Jul 1, 2014

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review



Valiant Hearts: The Great War is the latest release from Ubisoft crafted on their UbiArt framework. As the name implies, the game is “freely inspired by events transpiring across the Western Front from 1914 to 1918.” It opens with Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo and the almost domino like declarations of war that followed. Valiant Hearts follows the story of five individuals throughout the Western Front; Emile, a dairy farmer who is conscripted into the French forces, Karl, his son in law who is deported back to Germany, Freddie, an American volunteer in the Foreign Legion, Anna, a Belgian vet who becomes a medic and Walt the dog, the pooch who unites them all. The characters emote via speechbubbles and sparse voice acting and the effect is superb. Combined with the game’s tremendous soundtrack many scenes throughout the game are absolutely heart breaking.

Jun 12, 2014

Publication Note

Hey there, readers. The Weaving Knight has been super quiet lately. That's on us. However, despite the quietude, I've got some cool news. One of my stories, "Our Old Crossed Stars" was published over on Perihelion Science Fiction, a great (free!) online sci-fi magazine. I'm very grateful to them for having published it. I've been on a serious creative streak, and written more in the last three months than I did all of 2013 combined. I might be revealing more stuff before long.

Anyway, I apologize for the stop in content. Neale's working on some good stuff, and I've got a few more book reviews I'd like to publish this summer. We'll see what the next few weeks bring, and I hope that you're still out there, reading and writing and enjoying good games.

Have a good one,
Travis


Lockstep Review

Science fiction excels when it is solving current social ills through the exploration or adaptation of new and fantastic technologies. Hard science fiction particularly thrives on the exploration of particularly outlandish solutions, ones so impossibly far-future that, to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, appear to be magical. Lockstep, the new novel by Karl Schroeder, focuses its attention on the manic drive for efficiency in capitalist societies, and the need for sustainable social structures and practices. His answers are refreshingly alien, too. It's an almost tongue in cheek look into the far future of exploitative cultures, but, unfortunately, for all fun and unexpected, the novel is dragged down by a number of  disappointing weaknesses.

Set fourteen thousand years in the future, the novel begins with Toby McGonical waking up in orbit of a strange planet, which appears to be well-colonized, girdled by strands of golden city lights, but absolutely devoid of active life. Of course, if he'd woken up to a derelict universe, the story would be short and boring. Instead, we find out at the dead little dwarf planet is in hibernation, along with the rest of the Lockstep Empire. Quite quickly, readers get thrown into Schroeder's twisted gubernatorial calculus of trying to keep the complex Lockstep civilization in synch with itself. In Schroeder's vision of the future, humanity has spread out and exists on tens of thousands of small and far-flung planets out in interstellar space. These dark, dreary little worlds are nevertheless hubs for commerce and wonder. And they've been ticking forward for thousands of years. Yet, Schroeder doesn't allow FTL travel into his playground of possibilities; his empire of scattered worlds has to stay in synch in redder to allow for trade, and to allow for travel. How to do this? With the same technology that let Toby McGonigal nap for fourteen thousand years.

Instead of using FTL, which functions like airplanes in a pre-industrial society, effectively linking and entire globe of established nations and struggling colonies by hours, rather than weeks or months at sea, Schroeder builds his civilization around the idea of enforced, entrenched patience. The citizens of the Lockstep empire spend most of their (objective) time in suspended animation—thirty years asleep to every one month awake. Doing so allows them to effectively skip forward in time, while their worlds automate towards establishment and commercial success. The Lockstep spends so much time asleep that, between the time Toby first vanished, some several hundred years into the second millennium AD, and fourteen thousand years later, only forty or so (subjective) years have elapsed in the Lockstep Empire. It's an idea that's hard to wrap your head around, and the novel, in classic hard SF fashion, takes its time unpacking and exploring the idea.

Observe. Take a small, mineral poor world, and give it an intelligent, roboticized industry. That planet can be mined for resources, but it might take years at a time to gather the amount necessary for the people living in its cities to subsist for even a few weeks. If those people were awake all the time, the colony would always have severe resource limitations, and would thusly grow much slower. However. If you slap a Lockstep schedule on it, there are then thirty years for every month awake; three hundred and sixty years asleep  for every year awake. In that time, plenty of infrastructure can built, resources can be harvested, and, as a happily coincidental side effect, other worlds can be appear to be reached "overnight" during the hibernation process. In fact, as economically helpful as the Lockstep is, its real use is in allowing a network of tens of thousands of worlds to exist no more than a few months from one another. That's the vision Schroeder be pushing at, and it's what allows Toby to survive as he's hunted on world after world.

That, unfortunately, is one of the fundamental problems with the book. Though it is filled with grand ideas both technological and social, the novel is explored through the lens of Toby. As a seventeen year old, he is both naïve and willful, and like the many Teenaged Chosen Ones before him, utterly insufferable. Toby's discovery of his inheritance in the far future is revealed quite quickly, but the implications take forever to play out. Between his waking up and the climax of the novel, readers are exposed to a vanilla Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist learns a lesson about perseverance and responsibility to others, how to care for himself and those who need him, and conquers a great evil through maturity of self and patient action. It's lame, frankly, and doesn't fit the scale of the ideas it plays out in. It gives the novel a distinctly clashing sense of self, drawing simultaneously on the rich hard SF heritage of Niven and Clarke and Asimov, and on the unnecessary consternation and self-doubt of Salinger. Toby's meandering, foolhardy race through the Lockstep Empire, and his faux romance with the novel's only other fleshed out female character, a Magic Pixie Dream Girl TK named Corva, fails to achieve a balance between the two that works.

Good Young Adult literature typically places the focal character within the frame of an adult-voiced individual who has a lot to learn (though they don't know that). This mimics the "personal fantasy" observed in juveniles everywhere, and appeals to their sense of emergent but nascent adulthood. Toby McGonical is not written like that. Rather, he is whiny, humorless, consciously ignorant, and frustratingly awkward. Good Young Adult literature evolves the context of a dilemma over the course of the narrative. Lockstep does not. The chips are put quite plainly before Toby, and the minor reveals along the way are insignificant if not meaningless distractions; there is no real progression of understanding except the eventual comprehension of novel-specific jargon. In these ways, the book, which I believe should be qualified as YA not only because it employs a teenaged protagonist, but because of its tone and focus, just doesn't make grade. I came away from it feeling that Schroeder would have been better off exploring the Lockstep from a more mature point of view, or even from one of Toby's companions.

Generally speaking, the people he travels with are interesting and dynamic. They could just as easily have served as focal characters, or at least relieved some of Toby's sagging malaise. In fact, most of them are relatively inexperienced guerrilla fighters and stowaways, so they'd be good narratorial material too. And, of course, there are eighty thousand worlds in the Lockstep Empire. Each world is new for the entire team, typically.

There's obviously appeal in using a Luke Skywalker or Bilbo or some other carte blanch focal character to navigate this weird new world. But those are both fantasies, and in the best hard SF, some of which Schroeder's ideas are certainly on par with, mature views open up more more deliberate and engaging inspections of the premise and its implications. Consider Luis Wu of Ringworld, or Nichole DeJardin of Rama II. Because Toby is an adolescent, and Schroeder writes him with a peculiar vigor for willful ignorance, much of those implications are left up to the reader to suss out entirely on their own. I, as a reader, would have preferred more thoughtful discussion on behalf of the author.


Lockstep is not a bad book. Just an uninspiring one. The wonderful extirpation of interstellar civilization, sans FTL, is a lot of fun: settings like worlds lit by synchronized RGB lasers, markets carved into ice floes, and cities buoyant in upper cloud deck of gas giants, leave a lasting impression of awe appropriate to the subject. But that war is tainted by a teenaged perspective with all the social grace and depth of a silver aged comic book sidekick. If the promise of thought experiments about what forms and extremes capitalism and environmentalism will assume in the post-singularity future are appealing enough to overcome the book-long character issues, I think you may be in for a good read. But if you're looking for something more mature, and more meaty, you'd best go back into hibernation.

May 10, 2014

Amazing Spider Man 2 Review, by Malcolm Nygard


This past weekend, I went to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 with my wife. I’ve had a lot of thoughts on the film, during and since, but I can’t assemble them all by myself. I’ll be bringing in a guest critic for a different perspective, although he’ll never know it. I’ll introduce him in a minute.

Apr 25, 2014

Project Highlight: Apoc Graffiti


Just a little PSA for Weaving Knight readers. We've added a page tab to high-light Malcolm Nygard (frequent contributor on the podcast... he made Travis play Final Fantasy VII) and his narrative fiction experiment @ApocGraffiti.

In Malcolm's own words, Apoc Graffiti is a Twitter project "that chronicles the story of one person's adventures after a terrible apocalypse." The coolest thing about the project is that it is done entirely via Twitter. Malcolm is capitalizing on the limitations of the tweet form to create a serial microfiction. Each one of the tweets is a piece of graffiti left behind by Sam as he travels across the country. Malcolm's tagline for the project is very fitting: Sometimes funny. Sometimes haunting. Always end times.

Read on for more details.

Apr 15, 2014

Weekly Roundup, April 6 - 13*


Heartbleed

Have you heard of this one cool game, Valve please reset all partner logins because heartbleed? It's pretty cool, it's a wonder there hasn't been a lawsuit yet, but it's released on Steam with the entire cast from South Park.

South Park: The Stick of Truth has been officially renamed in your Steam library if you own it (but remains the same in the store) in a plea to Valve regarding the recent reveal of the problem that's been hiding under our noses for years, the Heartbleed.

If you're unaware, 'Heartbleed' is, in brief... it's a trick which allows data to be received that shouldn't be, because of an oversite in code. In less brief, check here.

Apr 12, 2014

Verily, A New Hope Book Review

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, William Shakespeare wrote Star Wars, not George Lucas. His first book was called "Verily, A New Hope," and high school freshmen studied it intently, and watch the movies, (directed, of course, by Kenneth Brannaugh), and all is well with the universe. Like Star Wars itself, such promised land is a fantasy, but at least we can still read William Shakespeare's Star Wars. Or, Ian Doescher's William Shakespeare's Star Wars. Quirk Books published it a few months back, and I was lucky enough to get a copy from them. Unfortunately, the trappings of Grad School and teaching kept me from setting down to get a review out promptly, but in the meantime, I've read it, read it again, and again. It's fantastic. It's brilliant. It's what I, as an ELA teacher, want to hand my students as a Shakespeare prep read.

Apr 11, 2014

Review: The Wolf Among Us - Episode Three, A Crooked Mile




“Episode 3: A Crooked Mile is will be available to download on March 8th!”

The game makes sure I am well-informed that the latest chapter is out, right after I boot it up once I finish downloading the latest chapter through Steam. A couple of days and a few playthroughs later and the slip-up has been mended, but it's still deeply amusing.

In keeping with the etiquette, this review will be spoiler-free. Well, mostly.

Apr 7, 2014

Weekly Roundup, March 31 - April 6



The Elder Scrolls Online


The Elder Scrolls Online released earlier this week, on 4th April, for those of us in the PC Gaming Master Race. Unfortunately for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One users, you’ll have to wait until June to join the fun. The game launched with a pretty dramatic and cinematic trailer you should check out here, which doesn’t really capture the mood of the game but looks pretty cool.

Apr 5, 2014

Beyond Space Review


Space. The final frontier. Vast stretches of vacuum shiver with the probabilistic foam of the quantum realm. I soar along it like some metal seabird, my raptor fighter thrusting just so against me, a good feeling. A solid feeling. The black of the void is like the surface of an infinite magic 8-ball, and as I lock my missiles on the ignorant republic scum I’m tailing, I shake it ask the universe, “Will a woman ever fall in love with me?”