Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

So this week I've decided to finally read Philip K. Dick's classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If any of you have seen the classic 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, this is the book that the novel is based off of. I have read that although Philip K. Dick died before the film was released, the work that he did get to see impressed him incredibly and he even said the film was better than his book. This was enough to pique my curiosity and I figured it was about time for me to actually start reading books from one of the giants of science fiction. I definitely have mixed feelings about this book and I hope I can give this book its full credit. However, I think I agree with the author in saying that this is one of the rare instances where the film adaptation is actually better than the novel.

To provide a general plot summary of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? sometime in the 20th century the world experienced a third, final, devastating nuclear war that killed of much of the population. Faced with a planet slowly dying from nuclear fallout, the UN pushes for extensive off-world colonization, including Mars, and to help motivate citizens to leave earth each colonist is given an android "servant". Really, no better than electronic slaves. As the androids become better and more complicated it becomes harder to tell androids and humans apart aside from a couple of specific tests. Because androids occasionally kill their human masters and escape police departments employ bounty hunters like Rick Deckard to "retire" androids. Overall it raises a bunch of good questions such as what sort of value artificial life has and what makes someone human.

The book raises a lot of good questions, but I haven't even talked about half of what Dick manages to cram into this novel. And really I think that this is a weakness of his work and I've heard that this is a tendency of Dick's books and stories in general. Dick introduces all of these really interesting ideas such as a device that lets you control what emotions you feel, a religion based on holding all life, from humans down to the smallest bug as sacred, and an extensive market in pet animals that cost as much as cars and come with payment plans. Dick introduces all of these really interesting ideas that you could make a whole book out of just one of these ideas. (And no, so I don't get accused of plagiarism, this isn't really my idea, this is from the foreword to the edition that I read but I found myself agreeing with the foreword's author as I continued with this novel.)

So really, I think this is where the movie adaptation has a benefit well over the book. Blade Runner has cut out all of the superfluous elements of the novel like the electric sheep and Mercerism, which allows the story to be much better-paced and focus on the important element. I feel that because the book has all these various threads, many of which never really get developed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? loses a lot of its focus and you kind of lose the urgency of the narrative. I will say that the movie has your more expected Hollywood ending while the book just sort of ends, which I feel is kind of an appropriate ending for this story.

If you're interested in this story, I'd actually recommend that you watch Blade Runner, especially the director's cut which is widely considered to be better than the original theatrical release. The book's all right but it definitely lacks the focus and direction of the movie.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Imperial, by Rio Grande Games: A Board Game Review

All right, all right, I know that this isn't really my usual sort of writing but I promise we'll get back to book reviews again next week. Although I'm increasingly worried that this blog is just becoming a collection of Kalpar's rants considering I went ahead and made a Klapperpedia entry as a break as well. I promise that this post actually has a point though. First of all I am going to actually be reviewing the board game Imperial, which I think is a really fun game, and I'm also going to be refuting this article which claimed Imperial is inherently broken and not worth your time. Is it worth my time to potentially start an internet flame war over a board game? I don't know...maybe?

A couple of months back I purchased a board game called Imperial, which is published by Rio Grande Games and was developed by Mac Gerdts. I had heard the game described as "Diplomacy, but it actually ends." And since my biggest issue with Diplomacy is that it never seems to end, I thought that this could be nothing but a good thing. And I guess I should start this review by stating my main issue with this article which is the assumption that Diplomacy is actually a good game. I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I know there have been tons of people who like it and it has this huge following and I've only played the damn game twice but it just sucks. I think the biggest issue I have with Diplomacy is that it very quickly grinds into a stalemate that can only be ended through concerted effort over a series of hours. In my (albeit very limited) experience, everyone settles into two or three roughly equal power blocs upon the first turn and then nothing proceeds to happen for the next six hours, at which point everyone gives up and goes home. Yes, there is a level of diplomatic intrigue and chances for backstabbing and conniving, but pretty much everyone is hesitant to start stabbing everyone in the back because then all six other powers are more likely to gang up on you and that's a fight that will end very quickly. It just seems to very quickly turn into a long, protracted stalemate where NOTHING HAPPENS and no end is in sight. The weird thing is, I have a friend who finds Diplomacy fun because it degenerates into people yelling at each other because nothing is happening on the board and he feeds off of that. I however have a much different opinion of fun.

To provide a brief overview of how Imperial works, you all play Swiss bankers who have invested in bonds in the great powers before World War I. If you hold the highest bond in a country you decide what actions it takes, which is determined by a roundel. Countries can raise armies and navies, build factories, levy taxes, conquer territory, and pay interest on its bonds. As a nation's economy grows its moves up on the power scale which signifies an overall increase in its economic strength making its bonds more valuable. During all of this the players are also buying bonds in other countries in the hopes that the countries they invest in will become economically strong and make their investment pay off. The game ends when a country reaches 25 on the power scale; the players count their cash and the relative value of their bonds and whoever's made the most money is the winner. It sounds really complicated but once you start playing it actually becomes really simple.

The important thing that my friends and I have realized, upon playing this game, is that this is not Risk and this is not Diplomacy. The objective is not complete military conquest of Europe, as fun as that may sound. Yes, some territorial expansion is necessary to build up your economy, and yes, you certainly can try to conquer the world, but there's an upper cap on the number of units you can field and it certainly isn't economically feasible. The objective it to make the most money out of your investments and leave an country (or sometimes countries) in a much stronger economic position. And maybe that sounds boring to people. I can understand how people might find that boring and uninteresting, but I think it's an excellent twist on an old and somewhat worn concept.

In addition, well-managed countries will reach 25 on the scale very quickly, adding a degree of urgency to the game and forcing you to decide what actions are going to give you the best benefits. Should I raise armies and increase my tax base through conquest, or should I focus on industrial development? Can I trust my neighbor not to invade and hamstring my economy? How badly do I want to spite this other person? Can I afford to spite them? All of these factors are going to influence your decisions and you actually have to consider opportunity cost rather than just "Who should I clobber next?". The simple fact of the matter is if you're going to try a conquer the world strategy you're most likely going to lose. Probably not badly, but you're going to be outclassed by players who understand this is a game about economic rather than military strategy.

I guess what really bothered me about the article was how offended the author got that someone took some basic ideas from Diplomacy and shook them up in new and interesting ways. Change can be good! Granted, not all change is good and some changes can be downright bad, (I'm looking at you, Special Edition Star Wars.) but I don't think Imperial deserves so much hate for (at least in my opinion) improving a highly frustrating game. And it's not like Diplomacy is the only game that's allowed to be about World War I Europe. It's like saying that a video game about World War II can never be made again after the first Call of Duty game or saying no movies about the Civil War could be made after Gettysburg. People who are interested in history are going to keep coming back to certain periods they like and want to interpret them in new and interesting ways. After all, Dungeons & Dragons got its start because Gary Gygax decided to change how Chainmail worked and Warhammer 40,000 exists because Games Workshop decided to try setting Warhammer in space. Taking inspiration from thing that have come before and changing them has been going on since the days of Shakespeare and probably before that too. To say that Imperial deserves to be trashed because it's a Diplomacy knock-off is a discredit to all sorts of works.

I guess if I had to sum up my main points is if you decide to play Imperial remember that you're not trying to conquer the world. This is not Risk, this is not Diplomacy. It may look like them superficially, but the objective isn't military domination. You're a Swiss banker who wants to make a return on their investment, so act like it! Put on a top hat and monocle! Twirl your mustache! Scoff at the working classes! But most importantly, HAVE FUN. And don't get all bent out of shape if someone takes inspiration from something you liked to make your own thing. After all, it means they liked that thing enough they wanted to make their own version.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Annie McGwire and the Time Flyer, by Mike Ziniti

For this week I decided to read one of the sci-fi books I picked up for free with my kindle a while ago and, as usual with free e-books, I was a little hesitant. My past experience has told me that in general, free e-books tend to be okay but far from stellar. I am very happy, however, to announce that Annie McGwire and the Time Flyer is an excellent book and well worth its (as of writing) one dollar kindle price. Heck, it's even good enough for the ten dollar paperback price! This is a really good book, especially from a first-time author, and I'd definitely recommend it for fans of time travel. 

Annie McGwire is a sixth grader living in the town of New Spain, famous for being next to the second largest esker in the world and not much else. However a strange series of events is launched when Annie's uncle Tim invents a time machine he calls the Time Flyer 3. When Annie's friend Mitch uses the Time Flyer and gets lost somewhere in time, Annie has to pilot the Time Flyer herself, even if she's only got a vague idea of what she's doing. 

The thing that really sold me on this book is how much I liked Annie as a character. She's smart and brave and is able to think things through and does her very best to save the day, so to speak. She feels like a good-natured sixth grader who just wants things to work out. She's a very likable character and less frustrating than some of the protagonists I've come across in the past. And even though she's smart and adapts quickly, there's still a lot of stuff she doesn't understand about time travel so she's not some know-it-all kid either. I really think readers, especially kids, will like her as a character and be able to connect with her. Really, having likable characters makes reading a book a lot less of a chore.

The other thing I noticed about this book is that it felt like very easy reading. (Says the man who took on Les Miserables on a challenge.) But Annie McGwire has a very easy reading level making it especially accessible to kids. I actually feel like this is a good family book because the plot is complicated enough for adults while still remaining accessible to children. I'd definitely recommend this for family reading night and if you don't do that already this is a good place to start. 

The thing that really touched me was one of Annie's choices on how to use time travel in a very personal way. I'll try to avoid spoiling it for my readers but if you know me well it's something I've often contemplated doing if I had access to time travel, in spite of all the risks. That whole ending really hit home for me and made this book especially memorable beyond just another time travel story. Definitely a must-read novel for any fans of sci-fi and time travel.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sharpe's Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell

So I decided once again to go into the field of historical fiction, deciding this time to go with the well-received Sharpe series, following the adventures of Richard Sharpe in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. I'm actually familiar with a sort of spin-off of this series, Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts, which is basically the Sharpe series, but in space! Since I quite liked the Gaunt's Ghosts series I decided I'd give Sharpe a try as well. I must admit that I still had some apprehensions about going into this series because it's historical fiction, which I usually have issues with. Overall I thought this book was rather good, though, and I look forward to reading more about Sharpe's adventures in the future. (I should note that this is the first Sharpe book chronologically, but by far not the first written in the series.)

Sharpe's Tiger is set during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799, which was the final battle of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. To provide a very broad and somewhat inaccurate description, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War was a war between the Indian state of Mysore and their allies and Great Britain and their allies. Great Britain was interested in political and economic control of India and Mysore was interested in keeping them out of India. For those of you that payed attention in world history you're no doubt aware that India became the crown jewel of the British Empire so the end result of the campaign is never really in doubt. Much of the drama comes, instead, from the uncertain fate of the characters during the novel and hoping that they'll survive.

What I really liked about this book was that it was incredibly honest about the nature of warfare. There is a tendency within military fiction, even in the best-written, to make it very clean and honorable. Sharpe's Tiger, by comparison, shows you the blood, the gore, the looting, and the brutality of warfare, even in the early 1800's. You really get a feeling of the visceral and brutal nature of warfare which I personally haven't seen anywhere else in the fiction I've read. I found the subject material a refreshing change of pace from the usual sci-fi or fantasy pulp that I've been reading, although it's very similar to a lot of the Warhammer 40,000 books I've been reading, unsurprisingly I guess.

The other thing I really noticed was a lack of character development in this novel. I think a lot of this was because this was a prequel novel in the series so we're supposed to be already familiar with the characters. We see Sharpe get a little ambitious and begin his ascent through the ranks, but other than that there isn't a lot of development. I'm hoping when I get into the core books of the series there will be better fleshing out of characters making me more interested in their fates.

Overall pretty good and I hope to read more about Sharpe in the future.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

So, I'm pretty sure you're all very aware that this is not my usual type of book, just from the cover. I'll admit that if I hadn't been told about the subject matter I would have never picked this book up in a million years. Honestly the only reason I was interested in this book was it's an urban fantasy set in my home city of Cincinnati. When I was given a brief outline of the plot I decided it was worth taking the risk and borrowed a copy from the library. The bad news is, sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, and this happens to be one of those cases.

Dead Witch Walking at least starts as a promising urban fantasy. For most of human history, Inderlanders like witches, vampires, and werewolves have been hidden among the human population. In this particular universe, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to focus on genetic research rather than atomic research, attempting to find genetic superweapons. However, as a result a deadly virus got attached to a genetically modified tomato and killed a significant portion of the human population in 1966, while Inderlanders remained unaffected. With the Inderlanders having roughly the same strength now as the humans they decided to reveal themselves to us normals. Forty years later humans and Inderlanders live side by side in an uneasy peace. Our protagonist is Rachel Morgan, a runner for Inderlander Security who decides to strike out on her own and is joined by a vampire named Ivy and a pixie named Jinks. However Inderlander Security doesn't take its agents leaving lightly and it looks like Rachel will be dodging assassins for some time.

To be completely fair, the book started out good and if it weren't for this one huge thing I would not hate this book so much. It's an interesting premise, I like seeing my home city featured in a major book, and it's a nice change of pace from the usual books that I like to read. The book is very definitely a first in a series and spends a lot of time setting up larger plots for the rest of the series while the arc resolved within this book is a fairly minor arc by comparison. And, I'll openly admit it, I rather liked the characters, especially Jenks and his family. They all felt unique and had their own personalities and I felt like I could get used to hanging around this crowd. However, there's the huge thing that ruined the book and had me feel like I can't continue the series in good faith.

So, as I mentioned, Rachel's friend and roommate Ivy is a vampire. Now, keep in mind vampires are different in this novel, but if you're an old hand at fantasy you shouldn't be surprised at this point. The thing that irritates me is apparently within this universe there is a whole list of innocuous things that seem perfectly normal that are apparently major turn-ons for vampires and make them want to violently rip your throat out and drink your blood. These turn-ons include: asking them about their family, eating food in front of them, getting angry, following them into another room in the middle of a conversation to continue a conversation, and getting scared when they lose self-control and start trying to rip your throat out. And if you don't know these strange turn-ons and accidentally set off a vampire? Well then it's your own damn fault for being such a hussy. Honestly, I equated this to saying that if you get raped it's your own damn fault, and if you don't understand why that statement is wrong then we need to sit down and have a serious conversation. The utter wrongness of this whole statement made me wonder if this series is worth following.

I'm still debating if I should follow this series because the writing is actually pretty good and the characterization's well done, but the statements with vampires leave me rather bothered. Maybe it'll get better in later books, but I'm understandably worried.

- Kalpar