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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

[caption id="attachment_4888" align="alignleft" width="150"]The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (ISBN 076532699X, ISBN13: 9780765326997) The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (ISBN 076532699X, ISBN13: 9780765326997)[/caption]

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, published April 1st 2014 by Tor Books, is both a Nebula Award Nominee and a Hugo Award Nominee. As always, before I get into my views on the book, I give you the publisher's summary.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

So let's get the 600 pound gorilla out of the room. This is a story you have read before. It's done to death. But you know what, it's a good story. That's why it's done so often. Everyone loves to see the underdog triumph. We all want to be told that, no matter our shortcomings, we too can succeed. It is a subject we as human beings never get tired of reading (or hearing) because it gives us hope. It allows us to believe we can be more that the sum of our boring, pathetic lives, and we can all rise above our detractors and shortcomings. We can all be heroes (or heroines!) if only given a chance. Pfffffffft.

Okay, I'll stop there. I won't turn this review into a philosophical debate - you're welcome. But there is no denying the appeal of these rags to riches stories. And Katherine Addison, given name Sarah Monette, writes the story well. It flows off the page (or out of the speaker as in my case.) It fills your head with wonderful images and emotions that are not necessarily yours. Her protagonist, and the other characters, come to life as she weaves the intricate web of a court life worthy of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. From the structure of language usage by the various characters based on their station and relationship to the new emperor, to the descriptions of those characters as they present themselves, the author gives you a world you can believe even though the personages are elves and goblins. This is truly a high fantasy novel.

But that is not all. This book also impinges on the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction! That was the most pleasant surprise in the story. Though the court life is 16th century, and the overall theme is high fantasy, the technology is most certainly of Queen Victoria's time! They have dirigibles, steam-powered factories and telescopes worthy of Sir Friedrich William Herschel. There was a careful consideration within these chapters of magic and metal, steam and spirit, that was quite refreshing. Rather than work on the premise of how our world would be if certain technologies had not been developed, Katherine Addison takes on the question of how a high fantasy world would look if elves and goblins developed them? It never took over the story, but it played an integral part and that was fascinating.

It is the alloy of these two genres, and the well written character interactions, that kept me riveted. Because frankly, there was not much else in the story I did not see coming a mile away. I never really feared for the young Emperor. Violence in the story was dispassionately delivered from a distance by the author, as if she didn't want to get her hands bloodied. I never doubted those who personally served the new emperor and who had any sort of dialog and character development. The betrayals perpetrated were by those characters who'd I'd have personally thrown into the dungeon long before they had an opportunity to be anything other than rude. And as a reader (listener,) no character I liked ever did anything I didn't like. There just wasn't enough grey in this story to get me onto the edge of my seat, and characters felt stereotypic.

But that's okay. It was a fun story. It was a feel good story. And that has merit too. I fully expect this is not the last we'll hear about the Goblin Emperor. All plot arcs are well positioned to continue further machinations, and there are several I'd like to see spun into tales of their own. I most definitely predict a series, especially now that the book has garnered a Nebula and a Hugo nomination. I don't think Katherine Addison will jump the shark on us either. She's too careful a writer to make that mistake. In fact, you could enjoy this book for nothing more than the court intrigue and political maneuverings. There were several my eyebrow rose with the mental remark, "Wait. What'd he just say? Oh, so-and-so's not going to be happy about that!" It's always fun when a book can evoke that sort of reaction.

But Katherine Addison wasn't the only artist who made this a most enjoyable experience. As I've mentioned previously, I listen to most books these days as I've commute time well suited for it. For this review, I must say the narrator, Kyle McCarley, did an absolutely fantastic job. Every character had not only a distinct voice, but also distinct mannerisms. I did not catch one single error in narration or voice, and I never wondered what the word really was he just said. His enunciation was impeccable. And in a book where everyone has a title that sounds the same, those distinctive and rich voices were about the only way I could keep track of who the various courtiers were. I will definitely be looking for more books narrated by Kyle McCarley in the future.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Galaxy Survey Expedition One – Log Entry 5: Why Survey rather than Prospect

WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42: that is the only star system you need review to understand why prospecting rather than surveying is the ultimate in losing propositions. It is a trinary system with the main star being a class G white-yellow youngish plasma monster. That at least marks this system as one not to pass up. Let's start our lesson by having a look at the initial scan of WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42.

[caption id="attachment_4849" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42 Initial Scan WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42 Initial Scan[/caption]

As you can see in the upper right corner of my ship's HUD, there are a total of 19 astronomical objects in this system. That includes the main star identified when I nearly dropped into it from hyperspace, and the 18 new objects discovered by the Advanced Discovery Scanner. Now, have a look at the radar display. Notice that none of the supposed planets are visible on that display, and only two of the stellar masses show. That would indicate great distances between star in this system. A quick look at the navigation screen can confirm the suspicion.

[caption id="attachment_4853" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42 Navigation Screen WREDGUIA FB-F D11-42 Navigation Screen[/caption]

As you can see, the two other stars, though not yet scanned, can only be those first column objects at 66,596 light-seconds and 67,099 light-seconds. That's a long way, and a quick check of the galaxy map will confirm the other two stars are red dwarfs.

This is the point where prospectors lose. The common wisdom of prospecting says red dwarfs have mostly icy worlds and if they are further away than a couple thousand light-seconds one should move on. It just isn't worth the time to fly all the way out there just to find a bunch of worthless ice balls. At this point the prospector targets the next system and engages hyperdrive.

The surveyor understands the need to map all the astronomical objects because it is not up to him or her to decide what is valuable and what is not. So the surveyor sets course, puts the throttle on 80% (because anything more risks undue wear and tear on the engines and I'm a LONG ways out,) and decides to take a short nap.

When the ship reaches those far way embers, the work of scanning all the things starts. You feel lucky if one of those astronomical objects is a high metal content world. If two are high metal content worlds you've hit the mini-jackpot. Then there are days when you scan two distant red dwarfs and hit the mother lode (for red dwarfs at least; let's not get too carried away with visions of riches.) This video chronicles what a red dwarf bonanza is.


If you count all those valuable planets, there are 13 of them. At current cartographic payouts, that will bring me between 36,100 credits and 56,500 credits. Add to that my potential 50% first surveyor bonus and this system is worth up to 84,750 credits. That is hardly worthless, but every prospector out there has just flown by this system. I'm not so far out of touch as to believe no one else has ever dropped out of hyperspace in front of this system's main class G star, but I do know prospectors leave when the distances are discovered. That's why I survey. As the old movie says, "is like a box of chocolates."

There were other highlights from my surveys too. In all a dozen new systems made it into my video catalog. Here are the highlights.

[gallery type="square" size="medium" ids="4865,4864,4863,4862,4861,4860,4859,4858"]

At WREDGUIA EX-O B47-3 there were only four planets of note, but they comprised a terrestrial type water world with carbon-water-based life, two high metal content worlds one of which was as dark as coal-black, and a rare terrestrial type ammonia world with active ammonia-based chemistry and carbon-ammonia-based life!

At WREDGUIA NI-I C23-14 I dropped out of hyperdrive to discover two stellar objects on my radar, yet the galaxy map only listed one. To say this piqued my curiosity is an understatement. When I looked at the navigation screen, it was piqued even more as the "stellar" object was listed like a planet. You know, with the icon in the second column under the primary rather than in the first as secondary stellar objects usually are. When I flew out to it, that object was one of the strangest damn things I've yet encountered: a Y class brown dwarf with the most gorgeous ring system. Also in that system were four high metal content worlds (two with rings,) and a metal-rich planet that looked like the center of a steel foundry bucket. That was one molten glob of space metal let me tell you.

At WREDGUIA ER-Q B46-5 I had a close encounter with a close binary pair. Fortunately, I did not drop out of hyperspace between them. They were actually in orbit of the main red dwarf. This was a second red dwarf with a class T brown dwarf in very close proximity. They were a gorgeous pair. But that wasn't the most surprising find in this quadruple star system comprising two red dwarfs and two brown dwarfs.  Nestled in the Goldilocks zone of the primary red dwarf, a mere 113 light-seconds away from it, was, incredibly, a terrestrial water world with carbon-water-based life! I was not the first surveyor to visit though. Commander Thoms had already surveyed all the things, including the fourth brown dwarf more than 73,000 light-seconds distant. Good work Commander Thoms!

For those who would like the reference, here is my updated video catalog. You can select a specific system of interest by using the drop down menu icon (the three horizontal line icon) in the upper left corner. Enjoy!


Friday, April 24, 2015

Blast from the Past – Guess the Game #3

Last week's blast from the past post had no guesses as to what game produced those marvelous ancient screen captures. I believe, as was my impression at the time, few people actually played the game, though it was the third MMORPG published last century. Believe it or not, all its servers are still online and the game was actively developed until last year. The game of course is Asheron's Call, by Turbine Entertainment, though most will remember it as Microsoft's first (and last?) foray into the MMORPG market.

The thing I liked most about Asheron's Call was the size of the world. It seemed like you could run forever and still be far away from anywhere thanks to the zone free design of the game. It made guild roams an awesome event. We'd often meet up and then run cross-country for league after league slaughtering any mob that got in our way.

So, moving on. I think this week's blast from the past game will garner more guesses. It was hugely successful. I have friends who play it to this day. No, it is not World of Warcraft - not with those graphics. Care to have a guess?

[gallery type="square" size="medium" ids="4809,4810,4811,4812,4814,4815,4816,4817,4818,4819,4820,4821,4822,4823,4824,4825,4827,4828,4829,4830,4831,4832,4833,4834,4835,4836,4837,4840,4841,4842"]

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Jurassic World - Trailer #2 Thoughts

Michael Crichton was one hell of an author and he is sorely missed. His combination of science fiction and terror went well beyond the realm of cheap horror. The Andromeda Strain was my first introduction to his genius - the book, not the movie. :| It was scary, but beyond that it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating. To this day Congo lives in my mind as one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. Perhaps that is because I was only 16. But I am much older now and the final scenes of that story still haunt me. And of course we all know his most popular work, Jurassic Park. By then I had started watching movies first, because they never ruin the book. The reverse cannot be said unfortunately. However, I found that both the movie and the book stood on their own merits as great science fiction with enough terror to give Alien a run for its money. However, the movie went more down the terror track than the book did, and because of that it got some things wrong (but then again, so did the book :( .) If you've never read the book you must. It will explain things the movie could never hope to explain, and if you would understand the issues with bringing back to life extinct species, I can think of no more fun way of learning.

That brings me to the latest Michael Crichton legacy: Jurassic World, due to release in the United States on June 11, 2015. Universal Pictures released the second theatrical trailer last week and it's certain true to its Jurassic Park legacy. There are lots and lots of teeth and claws. See for yourself.


There is a new protagonist in town played by Chris Pratt. Hot off Guardians of the Galaxy he should be a strong draw. But I don't actually go to movies because of who is in them. I go because the story interests me or they look just plain fun. I think Jurassic World falls into that second category. I know enough about genetics, dinosaurs and archosaurs to have serious doubts that Universal Pictures will get it right. After all, Jurassic Park the movie didn't and the book had been written first. So I don't actually expect to be bowled over by the scientific correctness of the story.

And as for the idea of an intelligent dinosaur, well, there is this thing called brain-to-body-mass ratio that strongly argues against it. For example, the Blue Whale has the largest brain of any creature on the planet. And though it is a highly intelligent animal (heh, see what I did there? 8-) ,) it is not human intelligent or even chimpanzee intelligent. But there are other factors that come into play. These have led scientists to the concept of the encephalization quotient, or EQ for short, which refines the brain-to-body-mass ratio and accounts for not only species differences, but differences in the nature of the animal type, as well as total possible neuron counts within brain cavity constraints - and other things. Taking these and those other factors into account, it is believed the mean dinosaur EQ falls well below mammals who have a mean of 1.0 (by design.) Mankind sits on top of the mammals with an EQ of 7.4. No dinosaur could ever hope to get close to that score.

Okay, that's clear as mud. Sorry. The tl;dr is this. Just because a brain is huge does not mean it is inherently more intelligent than a smaller brain. Large bodies require larger brains (more neurons) just to move and regulate them. Their Frankensaurus Rex may be the biggest dinosaur ever, but that size comes with a price. Most of its large brain will be used just to make its body work. Let's stop pretending communication of any sort will ever develop in that jaw, tooth and muscle restricted skull. There just isn't room for foot long teeth and brains in that head.

What I am looking forward to seeing are these ancient animals once again brought to life. I want to see Ankylosaurus swing that tail. I want to see the Mosasaur (Mosasaur!) eat all the things. I want to see Deinonychus packs (don't get me started on why those ARE NOT Velociraptors! >:( That was the worst mistake Michael Crichton ever made...) hunt all the things. Yes, it will be inaccurate. Yes, it will be gory. Yes, it will be trope. But it will be DINOSAURS (and archosaurs!) and it will be glorious. That is enough for me.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Galaxy Survey Expedition One – Log Entry 4

I have to turn back. I've already drank half my coffee. I'll need to restock. Next time I'll take less real food to stock more coffee. I don't mind living off nutrient bars. I man's got to have his priorities. But don't worry, I'll be surveying systems until I get back to occupied space - even if I have to ration the coffee... gods forbid.

This past week of exploration I've surveyed 13 systems. Most have been visited before and I'm just providing confirmation data. However, there were several systems no one had ever surveyed. In particular was a T Tauri system, WREDGUIA HD-N B48-2, that was nicely lucrative with a high metal content world, a couple of fat gas giants and four ringed planets in all; plus a 50% first surveyor bonus. Prospectors always see to skip the proto stars as if the don't matter. I know better. They all matter.

The first system of note I visited was WREDGUIA RO-G C24-18. My initial scan showed 18 astronomical bodies in addition to the primary star, but the radar display didn't show much: just a binary star pair and four planets. I thought the rest would be mostly worthless moons. Man, was I wrong.

The first planet I surface scanned was a high metal content world. It was an orange world with lovely white clouds. I call these creamsicle worlds. The next planet was also a high metal content world of Io type topography with a large rocky moon. It had lots of sulfur and past volcanic activity but nothing very recent. A good stable mining world. And the high metal content worlds just kept coming. All four planets of the K class primary yellow-orange star were high metal content worlds with the fourth planet being a terraforming candidate!

I then turned my attention to the M class red dwarf companion star. That turned out to be the biggest surprise of this system. Most prospector think these are mostly dead and always cold stars. True enough in many cases, but now always. Not shown on my initial radar were eight more planets. What's more, they were ALL high metal content worlds. Planet two and three were the first high metal content binary planets I've ever surveyed. And more to my amazement, the last three planets were terraforming candidates. One of them had an atmosphere unlike anything I'd ever seen. The seventh planet has a 100% water atmosphere. Doesn't that make it a water world? I don't even know how that works. I'm a surveyor, not a planetologist.

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="4764,4765"]

The next system of note I surveyed was the class F white star WREDGUIA IH-D D12-53. This is a trinary star system with a class K yellow-orange and class M red dwarf in orbit around the primary star. The surprise in this system wasn't just that there were two terraforming candidates in orbit, but that one of them did not orbit and of the three stars! WREDGUIA IH-D D12-53 A 2 is the first ringed water world in orbit around a gas giant I have ever encountered. It was spectacular! But with an argon atmosphere and below freezing average surface temperatures it will take a long time before humans will live there. The other terraforming candidate was WREDGUIA IH-D D12-53 B 1, which has a spectacular ice cap. I'm not sure how that happens on a planet with an average global temperature of 60 degrees Celsius, but it'll be habitable long before planet A 2.

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="4767,4769"]

WREDGUIA HD-N B48-1 was another good system with 14 (!) high metal content worlds. This system is another illustration of why you cannot assume small cold stars aren't valuable. Six of those 14 valuable worlds orbit a class L brown dwarf. It isn't even a proper star, yet it's got enough gravity to hold that metal in orbit and pay for my extra coffee. Hell, WREDGUIA HD-N B48-1 even looks like coffee until you get really close. Then it looks like coffee laced with Red Bull.

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="4770,4771"]

WREDGUIA DX-O B47-1 was also another high value system. It had eight high metal content worlds and half of them are terraforming candidates with three of those being Mars type worlds. Interestingly, all four planets are able to occupy the star's Goldilocks zone because they form a pair of binary pairs. But the coolest thing for me about this system is I'm the first surveyor to ever scan it. I'll get 50% more money for the effort and a little bit of immortality as the discoverer of these worlds. Way cool.

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="4772,4773"]

So how much could I make from this system you wonder? Well, at current Cartographic payouts, this system will bring me a minimum of 110,400 credits. That's a minimum 1200 credits per star (this was a trinary system,) 2500 credits per high metal content world and 15,000 credits per terraforming candidate - plus another 50% of the total as a first finder bonus. That's the minimum. The maximum payout could be as high as 150,750 credits, though I know some of these planets will not fetch maximum price. That's not bad for about 30 minutes of survey work minus the site seeing. It beats the hell out of a monotonous trade run; that's for sure.

Of the 13 systems I surveyed this week, 10 of them made it into my planetary system library. WREDGUIA QO-G C24-1 was just a plasma monster without any companions or planets and WREDGUIA HD-N B48-3 and  WREDGUIA DX-O B47-3 just had ice worlds. You can find the 10 interesting systems in my planetary system library below.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Blast from the Past – Guess the Game 2

For #screenshotsaturday last week I put up some old screen captures of myself playing Dark Age of Camelot. I was very pleased to see several of you not only recognized the game, but had fond memories of it as well. I can't say I had fond memories of DAoC. I did not play it long enough to generate strong memories - fond or otherwise. I even forgot about that alt Maldran. :/

My fondest memories were all because of the Guild I ran with in those days. I was a proud member of  The Crusaders of the Realms - COR for short. This guild got its start in Never Winter Nights, but I did not join them until Ultima Online: my first MMORPG. We were a role-playing guild in that we maintained a good ethos and opposed evil where ever we found it. We did not speak in thees and thous though. Actions speak louder than words so we let our actions be our role play.

After a few months, I became their historian. I ran their website, maintained the forums and shepherded the screen capture gallery. I have that skill set (or at least I did back then. XD ) It was several backups of that old web site I found, and the images I had placed there as a record of our deeds.

This week I have a new batch of ancient images to share. I have some very fond memories associated with these images. The Guild events shown below are the reason for those fond memories. You know, back then it was never about leveling. Sure, it was cool to be high level and all, or to get the shiny armor. But we all knew we'd eventually get there. Back then it was about just running around the countryside and killing every monster we came across. There were so many of us it was totally unfair to the mobs, and individually the experience awards were minuscule. But we did it together, in the days before voice coms, when all you could do was type it out. Back then it didn't get said unless it was worth saying. You know what I mean? Respect was the code word every day. We were truly brothers and sisters at heart.

Anyway, back to the screen caps. There are 26 pictures. Seems like not so many for as many hours as I played this game. But back then, the lag of a screen cap could kill you. So, can you guess this game? Should be easy with all the mob references. ;)

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" type="columns" ids="4731,4732,4733,4734,4735,4736,4737,4738,4739,4740,4741,4742,4743,4744,4745,4746,4747,4748,4749,4750,4751,4752,4753,4754,4755,4756"]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Official Teaser #2, Observations

Today the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released during the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California. I'm sure you've all seen it by now, but here it is again because awesome. After the video are some of my observations of what is seen in the teaser.


Now for the observations. Some are interesting and some are just observations àpropos to nothing specific. I'm going to use a bullet list because brevity.

  1. Luke Skywalker says, "The force is strong in my family. My father has it." That's present tense.

  2. Lea receives the light saber from a non-human 1/2 to 2/3 her size wearing many bracelets; race unknown.

  3. The Tie Fighter in the flight bay is shooting at the docked Tie Fighters. The Storm Troopers seem surprised - especially the one turned upside down by the explosion. The renegade Tie Fighter is not of the same design as the other Tie Fighters seen in the teaser. It has a slit window rather than a round window.

  4. By the engine configuration of the landed ship behind the renegade Tie Fighter, that other ship is like the ones accompanying the shuttle toward the orbiting Star Destroyer at the end of the teaser. It is a new design.

  5. The first wreck on Tatooine (EDIT 4/17/15: according to Screen Junkies the first planet is Jaku (sp?)) is a Star Destroyer. The wreck the Millennium Falcon flies into is much larger. By the engine configuration it is a Super Star Destroyer, the starport side; it is upside down.

  6. The Stormtrooper's helmet has three bloody finger smudges dragged down the face of the helmet and there is another bloody smudge on the opposite chin. He looks like he's going to be sick.

  7. The little droid that looks like stacked bouncy balls peers around a hall junction on the Millennium Falcon, but is also apparently with the short-haired woman and the Stormtrooper of the bloody helmet during the Tie Fighter strafing run on Tatooine. They must get a ride on the Millennium Falcon.

Does anyone see anything else? Guesses as to meaning?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu - A Book Review

[caption id="attachment_4713" align="alignright" width="316"]Published November 11th 2014 by Tor Books (first published January 1st 2008) original title 三体 (ISBN 0765377063, ISBN13: 9780765377067) Published November 11th 2014 by Tor Books (first published January 1st 2008) original title 三体 (ISBN 0765377063, ISBN13: 9780765377067)[/caption]

This is the first Science Fiction book written by a Chinese author and published in the west I've ever seen. It is a nebula award nominee, and after listening to it I know why. I'd like to share with you what I think makes this book a Nebula contender, and where I think it falls a bit short - or at least where the author perplexed me on why he did a thing that seemed odd and was disconcerting. This could just be my ignorance about Chinese culture, or it could be a flaw in how the book was written. I am not expert enough in either area to say, so I will present it to you so you can make your own conclusion.

To start, here's the publisher's summary. The book was published by Tor Books last year.

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

I've included the first paragraph because I feel it is important. That paragraph sets a high standard for this book to reach. I've read Dune; more than once. And I've seen Independence Day, more than once. After seeing that paragraph I had high expectations of this book. And frankly, I didn't think it could be all that and a bowl of Szechuan sauce. Comparing a book to Dune is most often marketing hyperbole.

So let's address that right now. Does this book have the scope of Dune? The tl;dr is no, it does not. There are no plans within plans within plans. There is political intrigue, but it is set within the confines of well-known and accepted events in Chinese society. It was not extraordinary even though it was well used by the author to set up the main plot. The plot and subplots are straightforward and uncomplicated. At no point in the story could I say, "I didn't see that coming." This is not a bad thing, and I will explain that in a bit. But in the end, The Three-Body Problem does not come close to Dune in complicated character interactions and motivations. There is no feeling of schemes played out over millennia as with the Bene Gesserit attempts to breed the Kwisatz Haderach. There are some really long-range plans to be sure, but not like Dune at all.

Now for the second claim of the introductory paragraph. Does The Three-Body Problem have the commercial action of Independence Day. Short answer - yes. There are very exciting moments about every other chapter it seemed. And there was a variety of excitement, not just the same excitement over and over. Let me explain. In Independence Day, it was all about one thing: fighting the aliens. We fought them in the Sky. We fought them in space. We even fought one in a lab. But it is the same excitement repeated: fight the aliens. In The Three-Body Problem there are four arcs of excitement to my way of thinking. Each one different from the others. Some happened directly because of previous excitement, and others simply made what was to come inevitable. But believe me, it wasn't just fight the aliens; rinse, lather and repeat. So yes, The Three-Body Problem does live up to the second comparison.

Personally the issue I had most with this book is that it seemed like three separate stories threaded together. It was a bit jarring to make the first shift from what I'll call part A to part B. I'd just gotten the characters Cixin Lie had introduced straight in my head when, BLAM, there was a completely different set of characters in a different setting and a different time even. It was very disorienting. But to his credit, Cixin Liu knitted it all back together, though it still seemed more like an afghan than a quilt. But in looking at the title from a different angle, there could be a tie in these these disorienting shifts in time and space. If this is what the author intended... wow; I am not worthy.

Now, let me tell you about what really made me smile while listening to this book: the science. OMG, it was a smorgasbord of the doable, the probably, the theoretical and the wildly speculative. I loved every bit of it. I certainly will not tell you what I specifically loved about it, because figuring those things out for myself was a lot of the enjoyment. But I can say the overall favorable light shown on science, and the overall message about the goodness of science, was incredible. It pleased me greatly as I often feel I live in a culture that is turning its back on science. That said, like any good science fiction there was a point where I most certainly had to suspend my disbelief. But I think it was because I couldn't imagine how that "thing" Cixin Liu just wrote could be, not that it wasn't theoretically possible. There are concepts Cixin Liu explores in this book that are beyond the human ability to comprehend. Seriously. It's like trying to imagine how large the universe really is. No matter how large you can imagine, it's larger than that. If you're a science geek like me, forget everything I've written up to now and keep this paragraph as your only recommendation. You'll not regret it.

That really says something about the research ability of the author and his intelligence. He wouldn't have been able to relate what he described in many scenes without a firm understanding of the science involved. But what about Cixin Liu as a writer? Well, let's go back to the Dune analogy his publisher made. The story might not be up to the scope of Dune, but the characters are more real. That may be because the story mostly takes place in the here and now and I can relate to those people as peers. Nevertheless, I really think it's more than that. Cixin Liu seems to understand people, and his characters benefit from that understanding. Not one character is flawless. I can't point to a single hero. I can't even point at a single villain and say, "It's his fault!" There was no black and white. Even the aliens acted as they did because reasons - good ones. This seems most Chinese to me, and I was pleased to see it played out in this story. It was fresh air in the sometimes stale room of western hero-worship. Don't get me wrong. I love Captain America, but you can't eat red meat every night. Well, I can't at least. If you feel that way too, order The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and enjoy the variety in your reading diet. When the second book, The Dark Forest, arrives in June I'll be ordering seconds.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Galaxy Survey Expedition One - Log Entry 3

I've had a fair amount of luck the last week of surveying. In WREDGUIA SO-G C24-8 I discovered two water worlds. Both had no discernible land masses. Planet two was close enough to the main star to drive significant weather on the planet. None of the storms appeared to be more than can develop on Earth so shouldn't detract from the value of this discovery. The third planet had no weather patterns visible. It also had no oxygen in the atmosphere, unlike planet two which had a breathable 20.6%. The world is a prime terraforming candidate. The first I've discovered, though I was not the first to discover it. My confirmation of its suitability will still be quite valuable. The fourth planet had high metal concentrations and an atmosphere of equal parts ammonia, methane and nitrogen. I think we all know what that planet smells like.

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WREDGUIA SO-G C24-7, a class K star with a M class companion, also produced two water worlds. The atmosphere on the first is 32.2% oxygen. It's probably a good thing there is no land with its consequent plant life. Oxygen levels that high make one spark a conflagration. The second planet is a high metal content world with an atmospheric oxygen level of 10.9%. Both planets are terraforming candidates. The commission I'll receive on those two planets alone will amount to more than all the other planets and the two stars combined.

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Around WREDGUIA RO-G C24-13, I found a planet so close to its class K star the molten surface glowed bright red and silicate vapor geysers erupted everywhere. If there is a picture of hell, my database now contains it. The system also had a large Jupiter type gas giant with water-based life in the atmosphere. There was a second gas giant and plenty of asteroids all over the inner system. It is a system totally unlike the one which gave birth to humanity, but it lives. I still get a kick out of that.

WREDGUIA OJ-L B49-5 is a beautiful trinary system with lots of high metal planets. WREDGUIA RO-G C24-5 is a T Tauri type star. Some surveyors would say such stars are not worth the time to scan them. They are far too young to have developed planets capable of harboring life. Hell, they haven't even finished contracting to become a proper plasma monster. But one thing I've found in abundance around T Tauri type stars in the past are lots of chunks of metal. And where there is metal, there is profit. That's enough reason for my to scan everything in such systems.

The same can be said of class M Red Dwarfs. At WREDGUIA MJ-L B49-3 there were the icy bodies Red Dwarfs are renowned to have: four of them. And planet one was a high metal content sphere. Lazy surveyors would typically stop there, but then they would miss the most interesting planet of all orbiting that dim red star. Way out beyond 18 astronomical units, in an orbit nearly 90 degrees offset from all the other planets, is a high metal world that shows massive evidence of intense volcanic activity in eons past. From its position in the system, and the odd inclination of its orbit, I'd have to conclude this world is not endemic to WREDGUIA MJ-L B49-3, but rather was captured by that star sometime in the past. It's proof you can assume nothing about the nature of the universe.

And speaking of assuming nothing, WREDGUIA RO-G C-24-19 and WREDGUIA RO-G C-24-17, a glass G white-yellow and a primary class K yellow-orange main sequence star respectively, had 13 (!) metal-rich and  high metal worlds orbiting them, with WREDGUIA RO-G C24-19 8 being a terraforming candidate. Such a high number of metal content worlds around such main sequence stars counts as odd in my experience. But orbiting WREDGUIA RO-G C-24-17 A, I saw something that totally blew my mind. It's a high metal world, but it's not your normal high metal world. A picture can illustrate its oddity far better than I can.

[caption id="attachment_4698" align="aligncenter" width="1000"]WREDGUIA RO-G C24-17 A 5 WREDGUIA RO-G C24-17 A 5[/caption]

The last thing to cover in this log entry is I finally managed to hack my way into the Cartographics database and tie the ship's camera system, drones included, into the system. I can now record in flight video footage to go along with all those raw data points the Advanced Discovery and Detailed Surface scanners gather. It took me a few attempts to tie everything in, and create a format that is useful as a stand alone visual record, but I think I've got the hang of it now. In the end, I hope to build a library of worthwhile star systems to share with other surveyors. While I don't have the resources to build a library of all 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, I can do my small part in building a visual record of the systems beyond humanities influence I do visit. Perhaps others who come after me will find them useful. If it informs even one colonization expedition and makes their job easier, it'll be enough. Here is the library as it stands now. Please tell me what you think.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Blast from the Past - Guess the Game

I was looking through some old data backups and game across these screen captures. They are from my days with the guild Crusaders of the Realms. The first character is my main, Mabrick. The second, Maldran, is an alt of sorts. I think it was a shard thing. Ah, those were fun times. Can you guess the game?

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer - A Book Review

It is both Nebula Award and Hugo Award nomination season. I love this time of year. It gives me easy lists of books to listen too and review. Unfortunately the same forces behind gamersgate have also trolled the Hugo Awards this year. The award is like a people's choice award, and it is vulnerable to vote campaigning. That is all I'll say about it, except I will be at WorldCon this year and I will be voting appropriately. If you want to know more please follow John Scalzi's blog Whatever, or read what George R.R. Martin has to say about it, or use this Google Search for other opinions. That controversy isn't what I want to write about.

[caption id="attachment_4661" align="aligncenter" width="317"]Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, published by FSG Originals (ISBN 0374104093/ISBN13: 9780374104092)[/caption]

What I want to write about is the first book I've finished from the Nebula nominees. That book is Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: book one in his Southern Reach trilogy, which I scored for a single credit on :D I recently had a four hour drive (one way) for business, and the audio book for annihilation is just over six hours long. It was a perfect fit for a there and back again journey. I love getting through a book in a single day. :) Before I begin my review, here is the publisher's summary of the book.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

So let's start with this simple observation. If you are the sort of reader who requires closure at the end of a book, you will be wholly unsatisfied with this book's ending. It is not just that it is part one of three. From how part one is constructed, I suspect all three books will deal with different expeditions and discoveries about Area X, and the protagonist in Annihilation may not figure prominently in future books. They will stand alone. And it isn't that there isn't a resolution, a form of conclusion, made at the end of the story. There is. But this story falls into the sub-genre of Science Fiction named New Weird. That's a hard sub-genre to describe. The genre is more about the atmosphere and the tenor of a story than its outcome. The story is experientially oriented, not objectively oriented. I can't even say it is subjectively oriented as the narrators are quite often (always?) unreliable. What you get is the protagonist's experience as they live the story, and you may or may not agree with their conclusions. The best comparison I can come up with for those unfamiliar with the sub-genre is The X Files show of the 1990s and early 2000s. New Weird tends to run darkly like The X Files, and what happens is never wholly explainable. There is plenty of mystery to go around and quite often a bit of scare to share - though it doesn't often delve into outright horror. Betrayal is often perpetrated. New Weird strives to create an atmosphere of suspense and mystery that may end horribly or be no big deal. The point is the suspense, the racing heart, the turmoil of incomplete human perception - not the nausea inducing gruesomeness on which other sub-genres rely.

In this regard Jeff VanderMeer does an excellent job of keeping suspense an ever-present companion to the story. I suspect had I been reading this the old-fashioned way I'd have been ripping through the pages needing to know what happens, but dreading finding out. As it was, I anxiously waited for each reveal, while clutching the steering wheel and trying not to hold my breath. Yeah, it was that suspenseful in places. It was delicious.

Where this book seems to fall short is in character development. At just under 200 pages, even the protagonist was an archetype. The other three characters on the team are also fairly two-dimensional. It could be said the protagonist was as well, lacking depth and having an inner conflict that is never fully kindled. There was nothing particularly worthy of love or hate in these characters, though the surveyor came close. I did have a little sympathy for the protagonist.

That said, it really didn't matter. In fact, the atmosphere of the story was probably better for having such easily recognizable characters with their predictable foibles. That freed me to concentrate on the prose, which was excellent. Words and descriptions flowed from the story and built a picture in my mind I can still see vividly. That's not an easy feat when you are dealing with alien landscapes, strange creatures and otherworldly manifestations. I never once felt as if I didn't know exactly what the protagonist was seeing, or how she was feeling about what she saw. Kudos to Jeff VanderMeer for being a master word smith.

If you are into New Weird, I highly recommend this book. If you think you might be into New Weird, this is a short, easy sample to taste test. If you like good prose, and are not opposed to suspense and a bit of tasteful gruesomeness, you will also enjoy this book. If you want concrete outcomes, stick to Space Opera. ;)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Galaxy Survey Expedition One – Log Entry 2

Week two of my deep space survey mission is complete. The systems I've come across are mostly uninteresting from a colonization perspective. There have been a few metal rich planets. There have been lots of gas giants and icy moons. Most other surveyors would simply jump out as soon as they got the advance scanner results, but that's not me.  To me that's just lazy. I'm here to do a job. Point is, I'm a surveyor, not a prospector. I scan everything down, no matter how inconsequential it may be. Some time in the future people may need the data, even if it's just to set up a refueling station. They deserve the best I can give them, so I take my time and do it right. It's not like I've got anything else to do.

I've not detected another ship since I left Kaleo system. I'm all by myself, just the way I like it. The ship is running in top condition. Even the paint job remains unblemished. There have been plenty of M class red dwarfs from which to skim fuel. I've not had any terribly close encounters with plasma monsters either. I did land in a quadruple system with three of the stellar bodies in close orbit of one another. Details are in the survey database compiled and attached. Most of the systems I've surveyed have multiple stellar bodies. Not all have planets, but most do. Of those systems I've surveyed this week, two stand out in my mind, so I make special note of them here. I don't do this because they're especially valuable as colonization targets. I do so because they are interesting. That's all I require.

Computer, compile special report and attach co-indexed notes. Begin playback.

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