinavian meets Scottish and somebody is making him hold a marble under his tongue. Otherwise, since they are going to be using many elements from the books it looks like something that will get better. I hope so.

Last Resort on ABC

This was a terrible, terrible show and I’m glad it was canceled without finishing. Not even the phenomenal actors and great locations it had available could rescue the ridiculous premise or the horrific writing. Seriously, if all you see is Andre Braugher’s speech in the first episode you have seen the best this show has to offer. Everything else is downhill from there.

Robot Combat League on SyFy

I don’t even know if this is a show that will come back but I really liked it. Actually I liked parts of it. I really liked the fighting parts. I couldn’t have cared less about the reality-show parts of it. I hope that this season will serve as a proof of concept and next season, or even a new show, will feature robots that follow game rules but are designed and built by the teams themselves (A whole other show I would watch). Even if the network bankrolls the production costs I want to see teams that are invested personally through blood and sweat in their bots and who will innovate nifty ways of beating the hell out of each other for my personal amusement.

So, who wins the Jericho Award for 2012/2013?

Nobody!

Only one of these shows was cancelled and that was Last Resort and I refuse to give an award of any kind to that show. Really this is congratulations to all the other shows I listed here. I enjoyed watching your first seasons and you remain programmed into my DVR for this coming season. Hopefully your freshman compatriots of 2013/2014 will be able to follow in your footsteps and get picked up for a season 2.

On the Bookshelf: Alpha by Greg Rucka

Alpha

by Greg Rucka

I have been a fan of Greg Rucka since picking up the first Atticus Kodiak novel Keeper on a whim. I have followed him since then and the guy is honestly a really good writer. Over the years he has mastered what really makes action novels work, pacing and the ability to describe actions that happen all at once in a way that the reader can follow along and not get confused.

Alpha starts a new venture for Rucka, a new world and a new cast of characters. In the world of Alpha the war on terror is ongoing and there are dangerous men lurking in the background eager to exploit paranoia and catastrophe for their own financial gain. Standing against these villains, and also the ideologues who would like nothing better than to wipe the Great Satan off the map, is Delta Force operator Jad Bell. Bell, whose callsign is Warlock, leads an elite group of three other Delta operatives with equally colorful monikers like Chaindragger, Bonebreaker and… Cardboard. Okay, I don’t get the last one but I’m sure there is some in-world story that goes along with that nickname, but then again I really don’t understand why the novel is called Alpha either. I don’t even remember the word Alpha being anywhere in the book. Maybe the next book will be Beta or Bravo or something, but I digress. This group seems to be outside the normal military chain of command and apparently reports directly to the President.

In Alpha, Bell must face a nightmare scenario that I’m sure keeps plenty of people up at night in the real world. Intelligence has determined that there is a possible terrorist attack being readied against a theme park in the United States (duh!) but they don’t know when or where. To keep tabs on the goings-on at the threatened parks, agents are placed undercover among their staff. When one of those agents is murdered at the Disney-esque Wilsonville mega-park, Jad Bell is sent in as a park security supervisor in order to be point-man. What follows is a run and gun adventure that is worth a mega-bowl of popcorn.

I enjoyed Alpha. It is the kind of novel that scratches that itch you get for a good thriller that has plenty of guns blazing. Like I said, the pacing is great and the action has just the right balance of technical savvy to make it believable and understandable. I also liked the villain (the only person I can think of that might be referred to as Alpha), his motivations and actions bring an interesting twist the usual psychotic super-villain trope. In all he is very human. My only real complaint is that Alpha feels like the third book of a series rather than the debut. I feel like a lot of back story and characterization is somehow missing (like why is his callsign Cardboard?). Bell also seems to be in the twilight of his career and we hear he has a lot of scars, but we have never seen him earn them. Except for a “badass-credential” scene at the beginning of the book we just have to take it on faith.  I also think it was kind of a cheap coincidence that some of the people taken hostage in the attack would have such close ties to the Hero (especially among the thousands and thousands in the park when the attack goes down). It is kind of like wondering how Lois Lane always seems to be the one trapped in the mine/lab/stadium/office building/restaurant/bank that is about to be robbed/blown up/attacked by aliens/whatever. It’s a quibble but I think the action would have happened just as fast and hard without it. I’m still looking forward to the next book.

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