Tag Archives: Science Fiction

I attend Escape Velocity 2018 (local)


There’s a sort of STEM training/Science Fair/Science Fiction convention in the building mode that hits right at Memorial Day every year called ESCAPE VELOCITY.  EV is now in its third year.  The people putting this on are the “Science Fiction Museum” The location is the Gaylord Hotel and Convention center, which is a huge facility located right on the DC Waterfront, near the Woodrow Wilson bridge over the Potomac.  The Gaylord is huge and ponderous– there were other events going on all weekend and the plethora of weddings and small events hardly noticed the weirdos in steampunk, anime and furry costumes sprinkled all over their lobby.  That’s one issue I have with this venue– the convention programming was divided into two major chunks– exhibitors in one hall that was almost as far away from the lobby as  you can possibly walk, and the standard panel discussions, art shows, movie programs, and receptions areas sort of most of the hotel in the other direction.

Escape Velocity is billed as being mostly educational:

Escape Velocity is a futuristic world’s fair to promote STEAM education within the context of science fiction using the fun of comic cons and fascination of science and engineering festivals.

Credit: Escape Velocity Website

This is the second time I have visited, but the first time I really gave it a hard look, so why not post about it?

Front

Back.  Open the pod bay doors, Hal

As the main instigator of ESCAPE VELOCITY is the Washington DC Museum of Science Fiction, you might expect that movie memorabilia and replicas would play a big part of the programming, and you would be right. The major displays were in the Museum display room (upstairs) and the larger pieces, like the 2001 pod you see above, were in the Exhibitor’s Hall. There were a lot of 2001 props at the convention, as the movie recently experienced its 50th anniversary.

Escape Velocity maintains a kind of smallish “museum of props” on display, many of which are remakes with more modern materials (some of the original stuff is falling apart).  Personally I don’t mind viewing remakes vice originals because the originals can get pretty ratty.  I remember Forrest J. Ackerman maintained a traveling road show museum of movie props and it was amazing how beaten up they looked up close, and that was 20 years ago.

Props and Costumes

Spacesuit, 2001

Spacesuit, Alien

Discovery One model from 2001

HAL 9000 display from 2001

Deckard’s coat, BLADE RUNNER

Ghostbusters Wagon, Ghost Busters

There certainly was some fan boy elements there and the Cosplay part of the program is really growing by leaps and bounds. Of note were the gangs of ghost-busters, contingents of HALO marines, raftloads of Reys from the last two Star Wars films (we kept a count and stopped at 10– it must be a very empowering costume).

March of the HALO guys, back

March of the HALO guys, front

Home made HALO cart

I have no idea how this guy managed walking.

The logistics of this outfit are mindblowing

Programming

Honestly, I didn’t see any panel discussions I felt like attending.  That were convenient to my schedule, anyway.  I like panel discussions but there aren’t a lot of them at EV and it seemed many of them were about the practical realities of cosplay.  I expect this will be a growth area for future conventions.  There was a film program like you might expect at a SF con; however the show times were sporadic and spread out.. no 24 hour film marathons.  I suspect this is a matter of not having enough volunteers.  Of course, there was a costume contest.  No comments on any of this stuff as I really didn’t attend any.

There was some Gaming

One of the big draws for me this year was the Cosmic Experience put on by Fantasy Flight Games. The designers of COSMIC ENCOUNTER (my favorite boardgame of all time) got together to bring a CE museum to the convention (all the versions of the venerable game that have existed over the years) and to run demonstration games for FFG, as well as demo the new rulebooks. Best of all, Peter Olotka, one of the original designers and Greg Olotka, who has been instrumental in bringing online play into fruition were both present! Since I’ve kind of known them online for a long time it was a real pleasure to meet them in the flesh.

Peter Olotka, talking to the FFG coordinator

The Earliest prototype of Cosmic Encounter, sent to Parker Brothers in 1973, I think, called UNIVERSE

some of the many versions of this game published over the years

Peter demonstrates “you’re never too old to get your butt kicked by kids playing your own game”

Greg Olotka kindly allowed me to take over his game using tabletop simulator.  The “Bill” there is BILL EBERLE, one of the three original designers!

Playing CE using Tabletop Simulator, which I actually own.

I didn’t win.  I went for a joint win with some English guy late in the game and naturally, he shivved me!  It is to laugh!

You can see the after action streaming video of this game on FACEBOOK as it was on Facebook Live at the time. You may need to be on Facebook, I don’t know. I was the orange VIRUS player. I took over from Greg Olotka, who was the SNEAK before the game I played in. They have me listed as the SNEAK, erroneously.

FFG, come back next year!  I would have gladly seen a demo of Star Wars Legions and played in an Armada tournament!  You have a captive audience!

Some organization was maintaining a game library.. for checking games out and playing at a cafe table area. Great idea! I hope that repeats for next year. I know that Steve Jackson Games was going to have a demo team showing off some variant of OGRE at this convention but it wasn’t at a convenient time for me. I would have enjoyed that. This might be a good convention for Games Club of Maryland, NOVAG, and Looney Labs to get involved in. They are all local and have a great attitude.

The Exhibitor Hall

This had a little bit of everything in it.. NASA displays, informational and educational handouts from dozens of organizations, movie props galore, a major presence by Tesla Motors (who had a demo model on site).

One thing they didn’t have very many of was actual vendors. You know, I like books, and a SF con is one of those places where I’m happy to plunk down money for actual printed, non e-book books from book vendors.. and there were only two of those present, and nothing with a huge selection. Still, I did buy something! Not all was lost.

AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY

Gar really wanted to play Starship Horizon, which is a multiplayer game experience where a series of networked computers run bridge screens on a star ship bridge while the players go through a mission assuming the roles of key Star Trek style crew — tactical, helm, science, comms.. etc. The captain has no screen but walks around roleplaying the captain. I’ve got a game on my Ipad called ARTEMIS which plays very similarly, but I’ve had no success ever playing it because I don’t know 5 people who would be willing to play crew on their networked devices.

This really turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the convention. Our crew flew two missions– failing miserably the first time and kicking butt the second. I loved it.. would even consider picking up a copy if I could set up the right mix of people to play it locally. We’ll see.  Many thanks to David Hernly (interviewed in that Twit TV piece) for running a couple more missions after the display closed, thus giving Gar and myself a chance to play!

So that was the last thing we did on Sunday during the day. Overall I had a pretty good time. I wish there were more book vendors, more movies, more panel programming choices and more gaming stuff. I think all of this could be solved with a few more volunteers willing to step up to the plate and run things, so I’m not going to whine about anything. Escape Velocity will grow into it’s potential over time– if not the giant venue they have chosen to hold it in. I recommend Escape Velocity next year!

Every bad phone pic I took on Flickr

A little actual footage of me playing the Virus via Tabletop simulator:

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John Carter Kickstarter from Modiphius


Modiphius Entertainment is a company I don’t know much about, to be honest.  After a little research I’ve discovered they were behind the successful Age of Conan kickstarter that I kick myself for not being part of.  I guess I’m not a boardgame hipster these days, I’m out of the loop!   They are also behind a series of recent reprises of the Mutant Chronicles, Fallout, and Star Trek boardgame licenses as well as a distinct Conan RPG line.  These accomplishments may mean little to you if you aren’t a fanboy of these franchises, but I have nothin’ but respect for managing to snare so many great intellectual property licenses for boardgame conversions.  Bravo, Modiphius.  The best part? Even if you have no intention of playing the boardgames, if you like skirmish games each game comes chock full of heroic scale miniatures.  Not bad.

One of the largest pledge levels is almost 400 USD. I’m just going to gulp and let them one pass by.

Which brings me to.. JOHN CARTER.  Now, if you’re a regular reader you probably already know I’m a big fan of things Barsoomian.   As my big cheerleading review of the 2012 movie indicates, I was on board for seeing Edgar Rice Burroughs on the silver screen.  I’d totally love playing miniatures games in the Barsoomian universe.  Which is fortunate, since the new John Carter Kickstarter from Modiphius is going to inundate us with what is clearly John Carter (movie) inspired minis.  This kickstarter is being presented as a roleplaying game– not a boardgame with vignettes like Conan or a skirmish game like Mutant Citadel.  That might be appropriate– I could see it as a small scale skirmish game OR a big mass troops miniature wargame on a grand tactical scale (but probably at 15mm or smaller).  It’s been done before.

The miniatures displayed all appear to be strongly influenced by the 2012 movie, and I suspect the deal Modiphius made was with Disney, not the Burroughs estate. Certainly many of the figures look very close to the movie cast with some exceptions. I have no real issue with this; with the glaring exception of the leading man, I had no problems with the Disney movie visuals. They will look spectacular on a table, all painted up. Right now, like a lot of kickstarters that display primarily 3D renderings as the art, it’s hard to get a feel for what these figures are going to be like. There’s a lot of them, to be sure. I hope this series takes off and they introduce the many species from the books that aren’t represented here, like the Yellow Men of Mars, the Thurns, and the Chessmen.

Good God almighty, almost 700 bucks to realize everything in the roleplaying game, all the books and all the figures.. GULP. (squeaky voice) “that’s eh.. quite an investment”..

I love the idea of this, love the sculpts (and don’t lecture me that they aren’t canonical, okay?  I don’t WANT to play with nude Barsoomians, alright?).  Like a lot of headlong jumps into Kickstarter land, I’ve learned to be cautious about committing this much cash up front..  So I may end up being an enthusiastic cheerleader from the sides, cheering on the guy who actually bought all this stuff and playing games when he or she runs it, yeah, that’s the ticket.

I have too many projects already, dammit.  Keep saying that…

 

Embarrassing Design Relics you can’t explain


What where these?

A long time back (about 14 years ago) I ran a game called Sergeant Slaughter in Bun Bun land.  The game puts players in the role of not-so-elite space patrolmen, all kitted out for a hard fight, encountering and pursuing a group of Alien terrorists called the Vilssh.  The game starts with the Vilssh exiting a scene of recant carnage via a form of extra-dimensional gate; as the space patrol squad pursues them down a corridor, the Vilssh phase out as the space station they are on starts to shift out of reality.  with nothing left to try the space patrol pursues them through the malfunctioning gate, and they all get sucked into … something different.  It’s not important what.. what is important for this post is that I developed a sort of whimsical set of science fiction tactical rules to play a game with (I had the concept long before the rules). I remember almost nothing about “Quien es mas macho” and how it was played. I recall it had special cards I used for everything and a couple of dredel-like tops that were used as randomizers. Oh, and I gave everyone rabbit’s feet. I think it was a pretty standard bucket of dice kind of thing, but I can’t say for sure– I wrote them up in a day and never edited them. There is no surviving copy I could find, even on paper. As I was rooting out my cellar after the tree disaster, i started throwing out some older boxes of junk and bingo, there was the box for Sergeant Slaughter.  I pitched the dollar store rabbits and cutesy dollar store terrain stuff, but kept the human figures.  And these cards.

A sampling of cards.

As I recall (I found the little tops too) there was a colored font on the labels on tops, with initials like “AD” “AR” etc. Given that a preponderance of the cards are like the one in the center, my guess is this was some form of activation and combat card rolled into one– and the combat system might have been run from the combination of cards in your hand and the little top results. Just how I did that is lost to time– I have no digital copy of the SF rules (called Quien es mas macho) and I know they were supposed to be jokey and cinematic. I find myself liking the flavor text on the random events cards, too. Why not? I wrote them, of course.

Cards and tops.. hmmm.. sure it’s silly, but how did I ever think that would catch on? It’s slow and clumsy at best.

Going through the deck and with the tops in hand, I’m trying to resurrect this system in my head. Since the only outcome of the randomizer (tops) was a series of Combat results-style initials (I’m reading AR as Attacker Retreats, AD as Attacker Defends, etc.) I remember my mindset back in the day.Each regular card has a range of actions (usually 3) to pick from.  So that tells me there was a set order of actions– Fight, Fight (Melee) Full Auto Fire, Move Full.. all these are fairly evident at the bottom of the card.  So the card gives a list of possible things to do in a turn, the top a series of initials, and the numbers a range of something.  Maybe there was a threshold somewhere.. printed out.. and these were numbers to beat in certain situations.  This raises all kinds of questions.  How long would executing a turn actually take, given that you have to select a card, check out the possible actions, and then threshold number in approrpriate font, and roll a little top an wait for it to stop.  THEN read the two letter result and see what he actually could do.

It all seems kind of slow and like it’s trying too hard to be clever.  I wouldn’t design something like this today, although I still love cards and odd randomizers (like tops?) to play with.  If you can come up with a better explanation for how all this came together, I’m all ears.  Unfortunately the only person who was definitely there and might have remembered how this all came together as a game tragically took his own life last year, so I’m just going to keep guessing.  I’m not going to throw this stuff away quite yet, but I doubt I’d use them as *I think* they were originally designed.  Spinning tops and cards are cool– but the way I think they were designed to work seems way too slow to be fun.

Mega Space Hulk, it’s a thing


So Garrett and I had opportunity to attend our second Second Saturday Scrum Club adventure, which is a rather high-falutin’ term for a bunch of older guys (and Gar) sitting around and jawing about games and stuff while we try the latest Miniatures concept.

The concept for this session was a brainstorm between Joe and Jared.  Both of them had fond memories of playing Space Hulk, the eponymous Aliens clone game from Games Workshop when they were much younger.  Read about the history and concept of the game in this great blog post, the author does the subject justice. My experience was minimal– I played one time (back in the 90s, probably with the second edition) and I remember it being very, very deadly for the Space Marines. Guess what? That memory’s pretty accurate! I was game to give it another shot, of course, and even own my own set from the the third edition that got published sometime in the 2000s.

The pile of expended “activation blip” tokens for the Gene-Stealers grew and grew as we cleansed the ship of their foul abomination.  Twas a long bloody event indeed!

So what makes our session particularly interesting is that most people play this game with one boxed set’s worth of materials, which really only supports two players (three or four if you split your forces, I guess, but it’s not really designed for multiplayer). Since six dudes on average show up for Scrummers, how to play a mega game with multiple players? As it turns out, easily, but you have to combine a lot of Space Hulk sets. I’m certain there were at least three present, although we played with a combination of old and new miniatures. Jared did most of the construction on the resulting very large map.

Giant map of 3 of the later vintage Space Hulk tiles, as designed by Jared Smith.  red dots are doors.  Triangles are entry points for Gene Stealers.  Green is the far edge where half our force started.  Photo from Joe Procopio’s blog post

As you can see, three sets makes a giant honkin’ layout indeed.

Final layout.  That’s Steve “Mr. Tekumel” Braun on the top right there.  Photo: Joe Procopio’s blog

Game play was pretty fast, and deadly chaotic.

Gar and I were on opposite ends of the Ship. Gar was near the insertion point of the landing torpedo. I was across the ship from him. Our goal was to support each other, claim a few victory points, and then bug out when the things started to get all twisty. To quote Luke Skywalker, “Things didn’t go as planned”.

Space Hulk is very deadly.. genestealers can spawn almost everywhere and even with the Blip Token mechanic, they come out of nowhere and just won’t stop.

Each squad/figure had 4 Action Points (APs) a turn, plus an additional 1-6 Aps per sergeant figure, per turn.  Entering  a room triggers an event from either “inner” or “outer” room decks.  VPs per objects found and there were two special VP events– finding the Chapter Librarian and extracting the genetic code of the dead Captain figure.

So the game cards try to funnel you to the center rooms. We discovered the Dead captain figure pretty early in the game. Unfortunately, he was in a room off of a single corridor with TWO Genestealer entry points, feeding right into the corridor. Having this down by MY end it was evident that I should make a big effort to rescue the captain’s genetic code. Unfortunately, all I could manage was to get slaughtered. My priest, whose job it is to extract genetic codes, got swarmed and killed in an eyeblink. It’s awfully easy to die in this game.

There’s the captain.. in a room right next to TWO genestealer entry points.  We got chopped into chutney trying to achieve the victory condition of extracting the Captain’s genetic code.

Fortunately things were going better a the far end of the board, where, despite bumping into just as many Genestealers, they did find and rescue the Librarian, they found some nice loot and a Chaos Marine!

This actually worked out well (initially) for our side, as the Chaos Marine popped in to a room full of Gene Stealers, and just fired away at the NEAREST TARGET..

Alas for us, an urgent message from home informed us that Audrey (my beloved) was locked out of the house, and we had to cut the evening short. At that point I was down to two functioning marines (both of them schlubs) and Garrett down to three. As we drove home, Garrett was ecstatic about how much fun the evening was– “What was that game called again, Dad?” “Space Hulk, it’s an oldie but a goodie..” “Space Hulk, huh? Who made that again?” (shaking head in disbelief, kids these days). “That would be GAMES WORKSHOP, son.” “Wow, man, we have to try more games like that.. Games workshop…

Oy!

Anyway, a big thanks to JOE PROCOPIO, once again our most excellent host, and everyone who attended– it’s not the game so much as the company, really (okay, the game helps too)– This is kind of a new experiment with getting some like-minded players together “of a certain age” and it really is a lot of fun for me. Surprisingly, Garrett is enjoying it as well, and he’s a youngster. Joe blogs about every event, like I do, and waxes far more eloquent than your humble servant.  Here is his latest blog post on the Space Hulk Mega Game.

My pictures can be found on the Flickr account here.  And who knows, maybe this slideshow thing will work this time (it requires Flash).

Thanks again to Joe and Jared for putting together this awesome layout and playing the Genestealer faction.

Playtest Rules for BOOM! ZAP! a pulp SF skirmish game


Here is a playtest version of BOOM! ZAP! a very light hearted attempt at creating a set of workable 28mm PULP Science Fiction skirmish rules for tabletop games.

I’ve been looking for a very light set of rules for running a sort of “Space Port Bar” or “Cantina” game akin to the Blood and Plunder Tavern brawls but in a pulpier era for a while now, at least 2009. I’ve tried a few out but have been disappointed with a lot of them.  What you see here is a very, very high end look at the subject as I’m finding “Pulp” to be a much broader subject than people give it credit for. Do we mean Flash Gordon and Emperor Ming? Crash Corrigan and the Undersea Empire? Buck Rogers and Killer Kane? Do we mean John Carter and Planetary Romance? Do we mean the Skylark of Space? Do we mean the Rocket Man? Commander Cody? There’s a lot of subgenres that are evident, and ONE set of rules just might not cut it. So in an attempt to make a one size fits all approach to a very broad picture, I’m starting with a decent set of Western Skirmish rules, the old RULES WITH NO NAME that appeared in an old MWAN magazine way back in the day. This version has been Science Fictioned up a bit, and I’ve added a very broad brush attempt at Gunfire, Melee, Robots, Rocket Packs and Aliens. There’s so much I can do with this idea, don’t even think this is the final.. I’m adding to it as we go, consider this 1.0. I need to add explosions, malfunctions, space ships, beserk robots, planetary romance, more swordplay, anti-grav travel, and a host of other appropriate topics. This will be enough to get me started in a low key way.

If you want to get in touch with me with suggestions or questions, try me at misternizz@gmail.com

In the meantime, you can download BOOM! ZAP! here.

Pulp Science Fiction Miniatures 2/2


And here’s some more of the same series.

Naturally Disastrous First Look


Here you go, I just received the first production copy of Naturally Disastrous by Silver Lake Games. This is a recent funded Kickstarter.

The premise, as promised by the designer, reads like so:

Naturally Disastrous is a 1-6 player co-operative dice driven game of peril and adventure. Your mission is simple enough. Arrive at your destination, verify the conditions and then set up a long range communication array to deliver your findings back to your superiors. Easy, right? Your visit to Earth is supposed to just be a quick investigation into how the planet is doing.

As you enter the atmosphere massively destructive storms make it hard to navigate. Giant volcanoes, earthquakes, thermal gas explosions and flooding are rampant and tearing the Earth apart and what happens next? You and your crew are shot at by some natives claiming that you are violating their air space. As your ship tears itself apart and plummets to the desert floor you know that your only chance of survival will be to pick up the pieces of your communications array that are now conveniently scattered across the driest most self-destructing climate you have ever seen.

All you have to do is find and set up the four parts of the communications array and signal the mother ship to come heal this planet and get you out of here. You will have to navigate around the perilous hazards, avoid snipers who want you gone, secret agents who are stealing your technology, crazy mad scientists who want to perform experiments on you, and a completely different alien race who may even abduct you. Work together efficiently as a team and you will avoid a Naturally Disastrous fate! If you become mutated, you turn against your former allies.

The game is played on a randomized map, with randomly placed tokens. Each turn, the active player must roll to activate a disaster, and then has 3 actions per turn (move, probe, etc.) Combat is resolved with dice. As each part of the communications array is found, it must be transported to one of the corners of the map.  — From Boardgamegeek, “Description”

So my take on this is that this will be a game from the alien’s point of view, a sort of “Forbidden Island” without the sinking part of it.. maybe.  Anyway, we’re going to find that out as I will be playing it against actual humans in the next two weeks or so.  In the meantime, here is my reactions to an actual unboxing– literally the day after receiving it, so I have no idea of what the contents are.

Enjoy, and I apologize for the somewhat shaky Ipad camera. Most of my gear is packed away while my house is being rebuilt. I should get an Ipad stand, as I definitely needed two hands for this thing.

Ogre Miniatures Set 1 Kickstarter


Color me on board!  At long last, Steve Jackson Games is backing a project that brings back the long out of print OGRE MINIATURES LINE (out of print, incredibly expensive in after market) back as plastic miniatures.  The miniatures are designed based on the originals, match the originals in scale and look, and have been cleaned up and retooled for plastic molding process.  The only models currently in kickstarter are the basic OGRE set– it appears that you will be able to recreate the original OGRE scenario (with an Ogre III and an Ogre V to use).  The models are cast in a solid color, blue for the little guys and red for the OGRES.

As you can see they are doing a great job with the sculpts. The molds apparently have been purchased and the deal with China has been made.

You can even buy a reverse set in the primary plastic colors, courtesy of another funding resource


Original


Reverse colored

I’m pretty excited about this one– and I backed it! I may add on a reverse set, as well. The mere fact that SJG is calling this SET ONE means they will likely expand the rest of the OGRE universe.. exciting times!

DETAILS HERE: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/847271320/ogre-miniatures-set-1

 

What if I programmed a 3 Day long SF Film Festival?


I like Letterboxd.com. It’s about movies and making lists, which seems to be a very human activity. You can editorialize all you like, and share it with your buddies. As a thought exercise, I like to occasionally make a “Film Festival” list around a genre theme.

For a hypothetical Science Fiction Film Festival, I posit a long weekend, starting at Oh Dark 30 on Friday. Here is almost exactly 3 days of programming, not quite in any order. I did mix up the sub-genre a little.. some are classics, like War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man. Some are somewhat redundant, like Last Man on Earth (I’d play this back to back with its superior 70s replacement). Some are newer and thought provoking, like Darko and Convergence and Primer. Some are just low impact and entertaining, like Moon and the Europa Project. You’ll notice no Star Treks, Star Wars, Matrices, and other smash hits here. I’d argue they are probably only tangentially science fiction any more and more like science Romance. Still, there’s some good choices that would take up about: 35 movies times an average 2 hour running time divded 24 hours making almost 3 days exactly. We all know the program wouldn’t be that rigid– we have to allow for potty breaks, eating, time to switch movies, make announcements, etc. So this list would realistically be trimmed back between 3 and 4 movies for an actual 24/7 film festival. What would I cut? That becomes the question.

Summer Gaming Camp, 2016 Day Two


Our second day started with people wanting to play GOOD COP, BAD COP, which is kind of deduction/bluffing game not too far removed from WEREWOLF but very different mechanics. The players are playing either rogue cops that are working for a criminal mastermind or good cops trying to deduce the bad guy. Instead of Werewolf’s eye-closing routine they use tokens and cards to indicate states of presumed innocence. It’s an interesting take on a similar theme.

The big event of the day was Battletech, Gar’s favorite game, and he ran that while I started prepping for Big Danged Boats, running Wednesday and Thursday. Garrett like Battletech and I suggested we add it to the programme this year and see if it works. We purchased a Catalyst Introductory set and got the figures painted. Terrain was somewhat abstracted, one of my old hex maps and some Heroscape terrain hexes to make hills. I thought it looked great.

Summary: Battletech is a game that Garrett likes a lot, but it’s a little too “Charty” for the kids in game camp. They thought it was a little complicated, though they were game to give it a go. They liked Armada more (so far). We broke for lunch and to play some dodgeball and Room 25. There also was a big interest in painting figures, so I did my best to facilitate and make everyone aware of their options.

So a day of Painting, Battletech, Dodgeball, Room 25 and Good Cop, Bad cop. Fun Times!

Ready Player One (A Review)


Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hmmm.. anti-hero geek stumblebum, living in a dystopic future, fighting off an evil corporation, whilst co-existing in the omnipresent virtual reality world addiction that the global population seems to be addicted to? Why does it all seem so familiar? Because we’ve read this stuff before, back when “Cyber punk” was new, in the late 80s. The difference is that the author, Ernest Cline, can weave a fantastic narrative larded with self-referential humor, unabashed 1980s nostalgia and a fourth wall of 80ish geek/hipster speak. It’s hard to explain unless you grew up in that era (I did). Every page is like old home week, with the author patiently explaining this or that cultural relic from a bygone age in the most earnest terms. It’s all very amusing being lectured to by the protagonist about what the Tomb of Horrors (TM) is or how to win playing Joust (TM). That is both a great strength and a great weakness. I loved this novel, and found myself chuckling reading it, but my children (who are growing up in an era with little in common with it) can’t understand why I think it’s so great. So I fear my four stars is for me and my kind alone. I appreciated the world building– having spent extensive time in Second Life, there was much to the notion of virtual worlds that I found familiar (I suspect Cline has spent time there, too), including the paranoia and potential disasters of intersecting real life with virtual life. I enjoyed it for my own part and all my 80s geek brethren, but I wonder if everyone else gets it. Steven Spielburg optioned RP1 for a movie and is actively pursuing making it, so we’ll see how well this story will play on the big screen. It’s exciting enough visually but cyberspace has never been a good cinematic story (so far). I wish them success.

I like RP1, and will definitely read more of Mr. Cline’s work– I have his next book (Armada) in the queue as we speak. I hope it translates well. By the by, I listened to an Audiobook version of RP1 and then read it again (which I do from time to time when I want to make sure I didn’t miss something). The Audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, a genuinely great guy, but he comes off a bit.. I don’t know what.. smarmy? for the material. Just an observation. I like him and his works, but the narration was just a little too “cool kid making fun of myself” for me.

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It’s official.. we’re in the future


Yep, it’s hard to believe we’re there, but the Back to the Future series is officially 30 years old, and the astonishing gulf of years between when I sat in the balcony of the Uptown Theater in Washington DC and saw this movie has passed by, seemingly in the blink of an eye.  It’s always kind of cute to see how a movie from the past will predict near future events.  Usually the greatest howlers are how they portray computer equipment in the future– this is almost always wrong.  If I were making a movie about the future today, it would HAVE to depict regular access to data networks, some form of access and a lot of miniaturization and speed.. how the computer would look would be anybody’s guess.  Back in 1985, even the small home computers were bulky beasts.  I the Back to the Future series, the director included many visuals about future life that were played for laughs, then but if you think about it, aren’t that far off.  Wall screens?  Yah, well, we have flat screen TVs right now.  Using garbage for fuel?  MY county (Fairfax) is one of the most efficient in the United States for reclaiming energy from waste, which I’m absurdly proud of.  Smart clothing?  It’s here.  Handheld video games? Come on, that’s old news.  Tablet computers?  I’m writing on one right now.  Even the negative elements of modern life– being obsessed with electronics, giant multichannel Televisions, 3D movies and Movie Sequelitis.. that’s all part of OUR landscape here in the “future”.  Sure, Back to the Future is a silly comedy.  But it got a few things right.

I just want my damned hoverboard, before I become crippled with arthritis.

The Martian (a book), by Andrew Weir, Reviewed


The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is the author’s first published novel. Weir took an interesting route to publication– he started the Martian in 2009 and once offered it for free, than as a .99 Kindle book. Ha! If I had only known– not that I begrudged paying full price for it.

If you haven’t figured out the plot from the movie trailers that are just now showing up online, this is indeed a story of a Mars mission that encounters calamity and is forced through an odd series of mischances to leave a crewman behind them on Mars. The crewman, Mark Watney, had been left for dead. Now he has to figure out a way to survive for the long haul on Mars– until the next Mars mission shows up. Very fortunately for us readers, fate has picked the perfect person to survive on Mars. Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer, and very well suited to take what he has left (a Habitat – HAB.. which was designed to hold people for 35 days, now he has to live in it for years, some rovers and a lot of junk left over from the aborted mission) and survive for a truly long haul stay.

The novel is really a series of vignettes about solving problems associated with this particular situation, and how Watney bends his engineer/problem solving mind to solving problem after problem with an endless supply of cheerful optimism. Herein lies the success of this novel– Watney tells us his story as a series of log entries, usually right after something goes spectacularly wrong or right. He preps us for the next problem by running through the math and science of the problem and then provides an AAR for each disaster as it arises.. usually in a humorous fashion (“Well, that didn’t kill me, or I wouldn’t be typing this, would I?”). The strength of the novel– Watney’s personality and Tony Stark like attitude to fixing problems, is also its weakness. There are other characters in this novel, and they are largely shortchanged in Watney’s favor, reduced to being the means of explaining the current peril and powerless to do anything about it. We barely get the same read on them as we do on Watney.

With all that said. I loved the Martian.. I mean that.. I really, freaking, LOVED the Martian. I bought the ebook and read it at night under the covers. I started it and was halfway done in less than a day. I reread portions. Yes, there will be a movie this Fall and from what I can see they are more or less faithful to the novel. I look forward to seeing it.

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Future Tank Draft 1.08 released


CLICK ON ME TO GET THE EPUB

I did a major rewrite on Future Tank, to get rid of some of the language problems that arose out of using Tank Duel as the core. It is now a very different text (and substantially different as a game).

Changed:

Double Blind is now “Double Blindish” .. the curtain represents a haze of uncertainty due to environmental conditions. The closer the tanks come to each other the bigger the chance the curtain will be removed. The Tank Commanders already know of the layout of the battlefield area in advance due to satellite imagery and drone passes, they just don’t know what it looks like right now.

Added a “Grunt” as an infantry specialist. He is basically an autonomous weapon unit that can deploy out of the tank airlock and go reap havoc on other INF units, exposed sensors and etc.

Clarified the language on the Tank crew tasks and how they react and feed back to the Commander role. Created a matrix of orders and responses for this, in the appendix.

Clarified Scanning (using the tiny whiteboard/blip method) and some of the networked computing tasks that SPARKY performs.

Added: ORBATS and RGEs (Orbital Batteries and Robotic Gun Emplacements) to battle space installations.

Generally cleaned up the language to make it sound consistent and use the same terms throughout.

I don’t have this one on the DIGITAL RULES page (yet) as I consider still in draft stage. You can get an epub copy right here.

Enjoy. Please feedback what you think and any new suggestions.

Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera #1) reviewed


Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera, #1)Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read novels by Jim Butcher before, specifically in the Harry Dresden series. I like Harry Dresden, but the magic realism thing kind of wears thin for me after a while, or at least I get a sense of repetition.. maybe it’s me. I’ve only read a few and don’t have a huge desire to read more. I like Butcher’s prose style, which is lean, yet descriptive, but after a dozen some odd Dresden novels there just isn’t much more you can do with the character.

So I really had no preconceptions starting the Codex Alera series. There was one available at the library and I wanted to read a fantasy story, that was that. I’m glad I did. I like Butcher’s world building in the Codex Alera– not much is stated but many background bits are inferred about the foundations of the world “Carna”, including how Alerans (humans) arrived into it (the old Lost Roman Legion saw). Humans, in this world, have an inherent grasp of elemental magic– earth, fire, water, metal, etc. The magic usually takes the form of a semi-sentient named spirit creature called a “Fury”. In Alera, EVERYONE has the Fury ability in some measure, save one person, the primary POV character, Tavi, a young boy of 13 at the time of the first book. Predictably Tavi is an outcast and outsider as a non-practitioner of “Furycraft” in a world where everyone is a crafter in some way.

The outsider status is what makes Tavi stand out, and in great measure be likeable and sympathetic. In a world where people can solve problems by commanding their magical spirits to do just about anything, Tavi has to work harder, think, and observe. I won’t dwell to much on the plot for the sake of preventing spoilers. Tavi and various relatives, friends and chance acquaintances uncover a plot to foment a revolution, encounter an invasion by one of the aboriginal peoples of the planet Carna (the Marat, think pale elfy-North American Indian people with close ties to animal totems). Things happen, big battle, satisfying ending.. that ought to be sufficient description.

Codex Alara is good fun, not great literature, but it is most definitely worth reading as a beach or commuting read. I found myself enjoying the world and the characters once I got my head around the setting and the “science” of fury crafting. I liked that the most sympathetic powerless character manages to outwit the overpowered denizens of the setting constantly. It’s fun storytelling. I recommend it.

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