Saturday, 20 July 2013

Review: Daimones (part 1 of the Daimones Trilogy), by Massimo Marino

Daimones is a sci-fi story set in the modern world, and follows Dan Amenta, a chap with a well-paid job in Switzerland (he’s an American who commutes from France) who spends the first few pages of the book getting fired due to office politics.

However, losing his job soon seems a bit insignificant when, one morning, everybody except his wife and daughter die overnight. Dan and his family try to cope with the emotional stress of quite possibly being the last people ever, as well as the practical difficulties (and advantages) of nobody else being around.

Apocalypse isn’t my usual genre, but for my money it’s very well-written. Scenes are descriptive without dragging, the author’s covered the bases of how someone would react (communications and supplies, mostly) and it’s very easy to read rather more than you were planning on in a single sitting.

The start is paced perfectly, building up Dan and his background enough so that he’s more than just a name, without going on for too long. There’s a very good sense of the gradual realisation of the family’s grave situation, and the weirdness of infrastructure remaining whilst everyone’s dead. It’s possible that the middle section, where this is explored, could be a little more concise but it’s not a major drawback.

Dialogue could occasionally be sharpened up, but, again, that’s me being picky. The only semi-serious criticism I would make is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will have to vaguely allude to bits of it.

Up until the last section everything’s gone at a very slow pace, quite deliberately. And it works well. But when the end draws near there’s a sudden gush of information, and the conclusion is very neat and tidy (too much so, I think). However, the end does make perfect sense and fits with the storyline. I just wish it were more prolonged/gradual.

I enjoyed reading Daimones, and would recommend it to someone into real world sci-fi, or apocalypse. There is a second book, Once Humans, which came out in July, but the third part of the trilogy has yet to be released.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Interview 2 with Toby Frost: Interview Harder

My first interview with the author of the Space Captain Smith series, Toby Frost, (which was also the first interview I did for this blog) can be read here.

I’m delighted to say that I managed to prise him away from the tea and crumpet long enough to ask some more questions.

Q: It was May 2011 when we did the first interview, and you said (correctly, as we’ll shortly see) there was more to come from Space Captain Smith. A Game of Battleships is due out in August. Could you give us a quick rundown of the plot’s premise?

A: Certainly. In short, Isambard Smith and his supposedly trusty crew are given a mission to hunt down a mysterious vessel that’s been picking off convoys at the edge of the British Space Empire. Meanwhile, the Empire is about to sign a top-secret treaty with its allies. Unfortunately, the head of security for the treaty is Major Wainscott, a half-sane commando with a propensity for nudism and violence, and the ship that Smith is hunting turns out to have sinister powers of its own. Things soon take a turn for the chaotic as cultists, aliens, creatures from another dimension and about a thousand killer frogs become involved...

Q: As well as writing the Space Captain Smith comedy sci-fi series you’ve also penned some more serious fantasy. Do you think we’ll see your fantasy before Space Captain Smith book 5, or is it too early to say?

A: It’s really hard to say. I honestly don’t know whether the fantasy novel will ever see print. I do have some other projects on the go, so there’s a lot to deal with. I wish I had more time to write, but then there is this annoying day job thing to take into account.

Q: Will we be getting other versions (audiobook and e-book) of A Game of Battleships (Amazon currently only lists a printed version)?

A: I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see an ebook version. As for audio, I’m not sure as yet. It would be nice, as I was very impressed with the audiobooks of the first three stories.

Q: Do you find comedy easier or harder to write than ‘serious’ stuff?

A: It’s a very different discipline. Of course, you’ve got the extra effort of writing jokes as well as stories. You also have to keep the jokes coming, which means that you don’t have to – and can’t – go off on rambling asides, or change the tone too drastically. That said, I think people have a tendency not to regard comedy very, er, seriously. Perhaps you can get away with slightly more when you’re telling jokes, but then you have to write the jokes in the first place. I think it evens out as about equivalent in difficulty.

Q: Do you find it easier to do world- and character-building for fantasy or sci-fi, or is it pretty much the same in terms of difficulty/challenge?

A: Pretty much the same. A lot of the time I’ll find myself looking at real-world history and extrapolating some interesting detail, or using a real story as the springing-board for making something up. There are many broad themes you can latch onto that make good inspiration: the empire-building of the Victorians, or the intrigue and progress in the Renaissance. You end up knowing an awful lot more than you can ever put into your stories, but that’s just how research works. When I get famous, I’ll put it all the extra stuff in a role-playing game. Have I ever told you about the adventures of Old Blueteeth the space pirate...?

Q: When you aren’t writing, how do you like to unwind?

A: I am somewhat geeky and spend a lot of time reading and building model kits. I don’t play that many computer games, but there are a few that really grip me, usually where you can amble round a world exploring. I’m lucky enough to live in the countryside, so quite often I’ll go for a wander in the woods nearby. It’s good exercise, and there’s less chance of being eaten by a dragon.

Q: What’s been your best moment as a writer?

A: There’ve been a lot! I’m always very pleased when people say they’ve enjoyed the books. I also like seeing the covers, because they’re so well-drawn. It seems to make the books so much more real, to know that the publishers liked it enough to commission a picture! But in general, it’s knowing that people have enjoyed the stories. That and the royalty cheques.

Q: Which authors first inspired you to become a writer?

A: The first writers that really seemed to be saying something of direct relevance to me were George Orwell and Mervyn Peake. I then read Raymond Chandler, and loved his writing. All of those authors had a very strong, clear prose style, and even when being florid, were always precise. It also helped that two of them had strong social consciences, and were skilled enough to be able to integrate their own views into their stories without seeming to regurgitate the Guardian editorial.

Q: Darker fantasy, as epitomised by Martin, Abercrombie and Lynch, has in recent years become some of the most popular. There’s been a bit of a criticism for it recently, with the subgenre dubbed ‘grimdark’ and attacked by certain quarters for being too nasty. What’s your view on this, and how dark or delightful is your own fantasy?

A: I think it’s part of the process of fantasy moving on from being (apologies to the exceptions) a genre massively overshadowed by one writer, Tolkien. However, a bad book with rape and murder is still a bad book. We have to be careful not to move from writing childish books where everyone in the kingdom is permanently overjoyed to adolescent books where everyone is miserable and incontinent. Monty Python covered that territory in the Holy Grail ages ago, and the first book would probably be more fun anyhow.

What I’d like to read in fantasy would be shorter, more eccentric books, with unusual characters and one story per volume, that were about something other than saving the world. Not every thriller is about assassinating the president, so why shouldn’t we have a fantasy novel about someone trying to find his mum? My feeling is that to produce really great novels, fantasy has to ditch the soap opera elements. Of course, this won’t happen, since series sell...

My own stuff was written a long time ago, and I always tried for a noir-type feel, with a level of realism somewhere around John le Carre or Raymond Chandler. I don’t see it as dark as such, just realistic within its own setting. But at the end of the day, if the story is about talking rabbits on a pony farm, there’s no point squeezing in a load of carnage if it’s going to make the story false. You have to get the tone right in any sort of novel, comedy or otherwise.

Thanks for the questions – it’s been interesting!


Friday, 12 July 2013

Best PS3 games

The current generation will stagger on for a year or two, but after that it shall give way entirely to the parallelogram PS4 and the numerically odd Xbox One.

I don’t buy huge numbers of games, but I do tend to play (or replay) those I buy rather a lot. Here’s my list of favourite PS3 games (original reviews, where written, linked to each title):

Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
The companions were delightful characters that were engaging for the player, and their banter was a highlight of the game.
The range of moral choices on offer was pleasing, with infanticide, sexy time with a topless demoness and betrayal of your own right hand man all possible.
The battles were very well-balanced and made good use of the varying classes.
The story and voice-acting (especially Loghain and Duncan) was excellent.

I know DA2 has been criticised, but Inquisition (the 3 has been dropped, incidentally) looks like it could be bloody fantastic. Origins was also a good enough game that the general air of disappointment around the sequel did not stop a third instalment being commissioned.

I must’ve sunk hundreds of hours into this game. The one major weakness of Oblivion was the awful levelling system, and with that revamped Skyrim’s a delight to play. The world’s enormous and well-realised, there are hundreds of places to visit and characters are not bound to a single class but fully customisable.

It’s true, especially pre-patches, it froze too often and I think having skill trees (vampire and werewolf) as DLC is shoddy, but the game it still hugely enjoyable.

Bit of an odd one, and something of an unexpected hit. The voice-acting is mixed, the story goes missing for most of the game and the world is as generic as can be. A single save slot is also rubbish. But the combat is absolutely bloody fantastic.

Pitched at the point of perfection, it’s challenging and tough without being frustrating or unreasonably hard. There are 9 classes for the player (6 for the main pawn who can’t have the mixed classes) and each has particular strengths. It’s a delight to cast an enormous whirlwind and watch your foes haplessly soar into the air, or to set a hulking Cyclops alight. Plus, the wide array of armour/clothing and numerous slots available looks great and enables your player/pawn to be more thoroughly customised. Lastly, I love the pawn system and getting to create not one but two characters. This is the only game where I’ve really liked the internet features (pawn-sharing).

If they kidnapped some Bioware writers Dragon’s Dogma 2 (currently in development) could be a masterpiece.

I play games solely on the PS3 so strategy games are few and far between. Stumbling across XCOM was a delight, because not only is it a turn-based strategy, it’s a fantastically good one. The difficulty’s challenging, squad members die on a permanent basis and the blend of exciting battles and base development is perfectly balanced. I hope that when the PS4 comes out we’ll see another XCOM game.

Yes, it’s only been out six minutes (and selling a million copies a week) but this game had to be on the list. A few gameplay gripes (instant kill enemies and shaky hands) aside, it’s great to play but even better as a story. The voice-acting and writing are top notch, the grim world is perfectly realised and I found myself enthralled by the plight of Joel and Ellie (particularly in Winter). It’s a seriously grown-up game, and though there’s rather a lot of violence it feels right because the world in which Joel has lived is so vile that such acts are justified in the name of self-preservation.


Friday, 5 July 2013

Humanoids… thousands of them!

Although my main fiction genre is fantasy I do watch sci-fi and occasionally read it (on that note, I’ll post an interview later this month with Toby Frost about his forthcoming sci-fi comedy A Game Of Battleships).

One of the problems/features that sci-fi and fantasy share is that there are often various races, but they’re all (well, almost all) overtly humanoid. Elves are humans with pointy ears, likewise Vulcans. Orcs are ugly humans with poorly developed social skills. Bajorans are humans with a slightly crinkly nose. Borg are humans who really like Google Glass.

On TV there’s a pretty fair explanation for this: endless special effects and makeup cost a lot, and it’s much easier to have simply put on some pointy ears. And there are exceptions (the daleks being perhaps the best-known).

But should this be the case? It seems astoundingly unlikely that if intelligent life has evolved elsewhere in the galaxy that they’d be very similar to us. (Whilst it’s true that convergent evolution on Earth means that, at an early stage, dolphin and human embryos are indistinguishable and most higher mammals have the same basic internal organ layout this convergence has occurred in the same world).

Fantasy has slightly more leeway for such convenience, as stories often take place on a single world, and the sometimes direct role of gods in evolution (plus magic) gives a convenient get-out clause. But sci-fi, to a greater or lesser extent, must aspire to be at least vaguely scientifically credible.

Certain features (the ability to sense light, physically manipulate the world in a dextrous manner, communicate and an advanced brain) seem essential, but there’s no guarantee the same orders of animal life (mammals, reptiles etc) would have evolved.

Any species advanced enough to travel on an interstellar basis would presumably also have access to genetic technology (assuming, of course, that they had genes), which could have significant implications.

As far as motivation goes, most sci-fi/fantastical races are seen as having the same basic drives as humans, with perhaps a slant towards conquest and dominion (orcs and Klingons), acquisition (the Ferengi) or peaceful isolation (the Nox). The only guarantee would be that a species would seek to thrive and survive, as that’s the basis of all species. Given how warlike humans are, one might suspect that avoiding or eliminating us would be the most rational course of action from an alien race.

Of course, another issue for sci-fi/fantasy is taking a species seriously. The Ferengi were originally intended to be the new villains of The Next Generation, but because they looked more comical than frightening they ended up becoming pathologically capitalist instead of a warring race.

And, in defence of sci-fi originality, at least it doesn’t re-use species so often as fantasy. Whilst humans are fair enough, it’s pretty commonplace to read of elves and dwarves and orcs (although not hobbits, interestingly, which are firmly seen as Tolkien’s particular species).

I’ll be introducing a new race (ahem, humanoid, it must be said) in Kingdom Asunder, and I might well bring back one that was used in Journey to Altmortis.