Thursday, 31 October 2013

Film review - Star Trek: Into Darkness

I finally got around to watching the new Star Trek film earlier in the week, and it's a really good one, up there with The Voyage Home & First Contact for best Star Trek film. One of the things I really love about these new Star Trek films is the cast. I mean, there's a much sexier version of Uhuru, there's the classic geekiness of Simon Pegg as Scotty and the slightly nervous geek factor of Anton Yelchin as a Chekov, and this film has got the actor of the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch as bad guy Khan.

What's interesting about this film is that its a sort of re-make of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I say sort of because it is only loosely similar. There's a bad guy called Khan who lived hundreds of years in the past, but was cryogenically frozen. In the original Star Trek series, after being woken, he was exiled by Kirk after attempting to steal the Enterprise. Years later he escapes and goes after Kirk to extract his revenge, hence the 'Wrath of Khan'. In the new film he's had no prior dealings with Kirk, so doesn't have a vendetta against the Enterprise or its captain but is merely pursuing his own agenda. In fact, at a couple of points you are questioning whether he really is the bad guy, then you remember he's called Khan... In the hands of another actor, this might detract from the role, but Cumberbatch plays it very well.

The ending of the film is quite different too, but again superficially similar. If you've seen the original film and remember what happened, you'll be wondering if history will repeat itself. I won't spoil it by saying any more, except that the the Tribble is the clue...

I've heard that you would enjoy the film more if you re-watched Wrath of Khan first. I didn't, and loved the new film. I am tempted to go back and watch Wrath of Khan again now though...

I'll give it 9/10. A thoroughly enjoyable film that I'd watch again.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Old Farts Go to War... a review of 'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi

I don't really like military science fiction. Or at least it doesn't really appeal to me, I probably haven't read enough to really pass judgement. I just think that while military concerns play an important part in a lot of science fiction, particularly space based science fiction, it is just one of many facets of a good story. That said, I've been hearing a lot about Scalzi recently and I enjoyed his Hugo award winning 'Redshirts', so thought I should give it a go.

In Old Man's War, the only way for most people to get off earth and explore the galaxy is to join the army - the Colonial Defence Force (CDF). However the CDF doesn't take recruits until their 75th birthday. Everyone knows the Colonial Union and the CDF have much more advanced technology than Earth, including some sort of rejuvination treatments for the elderly. They much have, because what use would aching, arthritis ridden geriatrics be in an army?

The book follows John Perry and his new found friends (the "old farts" as they christen themselves) as he joins the CDF and leaves Earth behind. He gets his training, and then is sent on a series of assignments round the galaxy against various different unusual and horrific aliens (one alien race sent its celebrity chefs with its invasion force to explain how best to cook and eat humans).

The book is fairly short and is an easy read. As I suspected, it does concentrate on the military aspect, and you are left wondering about the politics of the galaxy, what life is like for colonists, what the motivations of the aliens are like etc etc. However the characters, particularly Perry, are appealing and Scalzi writes in an easy, fun style with lots of humour and subtle jokes scattered throughout. In the hands of another author this novel would probably be quite boring, but Scalzi makes it a really fun read.

If you enjoyed this book, as I did, there are several sequels that continue the story and also continue following the main character John Perry. The next one is 'The Ghost Brigades'.

I'd give this book 8/10.

Monday, 28 October 2013

My favourite SF author blogs

There's nothing I like more than discovering new favourite authors, but an added bonus is discovering great SF authors who blog as well. If I like an author's books, I usually find that I'm interested in what else they've got to say as well, both about their writing, science fiction and other stuff too. And it's even better if they post regularly, 'cos then I keep coming back for more. Here are some of the my favourites.

Alastair Reynolds blog, Approaching Pavonis, is a mixture of posts about his writing, science fiction, science and various other bits and pieces. He usually posts once or twice a week with interesting, well thought out pieces. He used to be a research astronomer before taking up writing full time, which means he knows what he's talking about, and he writes cracking hard SF and space opera. Oh and he's British too, like me :)

Hugh Howey hit the headlines last year when his self-published novel Wool, became a runaway success. Traditional publishers queued up to sign him up to a deal to publish Wool and its sequels, Shift & Dust. They're really amazingly good, Wool & Shift are two of the best books I've read this year. He blogs on his own website, posting several times a week about his books and experiences of being a bestselling author (being hitherto self-published, Howey's clearly enjoying his new found status as a major writer and his enthusiasm is infectious).

David Brin is a veteran blogger and social media enthusiast. He posts on his blog, Contrary Brin, most days. He posts a lot about science and politics as well as occasional science fiction posts. I particularly like his 'science snippets' style posts where he links to and summarises a lot of science news and posts in journals, the blogosphere etc. Not being American, some of the American politics posts are lost on me, but still interesting.

Last but by no means least is John Scalzi. He's even more of a prolific blogger than David Brin, blogging daily on his blog 'Whatever' for many years (he's been blogging since 1998). I'It's a mixed bag of just about anything from the looks of things - I've only just started following it - but good for a daily read. And although I've only read a couple of his books so far I really like his writing, so his blogs shouldn't be any different.

If I find any more good sci-fi author blogs I'll post them here, and if anyone has any they can recommend do let me know.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Homesteading to the Stars

Just taken out a trial subscription to 'Analog Science Fiction & Fact' magazine on the Kindle store - here in the UK it is £1.99 a month which I think is an excellent price. I do think it is great that we can get sci-fi short story magazines on the Kindle store and would love to see some stats on whether subscriber numbers are up because of it...

Photo courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Centre

Anyway back to the magazine. I haven't read any of the short stories yet, but was immediately drawn to the 'fact' part of the magazine, in this case a single article by Arlan Andrews Snr entitled 'Homesteading to the Stars: Colony vs Crew'. This is a fascinating look at an some of the design & planning aspects of a multi-generational colony or 'ark' ship to another star system. The article doesn't look at the physics or other technical details of how the ships might work but more about the cultural, economic and sociological factors. The author suggests that a group of hollowed out asteroids (either natural or artifical) travel together. This provides multiple redundancies in case one suffers an accident, but allows different asteroid-ships to have different specialities and could also have different habitats and weather systems so people from one ship could vacation on another ship. A number of other points were:

  • The colony ships would maintain communication links with Earth system for messages, entertainment, sharing science knowledge etc. 
  • The colonists could work on research projects and other activities that would improve scientific knowledge and provide value en-route to help payback the costs of the ship launch etc.
  • The colonists would work on a large project that would take a significant proportion of the voyage - creation of a world-let that would form a home for them to move to when it was ready and as a backup in case the colony world in the new star system turns out to be unsuitable. Most importantly though it would provide colonists with a common purpose, a raison d'etre, a focus, something to do to keep them busy etc.
There's lots more in the 4,000 word article - I strongly recommend buying the magazine and reading the article. I'd pay the £1.99 subscription each month just for 1 article like this one.

I'll be revisiting the topic of space colonies and ark ships in the near future as I'm very interested in this, both the science fiction and the - somewhat speculative - science fact.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review of 'Shift' by Hugh Howey (it's amazing)

'Shift' is the sequel to the phenomenally successful novel 'Wool' and the second in Hugh Howey's Silo Trilogy. You can read my review of Wool here, but by way of a brief recap, in the near future humans live in a large underground 'silo' (think of a cylindrical 150 storey tower block buried in the ground). How they got there is a mystery but the very air outside is poisonous and as far as they are aware they are the only people left of mankind. They don't know much about 'before' only occasional picture books, strange stories handed down through the generations and the like.

In a desperate attempt to avoid any spoilers for Wool, I'll just say that Shift is a prequel that 'catches up' by the end of the book with the events in Wool. Shift is divided into three parts, or 'Shifts'.The first part of the book is a real futuristic rip-roaring thriller set initially in the mid 21st century, in a world not unlike ours today. You learn some of how the world of Wool and the Silo comes about. The end of the world scenario here is one of the scariest I've ever come about, and is definitely plausible. I've heard people say that you don't need to have read Wool to read this, and while as far as it goes this is true, you are going to get so much more out of it for having read Wool first. So please, please don't go straight into Shift. The second and third parts move forward in time and start to catch up with 'Wool'. By the end of Shift you are at exactly the same time as you are at the end of Wool (in fact I think the same conversation happens in each but I'd have to go back and check). Now normally, I don't like this kind of setup, i.e. knowing what's going to happen, but Shift isn't like that at all. They are two very, very different stories, and knowing roughly when the book ends doesn't mean you have any idea 'how' it ends or what happens to all the characters in Shift. The main characters in Wool don't appear until the final pages of Shift. One of the minor characters in Wool - Solo - has a big role in part 3 of Shift, but this is really good and fills in this characters story which I was really wanting to learn more about when I was reading Wool.

What I'm trying to say - badly - is that Shift just really works, so, so well, despite the fact that the whole prequel/catch-up mechanism shouldn't really work, not in my mind anyway. The first half of the book is in my mind (and in the opinion of some other reviewers) better than the second half, but that doesn't detract from the book at all. The first half of this book is the best fiction writing I've read this year and I've read at least 30 books so far. In fact overall I think the only book that's rivalling this year is its predecessor. Just like Wool, I'm giving this 5 stars on Goodreads. Can't wait to read Dust, which comes out in hardback next week in the UK (already out in paperback in the US), but actually is already out in the Kindle store - whoop!

Board Gaming Update - Dungeon Petz, Runewars and Fleet

This is kind of a catch up post, as there's several new games I've played recently to talk about - new games to me anyway.

Dungeon Petz (ranked 110 on is a 2011 game by renowned board game designer Vlaada Chvatil (of games like Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert & Through the Ages). It is a sort of sequel or companion to his earlier game 'Dungeon Lords'. Both Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz effectively reverse the dungeon crawler genre. Rather than be a hero exploring dungeons, killing monsters, collecting treasure etc, you are the bad guy responsible for setting up a Dungeon so that would be adventurers and heroes can venture in. In Dungeon Lords you are the Dungeon master, in Dungeon Petz you are a pet shop owner, except your pets aren't cute fluffy rabbits and hamsters, but various types of monsters! You have to hatch baby monsters, feed them, clean out their cage, entertain them and so on. Think The Sims Pets, but a board game and not quite so cute... Dungeon Petz is a smaller game than Dungeon Lords, with more of a comic element, but it is very fun. I've only played one game so far, and there was quite a bit of a learning curve, with a lot of bits and pieces and rules to learn. After a round or two you start to get the hang of it, and by the middle of the game you've really got a handle on what is going on. I'm looking forward to playing again when I get the chance. Rating it an 8 on BoardGameGeek at the moment, but has the potential to go higher than that after multiple plays.

Runewars (ranked 51 on BGG) is a big game in every sense of the word as it is a long game - 4 to 5 hours - is quite a complex game with lots of bits and pieces, and comes in an absolutely huge box. It is fantasy adventure board game. You start off by taking it in turns to lay out the large terrain hexes that make up the game board. You then start off with your own territory, and set out to expand, conquer new territories and pick up runes. The object of the game is to be the first player to control six territories containing Dragon Runes.

The game takes place over a number of years and in each year there are four seasons - spring, summer, autumn and winter. You have a number of action cards, and get to pick one in each season. You can't usually play the same action card more than once per year. There's also secondary events that happen in each season - some are fixed and take place each season, but others are more random, and you don't know what you are going to get. If after 7 years no one has got to 7 Dragon Runes, the player with the most runes wins the game.

What I really like about this game is that despite being a big, complex game with quite a few rules and lots of components, at heart you simply get to choose one action each season, so four actions in total in a year. This means that there isn't much downtime. You quickly get the hang of the game too. The first couple of years the emphasis is more on exploring until you meet other players in the middle of the game board. When they do come about the battles resolve quite quickly and simply which is really good, though the outcome isn't always quite what you'd expect - the way the battle mechanic works, even if you've got lots of really powerful troops you can end up fleeing from some relatively small imps! You also get hero adventurers that get to move and possibly resolve a quest once per year - early on these are quite an important part of the game, but towards the end they get a bit redundant which is a shame (you run out of quest cards to complete about half way through). Overall though this is a great epic fantasy game, and one that I'm really eager to play again. I'm rating this a 9 on Board Game Geek, though only with the right group of people.

Fleet (492 on BGG) is a small-ish card game which I believe started out life as a Kickstarter Game. In it, you acquire fishing licences for different types of fish, which allow you to buy different kinds of fishing boats and go fishing to get fish. You get victory points for your fishing licences, boats and the amount of fish you manage to harvest. There's also some extra fishing licences that allow you to get bonus points.

As with many other card games, the currency in the game is the cards, although it is not always one card for one coin, different cards are worth either 1, 2 or 3 coins. The coin values are in inverse proportions to the victory points you get for them. At the start of the game you've got to make sure you get enough money to be able to buy the licences and boats you need to get going, and each boat needs a captain which costs money too.

Overall this is a nice little card game that probably take about an hour to play with four people. Admittedly part of what I liked about it was that we played two games and I won both, but there was a lot else to like as well. The theme wasn't just pasted on, it did actually feel like I was managing fleets of fishing boats which was a big success. At heart it is an economic game as it managing your money so you've got enough to buy the good cards later on in the game, but there's a lot of uncertainty too as you never know when the good cards are going to come up in the game. Some of the iconography and rules attached to the different licences got a bit confusing in places, and if you play a lot of games you might get a bit bored of it, but these are the only downsides I could think of. A good, fun card game, giving it a 7 on BoardGameGeek.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Review of 'Wool' by Hugh Howey

My review of Wool, originally posted on Goodreads earlier in the year. Posting now in anticipation of reviewing the sequel 'Shift' very soon.

Only a few months ago I hadn't heard of this book, or the author. Then I listened to an interview with him on 'Geek's Guide to the Galaxy' podcast, then it was chosen as the Sword & Laser book of the month, following which I decided to give it a read. In the indie book community at least, it has received a lot of hype, thousands of glowing reviews. Would it live up to its reputation?

First of all a word on how it is put together. Hugh Howey wrote these as a series of linked novellas, and when he wrote the first I don't think he had any idea that he'd write the rest, or that it would be so popular. The first 'book' is in fact a short story, and would work well as a standalone short story. There are five books in total making up the 'Wool Omnibus', each getting progressively longer.

Wool revolves around the 'silo', a subterranean structure of about 150 floors, completely sealed off from the outside world which incidentally is deadly poisonous such that no one can survive outside. There's quite a bit of world building and backplot developing in the early books, which is really quite fascinating. The story really starts to get going around book 3 when it becomes a gripping page turner.

Overall, I thought this was a fabulous book, really quite different to anything else I've read. It is a fascinating world, and a good story too. There are two sequels to Wool, 'Shift' which is mostly a prequel I'm told, and the forthcoming 'Dust' which wraps up the story.

Incidentally - this book works really well for an online book club, as you can have separate threads to discuss each of the five 'books', with no risk of spoilers for the later books.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

'Redshirts' by John Scalzi

Redshirts is  a relatively short novel by American science fiction author John Scalzi, best known for his 'Old Man's War' military science fiction novel and its sequels. The book is about 300 pages, but the last 80 or so pages actually form three 'codas', linked short stories that add extra content to the book. The book won the 2013 Hugo Award, arguably science fiction's greatest accolade, but reader reviews on Amazon are decidedly mixed and some think a book as light and frothy as this shouldn't have won a Hugo.

Redshirts follows a group of junior Ensigns on a starship, the flagship of the United Union fleet. The main character, Andrew Dahl, is a new crew member who gradually realises that being an Ensign or 'redshirt' on the ship is a very dangerous occupation, as people keep dying horrible, meaningless missions on a seemingly endless stream of away missions. Senior officers never die however... What is going on?

The book starts off as a spoof on Star Trek - even referencing it in a couple of places. It gradually develops a rather interesting storyline. It's also rather funny, I laughed out loud in a few places, and quoted several bits to my wife - much to her delight! I read a few reviews of this on Amazon before picking it up, the most helpful of which said something along the lines of: 'If you read the first couple of chapters and think it is a really badly written story, then persevere. It intentionally starts out like this, and is an important part of the story.' Good advice, because this is exactly what happens.

A final note about the 'codas' at the end of the book. I got to about page 220 and went 'huh?'. The story had ended and what were these things at the end. Should I read on? I actually googled it and found a blog post from the author explaining about them. I did read them. The first was quite interesting, but not spectacular. The final two were shorter, and really good. The first coda adds a funny, interesting perspective. The other two add quite a touching, emotive and thought provoking element to the book and round off the whole thing nicely.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It a good story that had me hooked, it was very funny and also touching towards the end. While I see why some people complained, I feel it is a worthy winner of the Hugo Award, and am going to give it 9/10.